Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Ghosts by Ed McBain

First Sentence: They might have been ghosts themselves, the detectives who stood in the falling snow around the body of the woman on the sidewalk.
The body of a woman is found in front of her apartment building.  Very quickly, a second call comes to the police from a woman who has found ghost-story author Gregory Craig murdered in his apartment in the same building.  The case leads Detective Steve Carella, with the help of psychic Hillary Scott, to a summer cottage in Massachusetts and an experience unlike any Carella has ever known.
McBain creates the perfect opening.  It's visual and evocative, yet with writing which is spare and tight.  It's classic McBain.  The dialogue has the same crispness, but it never sounds stilted.  Although the story starts off quite simply, it takes several twists almost immediately, including the introduction of a doppleganger. 
Remembering that the story was both written and set in 1980, reading it now reminds us how much has changed.  Many will never have heard of comedian Henny Youngman, yet his humor remains timeless such as—"…the joke about the man who wants to buy a new car and his wife who wants to buy a mink cost.  The compromise.  The wife buys a mink coat and keeps it in the garage."  The difference in technology, or lack thereof, is marked, yet the forensic and crime-scene details give the story a present-day realism which hasn't changed.
McBain does a very good middle section describing other members of the 87th and how the team works together, such as deciding on coverage over the holidays.  He provides a good sense of realism in that no police department works only one case, and so includes secondary cases such as the theft of an actual street.  Even the series location is interesting in that Isola is essentially New York City turned on its side.
The link between the murders in Isola and a death in Massachusetts provides an opportunity not only to introduce a new location—"The town seemed to have crawled up out of the Atlantic like some prehistoric thing seeking the sun, finding instead a rocky, inhospitable coastline and collapsing upon it in disappointment and exhaustion."-- but add weather almost as a new character, and address the issue of fidelity.  The introduction of the very un-McBain-like scene of the paranormal works incredibly well when set against the normalcy and matter-of-factness of that which preceded it. 
McBain created an interesting motive; one that seems very timely—"Adolf Hitler must have thought of himself as a hero; Richard Nixon probably still thinks of himself as one; every man and woman in the world is the hero or heroine of a personal scenario."  The takedown of the bad buy is a final, brilliant twist.
"Ghosts" isn't usual McBain, in terms of its plot, but all the classic, elements are there in a completely engrossing, brilliantly crafted 212-page story.  However, starting with his first book "Cop Hater," McBain should be required reading for anyone who loves detective fiction.

GHOSTS (PolProd-87th Precinct-FicCity of Isola-Contemp) - EX
      McBain, Ed – 34th in series
      Viking Press – May 1980


  1. I think this is one of the classic police procedural series. With so many books in the series, it's almost impossible to read them all, but I'm glad you enjoyed this one.

  2. I agree, Margo, and I have actually read them all, and still own them all.