The Con Man by Ed McBain: A review

The Con ManThe Con Man by Ed McBain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These early Ed McBain novels from the 1950s are now old enough to qualify almost as historical mysteries and the language and attitudes often seem staid, stilted, and outdated.

Did policemen really used to talk like that? I remember watching reruns of "Dragnet" years after the series first ran and I seem to recall that Sgt. Joe Friday and his partner did, in fact, employ some of this terminology and exhibit some of those attitudes, so, yeah, I guess maybe they really did talk like that.

In spite of the fact that the books feel dated, the writing is so crisp that it draws us in and holds our attention. We feel like time travelers visiting another planet and observing the interaction of the inhabitants there. The books never fail to spark our interest and this, the fourth in the 87th Precinct series, is the best one yet, I think. Each entry has been an improvement upon the last one, which bodes well for my future reading of the series.

This story begins with a con man cheating people out of their money, some small amounts and some more substantial. The cop assigned to this case takes that personally and pursues his quarry with a vengeance.

Meanwhile, a con man of another and much more sinister sort plies his trade through personal ads in magazines. His goal is to reach lonely women and, after bilking them out of whatever money they may have and convincing them to get a tattoo which he tells them will mark them as his, he poisons them with arsenic and dumps their bodies in the river.

But bodies dumped in the river, even when they are weighted down, don't always stay there. And so, the Isola police and Precinct 87 are the unfortunate recipients of a "floater," a badly decomposed body that comes to the surface after being in the water for at least three months. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Bert Kling are assigned to the case and start trying to establish the identity of the dead woman, whose only clothing consisted of a bra and who had no identification, and to work out how she came to be in the water.

Before they can solve the first murder, yet another "floater" turns up. The cause of death turns out to be the same - arsenic poisoning - and the woman has a similar tattoo. It looks as though Isola may have a serial killer on its hands.

The tattoos turn out to be the definitive clue which helps to break the case, along with the help of a conscientious citizen tattoo artist named Charlie Chen.

The Con Man lets us get to know Steve Carella a little better. We also see his wife, Teddy, playing an important role in finally tracking down this con man/murderer. Apparently, they will continue to be at the center of future mysteries in the series.

By this time, McBain had really perfected his technique of writing a scintillating beginning to his tales, one that hooks you from the first sentence and keeps you turning pages. It's easy to see why other writers of mysteries, particularly of police procedurals, acknowledge him as the master.

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