There’s a gritty elegance to Ed McBain’s 87th precinct detective series. The writing might be more than half a century old, but it packs all the punch of a modern murder investigation – and suffers from a lot less of the fluffy filling. I’m a big fan of series like Michael Connelly’s Bosch, John Sandford’s Prey and MW Craven’s Poe, and you’ll find all the same essential elements in Axe. It’s clever mystery fiction with real-world (im)morality – absent internet and 21st century sensibilities.
However, just because this story is set in the 1960s, don’t expect it to be from an era of apple-pie innocence. There’s plenty of juicy issues which have remarkable relevance today: illegal card games, post-traumatic stress triggering agoraphobia, police corruption, blackmail, domestic abuse, robbery and – of course – brutal, blood-spattered murder. And possibly the absence of DNA testing makes the forensic aspect of the investigation a little bit more involving.
McBain’s true gift comes in stitching together compelling characters with an unpredictable plot. He writes in plain, easy-reading English but can sketch a persuasive personality in just a few paragraphs. In Axe, the underworld snitch is one such creation: a supposed burglar who actually makes his living by stitching together snippets of information to sell to the city’s detectives. It sounds mundane, but there’s a lot of dry wit built into his background.
If you’ve not read any of the 87th precinct series then it doesn’t matter – you can dip in and out of the 55 (!) books at any point in the timeline. McBain uses regular characters, mainly detective Steve Carella, and skilfully fills in sufficient background so you’re up to speed in a remarkably short time.
These books have aged more gracefully than John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, which are so soaked in the machismo of the 1960s and 70s that the plot tends to be overwhelmed by the testosterone. Don’t expect miracles, mind. Axe can’t match the sophistication of Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Station books. It is a satisfactory substitute for any mystery enthusiast seeking an intriguing investigation with a plausibly plotted and pleasing resolution. It’s also a relatively rapid read; pulp fiction didn’t have the luxury of waffling on back in the day. So it – quite literally – cuts to the chase.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Axe by Ed McBain is available at Amazon
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