The Last Dance

by Ed McBain

269 pages, 2000

Published by Simon & Schuster








Misdirection Mambo

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Reading the first chapter of The Last Dance, the 50th novel in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, is like riding a downtown express -- it's right on track and gathering speed. You're committed to a world of steady rhythms, harsh lights and troubled people.

The Last Dance is not a great book; but it's a good book in a great series. McBain is one of the few truly masterful crime fictionists around, a writer who consistently delivers.

This latest police procedural, once again set in McBain's Manhattanesque city of Isola, begins at the scene of a death: housewife Cynthia Keating has stopped by her elderly father's apartment and found him dead of an apparent heart attack. At least that's what she tells police. But when 87th Precinct detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer respond to her 911 call, they note that her father, Andrew Hale, seems to have gone to bed fully clothed but without socks or shoes. The bluish-gray look of his feet suggests to them that he died by hanging.

Keating eventually admits that she found her dad strung up and moved him to bed -- to avoid embarrassment, she says, and to make sure that his apparent suicide wouldn't prevent her from collecting on his small life-insurance policy. But when the pathology report shows that Keating's father was drugged before the hanging, the police know they have a murder to solve. What they lack is a motive or suspects: Both Keating and her husband have solid alibis for the time of Hale's death.

Carella turns to a local police informer, Danny Gimp, for information. A week goes by, and then Gimp asks for an early morning meeting at a neighborhood pizzeria. Carella is mildly amused to see the snitch enter "peering around the place as if he were a spy coming in with nuclear secrets." He's surprised when Gimp wants an unusually steep $5,000 to supply police with the name of a man, supposedly headed back to Houston, who had bragged to one of Gimp's friends at a card game about being hired to kill Hale.

The sketchy details Gimp provides to interest the cops turn out to be crucial, for as Gimp stands up to leave the restaurant, a pair of gunmen open fire, killing him. Carella gives chase, but loses the two "hitters" in the street.

McBain's story puts down deep roots in these first two chapters leading up to Gimp's death. That's good, because the rest of the book -- composed in a style that endears McBain to readers of the realistic school of crime fiction -- is as nonlinear and diffuse as real life.

Forty-year-old Carella is once again the detective at the heart of the investigation and McBain's book. His longtime partner, Meyer, the fresh-faced younger detective Bert Kling and the obnoxious veteran cop Oliver Wendell ("Fat Ollie") Weeks play supporting roles. McBain offers fleeting but vivid glimpses of the cops' private lives. Carella, obsessed by the unsolved murders, feels estranged from his wife and children at Christmas. Kling escapes from the pressure of police work by immersing himself in his current romance, a highly charged relationship with black police surgeon Sharyn Cooke.

As the book's main plot unfolds, the cops use the shreds of information Gimp left behind as a basis for questioning Hale's neighbors. They are able to confirm that a man had visited Hale on the night of his death. They unsuccessfully stake out the nearest airport, watching to see if anyone matching Gimp's sketchy description of Hale's killer boards a flight. Zigzagging back and forth, they find links to two other murders in Isola -- one of an exotic dancer, one of an elderly woman -- as well as an odd connection between the hanging victim and the ambitious producers of an upcoming Broadway musical. A jilted girlfriend fingers one of the hitters who got Gimp. Clues abound, motives become apparent, but all of the suspects in the Hale murder seem to have alibis. As the police spin their wheels, looking for the well-camouflaged killer, McBain muses:

Sometimes it was better to deal with professionals.

A professional knew what he was doing, and if he broke the rules it was only because he understood them so well. The amateur witnessed a murder or two on television, concluded he didn't have to know the rules, he could just jump in and do a little murder on his own. The amateur believed that even if he didn't know what he was doing, he could get away with it. The professional believed he had best know what he was doing or he'd get caught. In fact, the professional knows without question that if he didn't get better and better each time out, eventually they'd nail him. The irony was that there were more amateurs than professionals running around loose out there, each and every one of them thriving. Go figure.

If this riff sounds like something that might have come from one of the more philosophical characters on TV's Hill Street Blues, that's not surprising -- though it would be more accurate to say that Hill Street Blues sounds like McBain. The first 87th Precinct story, Cop Hater (1956), predated the "ground-breaking" television series by nearly three decades. McBain (the pseudonym of New Yorker Evan Hunter) was the first American crime fiction writer to present cops in three dimensions. He gave them the kind of depth that noir writers had given private eyes -- and then he raised the ante by refusing to romanticize cop culture.

If realism -- both harsh and comic -- is to your taste, you'll enjoy McBain's latest. But if you want your cases wrapped up, your mysteries solved and your miscreants brought to justice, you may want to sit out The Last Dance. It's a book that even ends with a question. | February 2000


KAREN G. ANDERSON is a contributing editor of January Magazine.