Rest in Pieces?

"I've never been a cop nor hope to be a cop, thanks."
- Evan Hunter. 

Ed McBain was perhaps the best known penname of the late Evan Hunter, a prolific author of crime and mystery novels, whose 87th Precinct stories are still being praised for its portrayal of a policemen and their daily struggle against crime, but I have seen McBain's work only in diluted form – like his completion of the unfinished manuscript, The April Robin Murders (1958), that Craig Rice left behind upon her death.

I have wanted to sample one of the 87th Precinct novels ever since my radical attitude towards post-WWII mystery writers began to taw, but before that fairly benevolent proprietor of Pretty Sinister Books posted a review of Killer's Wedge (1959), describing a hostile cat-and-mouse game with a locked room puzzle looming in the background, I had nothing to aim for. Well, it still took a year and a few months for it to reach the top of the pile, but it got there and sometimes it's worth to be picky when tackling a new writer.

A large slice of the story told in Killer's Wegde takes place in the squad room of the precinct, where a group of detectives are being held hostage, which began when Virginia Dodge sailed into the room brandishing a gun and a bag containing a jar of nitroglycerine!

Dodge is described as Death personified, "she had deep black hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head... brown eyes set in a face without make-up, without lipstick, a face so chalky white that it seemed she had just come from a sickbed somewhere," who's more than willing to complete the illusion by announcing that she has come to kill Detective Steve Carella. Dodge holds their colleague responsible for the death of her husband, who died in prison, and I wonder if the writer of Columbo had this book in mind when they wrote Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo (1990), which is not out of the question, since a few episodes were based on stories by McBain. Anyway, the wedge in her plan is that Carella is out on a case and so they have to wait until he returns.

The case that requires Carella attention stands in stark contrast to the premise set fort in the first chapters and throws the reader back to the days of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, who's referenced when Carella muses over the case. It appears as if the patriarch of the wealthy Scott family, and business tycoon, took his own life at his mansion by throwing a rope over a beam and tying the other end to the doorknob in a windowless room – bolting the door from the inside before hanging himself. The door had to be practically destroyed at the seams with a crowbar to gain access, and not before cutting the rope, which makes suicide a very tenable theory. Interestingly, the reader becomes privy of information that never reaches Carella, who has to reach the solution by pure reasoning – giving the reader an extra edge over the detective.

I suspected the correct solution even before forensics confirmed that it was murder, but I still enjoyed it because I have been on the look-out for a locked room mystery that would use it. The crux to the create the locked room is so simple and obvious that I have always been convinced that it had to been use, and it was proposed as a false solution in a novel from the 1930s, but never as the actual explanation and I have to give it to McBain for how he handled it.

Meanwhile, back at the squad room, the tension is slowly becoming unbearable as the detectives and Dodge engage in a dangerous battle of wits, a swelling pool of hostages (consisting of a wounded cop and a prisoner), several attempts to communicate with their (dense?) colleagues, but the shrew has firm grip on the gun – and all the while she keeps everyone guessing whether there's actual nitroglycerine in the jar. McBain weaved two separate stories, a character-and a plot driven one, together into a great, snappy page turner that was, for me, an excellent introduction to his 87th Precinct series. It's obvious that the author of Killer's Wedge embraced the new direction that crime fiction was taking at the time, but it's gratifying to see McBain was also one of those writers who occasionally glanced in the rearview mirror to determine how well he was going down that new route. As a result, Killer's Wedge is a book that can be appreciated by detective and thriller/crime fans alike.

Sergio from Tipping My Fedora also reviewed this book a while ago and delved deeper into the characters populating the plot. I'm just here to give the plot my stamp of approval.


  1. Great review TC and I'm so glad you liked this one too - it's a great homage to Carr, but one that also works in McBain's more modern terms - a great case where the author and the reader get to have their cake and eat it! There are plenty of decent whodunits in the series to choose from, hope they also tickle your fancy!

    1. I never believed that a modern setting or approach has to exclude a locked room (or any other trope), if the author knows what he's doing, and this book is just one of the examples. Hopefully, I'll enjoy The Mugger and Cop Hater as much as this one.

  2. I'm an idiot who spoiled the locked-room for myself. In my defense, I was looking up McBain in a French reference volume, one that is interesting and rather well-written. (I rather admire the author for "denouncing" one of the authors listed not as a mystery author, but as a person using the mystery novel to disguise his bitterness at society!) Unfortunately, I soon discovered that articles on individual books are spoiler-laden. It'll go something like this: "This is a novel about a serial killer stalking anyone wearing a baseball cap backwards. Fred and Marie are the killers, having fooled everyone into thinking they hated each other. One of the author's masterpieces."

    But before I discovered this fatal flaw, I had managed to spoil the solution to this book for myself. It also gave away the ending to THE MURDERER LIVES AT NO. 21, and most of the plot of REMEMBER MONTE CRISTO.

    So... I'm desperately trying to forget I ever heard of this book...

    1. Hate it when people (professionals or not) are unable to discuss a detective story without spoiling the ending or, at the very least, warn beforehand that there spoilers ahead. This is why I have shied away from books discussing authors and their work. I rather discover the solution of a particular story on my own than through someone else's opinion.

      You can still enjoy this book, even if you know the locked room trick, because it's not the main focus of the story.

  3. A fine review. TomCat. Once upon a time, the very phrase "police procedural" put me to sleep; it seemed to encapsulate everything that was bleak and boring about a certain strain in post–Golden Age crime fiction. Today, I actually enjoy the procedural genre. Still, I think that McBain has been ill-served by his association with that genre and that term. The 87th Precinct series contains multitudes—hostage and kidnap thrillers, serial-killer sagas, comedies of manners, clue-filled puzzles, even a ghost story. I wish you luck in finding more McBain to enjoy, and in expanding your crime-fiction reading horizon more generally. -- Mike

    1. Thanks, Mike!

      McBain may end up being a writer that I place in the same category as Bill Pronzini, Marcia Muller, William DeAndrea and M.P.O. Books. Great modern writer who understand and appreciate the genre they’re working in.

      I have been broadening my horizon for several years now and slowly have grown accustomed to all kind of styles, from whodunits and even hardboiled, as long as the story has something that resembles a plot. I think that Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake is a better novel than The Big Sleep for exactly that reason.

      Getting over my apathy for nearly everything published after 1949 gave me a fuller appreciation and made me look silly for thinking I was the last man on Earth who loved actual detective stories.