January 6, 2009

87th Precinct: King's Ransom

1959 novel
written by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter)

(my review of the 1959 film adaptation, HIGH AND LOW)

We all know the lengths a person would go to reclaim a kidnapped child. Anything and everything would be on the table. But what if it's not your kid? What if you got the call to give up your own property to save the life of someone else's child? Would you do it?

Such is the question raised in this novel as businessman Douglas King gets a call from kidnappers who think they just snatched his boy, but got the son of his chauffeur instead. Regardless of this error, they push on and demand $500,000 dollars from the man, a sum that would cripple him as he struggles for a position of control against corporate rivals. It's a fascinating dilemma and Hunter takes an unexpectedly stubborn, though still perfect for the character, twist in the middle that heightens the debate without preaching any easy answers.

No, like most crime novels, the people involved exist in a gray zone. Douglas King is a gentle lion at home, a loving father and husband, but he's absolutely ruthless when it comes to business. Charles Reynolds, the chauffeur father of the kidnapped boy, would seem to be a sympathetic victim, but he's painted as a snivelling coward deserving of his low social position. The kidnappers feature a husband and wife pair, eager to escape the poverty that fills their life, who find themselves driven down this dark road by a sociopath who expects everyone to give him a break while he does whatever the fuck he can get away with. Even the broader public gets such an examination as people call in possible sighting or offer donations for the ransom, while others seek attention or pull cons for a profit.

I'm not much for episodic police procedurals, so I'm not sure how well I'd do with the 87TH PRECINCT series as a whole, but this was a gripping, intelligent thriller with a complex cast of characters and social commentary as sharp today as it was 50 years ago. And it's all told with crisp, dialogue-heavy prose so light on description it reads like a screenplay.

If I have one complaint, it's that the recurring cast of cops felt a little underdeveloped in the face of the stand-alone story. Granted, this being a series, one has to expect their development to be spread out among numerous volumes, so I shouldn't complain without giving the entire series a read, but it just felt like more could be done to personally tie them into events. Just a bit.



Anthony Williams said...

That actually sounds like a good plot for a feature film. Other than the twist of the kid not being his, it put me in mind of the solid Mel Gibson/Ron Howard film 'Ransom'.

Jason said...

Countless 87th Precinct novels would make for excellent films. It's baffling why Hunter/McBain's material hasn't been mined more deeply over the years.

NoelCT said...


This is the only novel of his that I've read so far, but if the rest of his stuff is this good then I most definitely agree.