My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Over my years of reading mysteries, I have often encountered writers who acknowledged the influence on their work of Ed McBain, but somehow I've just never gotten around to going to the source of all that inspiration. I decided to remedy that chasm in my mystery-reading experience this summer, starting with the very first McBain entry in his 87th Precinct series.
Cop Hater was first published in 1956 and the series ran all the way up until the year of McBain's death in 2005 with more than fifty entries overall. In the foreword to this re-publication of Cop Hater, McBain says that, when he started, his publisher was looking for someone to be a successor to Erle Stanley Gardner who was nearing the end of his long and productive writing career. It seems that the publisher struck gold when they selected McBain for that role.
Among the first things that struck me about reading this book was the similarity between styles of McBain and the Swedish duo Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo who wrote the Martin Beck series that I've been reading this year. The Sjowall/Wahloo series started about ten years after the 87th Precinct one. They were among those writers who acknowledged their debt to McBain. They professed their admiration for his spare and straightforward way of telling his stories and sought to imitate it in their own writing. They succeeded very well.
The second thing that hit me in the face in reading the book was the heat. The mythical city of Isola where the story is set is experiencing a terrible heat wave. It is July and all anyone can talk about is how hot it is. This novel was set contemporaneously with its time but now, 58 years later, that makes it a historical novel, taking place before the time of almost universal air conditioning. Sweat is a constant factor in the story. It runs off the characters and down the pages as we read.
A third thing that is very arresting (pun intended) about the story is that it takes place before the Miranda decision of the Supreme Court. McBain describes a very different world of interactions between arresting officers and suspects. The suspects are never advised of their constitutional rights to remain silent and to have a lawyer to represent them, and the police have pretty much a free hand in browbeating the people they arrest and trying to get a confession, as well as sometimes actually beating them.
The main story here involves the murder of cops - all detectives assigned to the 87th Precinct. The first two detectives that are killed, on two separate nights after they leave work, had been partners, and so the initial suspicion falls on cases that they might have been working on or had worked together. But then a third detective is killed, one who had not actively worked with the other two on anything. This leads that man's partner, Steve Carella, to begin to suspect that the killer of the men - the same gun was used to commit all three murders - was not a "cop hater" at all. Perhaps the motive for the killings has nothing to do with the fact that the men were policemen. This, ultimately, proves to be a very insightful analysis of the situation.
As I was reading the book, I couldn't help thinking that, even as later authors paid homage to McBain, he himself was influenced by the old TV show "Dragnet." Indeed, he acknowledges as much in the story. As the detectives review possible suspects, one of those suspects turns out to be in Los Angeles, and a detective in the group comments that they "can leave him to Joe Friday!"
This was an interesting reading experience, both for the obvious connections with other authors I have read and am currently reading and for the historical view it supplies on a time that wasn't really so long ago and yet is vastly different in perspective and in its approach to police work. I think it will be fascinating to continue reading the series and see how - and if - that changes over the years. After all, the series went on for another 49 eventful years after Cop Hater and I suspect that it must have evolved with the times in order to stay so popular for all those years.
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