Thursday 20 September 2018



This Big Bad Apple on Christmas Eve is no place for an orange grower from Florida. Especially when a blue-eyed blonde accuses him of stealing her diamond ring, a phoney detective rifles his wallet and a casual Good Samaritan makes off with his car.

For Michael Barnes, that is just the beginning of a nightmarish caper through the concrete jungle of downtown Manhattan. Not even Vietnam was this bad. Crazy killers, cops, actors, bimbos and million-dollar crack dealers are all out for his blood. Even the corpses can't be trusted.

But for an unexpected ally in the shape of Connie Kee, a beautiful and streetwise Chinese girl, Barnes stands next to no chance in these unfriendly precincts. He can guess the answers to every question but the one that might save his skin. Who the hell is Mama, and why does she so badly need him dead?

Downtown is a page-flashing Christmas cracker of a novel that sparkles with all the wit and tension that fans of Ed McBain have come to expect.

"McBain has a great approach, great attitude, terrific style, strong plots, excellent dialogue, sense of place and sense of reality. He's right where he belongs - at the top' Elmore Leonard

I have a lot of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series books to tackle, but unable to readily lay hands on the first in the series, I thought I'd give a standalone from him a twirl.

Downtown is a New York novel set over a period of a few days around Christmas. Out of towner, Michael Barnes gets ripped off in a bar and set up as a patsy for murder in our tale. With the assistance of a gorgeous Chinese chauffeur, Connie the pair charge around town in the snow, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery while falling in love with each other.

 A gay burglar, cross-dressers, actors, film directors, a chance to dress up as Santa, drug dealers, cop imitators, Chinese gambling dens, a stolen goods warehouse, police officers both real and fake, and a sniper all feature as Barnes and his girl win out in the end.

There's a smattering of humour throughout, not all of which worked for me - maybe some of it would only be fully understand by a native New Yorker and maybe some of it was topical and has lost its meaning in the near thirty years since this one first dropped. It didn't bump me out of the story though and there was enough that did resonate.

It's a slightly outlandish plot, but I was happy to enough to go with it, following in our two main characters' footsteps, getting a feel for the geography of downtown New York, moving from one witness to the next, one encounter to another, solving the puzzle.

As well as the lighter touch McBain illustrates, there were more than a few passages which gave pause for thought. Barnes is a Vietnam veteran and suffers flashbacks and PTSD over the loss of his best friend, Andrew who died in his arms. During critical moments in the present day shenanigans, McBain fuses the traumatic events of Andrew's death in with the current and it's pretty powerful stuff.

On a more common theme which I can more readily relate to, Barnes has mother issues.

"Poor woman had grieved for years after his father died.........."

and as a defense mechanism expected her son not to return from the war .......

Andrew. Died in his arms. Blood bubbling up on his lips. Michael had held him close. First and only time he'd ever cried in Vietnam. He wondered later if Andrew's mother had given away his clothes while he was gone. He wondered if Andrew's mother had told herself he was dead in preparation for the Defense Department telegram that would confirm her worst fears. Michael wished he could forgive his mother for looking so surprised to see him alive. Surprised and perhaps a trifle disappointed. He wished he could forgive the poor woman for giving away his blue jacket."  

4 from 5

Ed McBain aka Evan Hunter was fairly prolific in his writing career - a gazillion 87th Precinct novels and about a dozen in his Matthew Hope (lawyer) series as well as more than a few standalone books, as Hunter, McBain and other pseudonyms. He passed in 2005.

McBain's Driving Lessons was read back in 2014 - thoughts here.

Read in September, 2018
Published - 1989
Page count - 256
Source - owned copy
Format - paperback


  1. Glad you enjoyed this one, Col. McBain really was a skilled writer. I do hope you get the chance to try his 87th Precinct series. I think you'd enjoy it.

    1. Thanks Margot. I look forward to them, I think I tried them as a young adult and didn't get on with them - 35-40 years incubation time should do the trick!

  2. I had never heard of this one. I will have to look out for a copy, I like mysteries set in the holiday season.

    1. I think you would probably enjoy this one, Tracy.

  3. Hi Col! I had this one among a few Ed McBains I gave away when I moved office. I never read it, though. But it's on my mind, as are many of his other novels.

    1. Maybe you can be tempted to pick something else up by him, Prashant - and welcome back!

  4. Read a few by him, and every so often contemplate more, but there are just so many, I find it off-putting!