87th Precinct Mysteries // Books 36-40 // by Ed McBain

  • Ice (1983)
  • Lightning (1984)
  • Eight Black Horses (1985)
  • Poison (1987)
  • Tricks (1987)

I’m still slowly working my way through this series of 55 books in batches of five, which feels about right as they can get a little samey if you read too many at once. The first book in this series was published in 1956, and I’m not in the midst of the 1980s part of the series. While McBain’s characters have aged and changed throughout, they definitely haven’t aged in real time – but the background/technology/procedures have. Somehow McBain makes that all work.

This set of five was quite the rollercoaster, as it included one of my favorites I’ve read yet (Eight Black Horses) and also one of my least-favorites (Lightning). It’s been over a month since I actually read these, so I’m sure you’ll be willing to excuse me if I’m a bit hazy on the details…

Ice was a pretty typical entry with a solid and engaging story and plenty of McBain’s trademark snark. At this point in the series, one of the detectives (Bert Kling) has been in multiple romantic entanglements, all of which have ended in disaster, so when he started dating one of the women from a neighboring precinct, a character who floats in and out and that I actually like, I got a little concerned. Their relationship has gotten a little rocky but at least she’s still alive as of the end of Tricks!

A lot of these books can be rather dark, but Lightning was definitely a contender for the weirdest/creepiest premise so far. Several women have been raped, and each one has been raped more than once – all by the same man. I’m going to completely spoil the reason for this happening, so if you don’t want to know, skip to the next paragraph – but basically it turns out that the perpetrator is strongly prochoice, so he started targeting women who were Catholic and had also donated money to a prolife organization. He raped them more than once because he wanted them to get pregnant so they would have to get an abortion, and thus would realize that their prolife stance was wrong. I just… I don’t even know where to start with the problems in this plotline. Part of it is, of course, that I’m very strongly prolife myself, and despite the fact that the prochoice guy is the villain, it’s obvious that McBain is prochoice as well. So he’s in this weird corner where he has to condemn this guy’s actions, but still defend the guy’s actual beliefs. Of course, the women who do end up getting pregnant by this guy (two, I think) do get abortions because obviously no one who is prolife would actually stick to their prolife beliefs if they were in a situation like carrying a rapist’s baby! The whole story just was completely gross and creepy, and honestly any book that’s entire purpose is to convince people that they should be able to murder their babies isn’t really going to fly with me anyway. So this one was definitely a miss.

However, Eight Black Horses was a total win, and reminded me why I’ve been continuing to read this series. The precinct’s ultimate nemesis, the Deaf Man, is back again, and the whole story is just fantastic.

Once thing that’s definitely changed in these books as we’ve moved into the 80s is that these books are significantly sexier. They’ve always been somewhat that way, but more in a “we can’t really avoid this because this is what life on the streets looks like” kind of way. But this batch of books was definitely more, “oh books should just have random sex scenes and a lot of smutty conversations in them” and I wasn’t a fan. Poison was definitely that way, plus it had this kind of weird ending that left me feeling a little confused about the whole story.

Finally, Tricks brought this set of five full-circle – another solid, engaging entry to the series. I really enjoy the stories where McBain just chooses one night and follows along with all the various detectives as they each track their own case. This one was set on Halloween so it felt very seasonal when I was reading it in late October. While a couple of the story lines were honestly ridiculous, they still felt at least somewhat plausible, which kept everything moving.

All in all, I’m this far now so I think I will finish the series out, but I definitely won’t be reading all of them again. At some point, I’ll probably go back and read all the books with the Deaf Man in them as those have definitely been the best. For December, I’m planning to just 100% indulge in fluffy Christmas romcoms, so I probably won’t be reading any more of McBain until 2021. Since I started reading them in April 2019, this definitely isn’t a fast-moving series read!!

September Minireviews – Part 1

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Chasing the Dead by Tim Weaver  – 3.5*

//published 2010//

I’m not sure how this mystery series first appeared on my radar.  The main character, David Raker, used to be an investigative reporter, but now works finding missing persons.  In this first installment, he’s hired by a mother whose adult son disappeared.  His body was found months later.  But now, a year after that, she’s convinced that she saw him walking down the street and that he’s alive.  David isn’t convinced, but agrees to at least try to find out where the son was between the time of his disappearance and the time that his body was found in a fiery car wreck.

