"See Them Die" is pretty much why people read Ed McBain, a gripping, taut suspense yarn leavened by the odd moment of wit or insight to the human condition, and an array of characters, some recurring in other McBain novels, others here for only the one time.
Forget mystery; as the title says we are to witness to a couple of killings. We don't know who, only that we are getting a God's-eye view of a city neighborhood one Sunday in July, as police surround a tenement building where a killer named Pepe Miranda is holed up. The usual gang of detectives from the 87th Precinct is here, less in evidence than usual except for the most bull-headed bull, bad apple Andy Parker.
A big reason for McBain setting up the story so is to give us a close-up view of Isola's Hispanic community, who harbor mixed feelings about Miranda. Most see him as a killer, but many can't deny a certain sympathy for a fellow Latino up against the system. Given the novel was written in 1960, McBain demonstrates forward-thinking in addressing the problem of racism beyond the more obvious issue of blacks and whites. At times he comes off a little shrill as various Hispanic characters have assorted epiphanies about the wrongness of crime, but he individualizes the conflicts to each character and examines the difficulty of upholding community standards when you are perceived by some as part of the problem based on the color of your skin.
McBain draws you long before the shootout itself, with an extended scene in a coffee shop with a group of disparate characters, including the bigoted Parker, a Hispanic detective named Frankie Hernandez, the shop's law-abiding owner, a sailor looking for a good time, a girl who might offer him considerably more, and a gang of aspiring street hoods, some of whom are more foul than others. Words always fly more excitingly than bullets in a McBain novel, and they do here:
"This neighborhood ain't for clean-cut kids."
"You're liable to be, if you don't take my advice. From ear to ear."
People take turns offending each other, offering opinions, and moving the novel's focus into many odd alleys that hardly help the central focus but give you that feeling, familiar to 87th Precinct readers, of being in a real city rather than turning the pages of a book.
Like many early McBains, "See Them Die" has a simplistic plot, and there are odd bum notes here and there. The Hispanic characters all talk to each other in badly-accented English for some reason, and we learn that the police have come for Miranda with hand grenades and flamethrowers (!), an odd lapse for the world's leading police proceduralist to make. But like so many other of his books, you keep reading, and getting something unique on every page, an world-weary observation about society or nature or a bell-ringing insight into what makes a character tick. "See Them Die" makes for a solid addition to a terrific series.