By the mid-1960s, McBain had adopted an approach to titling his 87th Precinct novels that became a recurring feature of the series. He’d pick a single word (Ax, Fuzz, Shotgun, Jigsaw), and he’d braid the word literally and thematically into the fabric of his narrative. In works that follow this pattern, the appearance of variations on that title word gives shape and color to what might otherwise be a grim, rote depiction of big-city violence. It’s a technique that confers the promise of poetic redemption on the cycle of death and detection that characterizes life in Isola, McBain’s fictional counterpart to New York City.
“Doll,” in this tale, refers to Tinka Sachs, a high-end fashion model. People dress her up and show her off; they use her to construct fantasy visions of what they want to look like, of how they want to live. In the book’s opening scene, a knife-wielding visitor to her apartment transforms this dream-doll into a nightmare figure—a lifeless, blood-spattered corpse. “Doll” also refers to a toy owned by Anna Sachs, Tinka’s five-year-old daughter, who sits quietly in her room and holds fast to her little dolly while the last anguished cries of her mother echo across the apartment. And “doll” refers generally to any sort of plaything, and to the way that one person can turn another into a mere toy, an object to be manipulated. (McBain pointedly remarks that modeling-industry types often use the word “mannequin” to describe women like Tinka.)
As a whodunit, Doll doesn’t amount to very much. The suspect list includes Dennis Sachs, the victim’s husband, and Art Cutler, owner of the agency for which Tinka Sachs worked, and it seems to stop there. But the suspense on offer here revolves less around figuring out which of the men in her life killed Tinka than around finding out what will happen to the trio of cops who work this case. Bert Kling, still in mourning over the brutal death of his girlfriend Claire (which took place in an earlier novel, Lady, Lady, I Did It), has a nasty temper that undermines his effectiveness on the job. Yet that residue of emotion also drives him track down a pivotal clue. Meyer Meyer, who functions mainly as a source of light comedy (he’s bald, and he has a funny name, and he comes across as a perpetually put-upon soul), nonetheless moves the investigation forward by dint of his humble professionalism. As usual, though, it’s Steve Carella who serves as the lead actor in the piece. He makes the first big break in the case—and then finds himself in a situation that will almost break him. While each of these detectives travels along a different investigative path, they all converge upon the guilty party in fairly short order.
Doll is a middling effort, a thin tome that doesn’t stand up very well as a stand-alone work. That said, it’s a perfectly adequate installment in the unfolding saga of Carella and his 87th Precinct cohorts.