Wednesday, February 23, 2011

McKee of Centre Street: Review

It's been a while since I've read a more straight-forward police procedural. McKee of Centre Street (1934) by Helen Reilly sounds from the frontispiece to be not only a very straight-forward police procedural, but one of the tough, mean street variety:

The line-up, the radio room, the morgue, the mysterious depths of the fingerprint department--all the varied and exciting activities of one of the greatest police departments in the world are in this startling new mystery. Not even Scotland Yard houses an organization of more deadly and ruthless efficiency than the gray stone building on Centre Street which is the headquarters of the New York police....In [this novel] you will meet Inspector McKee, tight-lipped, cold-eyed, a hunter of men and the most absorbing sleuth since Lieutenant Valcour; listen with him as the telephone call that is the first information in the case of the murdered dancer comes into Spring 7-3100; watch as he throws out swiftly the far-flung net for a subtle and brilliant killer.

The story revolves around the murder of Rita Rodriguez, a beautiful dancer in a high-tone speakeasy. The murderer takes advantage of the dim lighting, the audience's attention to the silver-clad beauty dancing on the stage, and the spotlight which oh-so-conveniently brings his target into sharp outline. Although the police are called in immediately by the ultra-alert spotlight handler, there are still fish which escape the net and it is McKee's job not only to sift through the statements of everyone still within the establishment, but also to try and discover who is missing.

When he is finished he's left with a small group of suspects. There is the missing waiter; the rich playboy, his wife, and step-son; the wife's very attentive friend, the colonel; the young woman found hiding in the phone booth; and the couple who can't quite decide where they were when the dancer fell to the floor. As he follows up their stories (and amended stories), he soon discovers that there are connections between the characters that lead back to the past....with blackmail and stolen emeralds lurking in the shadows.

What follows is a detailed account of how the police department of the 1930s operated. The reader follows closely on McKee's heels and is given what is described as "real inside information, high-pressure thrills, suspense." Reilly manages to deliver without boring the reader with those details. I had read other (later) mysteries by Reilly and was a bit disconcerted by the description of McKee as a tight-lipped, cold-eyed hunter of men. This didn't really connect with the McKee I had met in these later novels. Granted, this earlier version of McKee is a bit more steely and there is far more procedural detail given, but in the end he is the same detective I recall...showing a good deal of compassion and humanity in the closing scenes. Not quite the cold hunter of men that the blurb served up.

Reilly has constructed a mystery that kept me guessing. I didn't guess the solution, even though there was fair play with the clues. I
should have known who the culprit was. All-in-all a decent mystery. Not quite as good as The Silver Leopard (the first McKee I read), but a nice outing. Three and a half stars.


J F Norris said...

Another underrated American from the Golden Age. Both Helens - Reilly and McCloy - deserve a wider readership. Her two daughters grew up to write mysteries also - Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen. Dead Man Control is an interesting locked room murder mystery with Inspector McKee on the case.

Bev Hankins said...

John--you've read everybody! I think my new goal in life is going to be to find a vintage author you haven't got the goods on. :-)