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20 february 2017

Doll (1965) is a suspenseful crime novel with some well-planned plot twists. At a certain point the twisted-up plot unravels quickly, but the book does not outstay its welcome, and is a memorable entry in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series.

Doll starts with a fashion model slashed to death, bleeding out on top of her entire estate: a painting by Marc Chagall. When Steve Carella and Bert Kling investigate, they get a pretty good description of the killer from an elderly one-eyed elevator operator. But pretty good descriptions get you almost nowhere in a city of eight million.

Spoilers are necessary for the rest of this brief piece, so stop now if you want to be surprised. And honestly, you won't be that surprised even if you stop now. The central gimmick in Doll involves the reader's anxiety over whether McBain will kill off one of his central characters, Steve Carella. You don't really think he can go through with it. But detective heroes have had a way of getting on their creators' nerves, from Sherlock Holmes through Wallander and Erlendur. Many a successful series writer has craved relief from his own hero, and the 87th Precinct is very much a series that can sustain itself herolessly. In addition, McBain had not been shy about inflicting great harm on Carella in past series novels, or about killing off simpatico officers of the 87th in others.

Anyway, if you're still reading, Carella solves the mystery pretty quickly, following a train of thought that the reader is not privy to. Smashing his way into the murderer's lair without backup, Carella finds himself in a trap. Soon, the cops find a burned body in a burned car, all the ID and other evidence pointing to its being Carella's body. But since that elderly one-eyed elevator operator has disappeared at the same time …

The suspense continues even after Kling and his colleague Meyer Meyer find out that the dead body was a bit of misdirection. Then the book tips over into a fairly standard horrors-of-drug-dens story, but even a half-century after its publication, it keeps you going for a while.

McBain, Ed. Doll. 1965. In Ed McBain. New York: Octopus / Heinemann, 1981. 239-350.