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|LONDON GUARDIAN REVIEWS "OLLIE"|| |
|"McBain achieves the artsiest and most austere of conceits: writing about writing." || |
LONDON GUARDIAN REVIEWS "OLLIE"
"McBain achieves the artsiest and most austere of
conceits: writing about writing."
January 11, 2003
A VETERAN WHO CONTINUES TO ENTHRALL
by Mark Lawson
Academics would describe what happens in the
latest Ed McBain book as intertextuality -- although its
hero, the super-fat Manhattan cop Ollie Weeks, would
flap his latest slize of pizza dismissively at such
Ollie, though, has written a suspense novel, hoping
to escape from real crime to the pretend kind. Noting
that most detective fiction is written and purchased by
chicks, Ollie Weeks styles himself Olivia Watts on the
typescript and, appreciating that documentary realism
sells, structures his book -- a diamond-theft caper -- as
a "report to the commissioner" by a female police
When the manuscript is stolen from the back of
Ollie's car, the thief mistakenly believes that he's
secured a real cop's report to her boss, which will tell
him the location of the booty from a gem heist. Finding
that none of the names and addresses in the
document exists in real New York, the word-burglar
convinces himself that Detective Watts has written in
code for security reasons and sets out to break it.
As those who like their fiction tricksy will quickly
realise, the joy of the plot is that, in one sense, the thief
is correct. The novel by Olivia/Ollie is, indeed,
enciphered, through the novelist's standard device of
slightly changing actual people and locations.
In those sections of the novel where we and the bad
guy are permitted to read chunks of Ollie's fiction, the
villain's misunderstanding of where it is coming from
runs parallel with our own increasing comprehension
of the sources. Within the most populist form there is,
McBain achieves the artsiest and most austere of
conceits: writing about writing.
But books within books are a particularly fitting form
for this author, whose career has been a web of cross
references and noms de plume . Fat Ollie's Book
marks the 74th time that Ed McBain has been used as
a pseudonym by Evan Hunter, who has also started off
other narrative avalanches under his own name and as
Richard Marsten, Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon and Ezra
Hannon, among others. Hunter, now 76, has joined
Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon among the very
few novelists who reach three figures.
Merely within his best-known series -- the novels set
among the cops of New York's 87th precinct -- the
figures are dizzying. Fat Ollie's Book is the 52nd in
the sequence. Such immersion in one world makes
grace-notes possible, and McBain briefly disconcerts
us here by beginning in the 88th precinct, Detective
Weeks's patch, before a territorial dispute over the
assassination of a mayoral candidate leads to an
uneasy collaboration with the 87th.
Even so, by the 52nd tributary of a roman fleuve , you
might expect inspiration to have become a trickle. But
McBain still seems flooded with the fun of thinking up
these things. It's a neat enough idea that a cop should
have his police procedural novel stolen from his car,
but he has been smarter still in ensuring that the final
chapter remains in Ollie's possession, complicating
The American cop novel is a form that walks on street
talk, but then McBain is a spectacularly vernacular
writer. One chapter in Fat Ollie's Book begins with the
shrug: "To tell the god's honest truth . . ." And if the
literary police ever made long words illegal, he could
just carry on writing while others in the genre were at
the court of appeal. When cops aren't cops, they're the
blues or the fuzz. Perps commit crime and diamonds
are ice. NYPD and other TV cop shows have made
such nouns a common tongue, but McBain was the
daddy of such language and still talks up a storm.
In some other matters, the author's age may show.
Ollie likes doing WC Fields impressions and, while
McBain sensibly makes it a running gag that no one
ever understands them, it makes the lead detective
seem older than he can reasonably be.
There's also a certain veteran writer's ire in riffs Ollie
is given about top new novelist Jonathan Franzen and
the readers' reviews on the Amazon website. He
wonders why, when the site is "presumably in the
business of selling books, (they) would post bad
reviews about books they were trying to sell".
We feel McBain's own weight behind this complaint.
It's perhaps strange that a writer published more than
100 times could still be hurt by such stuff; but perhaps
that's why his stuff still works.
© Evan Hunter
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