The First Deadly Sin (1973), by Lawrence Sanders, is why I love police procedurals. It’s probably why I write them. I read the story my first year in college on a break between terms. Sanders’ characterizations of the cop, the killer, the conspirator, and the victims blew me away. His characters were so unlike anyone I had ever known or read about. The details were so intimate that I completely lost my sense of self at times while I was reading. It was one of the first and only books in which that happened for me.
The novel was called “shocking and boldly original” when it first came out. It was labeled a “psychosexual thriller,” and some reviewers say it set the standard for all the psychological thrillers to follow. After five months on the New York Times Bestseller List, The First Deadly Sin was still at number five. Eventually, it was made into a movie that most people agree was badly casted and not worthy of the novel.
Sanders’ writing in this first book (in what would become a series) is precisely crafted, beautifully detailed, intellectual, and leisurely, unlike many of today’s mysteries and thrillers (including my own) that rush along to a tumultuous ending. If your only exposure to Lawrence Sanders’ work is the Archy McNally series, which he developed late in his career, put that out of your mind. Because this novel--and the other Deadly Sin/Edward X. Delaney stories--is so different from that series, it’s almost as if they had different authors.
The First Deadly Sin is not a traditional mystery. The reader knows the killer, Daniel Blank, from the beginning. This tale’s suspense is built in the pitting of one man against another, good against evil. You turn the pages quickly, eager to know even more about each man, what he will do next, and who will triumph in the long run.
Although Daniel Blank is evil, he is not sadistic. He doesn’t want his victims to suffer, and he’s disturbed when one of them lies in the hospital for days before he dies. In fact, Blank loves his victims for the joy they give him (“he felt that sense of heightened intimacy, of entering into another, merging, so far beyond love that there was no comparison”). Blank is a fascinating study of a killer who is intelligent and compassionate, meticulous in the details of how he lives, sexually adventurous, and ultimately twisted. Naming him “Blank” is a clever mischaracterization, for the slayer in these pages is anything but a blank slate.
Sanders does equal justice to New York Police Captain Edward X. Delaney (previously introduced in 1969’s Edgar Award-winning novel The Anderson Tapes. His characterization is so perfect, that for me, Delaney will always be the ultimate homicide investigator. His tenacity, intelligence, compassion, and humanity set the bar for all subsequent investigators to reach. Sanders wrote The First Deadly Sin in an era before it was common to give detectives and FBI agents serious character flaws, and Delaney has none, save an occasional smart-ass comment.
He’s also more than just a great investigator. He’s a family man, who tenderly cares for his sick wife, Barbara, and a dedicated detective who takes on a case while on leave of absence. In addition, Captain Delaney is the first male investigator I encountered--back in the ’70s--who truly respected women. At one point, Sanders writes:
He wished with all his heart he could discuss this with Barbara, as he had discussed every important decision in his career. He needed her sharp, practical, aggressive, female intelligence to probe motives, choices, possibilities, safeguards. He tried, he strained to put himself in her place, to think as she might think and to decide as she might decide.There were so many things I admired about the protagonist that I’m a little ashamed to confess that whenever I visualize Delaney, I see him standing at the kitchen sink, eating a sandwich made of rare roast beef, red onion, beefsteak tomato, and garlic-spiced mayonnaise. He stood at the sink, because his creations were often messy and he was a man on the move.
Yet Delaney’s investigation is not perfect. Daniel Blank kills three men, including a police officer, before the investigator discovers his identity. Even then, Delaney does not have the evidence to prove anything. So he taunts the killer, first by coercing the widow of one of Blank’s victims to call him, then by contacting Blank directly. The psychological tension in the final pages is nerve-racking.
This novel is not for everyone, but readers who enjoy great writing, carefully developed characters, and a story that slowly, steadily pulls them in deeper and deeper should read, or re-read, The First Deadly Sin. I also recommend the story to writers as a model for some of the best characterization they’ll ever encounter.