I hate to keep harping on this same subject, writers and their styles, but again in re-reading some of McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, I’m struck by the quality of his writing. And even knowing that he was primarily a pulp writer, grinding out book after book for the paperback trade, I can chart the improvements in his writing from the early ones to the last, the quality growing past even the more literary writers of the day. I’m now reading for the third time Widows, published in 1991. Carella has just lost his father, killed in a nighttime robbery in his bakery, and in his grief he thinks back to times when he was a young man in the old neighborhood. He remembers Margie Gannon and his first encounter with Margie’s freckled breasts. He and Margie were at her home, reading comic books together, Margie’s parents away for the afternoon, an August rainstorm outside. This passage expresses adolescent desire better than anything I’ve ever read, and more masterfully written than most writers could do.
“He could not remember now which comic they were reading. Something to do with cops and archcriminals? He could not remember. He remembered what she was wearing, though, still remembered that. A short, faded blue-denim skirt and a white, short-sleeved blouse buttoned up the front. Freckled pretty Irish face, freckled slender arms, freckled everything, he was soon to discover, but for now there was only the tingling thrill of her silken hair touching his cheek. She reached up with her left hand, brushed the hair back from her face. Their cheeks touched.
It was as if an intensely sharp light suddenly spilled onto the open comic book. Not daring to look at her, he concentrated his vision on the brilliantly illuminated pages, alive now with pulsating primary colors, red and blue and yellow outlined in the blackest black, focused his white-hot gaze on the action-frozen figures and the shouted oversized words, POW and BAM and BANG and YIIIIKES!
He turned his face toward hers, she turned her face toward his.
Their noses banged.
Their lips collided.
And oh, dear God, he kissed sweet Margie Gannon, and she moved into his suddenly encircling arms, the comic book POW-ing and BANG-ing and sliding off her knees and falling to the floor with a whispered YIIIIKES as lightning flashed and thunder boomed and rain relentlessly drilled the sidewalk outside the street-level living room. They kissed for he could not remember how long. He would never again in his life kiss anyone this long or this hard, pressing her close, lips fusing, adolescent yearnings merging, steamy young passions crazing the sky with blue-white flashes, rending the sky with blue-black explosions.
His hand eventually discovered the buttons on her blouse. He fumbled awkwardly with the buttons, this was his goddamn left hand and he was right-handed, fumbling, fearful she would change her mind, terrified she would stop him before he managed to get even the top button open. They were both breathing audibly and hard now, their hearts pounding as he tried desperately to get the blouse open. She helped him with the top button, her own trembling hand guiding his, and then the next button seemed to pop open magically or possibly miraculously, and the one after that and oh my God her bra suddenly appeared in the wide V of the open blouse, a white bra, she was wearing a white bra.
Lightning flashed, thunder boomed.
He thought Thank you, God, and touched the bra, the cones of the bra, white, her breasts filling the white bra, his hand still trembling as he touched the bra awkwardly and tentatively, fumbling and unsure because whereas he’d dreamt of doing this with girls in general and Margie Gannon in particular, he never thought he would ever really get to do it.
But here he was, actually doing it—thank you God, oh Jesus thank you—or at least trying to do it, wondering whether he should slide his hand down inside the bra, or lower the straps off her shoulders, or get the damn thing off somehow, they fastened in the back, didn’t they? Trying to dope all this out in what seemed like an hour and a half but was only less than a minute until Margie moved out of his arms, a faint flushed smile on her face, and reached behind her, arms bent, he could see the freckles on the sloping tops of her pretty breasts straining in the bra as she reached behind her to unclasp it, and all at once her breasts came tumbling free, the rain kept tumbling down in torrents, and oh dear God, her breasts were in his hands, he was touching Margie Gannon’s sweet naked breasts.
He wondered what had ever become of her.”
I rest my case.