Fat Ollie's Book
by Ed McBain
Published by Simon & Schuster
271 pages, 2003
Keep Your Day Job, Ollie
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Crime fiction has always been popular, but the growth and influence of this genre seems to be increasing exponentially. Consider the plethora of crime shows on television, with the Law & Order and CSI franchises growing like fungi. Consider The New York Times Bestseller List, with its consistent inclusion of six or seven hardcover mystery novels. An encroachment into the so-called literary genre is also evident. Everyone wants to get in on this good thing -- including, it seems, Detective/First Grade Oliver Wendell Weeks, a regular in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, who takes the starring role in Fat Ollie's Book.
Ollie Weeks is a "large" detective in the neighboring 88th Precinct, who is given to imitating W.C. Fields and eating enormous amounts of food. He is in a good mood when this new book opens, because he has finished his first novel -- "Not finished reading it, mind you, but finished writing it." Ollie's original attempt to pen a novel he was then calling Bad Money did not go well, so he did some research:
After he'd thrown away his first feeble attempts at Bad Money, he'd start all over again by reading most of the crap on the bestseller list, much of it written by ladies who were not now, nor had ever in their entire lives been cops or private eyes or medical examiners or game wardens or bounty hunters, or any of the things they professed to be. He then began reading all the book reviews posted on Amazon Dot Com.
Armed with this pessimistic insight, Ollie considers his making a second attempt at authorship the mark of a "bona fide" writer. Never mind that most people didn't take his writing talents seriously, especially his "jackass" sister, Isabelle. Ollie had finally found his voice, and his new novel, Report to the Commissioner, was sure to be a hit. Astonishingly, not only is Ollie using a female protagonist, 29-year-old police detective Olivia Wesley Watts, but he's adopted her name as his pseudonym on the work.
In part poking fun at Ollie Weeks' audacity, veteran novelist McBain is also making a pointed personal statement in Fat Ollie's Book about the publishing industry. Interviewed briefly in association with this review, the author said he resents "bad writing and the publishing mentality that actually encouraged bad writing." Detective Weeks is perhaps the über bad writer, given his novel's clunky narrative. An example:
I did not make the acquaintance of Mercer Grant till the next day. That is not his real name. He told me right off it wasn't his real name. He said it would be too dangerous for him to give me his real name ...
Make no mistake, though: Fat Ollie's Book is first and foremost a mystery, with a complexity of plot lines and a murder at its center.
The deceased here is Lester Henderson, a city councilman who aspired to become mayor. (Although McBain has said that the 87th Precinct stories are set in a "fictional" urban district called Isola, meaning "island" in Italian, that setting bears an uncanny resemblance to New York City's Manhattan Island.) Henderson is shot to death at the Martin Luther King Memorial Hall, while helping to set up an evening fund-raiser in his honor. As it happens, Ollie Weeks is just then in his detective's car, on his way to a copy shop with his book manuscript, minus the last chapter, which he is still polishing. ("He didn't think it would need any more work, but the last chapter was often the most important one, he had learned, and he wanted to make sure it was just right.") Weeks catches the call from Homicide and races to the hall. The twist to Henderson's killing is that the shooter was seen running from stage right, yet the murder weapon is found ditched in a sewer on the stage-left side of the building. Adding to this confusion is the fact that, although several people were with the councilman when he was hit, no one saw who fired at him. A few suspicious Henderson staffers are among the suspects.
Fans of the 87th Precinct books (most recently The Last Dance and Money, Money, Money) will be glad to see detectives Steve Carella and Bert Kling join the Henderson investigation, for reasons having to do with precinct politics. Their involvement is good, not only because they are compelling and thoughtful cops, but also because Ollie Weeks is too busy to really care about the councilman's murder. He has bigger troubles: Somebody stole his manuscript from his car while he was inside the auditorium. As McBain writes:
When Ollie got back to his car, the rear window on the passenger side door was smashed and the door was standing wide open. The briefcase with Report to the Commissioner in it was gone. Ollie turned to the nearest uniform.
Anxious to retrieve his literary masterpiece, Ollie delegates responsibility for figuring out the gun twist to a rookie officer, Patricia Gomez, a member of the team that recovered the murder weapon outside the memorial hall, and whose "peculiar sidelong gait" ("the Glock in its holster thrusting her right hip forward a bit sooner than the left one") he finds "sexy as hell." The plump detective can then concentrate on his missing novel and the "hump" who stole it. Leaving Carella and Kling to chase down leads and do the follow-up work in the Henderson investigation, Ollie goes to great lengths to find his book, including turning for help to a child molester with good street connections. Literature demands such lengths, after all ...
