Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ten Plus One (1963) , by Ed McBain (Part Two)

Ed McBain's Ten Plus One is a serial killer novel about a sniper picking off victims over a few weeks in April and May in Isola, a thinly-veiled New York City.  Some reviews of this novel, including the recent one in Books To Die For and the fifty-year-old one in Kirkus Reviews, reveal the thread connecting the sniper's victims, but since McBain keeps this secret for 60% of the novel, I feel I should do so as well.  Read the novel and find out for yourself, just like I did.

a sniper on a rampage
By today's standards Ten Plus One is quite a short novel (217 pages in its current edition), and McBain is a master of the short form.  One can finish this book in an evening, and one definitely will be tempted to do just that.  The narrative is smooth, the suspense level high and the characters lightly sketched but memorable.

There is real pathos--McBain acquaints us with most of the victims before their deaths--but some terrific humor as well, such as the visit to the station by a blonde bombshell seeking police protection ("I really enjoyed having him," the bombshell confides, when thanking lead character Detective Steve Carella for the patrolman he provided her) and the extended comedic riff a cop makes on a witness' name, Stan Quentin (some of these cops really should have gone on tour).

There's also rumination on ethnic relations and satire directed at politicians, the press and Freudian psychiatry, as well as an entire chapter devoted to describing some very bad deeds by a pair of very bad cops.  This chapter could have been deleted without affecting the plot, but McBain clearly wanted to Make A Point about the potential for police abuse of power in 1963, and he does.

the bodies pile up
I like this period of the 87th Precinct books a lot (late 50s/early60s), in part because it offers fascinating social detail from a period before I was born (in Ten Plus One I found McBain's discussion of snipers eerie in light of the fact that the Kennedy assassination occurred later that year).*

*(in Ten Plus One McBain classifies homosexuals--men "who have watched their manhood die, and who live a desperate dying life in the shadow of the law"--with junkies, thieves, burglars, muggers, con men, pimps, whores and street gang members.  He seems to write from a standpoint of empathy for those he sees as having thrown away their lives.  This short section of the book may rankle, but keep in mind that it was composed half a century ago.)

There is no way one can deduce the culprit of the crimes until late in the book, but at that point one does have the chance to beat the cops to the solution (and one should).  The final revelations are deftly handled--as is, really, everything in this novel, which throughout reveals the hand of a consummate master of series crime fiction. This is a mystery tale that seems to me almost impossible not to enjoy.

Note: For Part One of this piece, see here.  And by all means see Sergio's more (but not too) detailed review over at Tipping My Fedora, if you haven't already.


  1. Really enjoyed this take on the book (amazed that your edition ballooned to 217 pages - I think mine was about 170 or so!). I'm glad you picked on that paragraph about socially excluded individuals - it is potentially iffy though I'm not sure is in a way McBain wasn't blaming society to shrivelling up the lives of those outside the mainstream os 'norm', as opposed to thei lifestyle choices per se ... Fascinating review - also made me realise that it makes a strong companion piece to SEE THEM DIE, which is all focused on people who form various 'undreclasses', with very little plot to speak of. Cheers mate.

  2. Sergio, thanks, you are always so gracious with your comments!

    Your piece was so detailed I kept this one rather short.

    On the quoted passage, I found a certain ambiguity there, in the sentence, homosexuals

    "who have watched their manhood die, and who live a desperate dying life in the shadow of the law"

    Just going by the passage, I do think McBain is criticizing laws that force gays to live in the "shadow," but it was the "watched their manhood die" line that made me wonder about his personal views. Of course even if the intended implication is that gays are lacking in "manhood," it's a more sympathetic position than one finds in most popular fiction and film and the time, I think.

    But you must know more than I about McBain's handling of this matter in his books at this time.

    I found this a very impressive book. Above all, it's just so very readable.

  3. Oh, concerning book length, publishers want so desperately to make short books from the 1950s and 1960s appear much longer, don't they? What would Freud say?

  4. I agree on that reading of that passage, Curt. Gay people's lives in themselves were criminalized according to most US state laws. Living in the shadow of the law was not a choice at all -- it was essential to survival. Maintaining secrets became routine for most gay men and lesbians at the time this book was written.

    Someone gave away a crucial plot twist in one of the Booked to Die essays? And a mystery writer at that! Unreal.

    As for book length: Font matters!

  5. I wrote a bit about gay life in the 1950s in connection with my recent book on Todd Downing, Clues and Corpses. It was a vastly different (i.e., much more difficult) thing back then, definitely.

    Of course, presumably McBain isn't condemning laws that punish thieves, burglars, muggers and con men for engaging in criminal acts.

    However, let's take "whores" (McBain's word). He says of them, "who have witnessed the death of honor, and daily multiply the death of love, who bleed away their own lives fifty times a day beneath the relentless stabbings of countless congregations." Whether or not there were laws against soliciting, wouldn't McBain think that "whores" were witnessing the "death of honor" when engaging in these commercial sex acts (though the "death of honor" being referred to I presume in their male partners)?

    Did McBain think that "homosexuals," "who have watched their manhood die," have done so by virtue of engaging in homosexual acts? The next part of the sentence, separated by a comma, adds "and who live a desperate, dying life in the shadow of the law." This does suggest empathy for gays forced to live "desperate, dying lives" because of the penalties of the law.

    Is McBain going further and suggesting that it is the laws themselves that have caused the death of the manhood of the homosexuals, or is he seeing it as the acts themselves having done so?

    I would have to be more familiar with McBain's treatment of homosexuality in his books in this period to attempt to hazard a guess.

    I didn't mean for this one line to swallow the review, however!

    Actually spoilers are rather an issue in Books to Die For. They vary in degree. I thought the spoiler for Ten Plus One was an error of judgment on Meyer's part, because it is something that is only revealed 60% of the way into the book. It's not telling "whodunit" but it's a revelation the author obviously wanted to keep back a good while for dramatic purposes. But then the Kirkus reviewer in 1963 did the same thing. Kirkus Reviews in the past, at least, was simply terrible about that sort of thing.