When the fiddlers have fled...
It begins when a blind violinist is found shot - twice, in the face - in an alley outside his club, located somewhere within the borders of the good ol' 87th precinct. Within a very short time, another identical killing occurs elsewhere in the city. The gun used is the same, but there is no connection between the two victims whatsoever. The immortal boys of the 87th are stumped. It's a state affairs that continues, despite their valiant efforts, as the corpses seem to drop around them like rain. A university lecturer, a priest, a widow... The only thing any of them have in common is a plethora of years to their age. Stumped though they are, the boys will have to doggedly chase down all the leads until the final breakthrough which will crack the case, and they have to do it quickly, before the killer racks up too many more victims.
It's hard to read this book. Not in a bad way - McBain's prose is as fresh, youthful, witty, free of pretension and full of zest for life as ever, and his dialogue is some of the finest. As always, this is an 87th Precinct novel that takes almost no effort to read and yet rewards you in spades for doing so - you almost feel as if you're cheating, somehow. No, it's hard to read in a bittersweet way. It's difficult not to feel a little melancholy, knowing that this is - in all likelihood - the final 87th Precinct novel, since McBain's sad death in July. (Rumours that there are two more yet to come - "Put them All Together and they Spell Mother" and "Exit" - have not been corroborated either way, but we can live in hope.) Not only that, but you almost feel a little guilty for having so much absolute fun, too. Though of course that's what McBain would have wanted. He was doing what he did best right up to the end, and Fiddlers is classic McBain: brisk, playful, hugely entertaining. As always, very funny. Even after over 50 years, each book still gives a sense of how much fun McBain had coming up with these things, and Fiddlers is no exception.
For what might be their last outing together, all the gang are here for the swansong: Carella, Hawes, Brown, Meyer, Kling, Parker and, of course, the wonderful Fat Ollie Weekes (who's still wooing Patricia Gomez, in what's been a rather touching storyline over the last couple of books!) With so many ended lives to investigate, they need every man on. It's wonderful to see them all together. Not only that, but the way McBain stitches their personal lives into the tapestry is as sure and effortless as ever; he has always had a charmingly human touch, an ease at bringing all his characters to life by letting us glimpse, occasionally, their lives outside the job. Kling's relationship with forensic detective Sharyn Cooke looks to be on the rocks; Hawes meets someone in the process of the case; Steve Carella and his wife have to deal with finding that their daughter has smoked marijuana.
The mystery this time around is a compelling one: who could possibly want these people dead? The killings are too organised, too precise, for a serial killer. The profile just doesn't fit. There must be some kind of connection, but what? To be honest, there's probably one murder too many. There's not much time to get a grip on the story before another body falls to the stone (then, this is part of McBain's accurate portrayal of police-work: there's rarely time to get a grip on the story), and would make the revelation more plausible (not that it's implausible, but the number of corpses makes it a little melodramatic, perhaps...)
Another of the things I've always admired about McBain is his ability to make social comment almost without doing it. He never, ever, says anything directly, but there's actually quite a bit of anger here. You sometimes see it in his sarcasm, or in the veiled anger and small frustrations of the characters. He talks about America without really doing it - indeed, seems to try very hard to cover it up, but it's still there - in his asides, in his characters, in his criminals and their motives (particularly here - this killer's motive says a lot about a particular social blight that doesn't just affect America).. He's also - quite rightly - lauded for his picture of the shifting social background of his fictional city. This city could be any city in America, and McBain has, over 50 years, given us a grand and sweeping chronicle of the way America has changed, in so many ways.
If this truly is the final 87th Precinct novel, then it's a fine conclusion to the series. McBain takes his bow with a mystery as fun as his first, as seamlessly plotted as ever, as clever yet determined-not-to-seem-so as always. Without this particular Grand Master around, the crime fiction world is always going to be slightly less.