Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Chilling whodunits; Ice, by Ed McBain. New York: Arbor House. 317 pp. $15.50.; Banker, by Dick Francis. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 306 pp. $14.95.; The Detling Secret, by Julian Symons. New York: The Viking Press. 225 pp. $14.75 .; Why Me, by Donald Westlake. New York: The Viking Press. 191 pp. $13.50.; Cool Repentance, by Antonia Fraser. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 222 pp. $12.95.; The Avenging Angel, by Rex Burns. New York: The Viking Press. 226 pp. $12.50.

''Well, there it is, Carella thought. Same old precinct. Hasn't changed a bit since I first started working here, probably won't change even after I'm dead and gone.''

Of course. That's why readers of Ed McBain's (a.k.a. Evan Hunter) 87th Precinct novels return like swallows to Capistrano each time a new procedural featuring Carella, Meyer, Hawes, Kling, et al. appears; they renew old friendships, reacquaint themselves with familiar settings.

About these ads

Ice, the 37th in this series of McBain's novels, is, like its relatives, built on a formula, and as John Cawelti has observed in ''Adventure, Mystery, and Romance,'' ''audiences find satisfaction and basic emotional security in a familiar form. . . . The suspense effect will be more emotionally powerful because we are so sure that it must work out.''

Part of the appeal of formula writing lies in characters as constant as the North Star. McBain readers know how Meyer Meyer got his name; why Cotton Hawes has a shock of white in his red hair; why they should feel sorry for Bert Kling.

In ''Ice'' there's a veritable circus of action: A woman gives birth at the station; arrested robbers refuse to doff their ski masks; jailbirds form a chorus; and, of course, there's murder.

The homicide in ''Ice'' is cocaine-related (as are so many murders in novels these days), and while the puzzle of what turns out to be a series of related killings baffles Carella and Meyer for a while, we know they'll find a solution by novel's end. That's the way the formula works, after all.

''Ice'' is longer than most other 87th Precinct adventures, and fans of McBain should relish the resulting expansion of subplots and other minidramas. As Robin Winks says, ''There are those who read science fiction and those who go on stakeout with Ed McBain.'' Those who prefer the latter will be pleased with ''Ice.''

Dick Francis, another talented, prolific, and reliable mystery writer, has a new book, Banker. Its hero, Tim Ekaterin, is employed by the venerable London merchant bank coincidentally called ''Ekaterins.''

What, you ask, is a banker doing on center stage in a book by Francis? Never fear. Francis doesn't abandon the world of horses in this, his 23rd book in 23 years; ''Banker'' is concerned only incidentally with high finance.

About these ads

Ekaterins is approached by a prominent horse trainer for a loan of (STR)5 million to buy the famous racehorse Sandcastle, in order to form a breeding syndicate.

The loan is made, but the majority of Sandcastle's offspring don't survive. Could it be sabotage? The story twists and turns, as Ekaterin does the un-bankerlike work of uncovering the villains.

Although Dick Francis is incapable of writing a bad book, ''Banker'' isn't his best. The world of horses is, as always, lovingly and knowledgeably portrayed, but the world of banking isn't so convincingly drawn. Finance aside, ''Banker'' is good reading.

Julian Symons and Robin Winks are the two best critics of mystery writing today, and it happens that Symons also writes fine mysteries, as witness The Detling Secret.

Deducing the murderer in this novel isn't especially hard, but what distinguishes this book is its historical detail. Victorian England, amid the debate about Irish home rule, is superbly drawn, to produce a period piece for readers who like their mysteries well mannered.

Other books of merit: Donald Westlake offers another witty John Dortmunder novel. In Why Me? the bungling burglar inadvertently steals a priceless ruby, and soon finds not only the police but the entire criminal world of New York in pursuit.

Antonia Fraser's sophisticated Jemima Shore and Rex Burns's gritty Gabe Wager are back at work in, respectively, Cool Repentance and The Avenging Angel. Both books uphold the tradition of high-quality sleuthing established by their precursors.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.