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Fiddlers by Ed McBain

Publisher: Harcourt ISBN: 0151012164

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader

Full disclosure demands notice that this reviewer is in the tank for Ed McBain. Has been for years. Never met him, have no personal or financial interest in the continued success of his books. It’s safe to say that since I consider McBain to be one of the two greatest crime writers of his generation (with Elmore Leonard), and one of the five best ever, I may be pre-disposed to enjoy his books. No such prejudices are needed to enjoy his swan song, Fiddlers.

McBain died July 7 with this book ready to go. Fans who were aware of his condition may see things in Fiddlers reflective of his impending death from throat cancer. All of the 87th Precinct’s detectives are involved, although Cotton Hawes and Eileen Burke make only cameo appearances. Steve Carella, Bert Kling and Fat Ollie Weeks get some personal stories told. The victims and witnesses are older than usual; McBain’s deft appreciation of the beauty of women in middle age or later is touching without becoming maudlin.

The story of Fiddlers is straightforward, meat-and-potatoes McBain. A blind violinist is shot and killed for no obvious reason. Carella’s and Meyer Meyer’s investigation shows there may have been a reason after all, but the subsequent murder with the same gun of a seemingly unrelated woman put all previous theories in doubt. Each new killing makes the victims seem more disparate until the detectives of the Eight-Seven (and Ollie) start finding different threads that all lead to the same place.

McBain essentially invented the police procedural, and no one has ever written them better. As always, there is more to this book than a recitation of gruesome crimes by a evil killer, eventually caught by cardboard characters wearing badges. There are several enlightening scenes showing the killer going through what has become a normal day for him. Carella’s twins are taking divergent paths into the forest of adolescence. Bert Kling tries to get back together with Sharyn. The scenes of Ollie Weeks getting romantic advice from Andy Parker are laugh out loud funny. As always, McBain’s pacing is dead-on. The characters’ personal stories never last long enough to detract from the plot, serving to enhance it by providing context for their actions. McBain’s cops aren’t also people; they’re people who are also cops. It’s futile to try to understand one aspect of them without being aware of the other.

There are a couple of things in Fiddlers that may best be appreciated by McBain devotees. Fat Ollie Weeks’ frequent W.C. Fields impressions aren’t explained, although several “m’dears” work their way into the narrative. You’ll figure out Carella’s wife, Teddy, has always been a deaf mute because all of the participants in her conversations sign. Those are petty concerns, and won’t hinder a newcomer’s appreciation of the story, or the characters.

To his dying day (and beyond), McBain never depended on the bizarre twist, or asked his reader to suspend disbelief too much, or for too long. Fiddlers weaves inexorably to its conclusion, the reader pulled along by the narrative momentum begun on Page One. Resist the urge to hurry to the end; there won’t be any more. Fortunately, McBain left us over a hundred books to read retrospectively, more than fifty taking place in the 87th Precinct.

If only they could have caught the Deaf Man.

 

Deadly Detail by Don Porter

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press ISBN: 1590581911

Reviewed by Stephanie Padilla, New Mystery Reader 

Alaskan bush pilot Alex Price lands in Fairbanks hoping to have dinner and a drink with a couple of old friends Stan and Angie, but when Stan nervously meets him at the bar with a strange tale and fear in his eyes, Alex knows this isn't going to be an ordinary stopover.  And when Stan is blown sky-high when his truck explodes upon leaving the bar, Alex fears that Angie may be next, so he rushes to the couple's home to divert another tragedy, barely making it in time.  Narrowly escaping with their lives, Alex and Angie head out into the Alaskan wilderness in search of answers, with the assassins on their trail every step of the way.

This book is infused with some great detail of the beauty of this great state, along with interesting facts on small aircraft flying.  Unfortunately, there's also a couple of issues that detract from what otherwise would have been a decent mystery.  The first is that while on the run Alex and Angie seem to have an inordinate amount of time for good meals, plenty of alcohol, and just out and out fun times, with the grief one would expect from the loss of friend and husband rarely making a showing.  Another inexplicable question arises from the fact that even though it's obvious their lives are in danger, there is nary a cop to aid in the investigation, thereby causing additional frustration for the reader.  But if you can get past these quibbles, this is a fast read with a decent mystery waiting to be solved.

 

THE DARWIN CONSPIRACY by John Darnton

Publisher: Knopf ISBN: 1400041376

Reviewed by Donna Padilla, New Mystery Reader 

Hugh is working on a deserted island identifying, cataloging, and observing wildlife for a paper on Darwin.  When he returns to England he runs into Beth who is reported to be a relative of Darwin's.  The two of them hook up to do research and to try and discover when, where, and how he came up with the theory of natural selection, with the reader being told the story through their journey, along with the perspective of Darwin himself, and the perspective of his brilliant daughter.

Woven into the quest is a fictionalized account of Darwin's life.  Darnton takes you along a voyage aboard the Beagle, into native villages, and into a volcano that is about to erupt.  He also takes you through the contemporary research facilities and on visits to descendants of men who traveled the world with Darwin. 

This intelligent and provocative read is both stunning and suspenseful in its daring scope, thrilling readers with glimpses of maybes that beguile and thrill.  Definitely recommended, this venture into a brilliant mind is one that shouldn't be missed.