Early one morning, an anonymous letter arrives at the 87th Precinct station. The message: “I will kill The Lady tonight at 8. What can you do about it?” Thus begins a 12-hour race to discover not “Who done it?” but “Who will do it?” and, indeed, “Who will be done in?” This tale, an early entry in McBain‘s long-running series about Detective Steve Carella and his squadroom cohorts, follows the neat, tight arc of a TV cop drama. A clever but simple plot of short-story caliber provides a sturdy narrative line on which McBain hangs several urban vignettes, most of them spun around the pursuit of false leads as to the identity of the eponymous “Lady.” Among those interviewed by precinct cops are a prostitute who caters to a certain outré taste, a nightclub singer who caters to erotic tastes of a more refined sort, and a bookseller who caters improbably to serious literary tastes in one of the more down-and-out sections of Isola, McBain’s fictional metropolis.
Some of these set pieces are more charming or comically apt than others, but all feature the kind of sharp, cut-and-thrust dialogue that one might see in a well-honed Law & Order script. In the fine finish to this brief novel, the men of the 87th crack the letter’s code in true ensemble fashion (Carella’s status as first-among-equals is less prominent here than usual), and suspense runs high: Will this be one of those rare murder mysteries in which no murder actually takes place?