King’s Ransom by Ed McBain
Originally published 1959
87th Precinct #10
Preceded by ’til Death
Followed by Give the Boys a Great Big Hand
For a wealthy businessman, a kidnapping puts him in a predicament as troubling as any he has ever experienced. For Detective Steve Carella and the men at the 87th Precinct, their troubles are even worse. Their only hope is that he will play ball—at least long enough for them to catch the perps before the kidnapping turns into a homicide.
King’s Ransom is the story of a businessman who is plotting to take over the firm he works for. We learn how he has been silently acquiring extra shares and that he has mortgaged everything he owns to enable him to buy enough extra shares to enable him to take over the company in one decisive move.
While he makes some final arrangements to send his assistant to complete the purchase he receives a phone call from a group of kidnappers who claim to have grabbed his eight year old son, Bobby, who had been playing outside with his chauffeur’s son, Jeff. The kidnappers demand hundreds of thousands of dollars for his safe return but when Bobby turns up, it becomes clear that they grabbed the wrong child…
I first became interested in reading this book nearly a decade ago when I first watched Kurosawa’s film adaptation, High and Low. That film remains one of my favorite crime movies ever and I had been curious to read the source material to see how faithful the film adaptation was and what new elements were introduced. A recent repeat viewing reminded me of that ambition and after failing to get through Cop Hater, I decided to ignore my typical discomfort at reading a series out of order to jump ahead to the book I most wanted to read.
One of the things that interests me most about this story are the choices that McBain makes about which elements he chooses to focus on. Perhaps the most striking example of this is that Jeff’s father remains largely in the background throughout the novel, only making one short but extremely memorable interjection. That is not only a strong storytelling choice in the way it forces so much emotion into a single moment, it also reflects that this story is about Douglas King as much as it is about the crime itself.
McBain further demonstrates this by his decision to reveal the identities of the kidnappers very early in the story. While we do not spend much time with them, we understand their motives and their reactions to the way their plan is unfolding. By giving this to us very early in the story, we are encouraged to instead see the moral debate about King’s responsibility for Jeff’s fate as its focus.
I should say at this point that this debate is not exactly evenly balanced. For pretty much every character in this book there is no question at all of what King ought to do. McBain emphasizes this by giving several of the other characters around him moments in which they critique him and urge him to become involved and save the boy.
On the other hand, McBain is also able to really give us a strong sense of exactly what the impact of paying that ransom would be on King. The moments leading up to the first ransom call for instance went into quite some detail about how he was overextending himself to grab this opportunity to buy a controlling interest in the firm. We also see that his rivals within the company are aware that he had this move planned, meaning that if he cannot close his deal then he will almost certainly be ousted and his career would be essentially over. Sure, he’s not in the right but when he argues it comes from a point of understandable desperation.
Although the events of the novel are obviously a consequence of the kidnapping, it seems fair to suggest that King’s Ransom is as much a piece of human drama or character study as it is a crime novel. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel are those passages in which we learn about his personal history. The story related to his marriage, for instance, gives us a clear motivation for him to place such importance on financial and career success and while I cannot say I liked him for this (or anything – the man is pretty cold and rigid), I did feel I understood the character better from those moments.
The other major character in the King household who makes a significant impact on the story is his wife, Diane. The discussions between this pair are not only hugely important to the development of the plot, they also do a great job of expressing and exploring the themes of the piece. I was also interested in some of the choices she makes in the course of this story which I think are both powerful and decisive.
The kidnappers are, in contrast, less developed as characters. We spend comparatively little time with them and of them really just two stood out as being more dimensional. I think that is fine considering that the details of the crime are largely designed as background material but those hoping for a juicy motive will likely be disappointed.
On a more positive note, there are some rather interesting ideas about using some technology that must have been fairly new at this time and I think McBain explains these well. Some of these ideas seem quite creative and I think they make an otherwise fairly mundane kidnapping case seem that little bit more exciting.
So, where does that leave me overall? Well, I think the plotting and the development of the novel’s key themes are superb. While I think it cannot reach some of the emotional heights of the movie High and Low such as its rushed ending (the movie has a more satisfying conclusion in my opinion), the book is so punchily written that I had great difficulty putting it down.
No doubt I will make a return trip to Isola soon and hopefully in doing so I will get to know the various detectives a little bit better.
The Verdict: A punchy read that develops some powerful themes well but its conclusion feels rushed.