Your average big-city cop in a book or movie nowadays is likely to be almost as corrupt, and just as disturbed, as the cons, pushers, and psychos on the street. Think of Joseph Wambaugh’s LAPD, or Bill Granger’s Chicago police, or ”New York’s Finest” according to Robert (Year of the Dragon) Daley and Edwin (Q&A) Torres. But Ed McBain (who also writes novels under his real name, Evan Hunter), the prolific granddaddy of the urban police procedural, still has faith in the solid, stolid cops of the 87th Precinct — a soft-edged crew that’s sometimes closer in spirit to Barney Miller (without the laughs) than Hill Street Blues.
In Widows, McBain’s 43rd book in the 87th Precinct series (which began back in 1956), Detective/Second Grade Steve Carella is once again the blandly likable central figure. This time he’s under particular strain: His immigrant father, a hardworking baker, has been killed in a holdup by two young crack addicts. Moreover, as a manhunt for the killers begins, Carella’s sister , announces that her husband has left her for a ”bimbo.” So Carella, good Italian brother that he is, winds up playing private eye (spying on his brother-in-law) and marriage counselor.
These soap-operatic pressures don’t prevent the 87th’s top detective from taking on a major murder case, however. In the novel’s primary plot, Carella and his buddies investigate a lurid, puzzling double homicide: the stabbing of a 22-year-old beauty in her high-rent condo, soon followed by the shooting of her rich, married, elderly lover. The most likely suspect? The philanderer’s widow, naturally — until, that is, she too is gunned down. The crucial clue? Pornographic love letters that lead, eventually, to a not-very-plausible serial killer.
Meanwhile, on a somewhat more credible level, McBain picks up the continuing story of Detective/Second Grade Eileen Burke, whose experiences as a Special Forces decoy — being raped, killing in self-defense — have left her unfit for active duty and deeply estranged from boyfriend Bert Kling of the 87th. Now, in an attempt to get back to work, Burke joins the police department’s hostage-crisis unit: Her on-the-job training includes a bizarre bargaining session with a randy octogenarian who might be crazy enough to shoot his own 8-year-old granddaughter. And the book’s subplots hook up neatly (a bit too neatly, maybe) when the punks who murdered Carella’s father grab a hostage as the cops close in on them. It’s Burke, of course, who ends up negotiating with the strung out killers in a tense, sturdily detailed finale.
Despite the up-to-date police technology, McBain’s multiplot formula has a dated feel to it. So does his fictional city, even though it’s obviously New York, even though McBain tosses in references to ”The Preacher” (a Rev. Al Sharpton clone) and the ”jogger” trial. But there’s something reassuring about this old-fashioned, earnest approach to cop drama. The folks with the badges are still the good guys, and Ed McBain — if not the inspired storyteller he once was — is still a reliable source of moderately intriguing, meatily readable police work. B