Picks and Pans Review: McBain's Ladies Too

updated 09/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Ed McBain

A quiet morning in a near-empty squad room is disrupted by a pregnant hooker about to give birth. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, an over-weight woman, her hand around a straight razor in her purse, tries to muscle in on local drug dealers. Then there's a young woman named Naomi who, looking for a drink and a man, ends up staring at a gun and an early death. A topless dancer, her musician husband found dead, is more interested in the cop than the corpse.

Such is the bad-girl quality of many of the women who pass through the doors of McBain's fictitious 87th precinct in this collection, his 40th work of fiction. The ladies in the book all appear in excerpts from earlier 87th novels, ranging from the pregnant hooker (Ice, 1983) to Chloe Chadderton (Calypso, 1979) to Virginia Dodge (Killer's Wedge, 1959) to the deadly Oona Blake ('Til Death, 1959):

" 'You asked for my help. I gave it to you. Without me, you wouldn't know how to wipe your nose. Who got the apartment near the photography shop? Me. Who suggested this house? Me. Without me, you'd be carrying your goddamned grudge to the grave. Is that what you want? To carry the grudge to your grave?'

" 'No, Oona, but...'

" 'Are you a man...or what are you?'

" 'I'm a man.'

" 'You're nothing. You're afraid to shoot him, aren't you?'

" 'No.'

" 'I've already killed for you, do you know that? I've already killed a man to protect you. And now you're chickening out. What are you? A man or what?' "

The ladies in this collection have all, in one form or another, been touched by death. They are a cold, sometimes indifferent lot, made cynical by life in a cold, indifferent city (a scarcely disguised New-York). They have all known too many men and thrown away too many dreams, their lives as sparse as their small, closed-in apartments. For solace, they look no further than a bottle and a bed. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it gets them killed.

What is clearly evident, as the stories in McBain's Ladies Too (McBain's Ladies was published last year) pass from one to another, is how much the writing and plotting have improved through the years. The early McBain was straightforward and hard-boiled, devoid of sentiment; the cops of the 87th, led by Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer, were simple men out to solve simple crimes. The later McBain is much more complex, his writing leaner, his sense of story sharper, clearer. His cops have become seasoned men with eyes that have seen too much madness, the crime and the victim no longer clear portraits sketched in black and white.

While an 87th novel is a full-course meal, a collection such as this serves as an appetizer, a stop at a table filled with goodies. A tasty brunch, perfect for a summer's day. (Mysterious Press, $17.95)

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