Friday, November 20, 2015

Forgotten Books: The Pusher - Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) (A Winter Holiday FFB)


I almost reread this one for Ed McBain Week a while back but finally decided to go with a book I'd never read instead. Still, I had very good memories of THE PUSHER from the last time I read it, more than 40 years ago when I was in high school, and I recalled that it takes place around Christmas, so when it came time to do a Forgotten Books post featuring a winter holiday, it jumped to the top of my list.

This was not the first 87th Precinct novel I read, but it was among the first half-dozen or so. It's also the third novel in the series, so while some of the characters are very familiar—Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Meyer Meyer, Lt. Byrnes, Hal Willis—many of the characters who would become prominent in later entries haven't come along yet. That's all right. I have a real fondness for the early books where the 87th Precinct "mythology" wasn't quite so sprawling.

This one opens with the discovery of a young man's body in what appears to be a suicide by hanging. The cops discover pretty quickly that he was already dead when the rope was put around his neck. But there's an empty syringe beside him, and when it's confirmed that he died from an overdose of heroin, the focus shifts to either suicide by overdose or an accidental death. Nope. It's murder, and there'll be several more before the detectives from the 87th figure out what's going on and close in on the killer.

As usual with this series, THE PUSHER is a very readable blend of terse, no-nonsense police procedure reminiscent of DRAGNET with more introspective, even literary passages of characterization and setting. I'm not sure anybody's ever done this better than Evan Hunter. Not many have come close. He does a fine job of capturing the feeling of Christmas time in a big city. The actual plot, the revelation of the killer and the motive, is functional but nothing more, but what sets this novel apart is the way that plot involves two of the main characters on a very personal level. There are probably a few of you who haven't read the book (the ones who have likely know what I'm talking about), so I won't go any deeper into that for fear of spoilers. But there's some gut-wrenching stuff here, and I remember sitting in study hall barely able to breathe as I read the last five or six pages, they were so suspenseful. And that was having already read later books in the series, so I already knew how this one was going to end! Hunter/McBain was just that good.

However, for the record, his agent and editor were right when they talked him into changing the original ending of the manuscript, at least as far as I'm concerned.

I've long said that THE PUSHER is my favorite of the 87th Precinct series, and after rereading it I think it still is, although all of the first eight or ten books are at a very high level. If you haven't read it, it gets a big recommendation from me. If you have, it's worth rereading, like visiting an old friend. (That's the original Pocket Books edition above, the later Dell edition--the one I read in high school--below.)


3 comments:

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Good one. That PermaBook edition is the one I have (along with several of the other early ones in the series). I really need to reread them one of these days,

Jeff M.

August West said...

Those early PermaBook books had the best covers of any paperback or hardcover editions of the 87th Precinct. It was those eye-popping covers that got me interested in the series.

Mathew Paust said...

Alrighty then, up the pile it goes. Good review.