As it turns out, the "hump" with Ollie's novel in hand is Emilio Hererra, a Puerto Rican transvestite prostitute and drug addict. He believes, mistakenly, that Ollie Weeks' novel is a factual report to the local police commissioner, and its plot -- which has Detective Livvie Watts being imprisoned in a basement somewhere in the city with $2.7 million worth of so-called conflict diamonds -- inspires Emilio to find that basement and the precious stones. Clearly, Emilio has either been watching far too many bad reality shows (Is there a good one?), or the heroin he craves has fried his brains. McBain supports the latter argument. "Emilio's a junkie," he told me, "so his thinking's not too clear to begin with and he's liable to accept anything." Emilio even enlists his buddy and fellow druggie/street prostitute, Aine Duggan, in this treasure hunt. Aine's persona is that of an Irish Catholic "virgin," although she's had sex every which way, "fore" and "aft." That this pair should take up the pursuit of phantom diamonds can only be because they have so little else to dream about. Their lives are wholly tragic, and the heroin leaches all humanness from them -- a reality evident in Aine's question to Emilio:
"You ever feel like fucking anymore?"
Fat Ollie's Book has broad stretches of comedy to it, as might be obvious by now. "It's impossible to write about Ollie without making it funny," McBain observed during our recent conversation. Part of the humor in these pages derives from Detective Weeks' novel-within-the-novel, which McBain said "couldn't simply be bad, it had to be funny as well." As, indeed, it is. From the opening sentence of Ollie's Report to the Commissioner, all the way to the end of its 36-page length (Ollie knows that good novels are short), its story is unintentionally humorous on Ollie's part, but wildly so on McBain's.
Ollie Weeks is one of McBain's more complicated fictional figures, and that complexity includes his being overtly prejudiced. He's "a dangerous bigot," according to his creator; yet Ollie is also a good cop, and he does all the things good cops do. He's often misdirected, but there is usually an accompanying good intention. And his intolerable prejudice knows few limits: He dislikes people of most nationalities. For instance, in Fat Ollie's Book we find him questioning a Jewish pawnbroker about a missing pigskin dispatch case. The broker insists he's never seen such an item in his shop, to which the detective retorts: "Cause pork is against your religion, right?" And heaven help anybody with a Spanish accent who tries to speak with Ollie on the phone; he'll ask to talk, instead, with someone who knows English.
I asked McBain if Ollie can ever get past his prejudices. "There's hope for everybody," he answered. "They just have to learn." Ollie's instruction in tolerance may come in the shapely form of Hispanic patrolwoman Patricia Gomez. She actually appears to enjoy his company, and by the end of Fat Ollie's Book, things seem to be heating up between them. McBain stated that the two are actively dating in his next novel: "I don't know how this string will play out, but it's worth a shot ... So far, in the new book, Ollie's giving it an honest shot. But, of course, he's a bigot. So we'll have to see what happens."
While most of the attention in this tale is on Ollie Weeks, McBain doesn't short-shrift his other ensemble players. During the course of their investigation into the Henderson slaying, Carella and Kling discover -- surprise, surprise -- that the married councilman has been engaging in some suspect personal behavior. This opens up new investigative avenues, and allows the pair to show their detecting talents. The give-and-take between these regulars and the suspects they question is like a well-timed dance. Most interviewees don't stand a chance against their directness and clarity. As McBain puts it, Carella brings a "sense of decency" to a "brutal job." His level of professionalism never lets him disregard the human element at the root of police work. While viewing the Henderson crime scene, Carella feels "a sense of loss, the same pain he felt whenever he looked down at a torn and bleeding corpse on the sidewalk." Meanwhile, Bert Kling is involved in an interracial relationship that's both passionate and committed. The mutual love between this white cop and Sharyn Cooke, the first black woman to be appointed as the police department's deputy chief surgeon, testifies to the fact that love can face down prejudice and ultimately triumph.
By the end of Fat Ollie's Book, Henderson's murder has been solved, with a nice twist that keeps predictability at bay. The theft of Ollie's novel is more open-ended. The conclusion to this 52nd installment of McBain's series carries a mood of human tragedy that cuts through the airiness of its comedic elements. Henderson leaves behind him a wake of shattered lives. For Emilio and Aine, the hopelessness of their ever finding the conflict diamonds remains secondary to the ravaged lives they lead. There are other plot threads in Fat Ollie's Book (including a cocaine bust, the details of which bear a resemblance to one spelled out in Weeks' Report to the Commissioner), and McBain does his usual expert job at balancing those and keeping the book moving along at a brisk pace. For Ollie Weeks, there may be other novels written, though one hopes not. For Ed McBain, there will certainly be other novels, and for that we should be eternally grateful. | February 2003
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.