At Tipping My Fedora we like a challenge and so have decided to review each and every one of the 87th Precinct mysteries written by Ed McBain. A complete rundown of the 55 volumes in the series has been placed here together with links to the reviews. Let’s start at the beginning …
Cop Hater (87th Precinct series #1)
First Published: 1956
Leading players: Steve Carella, Lt. Peter Byrnes, Bert Kling, Teddy Carella (nee Franklin), Roger Havilland, Hal Willis, Sam Grossman, Danny Gimp
“The city lay like a sparkling nest of rare gems, shimmering in layer upon layer of pulsating intensity.”
In 1955 Evan Hunter, riding high from the success of his breakthrough novel of inner city conflict The Blackboard Jungle, signed a contract with Pocket Books for a trio of paperback originals. Using ‘Ed McBain’ as his pseudonym, he returned again to the urban sprawl of New York (more or less) but made a bold and innovative decision: to create a ‘corporate’ hero, embracing all the police officers of the 87th Squad. This would provide a much more flexible template that the overly rigid one popularised by Jack Webb as LA detective Joe Friday on the the hugely succesful radio and TV series Dragnet, which initially ran until 1959 and which regularly gets name-checked in the early books of the series. Although the first book has a fairly traditional leading man at its core, Steve Carella, he would be absent from the next one in the series. What is more, in this debut entry the plot is predicated around the idea that you really won’t know who the main character will be since it’s possible that they will get knocked off in a susprising plot twist!
As the title suggests, Cop Hater is a story in which policemen from the squad are being indiscriminately bumped off – or at least so it would appear at first. This provides some sharp shocks as McBain artfully creates some very well-rounded characters only to have them die a few chapters later, signaling that this is a book in which you will need to keep your wits about you. Unlike the bobbies on the beat bumped off in Philip MacDonald’s classic X v Rex, we get to know these men intimately before they are murdered so that although this a book with plenty of humourous incident, their demise can still be quite shocking.
“Is he in the city?”
“He’s in L.A.,” Willis said.
“Then we’ll leave him to Joe Friday,” Steve cracked.
It is a scorching hot July in 1956 in Isola, a city very much like Manhattan, even though the author’s disclaimer tells us that “The city in these pages is imaginary”. Geographically McBain is basically describing New York, only slightly askew, literally and metaphorically – as William D. DeAndrea put it, “… take a map of New York City and rotate it ninety degrees clockwise”. This has allowed the books to have a very specific and recognisable sense of place and yet one that is not going to be dragged down by reality when requirements for the books demand otherwise. This mixture of concrete and abstract, of detailed police procedure with good old-fashioned mystery plotting lie at the heart of McBain’s success with this series, and it is well in evidence right from his debut – this is a procedural, full of details of how the police go about their business and with facsimiles of official-looking documents, but this is also a cunning ploy so that this very wily author can craft a mystery in the style of Agatha Christie without you noticing until he shows his hand to reveal ‘whodunit’. In this story Steve and his partner Hank Bush investigate the murders of Mike Reardon and David Foster, two detectives from their squad. As the two were partners on many investigations the squad is soon reviewing all felons that may hold a grudge, leading in one case to a highly amusing and prolonged encounter at ‘Jenny’s’, an old style bordello, which with typical irony, McBain describes as fulfilling an important function in society:
“Jenny’s, to stretch a point, served the same purpose as the shower stall does in a honeymoon suite.”
The squad track down a number of false leads, some with amusing outcomes and some more tragic, meeting drug addicts, hatchet murderers, youth gangs armed with zip guns and collectors of all kinds of weapons. The job is made tougher by an intrusive and sensationalist press in the shape of a tabloid journalist named Cliff Savage, who not only puts Steve and his fiancee Teddy’s life in jeopardy but is also responsible for Kling getting attacked outside a bar and then shot in the shoulder when members of the ‘Grovers’ gang mistake him for the nosy reporter. The killings seem random as no pattern is found but eventually, after a third murder takes place, Steve finally catches a break when he picks up on the small but crucial point that all the murdered men were shot when they were out of uniform – so how did the killer recognise them?
Along with its teasing puzzle, this book also does a great job of introducing us to several mainstays of the series such as Carella’s fiance Teddy Franklin (they get married at the end of this book), his tough boss Lieutenant Byrne, the bully Roger Havilland, rookie patrolman Bert Kling and the charming and diminutive Hall Willis. In addition the men of the squad, and their families, such as Byrne’s son who will feature prominently in the third book, The Pusher, we also meet stool pigeon Danny Gimp, who gets treated a little roughly by Steve here – the two will become closer friends later on in the series. Other aspects of the books that will become very familiar is the attention to procedural detail and forensic science courtesy of the team’s regular lab technician Sam Grossman – here we learn about how to lift prints and how to make an impression of a shoe print left in a dog turd.
This novel was filmed not long after publication with Robert Loggia as Carella (or rather, ‘Carelli’) – physically an excellent choice though perhaps a little emotionally volatile for the part as created by McBain, who here is shown not only to be tough and intelligent but also a man of some intellectual acumen (he’s read Joyce’s Ulysses) and emotional sensitivity as he is able to easily connect with his wife-to-be even though she is a deaf mute. This 1958 adaptation of Cop Hater, with a screenplay by Henry Kane, was recently released on DVD in the US as part of the MGM on-demand range. It can be ordered through Amazon and the usual outlets. It was given a particularly detailed review by Clydefro Jones over at The Digital Fix.
This is a great introduction to the series and is, in every way, the best place to start.
As this one was published before 1960 it is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge.