From Book to Screen: King's Ransom
An 87th Precinct Mystery
by Ed McBain
Page numbers in the review are taken from the first Permabook paperback
printing, New York: Pocket Books, 1960.
This is a follow-up to a previous article on the Kurosawa film High and Low, which was adapted from this book.
Ed McBain’s novel King's Ransom is a hard-boiled detective story, the fifth book in the long-running series of 87th Precinct Mysteries. The novel tells the story of Douglas King, an industrialist whose son is kidnapped and held for random. Or so it seems – for the kidnappers had accidentally grabbed his chauffeur’s son Jeffry Reynolds.
Where the Kurosawa film was rather formalistic in style, the source novel is filled with colorful characters. Of course, a classic detective novel has to have a voluptuous female, and this book has Liz, a friend of King’s wife. This Liz is not just pretty; rather, she "had acquired over the years a figure which oozed S-E-X in capital letters in neon ... Even dressed for casual life in Smoke Rise ... sex dripped from her curvaceous frame in bucketfuls, tubfuls, vatfuls." (p. 21)
Yet however much the writing resembles that of dime-store novels, pulp fiction doesn't usually turn into a long-running series of two-dozen books. Aside from the sex and the Jewish New York detective (named Meyer Meyer!!!), the book also has an appreciation of the yearnings of ordinary people. One of the kidnappers, Eddie, is a luckless and somewhat dim-witted habitual thief who wants nothing more out of the kidnapping than to take his girl to Mexico to live in comfort. His girl Kathy is maternally protective of the boy Jeffry Reynolds, wanting to nurture and tend to him. She just wants Eddie to get clear of the mess he’s in.
In contrast, Douglas King is an unpleasant character who has clawed his way up from the storeroom to the boardroom, eliminating rivals left and right. The police spare no sympathies for his situation, and his own wife is disgusted with his refusal to pay the ransom. But his self-justifications carry a strangely compelling logic, and Liz accepts them nonjudgmentally. These characters are archetypes each with a twist. The blonde airhead gives off a glimmer of intelligence between the lines, the criminal has some sympathetic elements, the hero is a villain, and the scared kid turns out to be quite plucky.
I haven’t read any of the other 87th Precinct Mysteries, so I cannot say if King’s Ransom is typical of the series. The book definitely has much to recommend it. McBain has an eye for the details, especially in the amusing discussions that take place as characters shoot the bull, largely irrelevant to the plot but adding atmosphere. Descriptions of settings are picturesque and also somewhat intercalary in nature — they set the scene, give hints about future themes, and fill in the gaps between the narrative. McBain writes quirky and compelling observations of his characters, as though he were recording a first impression of someone he’d met in real life. Reynolds the chauffeur, for example, has "an almost tangible weakness ... Watching him, you felt you could reach out to touch a substance at once sticky and gelatinous." (p. 26)
Adaptation to film
King's Ransom is a fast-paced and enjoyable read, at under 200 pages. McBain’s reputation was already solid by the time he wrote this book. The first four books in the 87th Precinct series went straight to paperback, but King's Ransom was first issued in hardcover. In The New York Times capsule review of this book, Anthony Boucher writes: "Praise of a consistently admirable performer must get monotonous and even boring ... The book is powerful and compelling; and one looks forward to a dramatic version that might be even more so." (The New York Times, 6 December 1959, p. BR42)
I don’t think he had in mind a Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa! By “dramatic,” Boucher was probably thinking of the theatricality of the novel, which is largely set in two rooms, one in King’s house, and the other in the kidnapper’s hideaway. Indeed, it might be a fun stylistic exercise for a student filmmaker to attempt it as a black-and-white film noir detective thriller according to 1940s conventions. Hitchcock, who was nearing the end of his most acclaimed years, could probably have made a mediocre mystery out of it. (Interestingly, Evan Hunter, the man behind the Ed McBain pseudonym, wrote the screenplay for The Birds, released the same year as the Kurosawa film.)
Comparison to Kurosawa’s High and Low
Kurosawa’s film High and Low picks up on the theatricality of the scene in King's house, confining Kingo Gondo indoors to face business vultures and confront the kidnapper over the telephone. But Eijiro Hisaita's screenplay takes off in new directions by scrapping the scenes in the criminals' hideout and substituting an original police investigation and stakeout. In some ways, I like the novel better — the resoundingly cynical view of human nature is rather refreshing and adds to the noir atmosphere. The business deal is also more authentic in its informality, and the characters are more interesting with their eccentricities and a glimpse of backstory. However, the novel ends conventionally, with a ransom delivery and a shootout.
In the novel, the public is a nuisance to the investigation, waiting for juicy tidbits as though it were the Lindbergh kidnapping. The film is quite different, for the Japanese public is unfailingly helpful to the investigation, King is a much more sympathetic character, and the policemen are less hardboiled. The cynicism found in King’s Ransom was not a match for the optimistic and rising Japan that was just about to host the 1964 Summer Olympic Games a year later.
At the same time, the Kurosawa film introduces the heroin subplot, and delves much deeper into criminal depravity than does the novel. It sets up an entirely different dynamic, removes the conflict between the criminals, and adds to King's inner turmoil by giving him more of a conscience. What’s more, it elevates the role of class conflict in the theme by making Kingo Gondo an essentially good man who inspires jealousy through conspicuous consumption. When Kingo Gondo sets to work with hand tools to repair a suitcase, he drily remark, "Starting over already." For he would shortly be 10 million yen poorer after delivering the ransom.
King's Ransom and High and Low together illustrate of the different directions in which an essentially standard detective plot could be taken. Both are pretty good, but both are also perhaps not the best that they could be. King's Ransom does stick rather closely to pulp conventions, and High and Low is too formalistic for its subject matter. But both make you think, and that makes them both worth a look.