The Con Man is exactly what you’d expect after the three previous volumes: A series of crimes that may or may not be related, the detectives of the 87th fanning out to crack the cases, a look at how policework is done, and the 87th’s great characters.
The joy for the crime-minded reader comes from all of these things, as well as in watching the mechanics of the con artist or artists run both short and long cons. Throw in a ridiculously suspenseful third act, and The Con Man is yet another winner.
One thing that should be noted, and is very much to McBain’s credit, is the respectful way minority characters are treated in his books in general, but very prominently in The Con Man. The black maid, the black detective, and the Chinese tattoo artist are fully-fleshed out characters, without a hint of condescencion aimed at them. The Con Man was published in 1957, as the Civil Rights Movement was just getting underway. Brown v. The Board of Education had been decided a mere three years prior. I claim no expertise in the literature, or, more specifically, the crime fiction of the period, but my suspicion is that this was a rarity. Rare or not, McBain is to be commended for it.
My edition of Killer’s Choice has a funny introduction by McBain, where he discusses how the publisher first insisted he not kill off Steve Carella, because even though the series was designed as an ensemble, it needed a hero. Then, after making Carella a big hero in the previous book, the publisher then insisted that Carella simply wouldn’t do as a hero, because Carella was married, and hero needed to be an attractive single guy that girls wanted to get with and guys wanted to be. Enter Cotton Hawes, who McBain has a good bit of fun torturing in this volume.
In a striking opening, a beautiful young woman is found murdered in a liquor store, her body found laying face down with the entire stock of the store smashed to bits around her. The murder isn’t the only puzzle, as the murdered girl, Annie Boone, is herself a mystery. Everybody’s testimony about her contradicts everybody else’s.
Killer’s Choice does not pack the emotional wallop of the previous two volumes, but as a mystery, it’s the best volume yet. And it’s also a reminder that not every mystery is solved.
A couple of bonus covers…