Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom and Staging in Triangles

Grant Tracey

In Frank Hauser and Russell Reich’s Notes on Directing, they suggest staging scenes in diagonal lines and triangles. Two actors on stage is a single relationship, but add a third and suddenly audiences are in the midst of seven relationships (one for each pairing; one for each pairing up against a third character; and one for the entire ensemble). Moreover, spacing among the principals of a triangle creates psychological tensions and possibilities for physical maneuvers.

They also recommend distance between characters, lots of distance.

But what if a crime writer creates a destabilized triangle and then repeatedly opens one of the triangle’s sides, a character exiting the setting, but that character is never really gone, their absence is a structured presence, an ongoing mood of destabilization?

This is what Ed McBain accomplishes in his 87th Precinct thriller/procedural King’s Ransom.

The premise: Sy Barnard and Eddie Folsom accidently kidnap the wrong kid, eight-year old Jeff Reynolds. They had wanted to “snatch” Bobby King, but take the chauffeur’s kid instead. No matter, Sy says, Bobby or Jeff, who cares, we’re still going to demand $500,000 in ransom from Donald King, a board member for Granger Shoes. After all, Jeff is Bobby’s best friend, and Jeff’s father works for King. Think of the bad publicity King will garner, Sy reasons, if he doesn’t pay.

McBain has amped up the story’s urgency: this is life or death stakes.

Kathy, Eddie’s wife, is opposed to the whole thing, and thus the triangle’s psychological parameters are set, its destabilizing condition put in motion.

In chapter five, after luring Jeff to the Sand Spits tarpaper farmhouse, Sy takes the eight-year-old to a back room to show him a “real gun.” While they’re offstage, Kathy talks sense to Eddie. Eddie refers to the abduction as “to borrow a kid,” but she doesn’t let him rest easily, with his half-hearted rationalizations. Instead, she warns, they could all get the electric chair. While attempting to change her husband’s course of action, Kathy is painfully aware of Sy’s menacing present-absence, glancing periodically at the door Sy and the kid are shut in behind. “What’s Sy doing to him in there?”

McBain has amped up the story’s urgency: this is life or death stakes.

In chapter eight, Sy once again is offstage, shaving, the bathroom door closed. Kathy returns to working Eddie’s conscience. Eddie insists that they ought to trust Sy, he knows what he’s doing, and Kathy, twice, snaps back, “He wants to kill that boy.” Eddie, dreaming of a better life in Mexico, refuses to budge. Point blank, she asks, where do you stand, “I have to know,” and Eddie refuses to answer, heading outside for a fresh pack of smokes.

The tension of the scene is doubled: will she finally win Eddie over to her position, and what if Sy, behind that closed door, is listening in, aware of her attempted coup?

As Eddie continues rummaging the car for smokes,  McBain shifts to another triangle, Kathy and Jeff versus her offstage husband and Kathy and Jeff versus the presence behind the door, Sy. She turns to the sofa bed, once again looking off at the closed bathroom door, and promises Jeff, “I’m taking you out of here.”

As the boy delays, retrieving his unloaded but treasured “real gun,” Kathy continues looking at the closed door, wary of the sudden violence lurking. Eventually, the open side of this particular McBain triangle is closed off as Sy re-appears and catches them making a break. “Where do you think you’re going?”

McBain now shifts our attention to the absence of Eddie: what might he do if he were to discover Sy roughing up his wife? Sy barks at Kathy to take off her coat, “before I rip it off!” He flashes a switchblade, threatening her with the knife’s tip, “You try anything else like this you’re going to need plastic surgery.” Then he possesses her, caressing her arm, telling her to be “real sweet” from now on. The threat of rape fills his actions.

Eddie returns and Sy and Kathy keep their showdown (his threats; the attempted escape) a secret, and McBain slides into the menace of double-voiced dialogue. Sy: “‘There ain’t nothing going to foul up this job.’ His eye caught Kathy’s. ‘Nothing,’ he repeated.”

How are all these secrets, silences, and psychological nuances going to play out, how will McBain close off the dynamics among the three principals?

In chapter 12, Eddie is once again the triangle’s open side as he runs to the market to get cookies and hot chocolate (Jeff is chilled from being holed-up in a drafty old farmhouse). While Eddie’s gone, Sy attacks Kathy, flashing his switchblade, slashing her sweater. Suddenly the boy, launches himself at Sy, landing on his back “with the ferocity of a wild cat.” Jeff has taken a shine to Kathy because she has been his protector. Within seconds, Eddie returns, knocking at the door, but before they let him in, Sy forces Kathy’s silence: “You say a word of this to Eddie [. . .] the kid is dead.”

How are all these secrets, silences, and psychological nuances going to play out, how will McBain close off the dynamics among the three principals?

Thus far Kathy failed to change her husband’s actions and to save the boy.

But she’s the destabilizing condition within the original triangle, and she will bring about change.

The novel’s climax contains three planes of action, a series of cinematic crosscuts: Sy waits in an assigned location for the ransom drop; Eddie, with Kathy over his shoulder, works the radio transmitter, telling King, via a car phone, where to make the drop; King with Detective Steve Carella on board, heads to the location.

As King and Carella approach the drop, getting instructions from Eddie, Kathy seizes control of the broadcast, giving away Sy’s location. Unable to talk sense into her husband, Kathy has found a way to save him from himself, by turning his technologies against himself.

King and Carella subdue Sy and the police rescue Jeffrey.

Because of Kathy and Eddie’s kindness, Jeff refuses to identify Sy’s accessories to the police, swearing Sy acted alone.

Sy, too, true to his gangland roots, refuses to name names. He’s no rat. He claims to have acted alone.

Thus, with his crosscut triplets, McBain returns to his ongoing narrative pattern of 2 v 1 suspense and psychological nuance, and the third side of his final triangle remains open.

Eddie and Kathy aren’t apprehended.

They aren’t closed off. Their journeys continue.


Ted Morrissey

Grant Tracey has been an editor at the NAR for nearly twenty years. He’s the author of the Hayden Fuller mystery series. The third  book in the series, Neon Kiss, will be coming out in 2020 from Twelve Winters Press.


Header image by Sheila Sund