There are times when all you want to do is curl up with a bad book. Not a blindingly awful one, not the kind you fling at the wall and scream obscenities at; I'm talking about the books you sometimes don't want to admit you enjoy. I re-read McBain's 87th Precinct thriller Doll today. It's one of that tribe.
I almost want to defend it, but I can't. It's formulaic, pulp, the characters are cardboard, the situation is at best odd, and none of that matters. I enjoyed it anyway. Mind you, it helps that it's the kind of novel that only takes an hour or two to read.
McBain is the best known pseudonym of Salvatore Lombino, a native New Yorker and former Navy man who found fame in the 50s as a writer of pulps. His 87th Precinct stories, set in the fictional city of Isola (New York with the serial numbers filed off), are the ones I enjoy the most. I know he's written other stuff, and I keep meaning to watch The Blackboard Jungle, but his police procedurals are the ones I find interesting. As a series, they start with a bang, and if they'd kept on in that vein I'd have called it one of the greatest police procedural collections going. Every little detail, from the vomit green paint on the precinct walls to the bitching of the bulls as they slowly work their way through another case, seems authentic. The characters, at least at the start, are fleshed out nicely, and have their own story arcs, something that many procedurals don't bother with. McBain was young then, and it shows.
As he gets older, the precinct goes to the dogs.
It's the little things that start to annoy. Steve Carella, probably McBain's fictionalized Lombino, is the first to get fuzzy around the edges. He starts as a tough detective with a deaf mute girlfriend, who he meets while on a case, and his ongoing relationship with her and his friends at the precinct holds the setting together. That's all well and good. He gets married, even better. Then there are kids, and the wife's husband gifts them with an Irish housekeeper, Fanny. Not so good. Though Fanny is on a contract, when the contract's up she declares she'll stay anyway. Even worse. McBain handwaves 'how can they afford a housekeeper, even one who doesn't want a salary', much the same way he handwaves the mansion that Steve Carella eventually moves into. It was bought cheap, apparently. I don't know who was running Internal Affairs, but they ought to have given Steve a closer look. Even cheap mansions cost more than a detective makes, and throughout the series neither Steve nor anyone else gets promoted. Suddenly the tough, plausible Italian cop is Dick Tracy, foiling master criminals by day and going home each night to his wife and twin kids, neither of whom seem to be in any hurry to grow up.
Did I say Dick Tracy? Perhaps it ought to have been Princess Peach. Steve has a nasty habit of getting shot / kidnapped / knocked on the head, and Doll kicks off when Carella's taken hostage by the killers of Tinka Sachs, a glamorous fashion model with a suspiciously empty bank account. The murderer's moll, a busty femme fatale, stuffs Steve full of heroin, trying to make him tell them how he almost caught them. Meanwhile his friends at the precinct think Steve's been murdered, and his buddy Bert Kling is on the verge of being kicked off the force because he wasn't watching Steve's back at the psychological moment. It's a race against time to rescue Steve before the murderer finally twigs that sticking around is a monumentally stupid idea, and keeping a cop hostage slightly more so.
It's pretty standard pulp, and if this was the only 87th Precinct novel I'd ever read, the plot wouldn't seem that formulaic to me, though I'd probably wonder whether this was written before or after The French Connection II. However it isn't the only one, and by now I'm starting to recognize the signs. There's Bert, unlucky in love, mourning over his dead girlfiend. He's Cupid's version of Dirty Harry; none of his relationships end well, and the murder of his latest is the reason why he's on edge and fighting with Steve when the story starts. There's Steve, the hero of the precinct, going down like a glass jaw champeen yet again, allowing all his buddies a chance to say how sorry they are he's dead. Not, and I think this would be more likely, a chance to start a betting pool on how Steve's going to get out of his fix this time. There's the murderer, dumb as a sackful of rocks, who does all the wrong things and then obligingly stays in Isola long enough for Steve's buddies to track him down and fill him full of lead. All the old favourites show up: Myer Myer, Artie Brown, Byrnes, Andy Parker. It's what would happen if someone gave the cast of As the World Turns guns and badges.
I suppose if you put a pistol to my head and demanded answers, I'd say I like Doll - and the other 87th Precinct novels - because they're soap operas. There's a reason why those things are popular. They don't demand much of your attention and entertain you just enough to keep you happy. They're not supposed to make you think. They're not supposed to be good for you. They're just fun.
That's good enough, on a lazy, sunny afternoon.