There were a lot of things about this book that I like, especially David himself.  I also love the concept of him using his old reporter contacts to work these types of cases.  However, this one just went a little too over-the-top for me, especially the weird quasi-religious cult that just never actually seemed to be adequately explained in a way that genuinely justified everything that had happened.  While I liked this one fine, I didn’t love it, and there were a couple of torture scenes that I skimmed because that kind of thing makes me really queasy.  Still, I enjoyed it enough to pick up the second installment.

The Dead Tracks by Tim Weaver – 3.5*

//published 2011//

Oh look, here’s the second installment!!  A 17-year-old girl disappears into thin air.  With a genuinely happy home life, excellent grades, no boyfriend, and a solid future ahead of her, she seems like an unlikely candidate for a runaway.  Convinced the police aren’t giving it all, her parents hire David to find out what really happened, and soon he’s sucked into a complicated plot involving a serial killer and the Russian mafia.

Once again, I really liked David himself, and the story wasn’t bad, it was just… over-the-top.  Again.  Not every missing person disappears into the clutches of insane psychopaths, but here’s the second book in a row where that’s exactly what happened.  There were once again some a-little-too-gruesome-for-me scenes, and the killer/kidnapper was just… a little too bizarre.  All in all, while these weren’t bad books, they just aren’t for me.  They didn’t exactly feel like they could really happen, if that makes sense, and the fact that David keeps getting into these basically-should-be-dead situations and then getting out of them had me rolling my eyes a little.  It’s also possible that I just wasn’t in the mood for these.  Either way, I’ve checked the series off the TBR as I just don’t think it’s a great fit for me, despite not actually being bad reads.

Fangs by Sarah Anderson – 4*

//published 2020//

This is an absolutely adorable collection of comics about a vampire and a werewolf who are dating.  While not groundbreaking, I enjoyed every page.  The concept is done so well, and both characters come through as thoroughly likable.  I also appreciate the effort that went in to making the physical book a joy to handle – clothbound, black page edges, wonderful paper quality, and the perfect size.  Well worth a read if you enjoy the concept, and the book itself is fantastic.

Second Chance Summer by Jill Shalvis – 4*

//published 2015//

Sometimes I pick up a book and then realize it’s part of a series.  Luckily, this was book one, so I went ahead and rolled with it.  Lily has to return to her hometown in Colorado when her career in California goes bust.  Of course, in typical chick lit style this means running into her old crush, Aidan.  While this book wasn’t anything stunning, it was a really enjoyable romance, with a fairly balanced angst level.  Lily is working through some other family history that made a lot of what was happening feel reasonable.  Aidan wasn’t perfect, either, which I always like.  There were were a few too many sexy times for this to get my wholehearted approval (just not my thing) but overall total brain candy, which was exactly what I wanted.  There are two more books in the series, focused on two of Aidan’s siblings (who own a ski resort!!  I love hospitality romance haha) so I have those on reserve at the library.

Anne’s House of Dreams by L.M. Montgomery – 5*

//published 1917//

My reread of the Anne series continues.  In this book, Anne and Gilbert start their new life together on a different part of Prince Edward Island.  They meet their new neighbors and settle into life.  There are some wonderful side stories here, and one in particular really explores the importance of doing what is right even if it looks as though the results may not be what you want.  This book is always a little bittersweet to me, as we leave behind so many friends from Avonlea, but I still love it so much.  Also, I Gilbert and Anne were my first ship growing up, and I’m still here for it!

August Minireviews – Part 2

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Still reviewing August books in August… making progress!!  :-D

The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd – 4*

//published 2016//

Quite a long while ago Maggie Stiefvater – pretty much the only “famous” person I follow on social media – mentioned that she was reading this book.  It looked magical, and I’ve always thought winged horses would be the most amazing magical creatures, so I added it to the TBR.  And now, years later, I actually got around to reading it!  While somewhat bittersweet, this was a lovely read about a young girl who can see winged horses in the “mirror world” – i.e. she can only see them in mirrors.  She’s the only one who sees them (or is she??) and has learned to not talk about it much.  She’s staying in an old manor house in the English countryside.  The house has been turned into a tuberculosis hospital for children during World War II, so there is definitely a dark tone to the story, especially since it is set in winter – somehow, the entire book feels grey, which is actually a big part of the story.

