(Editor’s note: This is the 110th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Richard L. Pangburn, a resident of Bardstown, Kentucky, and the author/editor of a trio of out-of-print books on Native American genealogy. He has been reviewing books on the Web since 1995 for Amazon, the Cormac McCarthy Society Forum, the now-defunct Readerville, and other sites.)
Ed McBain’s 2001 novel, Money, Money, Money, which begins on Pearl Harbor Day, is a story that bridges the gap between the literary and his customary thriller/police procedurals. I think it was his best book.
It is a prophetic novel in many ways, having first been published in August 2001, not long before the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.. It is a book with the right title, in a very literary way describing the greed and addiction that afflict the American way of life. It also contains naturalistic symbols and, since the story stretches into Christmastime, McBain makes some darkly humorous holiday allusions as well.
Money is an 87th Precinct novel (the 51st in that series), but the focus in its opening pages is on a young woman, Cassandra Ridley, a veteran pilot in the first Iraq War, who’s now working as a messenger, flying a suitcase full of cash into a desolate canyon in Mexico, which she’ll exchange for a suitcase filled with cocaine.
She has already made some $200,000 for this, her fourth such trip, and the Mexicans give her a $10,000 bonus in cash. Returning to her home in the city (McBain’s not-too-disguised New York), she carefully launders her earnings through different bank accounts. But with her bonus money, Ridley buys herself a few nice things, including three genuine animal furs. Later, while wearing one of those coats, she crosses a picket line of animal-rights activists, cursing their cause.
That act earns her some very bad karma.
It isn’t long before a small-time burglar, one Wilbur Struthers, breaks into Ridley’s apartment to steal her furs. While there, he discovers her stash of thousands of dollars in bonus money. So excited is Struthers at making this big a haul, that he unknowingly drops his prescription reading glasses, in their case, and leaves them behind in her flat.
Not surprisingly, the lady is quite put out when she finds her furs and cash missing. She calls the police, who fill out a routine report, not inspiring confidence. But then she comes across those abandoned spectacles on her floor. Ridley uses them to track down the thief, confronts him at his home with her gun, and retrieves her furs and most of the dough. What she doesn’t know, though, is that Struthers has been confronted by the Secret Service, because he passed a counterfeit $100 bill in a bar--part of the bonus drug money he’d filched from Cass Ridley.
The next chapter begins with McBain’s series main protagonist, Detective Steve Carella, and his colleagues at the 87th Precinct, being called out to the local zoo, where a naked woman has been found half-eaten in the lions’ domain. McBain provides here some grisly naturalistic details--all in good fun, I think.
The lady being obviously dead, there ensues a debate over what to do with the animals--liberals among the zookeepers want to save them, but the conservatives at police headquarters send a SWAT team out with orders to shoot the lions en masse. But before the paramilitary guys show up, one of the lions, ineffectively shot with a tranquilizer dart, charges Carella, knocking him down and pressing on his shoulders, the animal’s face close enough that the cop can smell its breath, the breath of death. The lion appears ready to grab onto Carella’s head, when it is finally killed by Oliver Wendell “Fat Ollie” Weeks, another of the regular cops in McBain’s series.
Carella is shaken by this incident, but the lion is just a symbol of what really shakes him in these pages. McBain makes good use of psychology and literary nuance. Carella’s father has recently passed, and Carella is just now, in this book, trying to come to grips with his own mortality.
Some readers have complained on Amazon’s Web site that nice guy Steve Carella steps out of character in Money, becoming a workaholic and coming down too hard on his family. I disagree. His character is consistent with someone who’s going through such a midlife crisis, and I thought the author handled it well.
By the way, the counterfeit money in this story comes straight out of history. During the mid-20th century, the United States had sold its political puppet, the last Shah of Iran, money-making presses that were identical to those that produced greenbacks for the U.S. Mint. After the shah was deposed in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries went ahead and printed their own U.S. dollars, “super-bills,” which pumped billions into the struggling American economy.
The balance of this book details the investigation into the death of that woman--obviously, drug-runner Cass Ridley--in the lions’ den. It leads the 87th Precinct detectives first to a terror cell of Arabs busily planting a bomb in the city, and then on to the trail of money from them to Mexican drug smugglers, as well as the pipeline of drugs moving from Mexico into the big-city ghetto. One of the main adversaries here will remind you of psychopath Anton Chigurh, from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, but the complicity of evil exists at all levels.
McBain goes on to use the lion-motif as a symbol of naturalism in this novel. At the end, that lion appears as a Dick Cheney-like character spouting a diatribe about how ends justify the means for the CIA, and how the American people favor pre-emptive killing in order to quell their fears of being killed. (In other words, they allow fascism to be pressed upon them in a misguided attempt to escape the terrors of fascism.) It’s a heavy message, but getting to that point brings the reader plenty of laugh-aloud humor.
Money, Money, Money is both a parable and a police mystery/thriller. That the book is so frequently overlooked may be due to its literary nuances and the timing of events.