Fiddlers Ed McBain
272 pages (hardcover)
(Actually, I got the audiobook and listened to it over the course of a week or so in my car. First I'll review the book, then afterwards I'll give some notes about my impression of the audio experience.)
There's this phrase that reviewers tend to use a lot when talking about books, TV shows, movies, etc -- "...unlike most works of this genre..."It's generally used in a "damning with faint praise" sense, i.e. that, say, Kurosawa's Stray Dog rises above its genre and becomes something more, something better, even while fulfilling the constraints of that other body of work. Rarely stated are the assumptions that lead to this, the examples of the kinds of generic, run-of-the-mill works that the said work are meant to "rise above" -- in the case of Stray Dog, it's supposed to be something like cheapie crime films, or low-budget noir, but for the most part these films blend into one another an one rarely sees an example of the "bad" or "purely genre" versions of these stories.
This, however, is the 55th and last book in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain. It is the very definition of "genre trash" -- by the time you write the 55th book in a series, you're pretty much just churning them out, and no one has any great expectation of quality. In this kind of genre work, you basically just apply a formula and add in the elements needed, and whatever added quality you can give to the story is pure bonus. It'll start with a dead body, end in an arrest and/or a confession, and along the way there'll be plenty of tough guys, criminals, detectives having troubles at home, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
So how does this one hold up? Pretty well. This novel (and, I'm guessing, the series as a whole) focuses on the efforts of an entire police precinct instead of a single detective or pair of detectives, like most genre -- oh, wait, there I go again. Heh. Giving us an entire precinct makes the story more realistic, as a single pair of detectives can't be expected to follow all the leads a large case will generate, and it also allows for greater structure variability, as the individual teams of detectives have their own personalities and quirks.
The book opens with a dead fiddle player. He's an old man, at one time had the potential to be one of the great violinists of his age, but was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he was blinded. His Jewish relatives mourn his loss at a wake where they are questioned by detectives. Then another body shows up. Then another.
McBain steps away from ordinary genre restictions (there I go again!) by cutting between scenes of police investigations of the growing numbers of murders and sequences with the killer. He's a man named Charlie, who in his opening scene spends an inordinate amount of money for two hookers to visit his fancy hotel room. He can't quite do the deed, due to physioloigical reasons, but one of the girls, a young nineteen year old redhead, gives him her card and agrees to do some freelance work if he'll call her directly instead of her agency. A hooker with a heart of gold? Check and check again. The story of the relationship between these two is the heart of this half of the book, and through it we gain an appreciation for Charlie as a human being, rather than just as a "common criminal."
Indeed, by revealing the killer so early some would argue that McBain has removed much of the suspense. But instead he has only heightened it -- the story becomes not so much a whodunit, but a whydunit. The answer to this question ends up connecting back to the title in something of an unexpected way that is only a little forced.
The cops have their own relationship issues. While most of these feel rote, there's a sequence involving a young blond detective and a beautiful black woman in a bar who may or may not be a prostitute that crackles with energy and left me wanting more of the same. If the eventual conclusion of this subplot seems tacked on, the earlier parts are compelling and fascinating, and suggest a much better book... oh, but there I go again!
In the end, this is a perfectly fine example of a police procedural. It's thoroughly enjoyable, full of red herrings and false leads, and every character is fully-realized and, despite the genre origins, rarely two-dimensional. It really is all it's trying to be.
So how was the audio experience? I stuck it in my car's CD player on the way back to Huntsville from a trip to Chattanooga, then listened to it off and on as I drove around town, and finished it while driving down to Montgomery a week or so later. This kind of novel works well even in tiny pieces, and the prose is clean enough to rarely grate when read aloud.
That said, I found some of the accents used by the reader to be somewhat irritating, in particular the Korean accents, which were borderline offensive, and the Peurto Rican gang accents, which sounded more like the accents of old Jewish men to me. The reader did, however, make sure to keep the voices of the detectives somewhat distinct, which helped to keep everyone straight during sequences with a lot of intercut dialogue.
Would I "read" another audiobook? Probably, although it's not a format I'd want to use for a more literary novel. I spent about five dollars for a bargain copy of Fiddlers, and that's about what I feel like it was worth to me -- I'll be checking around bookstores for more bargain audio, but it's not something I'm desperate for more of right away.