Book Review: Jigsaw by Ed McBain

Apparently, I have some book reviews that I wrote during my last semester with Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction Master of Fine Arts program that I hadn’t posted. I found them while I was looking for some of my NaNo research. Jigsaw (mystery 176 pages) was a very different story than any we’ve read so far for this course. I think it’s the most realistic and the article from Classic Crime Fiction website about the “American Police Procedural” does a great job of discussing exactly why this story is so different from the Hound of the Baskervilles and the Murder of Roger Akroyd.

I saw during the discussion for this book an interesting correlation with the Saw movies, which I actually haven’t seen, but have been aware of the Jigsaw character for some time. I don’t know if maybe I subtly thought that maybe the Jigsaw character from the Saw movies might have been based somehow on this book or if my brain maybe wanted there to be a correlation which would have made this story a lot more like a psychological thriller with the police attempting to chase down a crazy serial killer. Obviously, that’s not even close to what we got with the book, as there was crazy mastermind intent on killing or torturing people.

The main focus of Jigsaw is not one white guy who has the intellectual genius of someone like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. The main focus isn’t another super spy white guy who is capable of blending with another culture after having his skin dyed and watching demonstrations of ninjustu like Bond. Nor is the main focus other white guys like Ned Beaumont and Philip Marlowe who are just trying to make a living and figure out things the Law isn’t capable of solving. Instead, Jigsaw demonstrates that it truly takes a team with solid resources to solve most complicated and mysterious murders. The main focus of Jigsaw is the team aspect of solving a case, just like the “American Police Procedural” website states.

I think the location of the money is the main mystery in this novel, for all that it started with a pair of dead bodies. The two murders in the beginning are very clear cut, especially when the results come back from the medical examiners office. I really liked how the book showed pictures of the pieces of the puzzle and how they fit together each time a piece was located and I also appreciated how it wasn’t just one, unrealistic character who worked to solve this case, but rather a true team effort. With today’s technologically advanced world, you have to have a variety of experts in different fields in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Splitting the main focus between Detective Arthur Brown and Detective Steve Carella and how each of their investigations applied pieces towards the over-arching mystery worked very nicely. One person wasn’t magically at the exact right time and the exact right place to witness key murders or watch the villains discuss their plans, but rather each member of the team applied research and took turns following each of the clues. This is by far more realistic than some of our previous readings where everything just sort of magically worked in the main character’s favor.

Speaking of character, I have to say that I really respected and appreciated Detective Arthur Brown. On page three, he talks about how he thinks he’s hilarious but no one else seems to think so and that made the character fairly endearing to me and I actually did find the same things amusing as he did, which helped me like this character. What’s not to like? He’s professional and very good at his job and dedicated both to his job and to his family, which is evidenced when he thinks about them throughout the story and in his interactions with his wife and daughter at the end. I also laughed out loud on page 169 when he scares the information he needed from Suzanne Endicott by playing to her stereotypes and as soon as she says what he needs, “She stared at him in disbelief. Where had the rapist gone? Who was this polite nuclear physicist standing in his place?” And then there was the pun at the end on page 171 where he tells Irving Krutch, “Now you’ve got the picture,” which amused me because this whole mystery was about finding pieces of a photograph in the form of jigsaw pieces.

The best part about addressing Arthur’s race is that it’s never used in a derogatory manner. It’s simply statements of facts and then using people’s own, built-in racial prejudice against them. While I don’t believe he’s exactly a perfect character, he’s definitely human. He’s a father and a husband and he has a life outside the police force, which makes him more relatable as a human being.

One of the things that kept the story moving for me was the amount of bodies associated with each piece of the puzzle. I think that added a lot of the ticking clock we’ve discussed before to this story, since many of those with pieces of the puzzle wound up dead. At the same time, though the ticking clock wasn’t really urgent because the 87th Precinct personnel didn’t realize the photograph pieces would get people killed until Albert Weinberg’s body was found. And then once Geraldine Ferguson was killed, no one else was really in danger because they had all the rest of the pieces of the puzzle.

One of the things that bothered me about this book, though, was the section from page 67 through the top of page 70 where a whole bunch of random and terrible things are mentioned in passing that have nothing to do with the plot of this story. I didn’t see any reason for a graphic rape, a random murder, and a spousal assault to be a part of this novel. None of those involved were characters in this story, it didn’t move the plot forward at all, and it served no purpose.

I noticed a few places where the writing was a little awkward or where I had to read a sentence again because of things like people being chased by the street. I actually didn’t even catch the name of the city, nor did I notice that it wasn’t a real city after all. I suspect that has something to do with the fact that I, personally, don’t like cities at all and that all cities are pretty much the exact same to me, no matter whether they’re based on a real place or a fictional environment. To me, this setting seemed exactly like every other big city I’ve ever been in or heard about. For that reason, I didn’t associate anything specific to what kind of city it might be or what kind of world the city might exist in. It seemed just like real life and reminded me of any number of cop shows and detective shows that try and show a case getting solved in a single day, which is completely unrealistic. Though, this book also did something similar with a very shortened time frame for solving the case.

What I usually do when I find a book that doesn’t particularly inspire me is try to look back to when the book was written and see if I can see the book through non-modern eyes. That’s helped me get through some of the books I haven’t really enjoyed and then I try and work through what makes these books popular from their time frames. I always try and pull something interesting or useful out of every book I read because, whether I enjoy the book or not, these folks are making money writing novels, which is ultimately my own goal (and I suspect the goal of most people in the program).

In some ways, this book seems to be a bridge between the private detective stories. I think I like stories like this better than the stories we read from Hammett and Chandler because I’m of the opinion that it should be the police working to solve these crimes so I’m happy when I get to read a story that is about team work and not about individual glorification.

I’m not really sure I found a ticking clock for this book, either, except for the murders associated with the puzzle. To me, the book did actually feel like Arthur and Steve were racing against someone to solve the puzzle first. It was obvious that someone else was working to get the puzzle solved outside the law and it was interesting to read about something more realistic, like how it actually takes more than one person and a variety of resources to actually solve crimes.

It’s my understanding that those in specialized fields have a very different dialect than someone who is not part of those specialized fields. I think this is true whether your characters are cops, doctors, lawyers, or basketball players. So I guess I didn’t really see the dialogue as not particularly authentic because most authentic dialogue wouldn’t be readily understood by “average” people. And this was also written at a time with different slang, different colloquialisms, and different idioms. What dialogue there was seemed very precise to me, which I guess I would expect out of police personnel.

Anyway, I liked how this book broke all the stereotypes. The main investigators throughout this story were family men who weren’t super human, and the main character was refreshingly not a white guy. They didn’t drink on the job, they had realistic consequences from received injuries such as when Arthur gets hit on the head and loses consciousness, and they didn’t smoke like a chimney.

The book was definitely fast paced and I read it very quickly and the actual puzzle piece pictures were both a good visual reference and a lot of fun.

Work Cited: Christie, Agatha. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. New York: William Morrow: Harper Collins, 2011. Print. Original Publication 1926.

McBain, Ed. Jigsaw. Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2011. Print. Original Publication 1970.

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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