Downtown by Ed McBain – review

Downtown by Ed McBainThe only McBain novels I’ve read are I’m Canon-For Hire/The Gutter and the Grave, Cop Hater, and The Mugger; the latter two are police procedurals, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I cracked open Downtown. I had never heard anything about it because I assume the 87th precinct novels overshadow just about everything else McBain’s ever written.

Before reading this book I had never felt the urge to use the words zany or wacky to describe a novel.

Orange grower Michael Barnes is in New York for business on Christmas Eve and due to one convoluted twist after another he gets robbed, framed for murder, and ends up chasing down those who have wronged him accompanied by the gorgeous and delightfully aloof Asian vixen he befriends and later falls in love with.

The balance between comic caper and depressing melodrama is stretched wire thin. The novel fluctuates from screwball scenarios to a depressing recap of Michael’s experience in Vietnam, for example, without ever feeling forced or unevenly juxtaposed.

The dialogue reads like Gregory MacDonald’s Fletch; alternatingly hilarious, sour, and sublime.

There were so many things about the book that I just never thought would work (I’m not one for zany). If I were to lay all the elements out in front of me and try to piece them together in a way that wasn’t a completely jumbled mess I couldn’t. Everything about this book screams it can’t work. Too wild a plot. Too many ridiculous characters. A hero with trauma from Vietnam. Christmas setting. Short time frame. Racial stereotypes. Romance.

In anyone else’s hands this book may have been a total disaster but thankfully in the hands of Ed McBain we get an undervalued, underappreciated Christmas masterpiece.

If the other books on this list are as good as this I am in for a hell of time.

***

This is a part of the 200 noirs project. An attempt to read and review every book on Allan Guthrie’s Top 200 Noirs list. You can follow him on Twitter @200Noirs

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