There were a lot of things I liked about this story.  It was so imaginative and imagery was beautiful.  I really wish that it had been paired with better illustrations – there is so much in this story just begging for gorgeous pictures.  This is technically a middle grade book, but I wouldn’t just hand it over to a youngster without making sure that they’re ready for some of the serious themes presented here, like terminal illness, war, death, etc.  These things are handled sensitively and well, but to me this is more a book you would read with your child rather than one they would read on their own.

One small niggle for me was that the main character does steal several items throughout the story for a “good cause” – and this is never really addressed.  It’s just sort of implied that she was justified in her actions because she “needed” the items, which I’m not sure is actually that great of a life-lesson.  Still, on the whole I really enjoyed this atmospheric tale that gave me a lot of feelings.

Side note – once again, several of these pictures include my BookSpin Bingo board for my challenge on Litsy, because that’s where I originally posted the pictures!!

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull – 3.5*

//published 1938//

I see a lot of these mysteries that are being reprinted by the British Library Crime Classics, but this is the first one I’ve gotten around to picking up.  The main thing about this story that has kept it in the “classics” category is the way the mystery is presented.  The reader is placed in the middle of a murder trial from the get-go – except we don’t know who is on trial until much later in the book.  Hull weaves the murder, the courtroom scenes, and the background for the murder throughout the story in a way that seems like it should be muddled but which, for the most part, works.

While I did enjoy this one overall, it was definitely slow in spots, with a great deal of time being spent making sure that the reader doesn’t like the victim at all.  This is all part of the point (is one justified murdering someone who deserves to be murdered?  Murder, as it were, with “excellent intentions” in mind?) but did get old sometimes.  The story also runs out of steam at the end, with a long chapter devoted to the jury’s arguing back and forth about whether or not they should convict the accused.  But overall it was an enjoyable one-time read with a crafty mystery wherein the reader can slowly decide who is on trial as the story progresses.

Ukridge by P.G. Wodehouse – 4.5*

//published 1924//

As I continue to work my way through Wodehouse’s books in published order, Ukridge was next on the list.  Featuring a character who appeared in Love Among the Chickens, Ukridge is one of those people who is constantly broke, constantly coming up with a ridiculous scheme for making money (that doesn’t really involve work), and generally coming out alright (although usually still broke).  I think we’ve all met someone like this – I know I’ve definitely found myself in situations, wondering how I got there, pushed in by my family’s Ukridge.  (My second anniversary, spent huddled with my husband in a sopping wet one-man tent on the top of a 40* mountain in the rain, comes to mind.)  At any rate, this isn’t Wodehouse’s strongest work, but it was still enjoyable.  While Ukridge may be ridiculous, he’s never mean-spirited, and he genuinely believes that each of his schemes is going to pay off.  This probably isn’t where I would start if I were going to introduce someone to Wodehouse, but if you already love his writing, there’s a lot to enjoy here as well.

Blackbird by Sam Humphries and Jen Bartel – 3.5*

//published 2019//

Lately I’ve been reading more graphic novels, and while I think this one is technically a comic (I’m still a little hazy on the differences), when I saw this gorgeous cover on a Litsy review, I knew I wanted to at least give it a try.  Overall, I really liked it, and the artwork is great fun.  The main character’s life changed when she was a child and an earthquake hit her city.  During that catastrophe, she was rescued by a huge magical creature that everyone else saw but no one else remembers.  Since then, she’s been the “weird kid,” obsessed with trying to find real magic that she’s convinced is out there.

While I really liked the concept and the magic in this story, it was told in a very choppy manner, making it a little difficult to put together the linear storyline.  There’s also this crazy twist that I did like but also didn’t really seem to fit with the other character’s character.  All in all, this volume felt more like a big set-up than it did its own story.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there is going to be a sequel, and I haven’t been able to find much information.  (This volume included the first six issues as one.)  I would definitely read a sequel, but I’m not sure I would especially recommend this one just because the ending is so open-ended.

