Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Grown Up Book Report: Killer's Payoff, by Ed McBain

The last twenty years of publishing has really done a number on the second hand book market.  As a kid, you couldn't swing a dead cat in a used bookstore without hitting some high quality writing.  Near as I can tell, the early Heinlein novels and Conan collections and Burroughsian planetary romance novels with the odd 70s psychedelic covers or Frazetta covers, have all been shoved off the shelves by the flood of carbon-copy modern day magic girl and low magic grimdark fantasy novels.  In my moments of optimism I pray those works have all been snatched up and sit in places of honor in the basements of discerning readers.  The corollary would be that the things on the shelves of the used bookstore sit there because no one wants to keep garbage sitting around their house.

Nonetheless, hope springs eternal, and the last trip down into the book mine saw me emerge with a rough jewel in the form of Ed McBain’s Killer’s Payoff.  It was only after reading this novel that I discovered McBain is the man behind the 1954 book and following film, Blackboard Jungle.
Sidenote: As a child of the 1990s, the name McBain will forever conjure up the following:

With a cover that titillating, and a publishing date of 1958, this book fits perfectly into my irregular toe-dipping into pre-1970s writing that aren’t sci-fi and fantasy.  Sci-fi and fantasy has always been my first love, but enough other bloggers are re-discovering genre fiction.  Somebody should really look into the more down to earth blue collar material.  I’m somebody!  So let’s get to it.
Before cracking the cover, let’s recall that today’s view of yesterday’s work is one of the victors looking down upon the vanquished with scorn.  Is this a well-earned reputation, or have we been listening to the same sorts of fools who think modern art is an improvement upon the Realist movement?  This book might not answer the question by itself, but it might just add to my growing collection of data that modern writing has degenerated from, rather than improved upon, the writing of my forefathers.
We’re still not ready to crack the cover, because we need to talk about the cover.  That cover serves as a warning that this book contains graphic and explicit content of a distinctly carnal nature.  This isn’t wholesome fare for the whole family, but mature material suitable only for those with a taste for the seedy.  You might not want to read this on the bus where it will surely draw judgmental raised eyebrows from the matrons and young mothers sitting nearby.  The cover screams that this is a book about sex, and it is, but only to a 1950s extent.
The actual plot of the book is that of two detectives, Cotton Haws and Steve Carella, investigating the murder of a notorious blackmailer.  That blackmailer, Sy Kramer, was soaking three different parties for cash, a high society lady who was paying to hush up a series of photos for a low society magazine, a soda pop magnate, or one of a trio of men who shared a hunting trip with the victim some months back. 
This is just one of a long running series of novels featuring the 87th Precinct of the fictional, but really it’s New York City, burrough of Isola.  And long running this series was; the last of them was published in 2005, just a year before the author’s death.  That’s a pretty good run that speaks well of the man’s writing.  But does it hold up?
The book works as a mystery, with various blind leads, tense interrogations, and two or three quick action sequences.  With the exception of the murder victim, who the investigation slowly reveals deserved a good killing, all of the people in the book are drawn as sympathetic and three-dimensional.  At least until the big reveal at which point the murderer, bent on escaping justice, is revealed to be as venal as his victim.
The actual salacious content of the book is limited to a one extra-marital affair, a pre-marital hookup, and two or three references to titillating photos that would be considered tame by today’s standards.  On that score, the cover fails to deliver.  These days I’m the one judging at the matrons and young mothers on the bus unabashedly reading lit-porn.  My cover might suggest a lot more, but all this book does is suggest – we Chuck Tingle fans all know how graphic those ‘romance’ novels get.   
My how the times have changed.
Speaking of changing times, as a window to homicide investigations in the 1950s, Killer’s Payoff  is a fascinating look at how information was gathered before the dawn of the information age.  Without recourse to Google or databases of any kind, it’s fascinating to see the increased import of questioning suspects and witnesses and even those who merely knew the suspect takes.  The attention to detail required by the police in this novel, and the clever ways they deduce events that transpired months previous, clues that sometimes literally hang by a thread, answers questions that we towering intellects of The Current Year wouldn’t even think to ask.
The writing is tight, the pace deliberate, the characters believable, and the setting itself well realized.  The police procedural is not my first choice for fiction, but this book held my interest despite that.  Killer’s Payoff may not be award-worthy or likely to spark a new renaissance of literature if only more people would give it a chance.  I wouldn’t recommend rushing straight out to Amazon and buying a copy of this “must read lost gem”.  On the other hand, McBain is a solid writer, and it’s easy to see why he was so popular in his own time.
In conclusion, Killer’s Payoff absolutely serves as another example of high quality work produced for the masses in the 1950s that far too many people today write off as old and boring.  It’s as good as any of the police procedurals I’ve read that were written in the last ten years, at least.  As a light piece of mystery and escapism, it works well.  Better yet, it reminds me that sometimes a little regression can be a good thing.

Post-script:  For sci-fi fans, McBain wrote the cover story of the August 1952 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly, under the pseudonym S. A. Lombino.  My conclusion that McBain is still worth a read can be applied to sci-fi as well as crime fiction.

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