Friday, December 6, 2019

Forgotten Books: COP HATER by Ed McBain (1956)

Somehow, I never got around to reading an 87th Precinct book. A review of this first in the series by Owlhoot Dale Goble reminded me of that deficiency, prompting me to read it too. 

So I did, sort of. I listened to it.

Normally, I only listen to books I've already read, or at least books in series I've already started, so I already have a feel for the characters and the prose. Not so, this time, so my feelings about the book are colored by the delivery of the reader (whose name, in case you're keeping score, was Dick Hill). 

In an Intro to this book penned in 1989, the author says his real name was Evan Hunter, and that he also wrote as Richard Marsten and some other names.  It's interesting stuff, though one assertion made me shake my head. He told how he created his own city for the series, and seemed to think that had never been done before. I don't know what he was doing as a kid, but apparently it was not reading Frederick Nebel's long MacBride and Kennedy stories in Black Mask, set in imaginary Richmond City. 

On the plus side, McBain's prose is pretty dang good. I found many fine descriptive paragraphs to admire. As he said, he wanted the city to be almost a character in itself, and he obviously worked hard on that.  

On the minus side, I didn't much like the cops. It may be due to the audio narrator's brash delivery, but most of them came across as assholes. Talking tough and pushing junkies and criminals around is fine, but they take the same attitude with regular citizens too, apparently just because they can. 

Another drawback was this police procedural thing. Yeah, I know McBain was pioneering a sub-genre, and did tons of research before starting the series. But putting all that information on display put a serious drag on the story. A very long sequence is devoted to the casting of a footprint, and the detectives follow a seemingly endless series of dead ends before accidentally stumbling on the real "cop hater." That, I suppose, is what real police work is like, but it's not what I want to read.

Some folks read mysteries like a puzzles, always trying to figure out whodunnit.  Not me. I read for style and character, and never try to think ahead -- but the solution to this one slapped me in the face about 2/3 of the way in, so I'm thinking it was not deftly handled.  This made the rest of the story pretty anticlimactic. 

So my final judgment? I'm glad I read the, but the tone is too serious. No one in this nameless city was having fun, and I wasn't either. There were a LOT more books in the series, and it seems likely they got better, but this one was enough for me. 


Jerry House said...

The series does get better, Evan. Much better. And McBain continually tried to push the boundaries of the police procedural as he went on, although a few of the books descend into soap opera land with their subplots. Hunter/McBain basically came from the pulps and that sensibility is apparent with the early books and the "realism" can be a bit too affected.

The series originated when editors Pocket Books felt that their cash cow Erle Stanley Gardner was getting up there in age (he wasn't, and he lived and wrote Perry Mason mysteries for another fourteen years) and they wanted a potentially long-running series to be established before Gardner died. The first three books in the 87th Precinct series were to be a try-out as a future ESG replacement. Steve Carella, who was the de facto hero of the series, was killed off in the first book, but the publishers balked, explaining to Hunder/McBain the Carella WAS the hero of the series. Huh, said Hunter/McBain, and rewrote the ending.

Although Hunter/McBain said often that Isola was a city of itself, there is no doubt that it is a bastardized version of New York City. It is as much a character in the series as the men of the 87th. As the series progressed, new characters were added, some were killed off, and others matured and aged, got married and/or divorced, had children, and had the normal ups and downs. Through it all the series remained fresh and readable.

Evan Lewis said...