The Last Dance by Ed McBain

This may be as inconsequential 87th Precinct novel as I’ve ever read, and I’ve read nearly all of them. Nothing changes for any of the regulars, no character development that amounts to anything, a very dull mystery, stretched out by a clunky mishearing, no exciting action. But maybe this makes it worth some thought, in that all we have left is the essence of what makes McBain worth reading.

I think there are three elements to this. One is the characters. Nothng happens to them here, but they are very present, and while Carella remains the central figure, as he was in the dozens of preceding books, the most interesting is probably the vastly less likeable fellow detective Fat Ollie Weeks. Carella is perhaps too simply nice and good, a perfectly fine centre but not terribly rich, while Weeks is a nasty piece of work, but his racism and sexism and general misanthropy are drawn with real care and honesty, and this makes him an unusual and compelling hero, and he is given a good role in this one.

Then there is his prose. He’s no Updike by any means, but he is a tight and skilled writer, particularly strong on atmosphere – I can’t think of a better writer of weather, for instance, but he also evokes his city, a barely variant New York, the sometimes subtle distinctions between areas and moods, very well indeed.

But maybe what keeps even an unremarkable 87th Precinct novel compellingly readable most of all is his dialogue. The form that he virtually defines in these novels is the police procedural, and central to that is the interview, the detectives interrogating witnesses and suspects, and he manages that with enormous strength, catching different voices and styles with conviction and flair, making every page of these dialogues utterly gripping. That last word, gripping, is the sort of thing that people say about genre work rather than in higher literary criticism, but it’s not such an easy thing to do, and not to be disdained. McBain can carry you through a novel with little in it with these qualities, and maybe as trivial a work as this serves to emphasise what a terrific writer he is.