Rogue Princess by B.R. Myers – 4*

//published 2020//

If you’ve ever wished you had a scifi, gender-swapped Cinderella retelling centered around a royal matriarchy set on a distant planet, then this is the book for you.  It’s rare that I buy a book just for the cover, but that’s totally what happened here.  I just love it, and can’t even explain why!  I got this one for only $2 on BookOutlet, and ended up enjoying it way more than I was anticipating.

Princess Delia, heir to the throne, knows that she needs to marry a prince from a neighboring planet that will help save her own, and while she isn’t excited about it, she’s at least resigned to it… mostly.  But when a series of events leads to her meeting Aidan, a kitchen worker with his own reasons for needing to escape the planet (and who isn’t afraid to steal from those who can afford it to help him towards his goal), she’s introduced to parts of her kingdom she didn’t realize existed.  While this is someone Cinderella-y, it also has an Aladdin vibe as well, and I was totally here for it.  I really liked the characters, and while there were some jolts in the plot that felt chunky (and I had to make a cheat-sheet to keep all the prospective-groom princes straight), overall I quite enjoyed this one.  The setting was completely unique and the world-building was intriguing.  Overall recommended, especially if you’re looking for a unique fairy tale variation.

PS I will say that there are a lot of negative/meh reviews for this one, so there’s a strong possibility that I was just in the right mood for it??  I love the way different books are for different people, and sometimes for different versions of myself at different moments in time!

87th Precinct Mysteries // Books 31-35 // by Ed McBain

31. So Long as You Both Shall Live (1976)
32. Long Time No See (1977)
33. Calypso (1979)
34. Ghosts (1980)
35. Heat (1981)

As usual, this batch of five 87th Precinct mysteries was a mixed bag.  Long Time No See and Heat were my favorites of the group, with Calypso not only my least favorite of these five, but possibly my least favorite of the series so far.

Bert Kling finally gets married in So Long as You Both Shall Live, but his wife disappears from their honeymoon suite.  In this one, the mystery felt like a bit of a stretch, but it wasn’t too bad.

In Long Time No See, someone keeps murdering blind people.  Is there a connection?  The pacing in this one was pretty snappy and kept me engaged in the story.

Calypso was just way over-the-top.  I’m going to give away the entire shebang here – basically, this crazy woman has kidnapped this guy and kept him as a sex slave on private island for seven years…..?????!!!!!!  I’m sorry, that’s just not an actual solution to a mystery to me, and all the coincidences were just way too much.  Plus, in the end there is a pretty horrific torture scene that was completely unnecessary.  Ugh.

Ghosts was a pretty decent mystery, but there are actual ghosts in it, which felt like a departure from the norm for this series.  However, since the ghosts weren’t the solution to the mystery, I was willing to go with it.

Finally, Heat had a good main mystery, but there was a side quest with Kling’s wife having an affair that really just felt like (a) filler and (b) a way to emphasize the fact that Kling has terrible luck with women.  (Pro tip: Don’t date Kling.)

Overall, I’m still enjoying my trek through the 87th Precinct mysteries, but I still have 20 to go and am not as excited about them as I once was.  However – the Deaf Man is back as the villain for one of the stories in the next batch, and those have been my favorites by far, so at least I have that to look forward to!!

87th Precinct // Books 26-30 // by Ed McBain

  • Sadie When She Died (1972) – 3.5*
  • Let’s Hear It For the Deaf Man (1973) – 4*
  • Hail to the Chief (1973) – 4*
  • Bread (1974) – 4*
  • Blood Relatives (1975) – 3.5*

Still working my way through the numerous 87th Precinct books.  As I say every time I do one of these reviews, batches of five are just about right.  Enough time to get into the groove of the characters, but not so much as to burn out on them, as they do have a lot of stylistic similarities.

Sadie When She Died was probably my least favorite out of the batch.  It just ended up being a really sad story, with a broken marriage at its center.  While the pacing was good, it was definitely a downer.  Although I have to admit that most of McBain’s books aren’t exactly upbeat.  He loves to go off on tangents, little side stories of life in the city, and those side stories are invariably depressing.

Let’s Hear It For the Deaf Man was my favorite out of the bunch, because the Deaf Man is such a fantastic villain.  I read somewhere that McBain said the reason he didn’t write more Deaf Man stories was because the Deaf Man is smarter than he is and he just couldn’t come up with clever enough plots haha  But this one was done really well.  Someday, after I’ve read all these, I may go back through and just read the handful of titles with the Deaf Man at the center.

