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give the boys a great big hand
21 october 2014
Give the Boys a Great Big Hand is one of the all-time "seriously?" titles.
"The boys," naturally, are the detectives at the 87th Precinct. You'd imagine that they deserve a hand for protecting and serving their city. But no, what they get instead is a great big hand – severed from its owner's arm, and stashed in an overnight bag that a mysterious figure in black dumps at a bus stop.
The 87th works the case like an assembly-line process. As in Cop Hater, the protagonist is Frank Carella, but he is only the center of attention by a slight margin over the other boys in the squadroom. Whoever's "catching" that day, among the diverse and dysfunctional personalities of the precinct, advances the plot another few steps with an interrogation, a surveillance, a tracked lead.
Give the Boys a Great Big Hand is a treasure – a dated, faded, scuffed treasure, but a brilliant piece of writing nonetheless. One can easily see why McBain has been so influential on crime novels worldwide. Any subsequent team of fictional detectives, from Sweden to Sicily to Scotland, down to Rio or across to Accra, owes something to the 87th.
McBain (Evan Hunter, né Salvatore Lombino) writes with keen restraint – most of the time, he'd just say "restraint'; he's no fan of the superfluous adjective. But at strategic moments, he can shift from clipped tough-guy dialogue to florid prose poetry. His writing is always mannered and self-conscious, and you hear all sorts of dialects and colloquialisms and topical expressions behind and through it. (In the terms of the literary theory of M.M. Bakhtin, McBain's work is "dialogic.") He's never just trying to describe reality, despite his prosaic surfaces. He's trying to describe what it's like to see a world in prose. Garry Winogrand took pictures to see what the world looks like photographed; Ed McBain wrote prose to see what the world looks like prosaically.
A good dose of McBain will cure aspiring writers of a spate of adjectives – unless there's a moment when an adjective is too good to pass up. But McBain doesn't modify any noun in this novel just to paint a word picture – still less for the sheer sake of modifying it. Almost at random:
Parker didn't say a word. He shoved himself off the railing and lunged at Carella who chopped a short right to Parker's gut, doubling him over. Parker grabbed for his midsection and Carella delivered a rabbit punch to the back of Parker's neck, sending him sprawling over the desk. (211)Forty-nine words, one literally short adjective, no adverbs. (I'm counting "rabbit punch" as a compound noun :) That's how to describe a brawl, crime writers.
The two extended, overwrought meditations in Give the Boys a Great Big Hand are therefore "earned." One, on vicarious experience mediated through language, seems as fresh as this morning; the other, comparing the city to a woman, must have seemed dated the morning it was published.
"The city is a woman, you understand. It could be nothing but a woman," McBain says, stepping into authorial voice at the start of the less-well-preserved of those two meditations (215). As the theme develops, you're not sure whether he's objectifying cities or women, or which comes off worse in the bargain. You grow up with her, you get to know her little ways, "you are hooked"; and then,
At five o'clock, she puts on a different look and you love this look, too; you love everything about her, her rages, her sultry petulance, everything; this is total love that seeks no excuses and no reasons. (216)Aside from the sealed-off male heterosexuality of the rhetoric (a straight man talks to straight men in a metaphor both will naturally "get"), the terms of the figure of speech don't make good sense. One doesn't "map" onto the other; a city is too diffuse, a woman too individual. The whole thing is strained, though full of bravado. Too much of this, and you'd toss the book away like so much other pulp of the period.
The other long excursus in Give the Boys a Great Big Hand, though, is a weird and wonderful self-reflexive consideration of fiction and the second-hand existence. Police work, thinks detective Cotton Hawes, is "as real as bread crumbs" (174). But it occupies a massively escapist, unrealistic place in the popular imagination:
A cop was one of the fantasy figures in one of the world's escapes: the mystery novel. The trouble was, he thought, that only the fantasy cop was the hero while the real cop was just a person. It was as if a very small portion of the world was actually alive, and these people were alive only in so far as they performed in created fantasies. (174)The character then goes off on a tangent about the nature of talking about representations of representations, increasingly as much in the authorial voice as his own. This is heady stuff, especially when you remember that it begins as the free-indirect-style thoughts of a fantasy cop in a mystery novel.
The plot of Give the Boys a Great Big Hand? It's headlong and compelling. It is technically a mystery – you'll skim right over the suspects without picking out the killer, the first time you meet them – but it's really more the kind of atmospheric Krimi where severed hands and skipped-out sailors lead our boys deeper and deeper into more and more louche territory until you can barely stand the squalor. Give them a hand, indeed.
McBain, Ed. Give the Boys a Great Big Hand. 1960. In Ed McBain. New York: Octopus / Heinemann, 1981. 133-236.
French title: La Main dans le sac
German title: Große Hand zum Gruß
Italian titles: Due mani in cerca di cadavere; Date una mano all'87 distretto