Overtom's weblog


A few years ago, I met a cousin of mine at a family party. He was the editor of the literary supplement of an important Dutch newspaper.

The conversation touched upon crime fiction, and I mentioned Ed McBain.

"McBain?" my cousin answered, "Never heard of!" Which may say something about the attitude that many people foster towards crime fiction ... perhaps nice for a holiday, but for the rest: inferior rubbish.

People who suffer from this delusion have obviously never read Ed McBain, who is a completely different league of his own within the realm of crime fiction. He is a master of every aspect of the trade: letīs for instance take names. Some detective writers would find it no problem to use two characters by the name of Hawkins and Stewart, ignoring the fact that both names are very English, consist of two syllables and have the letter w in the middle -- which can make them hard to be kept apart.

McBain's characters are as different as their names, for instance: Steve Carella, of Italian origin, just like his creator, Meyer Meyer -- of Jewish origin, "Fat"Ollie Weeks, a gluttonnous bigot and a host of other characters, all described with a sense of detail thatīs rare even in the worls of "serious literature".

One of McBainīs last books (he died three weeks ago) is The Frumious Bandersnatch , a title derived from a poem by Lewis Carroll (yes indeed, from Alice in Wonderland).



The blurb at the back of the book reads:

It should have been the night that launched a new pop idol. Tamar Valparaiso is young and beautiful, with the body of a model and the voice of an angel, and the stage is set for her to debut her first single, 'Bandersnatch', on a luxury motor-launch in the heart of the city.

Then, halfway through her performance, watched by millions of fans, masked men drag Tamar off  the stage and into a waiting speedboat. Now the city is in uproar -- and it's up to detective Steve Carella to get the budding star back ...

McBainīs stories have a richness of ideas I've never found in any other book. For instance when detective Kling and his girlfriend are together, McBain manages to describe in detail in just one page:

  • what Kling and his girlfriend have arranged about whose apartment they should sleep in,
  • what the people on the tv are talking about,
  • what Kling and his girlfriend are having for dessert,
  • what the people on the tv look like,
  • that blonde women with straight hair proliferate on American tv like amoebae in a petri dish,
McBain mastership also shows when he manages to show the deeper emotions of his characters through their conversation. When I read the conversation between Carella and an agent of the special task force, I could almost feel the uneasy relationship that obviously existed between the "ordinary" police and the task force.

All this is told with so much humour as I can't remember ever to have read in any work of crime fiction. There are literally hundreds of examples, for instance this one:

"He found it amusing that all these city dwellers owned or leased these big gas-guzzling SUVs with names that sounded all macho woodsy and outdoorsy. These people lived in apartment buildings, and they took the subway to work, and they probably never drove further than the nearest movie complex on weekends, but they were all dying to have these big monsters they could drive 'off-road'. Off-road where? he wondered."

Or this subtle observation when detective "Fat" Ollie Weeks took his girlfriend Patricia to the cinema, he "bought two big cartons of popcorn with extra butter, and two diet Pepsis because a person couldn't be too careful, and two big bars of Hershey's chocolate with almonds in case Patricia was still hungry after she finished her popcorn."

If you think I had to search for these examples. On the contrary! Page after page is packed with examples like these. The Frumious Bandersnatch has more humor in one page than many books have between their first page and the last.

So if you still think crime is inferior stuff, my advice is: hurry to the bookshop and buy The Frumious Bandersnatch, and if you're not stupid, I'm sure you'll be cured!

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