In Hail to the Chief McBain takes a slightly different pattern.  Part of the story is the normal third person narration with the detectives slowly closing in on the solution.  Alternating chapters are first person from the police interview with the president of the gang at the heart of the mystery.  During these sections, the president explains his motives and methods, justifying it all by explaining how he wanted the “war” between the gangs to be over – so that meant that his orders to murder various people were actually altruistic in nature.  The pacing in this one was excellent, and I actually always enjoy McBain’s gang stories (although many reviewers seem to find those the most “purple prose”-ish).  As he always does, McBain thoughtfully explores why gangs exist, along with various aspects of racism and poverty.

While I really enjoyed Bread, it was more of a traditional mystery style than McBain’s books often are, and there were a lot more names to track than usual.  At the heart of almost every crime is a desire for money, and that concept is definitely on display here with lots of back-stabbing and betrayal among various groups.

Finally, Blood Relatives was a good mystery, but I’m always really weirded out by anything vaguely incestuous, and there was a relationship between cousins in this one that felt extra weird because one of the cousins had been orphaned and come to live with her aunt and uncle as a young girl, so the relationship felt more like it was between siblings, if that makes sense.  Still, the pacing was really good here.

As always, it’s the gang of detectives that run the 87th that make these books so enjoyable.  I’m more in love with Carella than ever, having a huge soft spot for Kling and Meyer, and Cotton Hawes has totally grown on me.  McBain has a genuine respect for law enforcement and the work they put in to bring about justice, and presents their struggles well.  While these aren’t the best books in the world, I’m finding them enjoyable in small batches.  It’s also fun to see how McBain’s writing is changing over time.  There are 55 books in the series, the first of which was published in 1956 and the last of which was published in 2005.  That’s a pretty big swath of time, with a great deal of social change both in society in general and within law enforcement, so it is rather fun to watch it evolving.

These aren’t exactly books I recommend in general, but if you like detective stories, McBain definitely helped set the tone of the genre of more realistic, gritty, Dragnet-y stories.

Little Face // Sophie Hannah

//published 2007//

Sophie Hannah is definitely one of those authors that I see around the blogosphere a lot.  She writes mysteries, and it seems like everyone has read and enjoyed her books.  I’ve had her on my list for quite some time, and started with  Little Face, the first in a series that features the same pair of law enforcement characters.  However, this just wasn’t a book for me.  While I gave it a 3* rating overall for being a decent mystery (except for the parts where it wasn’t), there were just too many things that left me feeling confused, and too many moments of cruelty and bizarre abuse for me to really categorize this as an enjoyable read.  I didn’t really care for the two detectives at the center of the mystery, either, finding both of them quite annoying, so I don’t really see myself pursuing this series any further, although if someone out there really loves these books and thinks they get better, I’m open to having my mind changed!!

The basic premise is quite creepy – two weeks ago, Alice had a baby.  Today, she’s leaving the baby for the first time.  Alice goes out for a bit of a break while her husband, Charlie, watches the baby.  Just a couple of hours go by before Alice’s return, but when she comes home she’s convinced that the baby in her home isn’t actually her baby – someone has kidnapped Alice’s baby and left an unknown infant instead.

Pacing in this book is excellent.  I never knew whether Alice was reliable or not.  The whole situation just seems so bizarre, yet what does Alice have to gain by making up this kind of story?  As things began to unwind, I still wasn’t sure how it was going to play out.  Like I said, not a bad mystery – my issues were more with characters/actions than they were with plot/pacing.  So, spoiler complaints below the cut, and 3* for Little Face.

Continue reading

Fatherland // by Robert Harris

//published 1992//

Ever since I read The Man in the High CastleI’ve been keeping my eyes open for other good alternative history stories.  Fatherland is just such a story.  Again, here Germany won World War II.  And here again, we are now in the 1960’s.  But instead of being set in the US, Fatherland takes place in Berlin and focuses on a man named Xavier March, a detective who is rather disillusioned with life.  All of Berlin is gearing up for Hitler’s 75th birthday, but March is just trying to live his every day life.  He’s divorced and lives alone, spending most of his time working.  He doesn’t quite buy into all of the Nazi glad-handing, but not really because he has a passion against the Nazi government – more because he thinks all of this “we’re all one big happy family” stuff is a bit of nonsense.  Still, for the most part he keeps his head down and just does his job, even if he doesn’t bother to Heil Hitler every time he meets up with a fellow official.

