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Fat Ollie's Book

Reviewed: April 26, 2006
By: Ed McBain read by Ron McLarty
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Audio CD, $47.50

The Ed McBain who wrote the 87th Precinct novels was also the Evan Hunter who wrote the screenplay for The Birds. The movie influenced a lot of films that would come along later, and without the 87th there would never have been Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, so you’d have to say that this guy was fairly influential in several fields.

Of the over 80 books that he wrote under these two names and several others, 52 of them involved Detective Steve Carella and the boys and girls of the 87th, set in some imaginary city in America.

Fat Ollie’s Book came out in 2002, three years before McBain died, and features at its center a fellow who had been a bit of a walk-on extra, a sort of comic relief character in other stories, Detective Oliver Weeks. Bigoted, slovenly, overweight and arrogant, Ollie is hardly the sort of fellow you’d expect to have any sympathy for at all, but McBain pulled it off in this novel.

There are three stories that weave their way through this book, and Ollie is connected directly to two of them. The first involves the murder of a city councilman who has been fooling around on his wife. You can surely guess who killed him, but there’s a lot of fun getting to that conclusion and both Carella and Weeks have a hand in it. There are some very nice touches in this part of the book.

Mystery number two involves Ollie’s novel, which was grabbed through the smashed rear window of his car while he was attending to the homicide. This is Ollie’s masterpiece, and we get to read all of it before the novel is finished. It’s truly terrible stuff, the worst kind of drivel, with Ollie attempting to pull off the voice of a female detective named Olivia. It  follows all the boilerplate rules for writing suspense (Dan Brown has read these, by the way) and grinds the story right into the ground.

This proves how good a writer McBain is, that he could write such dreadful stuff and still make you want to read it.

Ollie’s book was stolen by a male transvestite hooker who believes it to be really what its title says it is: “Report to the Commissioner”. It describes an operation to launder conflict diamonds and, in trying to follow the clues and the settings (which Ollie has copied from the streets and people he knows best) Emelio (or Emmie, when he’s in drag) stumbles onto a real caper, one which involves cocaine rather than jewels. It turns out that this is an operation about to be busted by the police, but it doesn’t help Emelio at all that the lady detective in charge looks just like the description in Ollie’s book.

Ollie really spends far more time that he should trying to find his novel. Working on the city’s dime he pulls in favours from several other precincts and scours the streets, managing to find the leather case he had used to carry the book, but not the precious work itself. All he has left is the final chapter, which we do get to read, Poor Emelio, however, is stuck with a whodunnit that has no ending.

I’ve been using the verb “to read” all the way through this, but the opening credits will have told you that I actually listened to it. It was beautifully read by Ron McLarty, who managed to capture the nuances for nearly every character, from Ollie’s gravely tones, to the more educated Carella, the soft fluting of a Puerto Rican transvestite, the slight Irish brogue of his best girlfriend, the shattered growl of the black Viet Nam vet who is the witness to the murderer’s escape, and a bunch of other characters too numerous to mention.

There was never a moment’s doubt as to who was speaking, and the narrator’s voice was quite distinct from that of the characters. The tour de force was reading Ollie’s novel in a voice that sounded like it would be the sort of narrator that Ollie would create.

The ultimate compliment to pay this book is to mention that the teenagers who were travelling with me while I listened to it opted to hear the last installment (which I had already heard while driving around the city for two days) when I offered them the chance not to. They told me they really were curious as to how it all worked out.

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