ED McBAIN. Doll (1965).

01 Nov

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. Doll2.jpgIn 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.


Posted by on November 1, 2012 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel


5 responses to “ED McBAIN. Doll (1965).

  1. John

    November 2, 2012 at 7:32 AM

    As a mystery writer McBain fails big time, I think. The mysteries I’ve encountered in my reading of his police books are all transparent. He’s good at creating tension and suspense, but not so clever with the puzzle aspect of a mystery novel. His books are really all about the characters. It’s the people in his 87th precinct and the inhabitatns of the NYC clone he created that make you keep reading. Also, I get more authentic police background from Jonathan Craig’s procedurals than with McBain.

  2. Cavershamragu

    November 2, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    Really enjoyed the review Michael – just about to re-read this one myself in fact (I think it can wait until next month at least now). Not sure I agree with John about the McBain plotting – or rather, not all of the time. Many of the whodunits are pretty tame, I agree, but many to me also were genuinely surprising and at his best he can mix local clour, character and narrative surprises with great dexterity, especially in the likes of SADIE WHEN SHE DIED and BLOOOD RELATIVES, both from the height of his powers in the early 70s.

  3. Mike

    November 2, 2012 at 9:10 AM

    Thanks for the comments, John and Sergio. My view of McBain as a plot-spinner definitely falls into the glass-half-full category. Somewhat like Sergio, I read McBain for the big-city atmospherics and the narrative brio that he brings to all of his books—and then, on occasion, I’m pleasantly surprised by his ability engineer a real puzzle plot or to pull off a surprise ending. In that regard, probably the best book in the 87th Precinct series that I’ve read is “Long Time No See.” It has a plot arc that’s Christie-like in its ingenuity (or perhaps I should say that it’s Queenian, since the tale overall is so American in texture).

    Meanwhile, ever since John began posting reviews of the Jonathan Craig series, I’ve very eagerly hoping to find one of those titles in a used bookstore. No luck! (And I’m too cheap to buy them online.) They sounds like true buried gems of the genre.

    • John

      November 6, 2012 at 6:15 PM

      I guess I was too harsh based on the very little of McBain I’ve read. I’ve read books mostly from his early period. Of his later books I really liked GHOSTS which has genuine supernatural content in it that completely surprised me. I will check out the three titles the three of you mention above. There are two stores in town that have nearly every book he’s ever written and they’re very cheap which always makes me happy. Multiple copies of each, too!

  4. Mike

    November 7, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    Thanks for checking in again, John. How do you find the time to read so many books, and to write reviews of them, and to comment on other folks’ sites as well? Plot-wise, you really never know what you’re going to get when you pick up an 87th Precinct novel. That (along with the predictability of most other elements) is a hallmark of the series. Your citation of “Ghosts” is very apt: Ultimately, I don’t think that the book was a success, but the fact that McBain took that surprise turn with it is something that I admire about him, and about the series as a whole.


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