Sunday, February 5, 2012

Killer's Wedge - Ed McBain

A matronly Mrs. Dodge on the 1st ed.
While reading the fairly simple story of Killer's Wedge I was reminded of the disaster movies of my teen years. You know them well, I'm sure. Airport and The Poseidon Adventure are probably the best known but The High and the Mighty really started the formula back in the 1954. A motley group of strangers are thrown together in a contained environment and we the audience are well aware of the impending disaster that awaits them while the characters travel on in blithe ignorance. While we wait in suspense we get to know the inner lives and secrets of all the cast of characters. When disaster strikes (a hijacker's bomb detonates on board a plane, a tidal wave capsizes an ocean liner, an engine malfunction sends a airplane hurtling out of the sky in the examples mentioned above) the characters discover who among them are the heroes and who are the cowards as they face their fate and try to survive.

Ed McBain's suspense novel Killer's Wedge (1959) takes the disaster genre formula and sets it firmly on land. The contained environment is a police station, the impending disaster is personified by the ruthless Virginia Dodge armed with a gun and a bottle of nitroglycerin, and she holds an entire precinct officers hostage while she waits for the return of one cop whom she holds responsible for the death of her convicted felon husband. But when I say fairly simple story I sell this book far short. What it lacks in complexity of plot it more than makes up for in richness and density of character study.

Typical of the 87th Precinct books in the early part of McBain's series (this is the eighth book) there are multiple story lines. While the cops in the detective offices are being held hostage, Steve Carella the object of Virginia's revenge, is single-handedly taking care of a puzzling hanging death in a locked room. As Carella makes his way through the lies and deceit it becomes clear that the apparent suicide is a cleverly concealed murder. While Carella has to wait for inspiration when he watches someone burning branches and leaves in the backyard, the reader already has a big clue to the solution in the title of the book.

The bulk of the story is, however, devoted to the the detectives being held hostage. We get to learn about how they feel and think, who is concerned about his family and who about his police colleagues. Two of the best bits are devoted to clever plans to outwit the frenetic half-mad Mrs. Dodge. One detective, Meyer, asks permission of Mrs. Dodge to type out a report in triplicate but in reality types out an S.O.S. message and manages to throw it through one of the few open windows. Another, Cotton Hawes, surreptitiously manages to turn up the thermostat in the office to maximum hoping that the slowly increasing and sweltering heat on an already hot summer day will distract Virgina so that she will ask for the the heat to be turned down and Hawes can make his way to a hat rack where their captor stowed her purse containing one of the police guns she confiscated. There is also the Puerto Rican prostitute Angelica Gomez who attempts to win over Virginia with feminine wiles, but unwittingly becomes yet another pawn in the madwoman's ever increasing mind games.

A sultry noirish Virginia Dodge on the 1st PB
Mrs. Dodge never once gets a bit of my sympathy. I was hoping someone would just chuck a typewriter at her and end the ordeal. That she manages to keep them all at bay for the majority of the book is sometimes a bit too much to swallow. But McBain tries to cover all aspects of the cops' apprehension and the possible consequences should they be foolish enough to play hero. They are a team and no one is really out for himself here. It's one of the most admirable qualities in the series -- the relationships that develop between police and how they really do care about and protect each other when danger threatens.

This is a quick read and a riveting suspense tale worthy of being called a "real nailbiter." The reader keeps wondering if Mrs. Dodge is bluffing as do many of the cops. Is that a bottle of nitro or is it only water? Who will be brave enough to call her bluff? Will Steve show up before they disarm and subdue Mrs. Dodge? And what about Steve's pregnant wife worried about her husband's late return and is headed to the precinct? Will she too become a hostage? Or those horny college boys who find one of Meyer's S.O.S. papers in the street? Will they believe the message and act on it or will they ignore it and head off to the whorehouse? McBain really gets a lot of mileage out of this hostage story, now something of a cliche in crime thrillers and the movies. He had me hooked and it all pays off with a whopper of an ending.

Fans of the 87th Precinct books would be wise to visit Sergio's blog Tipping My Fedora where he has taken up the daunting task of reading and reviewing the entire series. As of this date he has knocked off fourteen of the over fifty books. Each post is an in-depth study of the book and far more insightful than my offering here.

McBain's book is number five in the first part of my three part 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. Links to the previously reviewed books are listed below.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King
The Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas
The Moon Murders - Nigel Morland


  1. I must admit that I've never read the Ed McBain books for the simple fact that I wouldn't know where to begin. You've certainly made a strong case for Killer's Wedge. I was reminded of Twelve Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, films that take place (for the most part) in claustrophobic quarters. And then, wondering whether Killer's Wedge might make a good movie, I noticed on IMDb that it had twice been adapted: in 1963 as a French film (La soupe aux poulets) and in 2005 for Japanese television (Satsui).

    A final observation in what has already been a rambling comment. Pocket's "sultry noirish Virginia Dodge" looks as I imagine the wife of a convicted felon might. The "matronly Mrs. Dodge" seems more a cold spinster - or Norman Bates dressed in his mother's clothes.

  2. I've several of the Pocket McBains sitting on my shelf. I grab up those pocket-size editions whenever I see them. But I haven't gotten around to reading one yet. Between you and Sergio, I'm going to be tempted into pulling one off the shelf yet....

  3. Brian -

    Your movie analogies are better suited than my choice of the disaster movie category. Not only would this book make a great movie, it would be a terrific stage play (just eliminate the second storyline of the locked room). I usually check for movie versions and missed doing it for this book. Thanks for those titles.

    My mental picture of Virginia Dodge is hardly the matron with a gun -- an odd choice for the DJ illustration. Being the hopeless old movie fan I am I tend to cast actors and actresses in my head while reading vintage books. My best choice for Virginia Dodge had Killer's Wedge been filmed back when it was published would be Jan Sterling. Her look and her under-appreciated talent in edgy roles is the perfect combination, I think.

  4. Terrific review John, never occurred to me to compare it with the disaster movie genre - fascinating and it makes we want to go back and re-read it again! I've never comes across that particular Inner Sanctum edition - remarkably severe cover, makes it look like a war story of something from Eastern Europe during the Cold war!