Thursday, 12 November 2015

First Offense by Evan Hunter, 1955

I offer this review for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

A replica of my edition of the book.
Do you know what can make a gritty police procedural a good story? An element of humour. Evan Hunter (alias Ed McBain) provides a fair bit of it in First Offense, the first short story in The McBain Brief, a collection of twenty non-87th Precinct stories published in 1982. 

Of course, it’s all unintended and incongruous in this realistic story about first-time felon Stevie, a 17-year-old cocky and defiant boy who thinks he knows more than the Chief of Detectives and the other hardened felons, including one veteran called Skinner who sizes up our protagonist for what he is, a punk, and advises him to keep his mouth shut.

Stevie is one of many felons who is brought to Centre Street Headquarters in Manhattan for a line-up before every detective squad in the city, 
so they will remember him the next time. Stevie’s crime: he assaulted a candy store owner for a lousy twelve dollars.

The gravity of his offence—stabbing the old man in the chest and abdomen—is lost on Stevie who behaves like a bum at a party, only to find there is no escape from this one.

First Offense is cold and atmospheric. The narrative transforms the reader into a silent witness at the police inquisition. I liked the matter-of-fact questioning of felons (a McBain trademark), including Stevie, by the Chief of Detectives. It was all a bit unsettling. You don’t want to be inside a police station for whatever reason and you certainly don’t want to be in a line-up, prior to arraignment, where you are not innocent till proven guilty.

“Tell us the story, Stevie.”

“Whatya makin’ a big federal case out of a lousy stick-up for? Ain’t you got nothing better to do with your time?”

“We've got plenty of time, Steve.”

“Well, I’m in a hurry.”

“You’re not going any place. Kid. Tell us about it.”


This story takes a hard look at delinquent crime and sociopathic behaviour of young people in the backdrop of some terrific police procedure. I think, this is an early instance of police procedural that Hunter/McBain became so notoriously famous for.

The McBain Brief is a collection of crime stories dating from as early as 1944. In ‘A Brief Introduction,’ Ed McBain ponders the question of why most of these twenty stories were first published under his pseudonyms like Hunt Collins and Richard Marsten. 'First Offense' was first published in Manhunt, December 1955, and was selected as one of the Best Detective Stories that year. McBain has said that he did not write the screenplay for this story on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though the two masters of suspense met after he wrote 'First Offense.'

Recommended.


Further Reading

MysteryNet has an interview with Ed McBain on their website.

My blog friend Todd Mason had this to say about the story on his blog Sweet Freedom: “First Offense is a not-bad but utterly unsurprising story which reads for all the world like a rendering in prose of a typical script from the CBS Radio series The Lineup.

20 comments:

  1. I read one McBain novel way back when and enjoyed it, but that was it. Nice review.

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    1. Oscar, thank you. I have read a few other stories in this collection which I didn't review because I had a problem remembering the details. I should make notes as I read.

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  2. I bought a copy of The McBain Brief at the book sale this year and I look forward to reading the stories. I am glad you featured this one, Prashant.

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    1. Tracy, that's great! I look forward to reading your review of this fine collection of twenty stories. I haven't read many non-87th Precinct stories.

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  3. Really enjoyed this review Prashant - and this is a McBain / Hunter book I've not read, so must remedy this - thanks chum!

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    1. Sergio, thank you. Your reviews of numerous McBain novels have been an inspiration. I still have hopes of reading his full-length novels, probably early next year.

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  4. Prashant, I think I have a few McBain books! But not this one - I'd better stick with what I have I think. It does sound good though.

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    1. Col, how can I forget your very envious pile of McBains? I was lucky to find this anthology by Hunter/McBain who wrote many short stories during his prolific writing career.

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  5. I'm a huge Ed McBain fan and I read this when it was first published. I think the 1980s saw the best of the McBain novels.

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    1. George, I know both you and Sergio are. Although I have read his short stories and a couple of novels, I'm not very familiar with McBain's work. I have a long way to go.

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  6. I've only read a few of his 87th precinct books. I've got some more around though

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    1. Charles, I have many of his 87th Precinct books, most of which I haven't read. Hopefully, next year.

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  7. I couldn't possibly agree more about Hunter/McBain's writing, Prashant. Along with his skill at telling a story and at creating a mystery, there's some nicely-placed wit in his work. And that, to me, is part of what sets it apart.

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    1. Right you are, Margot. This story was witty without actually being so. As a reader, that's how I felt about it, particularly the young protagonist's cockiness in the face of a possible indictment. The poor fellow doesn't see it.

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  8. I think I saw it on the shelf here (public library) and I shall check for it on my way out this afternoon.

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    1. Mathew, I liked the ones I read and intend to read the rest soon. I'd be interested in your opinion of this collection.

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  9. I've never really been able to get into an Ed McBain story and/or novel, Prashant. Don't ask me why because I don't know. I should like them. Most everyone else does. Maybe one of these days I'll try again.

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    1. Yvette, that happens to me, too. There are authors I ought to have read but I don't feel inclined to. I know I'm the loser.

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  10. I've read very few of his - always impressed by how many he wrote, and how much people like him.

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    1. Moira, I have read very few McBains too. I haven't done justice to his books in my possession. I like the way he wrote. He has acquired cult status.

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