In The Spotlight: Ed McBain’s Cop Hater

Hello, All,

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?’
‘None yet.’
‘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

23 Comments

Filed under Cop Hater, Ed McBain

23 responses to “In The Spotlight: Ed McBain’s Cop Hater

  1. An excellent review, as always, Margot. Would you suggest to read this series in order? Which titles would you recomend to read?
    Thank you.

    • José Ignacio – Thanks for the kind words :-). I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The 87th Precinct series consists of 55 novels, so one would have to take one’s time reading them all. I do recommend reading them more or less in order simply because it’s easier to follow the lives of the characters. That said though – and this is important – one doesn’t need to do so to enjoy individual novels. Each novel focuses on a self-contained case or set of cases. So it’s quite easy to enjoy them as individual stories. I confess I haven’t read all of them. Of those I’ve read, I recommend this one – Cop Hater – because it lays the groundwork. And then Killer’s Wedge, He Who Hesitates, 80 Million Eyes, Ghosts, The Big Bad City and Money, Money, Money. Those are only seven and there are so many more to choose from. But those are, in my opinion, some of McBain’s best 87th Precinct stories.

  2. Great review – not actually very long ago that I re-read this. Amazing to think how short the book is compared to the “tomes” that are published now. McBain managed to tell a decent police procedural concisely but still developed the characters and gave it atmosphere. Something a lot of current writers could learn from. Of course it also feels like much current crime fiction owes a lot to McBain!

    • Suzigun – Thanks for the kind words :-). And I’m very glad you mentioned the length of the book because that really is a very important “plus” in my estimation. The novel is quite short (My edition is only 150 pages. Admittedly the print is small, but even so…). I agree with you that the ability to tell a good story and keep readers involved without creating a “tome” is rare, and lots of today’s authors don’t do that. I think one of the reasons for McBain’s enuring popularity is his focus on characters and the effects of crime rather than on the things that date a book. And yes, current crime fiction does owe much to McBain.

  3. I agree, this is an excellent review, as always. I haven’t read this author’s work before and that should be mended. I’ve heard of the series however and I love the voice from the excerpts.

    • Clarissa – Thank you for the kind comment 🙂 In my opinion, this is one of those series that form the backbone and basis for today’s crime fiction. It’s not to everyone’s taste of course and that’s to be expected. But it is I think an essential part of the canon.

  4. I love Ed McBain Margot I’ve been meaning to read the first book in the series for a long time. I’ll probably continue to read him out of order because they aren’t all available digitally. My favorites are The Pusher and Hark! and Money, Money, Money wasn’t bad either and Heat was the last title I read. I’ve had people email me that there are more than the 55 titles I have listed on my blog. Is that true? Thanks for the review. I’m a big Steve Carella fan and I love that his marriage has a prominent role in the series.

    • Keishon – I’m so glad you liked this spotlight. The nice thing about the McBain series is that one can read the stories out of order and not lose anything by it. I confess I haven’t read Hark!, but the rest are good. To my knowledge (so please someone, correct me if I am wrong), there are only the 55. If there are others I’m not aware of them. And I really like Steve Carella, too. I’m glad he and Teddy make it work not only because I like the characters but also because that adds a touch of hope to the series.

  5. Great review Margot. Considering what a big Christie fan you are, I was wondering what you made of its variation on a classic plot of hers. I found it fascinating (avoiding spoilers), but it also tended to show up the diffrence in tolerance levels between a GAD puzzle and a post-war procedural when it comes to non-naturalistic bits of clever plotting. I think McBain gets away with it, just about (KILLER’S WEDGE is a good example where that sense of tension is brought to the fore by the author by contrasting both aspects of the genre). Jose Ignacio also raises that fascinating perennial question with such a long sequence about whether they shoudl be read in sequence. I’ve been doing just that of late and am abut a third of the way through, which is fascinating, but I have read nearly all of them before. You would inevitably lose a few big surprises, and some shocks, but McBain/Hunter is very good at bringing new readers up to speed so you don;t lose your place at least.

    • Sergio – Thank you :-). You really make a fascinating observation about the McBain take on that Christie plot. I liked it chiefly because McBain innovates. It doesn’t feel like pale imitation if you know what I mean. And yes, the two plots show clearly the difference between what was expected of plots during the Golden Age and later after World War II. One could do a whole paper on that alone I think…
       
      As to whether they should be read in order…. You’ve got a point that one might miss some surprises and so on. But really, McBain was skilled as you say at including new readers (no mean feat), and so I think that with a bit of work it doesn’t really matter which book one reads first. I do like reading series in order when it’s possible but as Keishon points out, it isn’t always possible.

  6. I’ve read every book in this series and would love to have the time to go back and read them all again.

  7. I read some Ed McBain when I was a teenager but I never really got into him. However, as I am starting to read the Martin Beck books, a few people have told me that McBain is very similar so I must give him a go again, Should I start at the beginning do you think?

    • Sarah – There are lots of similarities between McBain’s work and that of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, so I can see why you might want to dip back into that series. Starting at the beginning gives one a real flavour for the character development over time, so I usually encourage that. That said, though, there are “isms” in the earlier novels that fade out as the series evolves (McBain wrote for several decades). So if you do start at the beginning, there will be the “isms” to contend with…

  8. sarah1357

    I remember reading a few 87th Precinct book years ago, although I haven’t read this one. I really liked them, but the library only had a few.

    I liked how, although Teddy was, if I remember correctly, deaf, it wasn’t an ‘ism’ (for want of a better way of putting it) as it tends to be, in so many books.

    • Sarah – You remember correctly; Teddy has deafness. But you’re right that it’s not treated as an “ism,” and she is portrayed as a bright and interesting character. I like that, actually – when a character is portrayed in a positive light instead of with focus on her or his special need if there is one.
       
      I hope you do get a chance to read Cop Hater. It’s a solid story and it tells the origin of Steve Carella’s relationship with Teddy.

  9. p881

    Although I have only read a handful, I always enjoy a peek at the characters at the 87th precinct. Patti

    • Patti – There are some series like that, where one can really enjoy a few novels even if one doesn’t get to read the whole series. And this series is so influential…

  10. Excellent review, Ms. Kinberg! I am reading my very first 87th Precinct novel and I am lovin’ every bit of it. He portrays a stark and realistic picture of homicide and its investigation by local police detectives. Apart from the plot, I also liked McBain’s portrayal of Arthur Brown and Steve Carella as two devoted husbands. He is sensitive to the family aspects of the sleuths’ lives, in Carella’s case more so as his wife is deaf and mute. In one instance, Carella apologies to his wife for talking to Brown with his back to her. He turns around and repeats what he has just said, so she can lip-read. Quite thoughtful on McBain’s part.

    • Prashant – Thank you for the kind words 🙂 I’m so glad you are enjoying your first journey to the 87th Precinct. I agree completely with you that McBain was unflinching but at the same time not gratuitous in his descriptions of the life of a big-city police officer. And you’re quite right I think; one of the really appealing aspects of this series is the loving relationship that both Crella and Brown have with their spouses. It’s hard to be a cop’s spouse and difficult if you are a cop to be a good spouse. So when that’s done both honestly and positively, that makes it all the better.

  11. Pingback: Review: Cop Hater by Ed McBain | The Game's Afoot

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