When a body is discovered early one morning, March begins his investigation, and finds a few things that seem rather odd.  But then the body is identified as a high-ranking Nazi commander, and March is called off the case as the Gestapo step in.  But March can’t quite let go of all those facts that don’t match.  Working the case on his own time means that he’s playing a dangerous game – the Gestapo don’t take kindly to people who don’t fall in line.

Soon, March meets up with another quiet rebel – an American journalist named Charlotte who happened to discover the body of another high-ranking Nazi official… coincidence?  March doesn’t think so, either.

There was a lot to like about this book.  Harris has done his research, and based his Berlin (and world) on documents by real Nazis, who had a lot of plans for the world they intended to conquer.  However, the fact that Germany won the war is really just background to a solid mystery.  March isn’t leading a rebel force, we don’t hear much about insurgencies and uprising, there’s no big rebellion – it’s just one detective trying to do his job.  While I wasn’t staying up all night to finish this one, the pacing was excellent, and I didn’t want to put it down whenever I was reading it.  I really liked March a lot, and was rooting for him.  He’s intelligent but not flashy.

I was a little scared of how it was going to end, but it was handled well, even if a bit sad.  I would have been happy to read an entire series of mystery books with March as the main character.  All in all, and enjoyable read – a historical fiction mystery with a different history as the background.  4/5.

87th Precinct Mysteries // Books 21-25 // by Ed McBain

21. Eighty Million Eyes (1966)
22. Fuzz (1968)
23. Shotgun (1968)
24. Jigsaw (1970)
25. Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here (1971)

I haven’t done a review for these in a little while, although I have still been working through batches of five at a time (there are an astounding 55 titles in this series, so I still have quite a ways to go!).  They are short, snappy, and snarky, and I really enjoy them a lot.  It’s interesting to watch them progress through time as well – the first was published in 1956 – for instance, Miranda rights were established in the mid-1960’s, so McBain makes a big deal out of them in these books, emphasizing the mixed feelings the officers themselves have about this limitation on what they are and aren’t allowed to say and do to suspects.

This was a pretty strong set of five.  Eighty Million Eyes was clever and fun.  When a man dies on live television, killed by a very fast-acting poison, it seems impossible to believe that someone could have killed him while eighty million eyes were watching him.

In Fuzz we had the return of the nemesis of the 87th Precinct, the Deaf Man.  In one of the author notes in one of these books, McBain was saying that he really wanted to write a lot more deaf man stories, but the truth was that the Deaf Man was cleverer than even McBain, so it was a struggle!  In this story, there is a fairly large coincidence that brings down the Deaf Man’s plot, but in a way that’s kind of the point – the Deaf Man actually IS smarter than the detectives, and it’s only sheer dumb luck that keeps allowing them to thwart him.

Shotgun had a great twist, and also emphasized one of the random things that I like about this series – small continuities throughout.  While each of these would read perfectly well as a standalone, reading them in order does let small details build together.  While the story in He Who Hesitates was concluded in a fairly satisfactory manner, in this book, a side plot is an even more satisfying postscript to that story.

Each story focuses on a different detective, and we got to focus on one that had mostly been a background character up until this time.  It was interesting to travel with Detective Brown (brown both in name and in color, he says), as McBain rather sarcastically explores the racism of the time.  I loved the way they used that racism to the precinct’s advantage.

The final book in this batch, Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here, was a completely different pattern from the usual – instead of one major mystery at the center of the story, it just focuses on a 24 hour period at the precinct, with all the small mysteries and disturbances that come with it.  It made for rather addictive reading, trying to find out what was happening with several small stories all crisscrossing together.

If you’re sensitive to things like annoying men referring to women as “broads” and that sort of thing, you should steer clear of these.  But if you can accept it all as part of the fun (and part of the times), these are fun and fast procedurals, with McBain’s genuine respect and admiration for city detectives – and his love for the city itself – at their core.

