|Can you put the solution together?|
Characteristic of McBain, Jigsaw is smoothly told and generally quite entertaining. There are clues to the location of the loot in the form of the torn pieces of a photograph (the jigsaw of the title), and one of the clever things McBain does is to show us the pieces of the photo as the police discover them and try to fit them together. This is like something you would find in an Ellery Queen mystery. (I did find myself wondering, however, why no one was consulting a photography expert).
The comedy team of Monoghan and Monroe appears in the beginning and we see that, in an attempt at attaining groovy seventies high style, Monroe is growing a mustache (or attempting to). Or perhaps I should say pornstache. McBain is very funny about this.
Sadly, for me the book undergoes something of a collapse in the last chapter, of just a dozen pages. Catching a certain criminal depends on the breaking of an alibi. In a novel by Freeman Wills Crofts (The Cask, say), this would be very cleverly done. In Jigsaw it's done through police intimidation, played for laughs (contrast this with McBain's painful and scathing depiction of police brutality in Ten Plus One).
It's also done as a way of allowing McBain to denounce racism. In Jigsaw black police detective Arthur Brown is the lead character (with Steve Carella in support). "Detective Arthur Brown did not like being called black," McBain announces in the first sentence of the novel, and then proceeds to show how various people in the case respond to Brown's skin color.
In an interesting aside on changing fashions in racial nomenclature, McBain writes that Brown "considered the word [black] derogatory, no matter how many civil rights leaders endorsed it." Of course calling his "black" character "Brown" is another one of McBain's little jokes.
Racism mostly comes in the form of three women in the novel: hot dish Geraldine Ferguson, who may have a piece of the photo and crudely taunts Brown with sexual come-ons; an aging, blowsy hooker who announces bluntly when she sees Brown at her door, "I don't suck no n-----s" (yes, McBain's writing had gotten much more explicit by 1970); and an alibi-providing girlfriend. Carella comes up with a plan to break this latter woman, based entirely on the fact that she comes from Georgia.
Everyone in the precinct knows, you see, that all whites from Georgia are racists who believe all the crudest invidious stereotypes about African-Americans, even if they decided voluntarily to move to New York and have been living in the state for the last five years or so. So, Carella reasons, why don't we have Detective Brown go to this Georgia woman's apartment late at night and threaten her with rape (in plantation dialect) if she doesn't tell the truth about that inconvenient alibi. Of course, no actual rape is intended, it's just pretend, to shake her up, don't you know.
Maybe I'm sensitive about this because I grew up in the South (though I was born in South Dakota, let me hasten to add!).
Of course I know this was over forty years ago, and one has to consider the times in which the book was written. Back in 1968, two years before Jigsaw was published, my parents moved to Alabama (when I was two), my father having accepted a teaching position at the University of Alabama. My mother, who was from Pennsylvania, didn't want to make the move, because when people thought of Alabama, they (quite understandably) saw awful visions of water cannons and cross burnings and vicious German shepherds and nightstick-wielding cops and crude drawling sheriffs and church bombings and car shootings and--well, you get the point, surely.
But, still, there had to be a better way for McBain to take on the problem of racism than a comic vignette about a policeman, one of McBain's good guys, threatening a woman with (pretend) rape. Not to mention that I don't believe the woman's admission, when obtained in this manner, ever would have stood up in court. Nor should it have, frankly, I don't care whether she was a racist or not.
So, forgive the sermonette here, but I in discussing this book I felt I had to explain why McBain completely lost me in the last twelve pages. If you have a different take on these final pages, you will probably give the book a higher grade, because up until this last chapter it's quite enjoyable.
And, let me reiterate, I still find Ed McBain one of the most purely entertaining series crime writers in the history of the genre, even if, sometimes, one of his jokes misfires.
For those who are interested in the "big issues" see this academic take on the race question in McBain's 87th Precinct. And here's another blog review of Jigsaw.