King’s Ransom (1959) Ed McBain
87th Precinct #10
Originally published by Simon & Schuster, now published in over 30 editions
Most recent print publication - Thomas & Mercer paperback, 224 pages, 2013, ISBN 9781477805534
“Revenge isn’t sweet,” Carella said. “It’s only boring.”
Four years after King’s Ransom was published, the novel was adapted for the Akira Kurosawa crime noir High and Low (1963). But first things first.
King’s Ransom was the 10th entry in the popular 87th Precinct series of police procedural novels by Ed McBain (the pen name of Evan Hunter). That series lasted for 55 books spread out over nearly 50 years, beginning in 1956 with Cop Hater and concluding in 2005 with Fiddlers. All the books in the series feature a roster of regular detectives who come and go, but most feature Detective Stephen Louis “Steve” Carella, who has a prominent role in King’s Ransom, as we will get to in a moment. (Interestingly, like McBain, Kurosawa also used several of his own stock actors in High and Low.)
King’s Ransom opens with Douglas King, a wealthy businessman in charge of production at a major shoe company. King doesn’t have control of the company, but he will soon, that is, if his plan works. Tired of the out-of-date styles the old-school owner insists on producing, King and several of the company’s other executives are planning a takeover by secretly purchasing enough stock to make King the top shareholder. But King has two problems: the takeover is going to cost him a lot of money. Even worse, one of King’s execs is secretly working against him.
Then things take a turn for the worse. King’s son Bobby and his friend Jeff - the son of King’s chauffeur - are playing outside when King receives a phone call. Bobby has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers demand $500,000 for his safe return. Then Bobby casually walks into the King home, perfectly safe.
The kidnappers have the wrong child.
Since the chauffeur’s boy Jeff (whom the kidnappers think is King’s son) has been taken, will King still pay the ransom? If he does, he can kiss the takeover goodbye. King doesn’t want Jeff to come to any harm, but after all, Jeff’s not his son…
The novel soon transitions to the point of view of the kidnappers, so their identities aren’t the real mystery here. What keeps us reading is the high tension created by McBain and the inner struggle King is going through. Does he pay the money he’s already committed to the takeover for a boy who’s not even his? Jeff’s dad could never afford the ransom money. And then there's King’s wife, whose moral outrage at her husband’s indifference creates even further suspense.
King’s Ransom becomes as much a moral dilemma as a police procedural, but the crime element is strong as well, especially in watching how Detective Carella keeps his cool (or doesn’t) in dealing with King. The characters of the kidnappers are less well-developed and their motivations somewhat standard, yet taken as a whole, the novel is a tightly knit page-turner that’s quite satisfying.
If you’ve watched High and Low, I urge you to read King’s Ransom, then return to the Kurosawa film. While very similar in some aspects, I think you’ll find the movie (starring Toshiro Mifune as the executive) effective in its own right (and with a better ending). But I warn you: Don't be surprised if after reading King's Ransom you want to read the entire 87th Precinct series. I know I do.
This review is part of the 2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!
Next up: a biography of one of my favorite film noir actors.