RARA-AVIS: Jonathan Craig

From: abc@wt.net
Date: 07 Aug 2002

Dragnet probably spawned plenty of fictional procedural series, but two of the best were published as paperback originals. You all know about one of them, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, which eventually went into hardback and is still going on. The other one began about a year before McBain's, and hardly anyone remembers it. Too bad, because it's a good one. The author was Jonathan Craig, and the series is set in a (named) New York City. The main characters are two homicide cops, Pete Selby and Stan Rayder. They work out of the 6th precinct, and most of their cases (I think there were 10, all for Gold Medal) are in Greenwich Village. The book I picked to re-read (for no particular reason) was CASE OF THE PETTICOAT MURDER (1958).

The book opens, as nearly every Selby/Rayder case with the discovery of a beautiful nude murder victim. It proceeds with very little action but a lot of attention of details
(both of forensics and of regular police routine). And with plenty of cross examination by Selby. Craig was really good with dialog, and the story moves right along. Like all the crimes Selby and Rayder get involved with, this one has plenty of sexual overtones. Here's Selby: "People do weird things for sexual enjoyment; strangling themselves and others is only one of them. The idea, of course, is to stop just the other side of climax and just this side of death; but by the time that point is reached, the victim is often in such a state of excitement that he no longer recognizes it. In our years together, Stan and I have cut down a lot of them: men dressed in women's clothing, girls with their bodies coveredwith obscene words written in lipstick, men and women with their stomachs bristling with needles or forearms livid with cigarette burns." Pretty strong stuff for 1958. (Trust me; I was there.) But at the same time, there's Gold Medal's apparent ban on the grosser body-function words. One character, for example, is "peed off."

If you read several Selby books in a row, there would probably be a sameness about them, but I highly recommend at least one. Why didn't they hit the big time like McBain's books? One reason was almost certainly Craig's decision to write in the first person. He doesn't have the big cast that McBain does. And of course McBain's plots are a lot more varied.

Bill Crider

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