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Onyx reviews: The Last Dance by Ed McBain

Not many authors can boast that they have published fifty books in their career, let alone that many books in a single series. The Last Dance is Ed McBain's fiftieth entry in his 87th Precinct series. The dust jacket artwork is silver, but it might well be gold in commemoration of this accomplishment.

The title has an ominous tone. McBain recently finished off his Matthew Hope series with another book with the word "last" in the title. There is no indication from this book, though, that it will be his last visit with the men and women of Isola's most famous police precinct. Isola is McBain's fictionalized New York City.

The novel opens with the discovery of the death of a sixty-eight-year-old man who had a history of heart trouble. Detectives Carella and Brown respond to a call from his adult daughter, who apparently discovered the deceased in bed, fully clothed except for his shoes. Their trained eyes lead them to suspect that something more serious is afoot. While it first looks like the daughter may have been covering up a suicide to guarantee that the insurance company will pay death benefits, traces of rohypnol, the date rape drug, found in the deceased's body complicate this explanation.

A number of other murders begin to overlap with the old man's death and the detectives discover a common link among these crimes: a play and a musical which date back to the 1920's. The dead man was the last remaining obstacle preventing a revival of the musical that, if successful, promised vast financial gains for several people. Having first gone from too few suspects, the detectives of the 87th must now try to winnow down the numerous possibilities to clear the protracted case from their books.

McBain's Precinct novels belong to a general class known as 'police procedurals.' The crime is interesting and the resolution typically satisfying, but the labors and methods of the police are what drive the story. The reader gets to watch as they do their door-to-door sweeps, as they try to use the Good Cop/Bad Cop strategy on suspects all too familiar with this technique. The police in his stories are not all good at what they do, but they generally try their best, even Fat Ollie Weeks, an equal-opportunity bigot who despises all ethnic groups equally. The novels show police work to be a combination of inspiration and leg work.

The 87th Precinct characters have evolved a little over the forty-plus years that McBain has been breathing life into them, but time moves slowly in his fictional world. Steve Carella, the focal detective in the squad, is still a young man with small children. Many of the precinct officers have been shot on the job and recovered by the time the next book comes along. In spite of subtle changes, they are essentially the same characters who were on the trail of the Deaf Man ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

The Last Dance does not distinguish itself from its predecessors. McBain uses the date rape drug to keep current with the tactics of his criminals, but the story is essentially his tried-and-true slow unraveling of mountains of evidence, culling the good from the bad and bringing the perpetrators to justice. If McBain's pattern repeats, there will be another 87th Precinct story next year or, at worst, the year after that and his loyal followers will welcome another visit with Carella, Brown, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Cotton Hawes and the rest of the boys in blue.

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