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Onyx reviews: Fiddlers by Ed McBain

It's always sad to see a beloved series come to an end, and few series were better loved and respected in the police procedural genre than Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books, of which Fiddlers is the fifty-fifth dating back to Cop Hater in 1956.

In a series, there are several ways to treat the passage of time. Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus ages in real time, so the author is faced with his main protagonist's imminent mandatory retirement. Robert B. Parker's Spenser ages, but the sands of time have little effect on him. Chronologically in his seventies, he's still able to pound the bad guys like he did twenty years earlier.

McBain chose a different approach. Time elapses in the real world surrounding his fictitious city of Isola-a simulacrum of New York City-but his characters are almost immune. The series started during height of the Cold War. One victim in Fiddlers is a Vietnam veteran and another characters admits she wasn't yet born when that war occurred. The cops express their opinions about the current Gulf War and yet they're little changed from their first appearance. Steve Carella would be at least eighty if time passed normally for him, but he is a young man with teenage children and living parents.

Over the years, McBain's heroes have become fully fleshed and identifiable individuals, but the Precinct books are police procedurals first and foremost. The protagonists do not have elaborate character arcs. Carella is experiencing problems with his teenage daughter. Hawes and Ollie Weeks are having problems with their love lives. What distinguishes one book from the next is the villain and the crimes he or she commits.

Because the first killing in Fiddlers takes place in the 87th Precinct, they inherit all of the subsequent murders in a series obviously committed by the same person. The M.O. is the same-the victims are all shot twice in the face-and ballistics confirm that the same gun is used in all of the murders. However, several things make this case different from the typical serial killing. A gun is not the usual weapon of choice in serial murder. The victims are all over the map: The killings take place in different parts of the city and there are no obvious similarities or connections between the victims. The youngest is in her fifties and they seem to be getting older as each new crime is committed. Also, the murders are taking place in a very short period of time, instead of being spread out as is typical of a serial killer.

The Commissioner is breathing down the Captain's neck about the Precinct's lack of progress in the case. "He wants us to quit fiddling around and bring him some immediate results," the Captain tells Lieutenant Byrnes. Though progress is being made, the killings continue at an alarming rate.

The killer isn't a monster-a woman half his age falls in love with him over the course of the book-and yet something is driving him to wrap up some lose ends in his life. Readers know more about him than the cops do, thanks to a series of scenes of the man going about his days, an approach that diminishes some of the mystery and suspense. McBain leaves some fairly obvious clues about the man's situation that may lead astute readers to speculate about his motivation. Philosophical readers may wonder to what extent the killer's life is meant to represent the author's.

Only when the cops' legwork starts paying off does McBain pull it all together in a satisfying conclusion. There are no twists or unexpected surprises, just good, solid, diligent police work.

And yet, it wasn't meant as a conclusion. The author's death means that there will be no more 87th Precinct book, but it's clear from the way he left some of his long-cherished characters that he had more adventures in mind for Officers Carella, Meyer, Kling, Hawes, Parker, Brown, Weeks and the other men and women of the 87th.

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