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ten plus one

31 may 2016

Ten Plus One starts off as a hard-boiled procedural about an urban sniper. Before long it's turned into a cozy whodunit with an honest-to-Christie list of potential victims culled from the program of a long-ago amateur theatrical. Ed McBain welds genres together into a weird miscellaneous construction that is highly artificial, nickel-plated, and metaliterary – and compellingly suspenseful even 53 jaded years later.

Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer catch "the squeal," the initial murder. A sniper has killed an anodyne businessman in the 87th Precinct with a single shot from a rooftop. Later, in a different precinct, he kills an anodyne lawyer. Subsequent sniper killings include a prostitute and a greengrocer. Are we on the trail of a nut, or someone with a cryptic purpose?

The latter, and the novel moves too fast for you to worry about the point at which you cross the border of verisimilitude. "They only do that on television," Carella tells the daughter of a victim (619), forgetting that he himself is a character in a far-fetched case that they only do in pulp novels.

McBain can't help showing off how good his writing is. Lest we forget that this far-fetched stuff could be really dreadful in other hands, he tells one of the murders twice. One of the victims, Mulligan, is an assistant district attorney. He's killed briskly over a glass of Scotch in direct narration. Then the narrator imagines how a writer for an evening newspaper with literary aspirations would tell the tale:

He could have been a Columbus in other times, he could have been an Essex at the side of Elizabeth. He was, instead, a tall and impressive man drinking his Scotch. He was soon to be a dead man. (646)
And then he runs that deathless prose through an inept typesetter:
Or he could have been a Columbus in other times, he could have been an Es DRINKING HIS SCOTCH. He was soon to be a dead man. instead, a tall and impressive man. (646)

McBain's literate language alludes to Sophocles, Eugene O'Neill, and Yves Klein. One suspect is Jewish, but Meyer Meyer eliminates him with the help of detective stories:

I've been watching television, and going to the movies, and reading books, and I've discovered something about homicide. … If there's a Jew, or an Italian, or a Negro, or a Puerto Rican, or a guy with some foreign-sounding name, he's never the one who did it. … The killer has to be a hunnerd-percent white American Protestant. (677)
Our heroes don't reflect back on Meyer's theory later on, but he turns out to be a hunnerd-percent correct.

McBain, Ed. Ten Plus One. 1963. In Ed McBain. New York: Octopus/Heinemann, 1981. 595-716.