Thursday, March 10, 2011

DIAGNOSTIC: Blood Relatives - Ed McBain

So, here's another time where we sit down an analyse just what made a particular book work for me. Well, Ed McBain is an interesting author because he does so many things that should be wrong and that we've all been told not to do and somehow does it in a way that is not only forgivable but actually add to the character of the novels. He writes procedural crime fiction, generally from the Point of View (POV) of the detectives who work out of the 87th precinct (he has other series of novels but Blood Relatives is an 87th precinct novel so that's where we'll focus).

So what does he do wrong/right?

He breaks the POV rules: He writes with multiple POVs (generally only one per scene, though) though sometimes he drifts into an omniscient POV with a distinct author voice. Somehow, it works for him. I think part of the charm is that the omniscient POV is really interesting. I mean, really interesting. He'll use it to describe people and places in a way that is generally humorous in a sometimes dark / sometimes light way and it just really adds to the setting. The characters are rich and full creatures and he'll frame the entire scene through some of the omniscient drift.

Like this:

The average garbage can on any city street got battered and bruised within the space of a week because these men loved their work so much. (Some people insisted these men also loved the smell of garbage, but that was pure conjecture).

This is part of a few paragraphs that introduce a few garbage men, their conversation, and their daily rounds. The garbage men have a very small part to play in this novel. In truth, their entire job is, well, their job. They move trash from the kerb to a garbage dump and, in so doing, allow another minor character to find the diary. The omniscient tone keeps the scene lively and interesting and makes it seem somewhat important. It also satisfies the voyeur in me as it describes things more interestingly than the obvious options for the POVs.

Part of how it works for him is because of its structure. He a) doesn't head hop; b) generally only does it much with the minor POVs or criminals; and c) tends to do it at the start of the scene and then start narrowing it down to a particular character's viewpoint.

List-like Descriptions: This works because the POV characters are generally cops and therefore actually think in a more orderly fashion, because he varies the sentence length / structure, and because he generally slips in unexpected information. For example, he might slip in a bit of evidence that stands out more because of the orderly description:

The man was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, no tie. His hair was brown. There appeared to be bloodstains on the front of his white shirt.

Or because they give some interesting and additional information that tells you a lot about the person:

The fifth man who approached Kling's desk had black wavy hair and blue eyes. He was wearing a navy-blue jacket over a pale-blue sports suit. His trousers were a dark blue too, but they did not quite match the jacket. Jacket and trousers alike were crumpled, and there was a beard stubble on the man's face.

Where a less interesting author might write:

He had black wavy hair and blue eyes. He wore a navy-blue jacket over a pale-blue suit. His clothes were crumpled.

See the difference?


Well, hope you found that interesting. There's much more that Ed McBain does right but I'll leave it until I analyse another one of his books (which I will do). Does anyone have any suggestions for another book I should analyse?


  1. Sounds like McBain has a voice that sets him apart from other writers. One that you could recognize even if you didn't know who had written the book.

  2. Yeah, he really does. He can even pull off the Talking Heads syndrome where you have one person shooting off questions and the other giving answers in a very interesting and very fast-paced Q&A manner.

  3. Someone said you have to know the rules and be able to DO the rules, before you can break the rules.
    SO true.

  4. Part of it is also to know your genre, as well. I don't think Ed McBain's style would have worked out too well in the fantasy genre but it really captures the mood of a procedural crime novel.

  5. Ed McBain was a grand master. I stumbled onto his writing only last year, I'm ashamed to admit, and have been working my way through his epic body of work.

  6. I own at least 12 of his books and I'm slowly trying to get them all.