Classic Crime: Ed McBain – Axe

Ed McBain is an author that I’ve flirted with over the years. As a teenager, the 87th Precinct books were readily available in my local library but didn’t quite do it for me. I’ve subsequently picked up a few books over the last couple of decades but never felt particularly inspired by the series. What has got me reading McBain again is thinking about the format of a police procedural after reading Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck books which I’m still working my way through. I’ve discovered that there are many similarities between the two series and have started to enjoy the world of the 87th Precinct in the fictional city of Isola.

I’m not being as methodical reading McBain’s books; Detective Steve Carella started off with twins in the first novel I read and in the next one he was courting his future wife. However this is a series that can be read out of sequence without spoiling your enjoyment of it. I noticed I hadn’t been reviewing any of the books I’ve been reading, so I thought I’d set out my thoughts on the wonderfully illustrated (see opposite) Axe.

A janitor in an apartment building as been found with an axe wedged into his skull. Detectives in the 87th Precinct can find little in the way of a suspect although it comes to their attention that an illegal ‘crap-game’ has been taking place in the building’s basement, possibly with the collusion of the janitor. The dead man’s family consist of his mentally ill wife and his agoraphobic son. Both remain suspects despite the detectives’ instincts that both are innocent. When the next victim of the killer is a policeman from the 87th Precinct, outrage and threats of retribution mean that every cop is on the hunt for the killer.

Axe is number 18 in the 87th Precinct series and has many of the themes I’ve come to associate with McBain’s thrillers. Like in Cop Hater, the killing of a policeman is seen by his fellow officers to be the most despicable of crimes and you get the sense of everything halting until the perpetrator is found. As we would expect from McBain books, we get a series of snapshots of the city of Isola based on New York, filled with small time crooks and weary tenement dwellers. And without giving the end away, the motive of the crime is clearly the result of a minor misdemeanor that has been magnified by the perpetrator. This theme is explored further when a Rabbi is killed in The Empty Hours.

This is a short book and perhaps the mundane ending is a slight let-down as the sheer pointlessness of the killing is revealed. But McBain’s books are always been keen to show the reality of murder is often so different from the lurid portrayals in other instances of crime fiction.

An interesting review of Axe by a blogger who has clearly read more McBain than me can be found at Tipping my Fedora.