Monday, October 4, 2010
Collecting the 87th Precinct Part 1 of 2
by Peter Enfantino
Thanks to the popularity of Ed McBain, acquiring a collection of the author’s works is as easy as logging on to Amazon.com. Most of McBain’s books remain in print through different publishers, but if you have time, patience and access to used bookstores, abebooks.com, and eBay, you might find more attractive McBain packages waiting for you. While the content of the books themselves remain, for the most part, unaltered, the art on the covers has changed as many times as McBain switched publishers.
In particular, the series of 87th Precinct novels has been graced with some of the most colorful and striking cover art ever produced for crime paperbacks.
For instance, the Perma editions of the first seventeen 87ths depict images just as stark and gripping as those found in the prose of the stories themselves. Perma (a division of Pocket) had the knack of latching onto some of the best cover artists in the business, including James Meese, Charles Binger, and Robert Schulz (all three artists also contributed cover art to many of the classic Gold Medal crime novels of the 1950s). The Perma books were also well constructed, as evidenced by the large number of copies to be found in good condition these days.
In the late 1960s, Dell released a series of eleven 87th reprints with mixed results. The illustrated covers evoke memories of the Permas and Manhunt Magazine (in particular, Dean Ellis’ gorgeous painting for He Who Hesitates), while the photo covers come off as cheesy knockoffs of the James Bond movie intros (the naked girl behind the handgun on See Them Die being the prime example).
Signet brought in the 1970s with an attractively packaged set of McBains, including most of the 87ths and a handful of the author’s novels under other pseudonyms. Again, these covers have the look of a 1950s crime novel and perfectly hint at the dreadful goings-on awaiting the reader inside. Unfortunately, someone at art direction got the bright idea of adding a window shade effect over the art in later printings.
The 1970s also saw a set of five paperbacks released by Ballantine, once again demonstrating that Ed McBain could draw out the best in nastiness from his cover artists. The Ballantines pushed the 87th line from neo-noir right into near-horror. Study the truck driver on He Who Hesitates or the battered Carella on Doll. Interestingly enough, when it came time to reprint these five books in the early 1980s, Ballantine, rather than simply reprinting the old covers, commissioned a set of sharp new paintings. The word “MCBAIN” set across the center of each cover perfectly complimented each grisly murder scene.
The best place to look for vintage McBains (besides the aforementioned sources) is a Paperback Collectors Show. Often held in large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, a well-run show will have plenty of dealers from across the United States, and it’s a good bet you’ll find those elusive Permas. Unfortunately, these shows seem to be a dying breed. Dealers find they can make vast amounts of money from their computer desks without hauling boxes of books to and from their mini-vans. Which brings us to...
The easiest way these days to fill in those blanks, of course, is that double-edged sword, the internet. Ed McBain was a best-selling novelist for quite a few years, so his print runs typically ran into the several hundred thousands. If you want McBain for his words and not the attractive packaging, Amazon.com can set you up with any of the current in-print titles published by Warner and Pocket, sporting unattractive and sometimes downright ugly covers. Take the case of Lady, Lady, I Did It for example. Signet’s first reprinting in 1976 is graced with a cover depicting the carnage of a double homicide in a bookshop. The victims are splashed with blood and 87th Precinct Detectives Carella and Kling are shown hovering above the bodies with grim looks on their faces. If you’re a crime fan, you know you’re going to read this book fast. Then there’s Signet’s later repackaging of the same title. A handgun resting on a book. That’s it. This could be Agatha Christie or Walter Mosely or Angela Lansbury maybe. The potential buyer has no clue as to the content of this novel, be it hardboiled, cozy, P.I., or whatever other offshoot of the crime genre. Big mistake. The one notable exception to this “happy meal” approach to the contemporary reprintings of the McBains is The Pusher, which includes an afterword by the author detailing the original climax to the novel. It’s a fascinating piece, and one that 87th fans can’t do without.
Whether you want to display that sharp Perma edition of The Con Man on your shelf or devour a dog-eared copy of the Dell Lady Killer you picked up at the flea market for two bits, the best thing about Ed McBain is that you can mix and match. Happy hunting!
The Collectible 87th Precinct Novels: The Perma Years
The following is a listing of the 87th Precinct novels published by Perma in the 1950s and 60s. Note that the five Permas that saw second editions all featured variant cover art.
(cover art: 1st: photo; 2nd: Robert McGinnis)
1956 The Mugger (M3061) (M4266, 2nd edition, 1962)
(ca: 1st: Lou Marchetti; 2nd: McGinnis)
1956 The Pusher (M3062)
(ca: Charles Binger)
1957 The Con Man (M3055) (M4264, 2nd edition, 1962)
(ca: 1st: James Meese; 2nd: McGinnis)
1957 Killer’s Choice (M3108) (M4267, 2nd edition, 1962)
(ca: 1st: Robert Schulz; 2nd: McGinnis)
1958 Killer’s Payoff (M3113, 1958) (M4265, 2nd edition, 1962)
(ca: 1st: Robert Schulz; 2nd: McGinnis)
1958 Lady Killer (M3119)
(ca: Charles Binger)
1959 Killer’s Wedge (M4150)
(ca: Darcy (Ernest Chiriaka)
Note: Killer’s Wedge was the first 87th Precinct novel to appear initially in hardcover (from Simon and Schuster).
1960 ‘Til Death (M4166)
1960 King’s Ransom (M4181)
(ca: Harry Bennett)
1961 The Heckler (M4218)
1961 See Them Die (M4229)
1962 Lady, Lady, I Did It! (M4253)
1963 The Empty Hours (M4271)
Note: The Empty Hours is a collection of 3 short 87th Precinct novels ("The Empty Hours," "'J'", and "Storm.").
1963 Like Love (M4289)
1964 Ten Plus One (M4304)
1965 Ax (Pocket 5001)
Note: While not a Perma, Ax sure looks like a Perma and Perma was a branch of Pocket, so…
TOMORROW: The Dells, The Signets, and The Ballantines!