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From Barnes & NobleAlthough Ed McBain may not have invented the police procedural, he has done more than any other writer, living or dead, to make the form his own. His 87th Precinct series, which began in 1956 with Cop Hater, has influenced novelists around the world, and has set the standards by which its numerous imitators must ultimately be judged. Now, in one of the more noteworthy publishing events of the newly arrived millennium, McBain presents us with the 50th volume in this remarkable series. It’s called The Last Dance, and it is as fresh, funny, lively and literate as any of its many predecessors.
As The Last Dance opens, Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer have just arrived at the scene of a suspicious death and are interviewing a reluctant—and probably devious—witness. The body, this time out, is that of a retired 68-year-old male nurse named Andrew Hale. Hale—according to his daughter, Cynthia Keating—had been found dead in bed, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Forensic evidence eventually indicates that Hale had, in fact, been hanged from a hook on his bathroom door and then moved to his bed. This revised scenario leads Meyer and Carella to conclude that Cynthia herself had tampered with the death scene. Her probable purpose: to conceal the fact of her father’s suicide and thus protect her claim to his meager, $25,000 life insurance policy.
Of course, this is an 87th Precinct novel, and things aren’t always as they seem. Further forensic evidence indicates that Hale had ingested a large enough quantity of Ruhypnol—popularly known as the Date Rape drug—to make suicide a physical impossibility. So, once again, Carella and Meyer have a homicide on their hands, and they begin their investigation by asking themselves the eternally relevant question: Cui Bono? Who benefits most from the victim’s death?
As it turns out, quite a number of people stand to benefit from Hale’s death. Hale, who had very little money, owned one thing of genuine value: the copyright to a 1923 play entitled Jenny’s Room. Norman Zimmer, a high-powered theatrical producer, plans to use the play as the basis for a Broadway musical, if he can only acquire the necessary rights. Hale, for personal reasons, had refused to grant those rights, a problem that is conveniently resolved by his violent death. The subsequent trail of evidence and supposition leads the two detectives—together with a number of other series regulars, such as Bert Kling, Arthur Brown, Cotton Hawes and Andy Parker—into the unfamiliar territory of the New York theater world, where egos proliferate and far too many people have a viable motive for murder.
McBain’s account of this investigation—which eventually widens to encompass the Columbia drug cartel, a litigious 98-year-old playwright, a murdered police informer and a Jamaican hit man with a most unusual tattoo—ranges across the length of his fictional city of Isola, moving swiftly and cleanly from scene to scene, from confrontation to confrontation, before ending—in classic McBain fashion—with a series of interrogations that ultimately lead to a surprising but logical conclusion.
En route to that conclusion, The Last Dance offers up a generous display of McBain’s characteristic virtues: the deceptively effortless prose, the deadpan humor, the artfully constructed set pieces, the profane, precisely rendered dialogue, the mordant observations of an increasingly decadent society in thrall to the media and hungry for cheap, secondhand sensations.
Like the rest of McBain’s novels, The Last Dance also offers us the underrated pleasure of familiarity. Those of us who have followed the series through its countless twists and turnings have had the rare opportunity to witness the evolution of a varied and engaging cast of recurring characters. Steve Carella, a dedicated policeman and a decent man whose life revolves around his children and his deaf, endearing wife; Bert Kling, a classically handsome young cop with a complex, constantly changing love life; Meyer, a practicing Jew in a Christian society and something of a natural outsider—these and a host of other characters, major and minor, have achieved a substantial reality of their own over the past forty-odd years, and have added immeasurably to the depth and quality of this durable—and remarkably consistent—series.
The fact that McBain has gone to the well fifty times and never really come back empty is something on the order of a minor artistic miracle. While it’s probably unrealistic to expect fifty more novels from that same well, we can reasonably look forward to several more. Or so I sincerely hope. McBain (also known as Evan Hunter) is an inexhaustible national resource, and he has added something special—something uniquely his own—to the literature of the late 20th century.