Right from the opening page, an almost surreally cinematic description of a bloody girl running toward a police station in the rain, you realize you are in for a solid 87th Precinct crime novel. And you are. Published in 1975, 20 years into the run of the series, "Blood Relatives" plunges you into the middle of one of Ed McBain's most vividly realized stories.
Seventeen-year-old Muriel Stark is slashed to death in the hallway of an abandoned tenement, her murder witnessed by her cousin Patricia. But Patricia's story gets more complicated, and the 87th Precinct detectives find themselves hunting up several different alleys to solve the crime.
At his best, McBain produced not mysteries or simple story yarns but colorful and diversely-patterned mosaics, where, as in real life, varied and disconnected elements of city life came together in the course of a routine investigation never anything close to routine. A drunk who slaps his wife around, a hobo who imagines himself king of the city and visits junkyards to examine his tribute, an amiable bank manager who shares his name with a radio-age superhero are all elements meaningless in isolation that come alive as the stuff of life and death in McBain's hands.
Police work, too, is described in a way both authentic and entertaining, like when he steps away from the story for a moment to note the peril of policemen trying to ape Baretta. "Television cops were dangerous. They made real cops feel like heroes instead of hard-working slobs."
McBain's doesn't let you forget about the central crime or sundry other atrocities the detectives of the 87th must deal with. He just delivers in such a way that you get used to it all the way they do, "keeping the old aspidistra flying" as he puts it and making you feel a part of their strange brotherhood. There's more than the usual amount of police business in this police procedural, with McBain explaining the rules of homicide investigation (if a case isn't solved in the first 24 hours, it is as likely to be solved by chance as by detection thereafter) and why you can't smoke at a crime scene, even in 1975.
The mystery itself is one of McBain's better ones, too, one that keeps you guessing as you read though not thinking much about it after. I could have done without the device of a diary that gives away many of the secrets. I'd rather have had 50 more pages of sleuthing. Alas, he wasn't yet writing 400-page installments of the 87th series, though this has more story than some of those later volumes.
"Blood Relatives" is overall a solid, worthy effort that presages many of his great 87th Precinct novels of the 1980s, with its singular vitality and depth. Read this, and you will come back for more.