Sunday, May 26, 2013

Puzzling Behavior: Jigsaw (1970), by Ed McBain

One of the interesting aspects for me about the novels in Ed McBain's long-running 87th Precinct series is the glimpse they provide of the transformation of American society over several decades.  Just in the seven years from Ten Plus One (1963) to Jigsaw (1970), we see tremendous changes, which echo real-life events from that time.  Ten Plus One feels more like a fifties McBain, but with Jigsaw we are in the modern era (with one big exception; see below).

Can you put the solution together?
Jigsaw is a short novel (even by McBain's standards at the time) that is devoted to a treasure hunt.  Yes, it's the old plot about some lost loot from a heist for which a number of people are searching.  Some of these people are willing to kill to get what they're after.  And, oh boy, they sure do!

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.

So while in Jigsaw McBain commendably attempts to address the problem of racism, he falls down flat, in my view, in his handling of sexism (he doesn't even seem to be aware this might be an issue).  I suppose how we're supposed to see this is, she's from Georgia, see, so she's ipso facto racist, and it's okay to pull this stunt with an ipso facto racist from Georgia.  But this highlights another problem for me: everyone just assumes she's a racist because she's from Georgia (even though, as I said, she moved to New York and has lived there for about five years).

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.


  1. This is the first McBain novel I read and I liked it a lot right from that memorable first line. However, I must admit the racism aspect of the novel, the fact that it allowed the author to denounce it, never occurred to me. The treasure hunt was intriguing in every aspect. This is a fine review of a book I hope to read again. I'm holding on to my McBains.

  2. This novel was used as the basis for a truly awful episode of Columbo -- 1994's "Undercover", from season 10, starring Ed Begley Jr. -- awful because it completely abandoned the "howcatchem" format that made Columbo what it was.

  3. Terrific review Curt - just about to re-read this one as I've just caught up with it but even from memory I think i'd have to agree with you really about that aspect of the ending - the McBain books do, mainly for comedic or ironic purposes admittedly, generalise to a an often too great an extent, but there is something disappointing about trading one set of prejudiced assumptions for another. That wasn't McBain's intent, clearly, but when it came to women and sex one has to admit that the author's pulp beginnings often do shine through - and yes, the COLUMBO adaptations is really, really weird!

  4. Hi all! I was very frustrated with the ending. It's meant as a farcical comment on racism,I know, but it just didn't work for me, because of the way rape is used. I know McBain's point was she only feared rape because she was racist, but it's still an abuse of police power and not funny to me. But McBain is still a great natural storyteller, no question, one of the best in the genre, I think.