Onyx reviews: Fiddlers by
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
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
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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