Samantha Kincaid Mysteries // by Alafair Burke // #20BooksofSummer

  • Judgment Calls (2003)
  • Missing Justice (2004)
  • Close Case (2005)

A while back I read Burke’s The Exwhich was one of those books that, while I didn’t completely love it, still definitely inspired me to check out more of the author’s works.  Next, I read the Under Suspicion series, which Burke co-wrote with Mary Higgins Clark.  I thoroughly enjoyed that series, so I had some decently high hopes for this one.

What I didn’t realize until after I started these, is that they are Burke’s first three books that she had published.  There were all solid 3.5* reads for me, and it was interesting to see Burke’s writing starting to develop.  Samantha is overall a likable character, which always helps.

The main character, Samantha Kincaid, works as an assistant DA in Portland.  It was cracking me up because another author I’ve been reading regularly, Phillip Margolin, also sets most of his books in Portland.  However, Margolin’s characters are almost always defense attorneys, so it was fun to read the other side of the coin – and I also kept halfway expecting some of Margolin’s characters to appear as well!

At any rate, these were pretty typical crime/law procedurals.  They didn’t do anything that blew my mind, but each story was engaging and well-written.  It was nice to have a main character who isn’t “haunted by the past” or busy drinking themselves to death.  Instead, Samantha is a pretty regular career woman in her 30’s.  She does go a bit rouge from time to time, but nothing so crazy that I had to suspend belief.  I also liked the way that other characters in and around the department were regular players throughout the three books.

I had two issues with these books.  The first issue is that Samantha starts dating one of the detectives.  By the second book, everyone knows about it so it wasn’t quite as weird, but in the first book they’re basically keeping it a secret, and since he’s also involved in the crime she’s prosecuting, it felt super shady to me, and I never was comfortable with the fact that they were in a relationship on their private time, and also had a complicated working relationship, especially in one of the books where a cop has been accused of killing a civilian – it really seemed like Samantha’s objectivity was severely compromised.

Speaking of which, Samantha’s boyfriend seemed completely unreasonable during that book.  He was literally mad at Samantha all the time because she was trying to be objective and do her job.  I liked the guy for the most part, but he was basically a jerk during that entire book.

My second issue with the series was Samantha’s regular snide comments about men, and how it’s a man’s world, and how hard it is to be a woman, yadda yadda yadda.  I find this SO boring and also a big cop-out.  It especially annoyed me when she was complaining about extremely stupid stuff – like if you want me to take you seriously that men have the upper hand, maybe choose something real to complain about instead of – literally – the way that he has positioned his hands while talking –

“That one’s trickier,” Duncan said, pressing the pads of his fingertips together to make something resembling a fileted crab, an annoying male gesture that seemed popular in the power corridor.

Say what?!  You’re offended because he has his fingers pressed together?!  It’s not like Duncan makes this gesture only when talking with Samantha, or that the gesture is combined with speaking to her condescendingly or dismissing her ideas.  It’s literally just Samantha being completely weird about the way Duncan is holding his hands during a meeting, and she complained about random crap like this regularly throughout the books.  This kind of sensitivity to something that’s literally completely and totally inoffensive makes it impossible for me to take a character seriously when she complains about something legitimate.  Like yes, I would like to believe you that this guy is degrading you just because you’re female, except you complained about the way that Duncan was sitting in a chair like five minutes ago so.  It’s kind of the boy crying wolf.

But still, all in all I really enjoyed these books and am looking forward to more of Burke’s works in the future.  I was a little sad that she apparently didn’t continue the Samantha Kincaid books, especially since some of Samantha’s personal life threads are left rather open at the end of Close Case.  

And, as a side note, Judgment Calls was my seventh read for #20BooksofSummer!

NB: All links in this review go to other reviews on my blog.

87th Precinct Mysteries // Books 11-15 // by Ed McBain

11. Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (1960)
12. The Heckler (1960)
13. See Them Die (1960)
14. Lady, Lady, I Did It! (1961)
15. The Empty Hours (1962)

Reading these books in batches of five is basically perfect.  It’s enough to delve back into this world and the characters in it, but not enough to get burned out on – which is a definite concern since there are 55 titles altogether!

