Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Ed McBain’s work has had a profound effect on crime fiction. His 87th Precinct series influenced Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Aaron Elkins and Lawrence Block among many other authors. And when the US television series Hill Street Blues first aired, the French press billed it, “Ed McBain comes to television!” There are a lot of other authors too whose work’s been inspired by McBain’s and this feature would be much less without a look at one of his novels. So today, let’s take a closer look at the first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater.
As the novel opens, police detective Mike Reardon is shot while on his way to work at the 87th. Because he’s a cop, the case is pursued vigourously right away. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Hank Bush are called to the scene and immediately get to work. They find out the kind of gun used in the murder (a .45 calibre gun) and take that as their starting point. They’ve got some leads at first but they don’t get very far. Then, David Foster, another 87th Precinct cop and Reardon’s partner, is shot while on his way home from his shift. Now it looks as though someone’s got a vendetta against these two cops. So Carella and Bush look into all the cases that Reardon and Foster had to see who might use a .45 calibre gun and who might be willing to go after them. Each lead they get though seems to fade away as all of their suspects can account for themselves. Then, there’s another cop murder – this time of a detective who didn’t work cases with Reardon and Foster. Now it looks as though the cop killer is a maniac who wants to murder detectives.
In the meantime, Carella has other problems. The cops’ murders have made big news, and a reporter named Savage wants to get as many headlines as he can. He pursues a line of his own, despite Carella’s telling him to let the police solve the case, and for his trouble gets yet another cop wounded. As the case wears on, Carella and the team get little leads here and there, but they don’t know whether the killer is a gang member, a drug dealer with a personal grudge or a psychopath who wants to murder cops. The only problem with that last theory is that none of the victims was in uniform when he was killed. That means the killer had to know the detectives and that makes things all the worse.
Finally, Carella and the team get a break. The last detective to be murdered had enough presence of mind to give the team some forensics clues. When those clues show up after the forensics team does its job, Carella is finally put on the right track. In the end, he finds out who really killed the three cops and why those detectives died.
This is of course a police procedural. The murders are solved by putting evidence together, making sense of what witnesses and suspects say, determining who’s lying and who’s telling the truth and so on. McBain gives readers an “inside look” at life in a police precinct too. There are meetings with Carella’s boss Lieutenant Byrnes, there are other cases the police work, and there’s the routine of interrogation, precinct meetings and so on.
We also see the camaraderie and bantering of police work. For instance, when Reardon’s body is discovered, the Homicide cops who are first called to the scene do the preliminary work while they wait for the detectives. Here’s the conversation they have with Carella and Bush when they arrive:
“‘If it ain’t Speedy Conzales and Whirlaway,’ the second Homicide cop said. ‘You guys certainly move fast, all right. What do you do on a bomb scare?’
‘We leave it to the Bomb Squad,’ Carella said drily.
‘What do you do?’
‘You’re very comical,’ the Homicide cop said.
‘We got hung up.’
‘I can see that.’”
There’s also a dark sense of humour woven through the novel. Here, for instance, is a bit of conversation between Carella and Bush one morning. Bush says,
“‘Any new corpses today?’
‘Pity. I’m getting so I miss my morning coffee and corpse.’”
The reader gets the strong impression that that dark humour is one way in which these cops cope with what they have to see and with the frightening reality that someone may be out there targeting them.
Despite the humour though this isn’t a light novel. Many people have classified this series as noir, and I can see why. Carella is under no illusions about what the city in which the precinct is located is like. Several of the characters are “down and out,” and readers get the feeling that no matter what Carella and the rest of the 87th Precinct do, crime’s going to go on anyway and the criminals they catch aren’t going to change their ways. When we find out who murdered the three detectives and why, we find that the reason is bleak and senseless by most people’s definitions (and no it’s not a psychopath who likes to kill cops).
There’s an interesting element in the novel too of blurred lines between good and bad. For instance, one of the sympathetic characters in the novel is a madam named Mama Luz who runs a brothel. Carella and a rookie named Kling go to Mama Luz’ place to talk to a possible suspect and Mama Luz greets Carella like an old friend:
“‘You come on a social call?’ she asked Carella, winking.
‘If I can’t have you, Mama Luz,’ Carella said, ‘I don’t want anybody.’”
One of the more unsympathetic characters is Savage, who claims he’s helping the police by doing his own investigation, and actually ends up getting a cop shot. He’s not a criminal but he lies, twists words out of context and in other ways proves he is untrustworthy. There are other characters too who show the wisdom of the adage about books and their covers.
Woven through the novel also is Steve Carella’s relationship with Theodora “Teddy” Franklin. Their marriage figures prominently in several of the books and it’s in fact one of the more successful marriages in crime fiction. This is the novel in which we meet Teddy and learn how their relationship started. It’s obvious that they love each other very much and that’s one of the bright points of an otherwise sad novel.
A final note is in order about the weather in this novel. A heat wave has struck the city and since this story was written before air conditioning was common, most of the characters suffer greatly in the heat. That includes the police. The heat wave continues throughout the novel and makes everyone miserable. It adds a level of tension to the story, too, and makes it clear why there is often more crime during a heat wave than there is when the weather is cooler.
The first novel of a groundbreaking series, Cop Hater shows the teamwork and camaraderie of police work. It’s a sad story despite the dark humour, and it shows the “down and out” part of city life. It’s gritty, too, without being either really brutal or gratuitous, and it gives a clear picture of what being a big city cop is like. But what’s your view? Have you read Cop Hater? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 16 April/Tuesday 17 April – A Not So Perfect Crime – Teresa Solana
Monday 23 April/Tuesday 24 April – The Shape of Water – Andrea Camilleri
Monday 20 April/Tuesday 1 May – The Eagle Catcher – Margaret Coel