Killer's Payoff veers from the ensemble feel of the previous novels by adhering strictly to one crime, in this case the murder of a blackmailer. The lack of any secondary criminal investigations taking place in the background doesn't take away from McBain's usual layered narrative, as extra time is well spent exploring all of the different paths an investigation can take simultaneously, especially in a case complicated by victims that are as secretive than the criminals themselves. How do you track down and interrogate suspects to a blackmailer's murder, when even the innocent ones have something to hide?
The drama isn't as intense as in previous novels, which might explain the novel's absence of side stories to lighten the mood. Since the victim of the case is a criminal himself, the lack of sympathy allows for a lighter approach to the narrative that keeps the mood hovering between serious and humorous. The overall effect is that this installment comes off more like a straight Mystery novel, which can either be viewed as a welcome break in the series format or an unfortunate lapse in the author's recognized style.
Carella and Hawes take up the main brunt of the detective work, with Kling and Meyer doing their fair share, while Willis and Brown pull backup duty with minor roles such as stakeouts and wiretaps. Hawes actually spends a good portion of the novel flying solo, making up for earlier trangressions while gaining a reputation as a rather effective ladie's man by bedding a series of beautiful witnesses and strangers, offering a welcome change of pace from the serious love lives of Kling and Carella. McBain's stable of characters also grows beyond the precinct, as sympathetic informant Danny Gimp and the ex-husband of the previous novel's murder victim each lend a hand.