As always, rather than focusing on a specific individual, the books are about the entire precinct of detectives.  And while it is super fun to read them in order, because characters do evolve and change, they also would read well as standalones, as McBain does a great job of summing up pertinent information about various individuals in each story.

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand and The Empty Hours were the weakest two out of this batch.  Hand was just a bit too disjointed, although part of my confusion may have come from the synopsis, which implied that hands were being discovered all over town – when in fact there were only two hands, from one person, not a serial killer leaving unattached hands all over the place.  Hours is actually three short stories, and while they were alright, they were a bit too short to really get into anything serious.

In Lady, Lady, I Did It! McBain pulled off one of his little tricks that he isn’t afraid to pull – he killed off a character who had been in several other books!  I was absolutely devastated when Bert’s finance is killed in the first chapter, mainly because Bert is one of my favorites out of all the detectives.  The story was a little rambly in this one as well, although it was interesting to read some different perspectives on abortion back when abortion wasn’t legal.

See Them Die was a departure from McBain’s usual type.  This story takes place over the course of one long, hot afternoon in a bad neighborhood, where the detectives are given a tip that a gang member they have been chasing is holed up in an apartment building.  Much of the story is about a small group of young Hispanic teens who are trying to form their own gang, and are intent on “proving themselves” – by murdering another kid in the neighborhood.  The story is definitely polemic as it deals with racism and gangs, but it felt like McBain was overall balanced.  I almost wonder if something specific happened in McBain’s life to lead him to write this book, because it honestly comes across as though he feels like he has to give out this message.

Again, McBain isn’t afraid to kill off characters, and I’ll confess that I flipped to the end of the book when I was about a third of the way in because I really needed to be emotionally prepared for whoever was going to die – and it still kicked me hard in the feels.  So much of the violence throughout the story is needless – and that’s part of McBain’s point.  There is one detective on the force who is a casual racist – he doesn’t see himself as that way at all, and you spend most of the story wanting to punch him in the face for the comments he makes, especially towards a fellow detective whose parents are from Puerto Rico.  Frankie, the Hispanic detective, has such a passion for the neighborhood where he grew up, and a desire to see something better for the young people there.  He’s a character for whom I had genuine empathy throughout the story.

In the end, while See Them Die may be a little too West Side Story for serious mystery readers, I found it to be a thoughtful and engaging story, especially as part of the whole series.

Finally, The Heckler was my favorite out of the batch, and one of my favorites in the series so far.  McBain introduces a nemesis to the storyline (and his afterword indicates that he will reappear in future tales), and the whole story is a lead-up to a Oceans Eleven type gig that explodes at the end.  It’s a little too much, but at the same time a lot of fun.

I also really loved the way that McBain regularly emphasized the way that Carella loves his wife, Teddy, whom he married early in the series.  There’s an honestly beautiful scene in this book where Carella tells Teddy how he loves her even more now that they’ve been married of years and have children, and it made me super happy.  Romance in long-standing marriages isn’t given enough appreciation in literature, in my opinion.

Whenever I read other reviews of McBain’s books, he gets a lot of flack for being a bit purple in his prose, but I honestly enjoy it for the most part.  He has a knack of being able to make the reader really FEEL the weather and atmosphere of his story.  I mean –



In the city, they are synonymous, they are identical, they mean one and the same thing.  …

The air is tangible.  You can reach out to touch it.  It is sticky and clinging, you can wrap it around you like a viscous overcoat.  The asphalt in the gutters has turned to gum, and your heels clutch at it when you try to navigate the streets.  The pavements glow with a flat off-white brilliance, contrasting with the running black of the gutter, creating an alternating pattern of shade and light that is dizzying.  The sun sits low on a still sky, a sky as pale as faded dungarees.  There is only a hint of blue in this sky for it has been washed out by the intensity of the sun, and there is a shimmer over everything, the shimmer of heat ready to explode in rain.

Seriously, if that doesn’t make you FEEL hot, I don’t know what will.  And it sets everything up for the entire book (that’s from See Them Die), where the intensity of the heat is part of what has everyone on edge.

All in all, I’m looking forward to continuing my journey with the 87th Precinct.  While these aren’t the most brilliant reads, they have been interesting and fun, and I’m intrigued to see where else McBain takes his detectives.