2/26/2004 
WASHINGTON POST ON "FRUBAN"  
In all its splendor, not a word cut. 
      Copyright 2004 The Washington Post

                              The Washington Post

                            February 23, 2004 Monday
                                 Final Edition

SECTION: Style; C02 , BOOK WORLD

LENGTH: 1054 words

HEADLINE: McBain's Latest: Absolutely Brillig

BYLINE: Patrick Anderson,, whose e-mail address is
mailto:mondaythrillers@aol.com

BODY:

  THE FRUMIOUS BANDERSNATCH

A Novel of the 87th Precinct

By Ed McBain

Simon & Schuster. 287 pp. $25

It was in 1954, 50 years ago, that Evan Hunter won
national attention with his memorable first novel, "The
Blackboard Jungle." Two years later, writing as Ed
McBain, he published his first 87th Precinct novel; "The
Frumious Bandersnatch" is the 53rd in that series.
Writing as McBain, Hunter has also published 13
novels about lawyer Matthew Hope, plus eight other
stand-alone fiction works. Writing under his own name,
Hunter has published another 20 or so novels, plus two
collections of short stories, four children's books and
assorted screenplays and teleplays. Call it a hundred
novels in 50 years and you're not far off. The amazing
thing, beyond the herculean volume of McBain's
work, is the quality of it. He has won every important
prize available to a crime writer, and the 87th Precinct
novels, upon which his reputation will rest, are as
impressive a body of work as exists in his chosen
genre, the police procedural.

If McBain has never received quite the acclaim he
deserves, there may be two reasons. First, it is easy to
take someone so prolific for granted. Second, the
87th Precinct's Everycop, Detective Steve Carella, is not
a larger-than-life warrior-lover-philosopher, as are
Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler
's Philip Marlowe and John D. MacDonald's Travis
McGee, in their different ways (they, of course, are not
cops), nor is he angst-ridden like Michael Connelly's
Harry Bosch. Carella is a relatively sane fellow who
loves his wife, pays his bills and does his job with a
minimum of fuss and as part of a team. His normalcy
may be a weakness in commercial terms, but in terms
of realism, of what the detecting business is really like,
he may be closer to the truth than any other fictional
character. We learn in this novel that, when in college,
Carella liked to quote lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste
Land" to impressionable coeds. The adult Carella is a
melancholy poet of urban crime, trying to bring order to
the wasteland of Isola, his fictionalized New York City.

A writer as obsessively productive as McBain is
bound to have ups and downs. I certainly haven't read
all of the Hunter/McBain novels -- who has? -- but I
thought "The Last Dance," the 87th Precinct novel he
published in 2000, was absolutely first-rate; then I read
"The Moment She Was Gone," the Evan Hunter
stand-alone of 2002, and wondered why he let it be
published. I therefore picked up "The Frumious
Bandersnatch" with trepidation, wondering if a
downward cycle had begun. Not to worry. This is not
McBain at his grim, gritty best, but McBain
in an antic mood, having fun with a crime caper that
keeps us smiling until the very end, when he delivers a
kick in the teeth that reminds us that at heart he is a
writer with an extremely dark view of our species.

A 20-year-old singer named Tamar Valparaiso is
about to issue her first album, "Bandersnatch," which
features a single by the same name. It has been
Tamar's inspiration to set Lewis Carroll's nonsense
lines to a hip-hop beat:

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!

Tamar is also issuing a music video, in which she
acts out the poem, but in her version it is the saga of a
girl -- herself -- who fights off and ultimately kills the
Bandersnatch, a monstrous rapist who is portrayed by
a black dancer. The head of her record company is
convinced that this sexy video will make Tamar the new
Britney Spears. He therefore gives a launch party
aboard a yacht at which music industry bigwigs and
journalists will be wined and dined and will see Tamar
and the dancer perform the video drama live. At this
opening scene aboard the yacht, McBain has a lot of
fun -- how could he not? -- with the inanities of the pop
music culture. When someone tells Tamar her video
recalls "King Kong," she replies, "King who?" She
hasn't heard of Mick Jagger, either. Her ignorance is
matched by the music industry executives, who have
never heard of Lewis Carroll but are fascinated by
"Bandersnatch" because it sounds dirty.

Meanwhile, three bad guys reach the yacht in a
rented speedboat and climb aboard, wearing rubber
masks and armed with AK-47s. Their masks are of
Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and George Bush, and
in case we don't get it, a cop later says, "Three of the
world's great leaders." Soon the kidnappers speed
away with Tamar as their prisoner. Steve Carella and
other 87th Precinct detectives are called in, and
publicity-hungry FBI agents also lay claim to the case.
Plotwise, the rest of the novel is given over to
answering certain basic questions: Will the cops
recover Tamar alive? Will the 87th Precinct or the FBI
find her first? Will one of the kidnappers rape the
captive singer? And, finally, might there be more to this
kidnapping than meets the eye?

McBain grimly relates the media madness the
kidnapping inspires. A publicity-seeking black activist
organizes protests against the alleged racism of having
the Bandersnatch portrayed by a black man. On cable
TV, a panel of talking heads goes further and finds
racism in Carroll's poem: " 'Beware the Jubjub bird.'
That is clearly a racist warning." McBain also amuses
himself with a subplot in which Detective Oliver "Fat
Ollie" Weeks courts an attractive policewoman named
Patricia Gomez. Fat Ollie is not only fat; he is bigoted
and ignorant of everything except crime and criminals,
and it is not clear why the lovely Gomez would bother
with him, except that he is awed by her and is eager
to buy her anything she wants, which is perhaps
reason enough.

Fat Ollie has also emerged as an aspiring novelist,
and at one point he lectures Gomez: "Take a truly great
master of literature like James Patterson, are you
familiar with his uv?" "His what?" "His uv. That's French
for 'body of work,' an uv, they call it." Here we have
McBain being not-nice about a mega-selling writer who,
in terms of talent, isn't fit to empty McBain's
wastebasket.  And so it goes, broad humor and solid
police work, until McBain wraps up this wry
entertainment with a dark ending that reminds us that
we should all shun the frumious Bandersnatches of
this world, because they will kill us if they can.
 

 
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