Monday, February 25, 2008

Book Review: The Heckler by Ed McBain

A naked man, dead from a shotgun wound to the chest, is found in the park by some children. At the same time, shopkeepers in the city are receiving crank calls by a "heckler" that threatens them if they don't move shop by the end of the month.

Could these two cases be connected? Apparently so, and although such a setup makes it obvious that these two storyline will intersect, an interest in the detectives of the 87th and their procedure keep it interesting. Also interesting is the first appearance of a new recurring villain, the Deaf Man. Playing Moriarty to the Precinct's Sherlock, the Deaf Man is a somewhat low-rent criminal genius, who works his vast plan to distract the city while robbing a newly constructed bank vault with a motley crew of second-hand crooks and punks. His role as Moriarty is blatantly pointed out by Kling, who mentions having just read The Red Headed League, a Sherlock Holmes story featuring a similar bait-and-switch scenario.

Possibly the most interesting thing about The Heckler is that in the end, he is not thwarted by brilliant detective work, but by a simple twist of fate and a moment of bad luck. McBain is refreshing in his willingness to show the limitations of the department, and how human error can sometimes work in its favor. This is especially evident when Kling practically solves the whole thing in reference to The Red Headed League, but isn't able to put his finger on its relevance until it is almost too late.

Also, over forty years later, the Deaf Man's plan to distract the police force by creating a state of panic and fear with simultaneous bomb attacks throughout the city seems all too possible.

Like King's Ransom, the narrative spends a bit more time than usual with the criminals involved. This is a relief in a book with a much lengthier time frame than his time compressed one-day scenarios, as it allows passage of time in the ongoing investigation while allowing us to skip the more dreary legwork.

Meyer opens and closes this story handling the Heckler calls, while Carella and Hernandez try to track down the identity and murderer of the naked man in the park. Carella is yet again nearly killed in the line of duty, raising the question of how many times can his imminent death be used as a plot point before it gets old.

Reviewed by S. Michael Wilson

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