Visionaries are those people who look at nothing and see something. They are inventors of things, pioneers of the possible. Our history is teeming with visionaries: larger-than-life figures who stepped onto the stage and made a difference. You might even argue that they knew that they would be remembered. Pulp writers are not usually associated with this type of forethought. I don’t think Edgar Allan Poe consciously thought he was creating a new genre when he wrote his August Dupin stories. I don’t think Mark Twain thought he was creating something new when he wrote Huckleberry Finn. The same holds true for Hammett, Chandler, or any of the other pioneers of crime fiction.
Ed McBain seems to be different. I have a 1989 edition of his first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater, and he writes a new introduction. He remembers that in 1956 he looked at the landscape of crime fiction and saw a hole, a blank spot. No author was writing fiction that focused on a group of detectives. The large majority of crime fiction featured single-character series many of whom were PIs. PIs or lawyers are not supposed to investigate a murder, McBain thought, detectives are. Then he got an idea: why not feature a series of books about a group of detectives. One detective would take center stage in one book and another guy who step up in the next book. Thus was born the 87th Precinct, the precursor to Hill Street Blues, Patricia Cornwall, Law and Order, CSI, The Wire, Joseph Wambaugh, and others.
And it all started with Cop Hater. In my review of The Postman Always Rings Twice, I wrote that James Cain, in two pages, sets up the entire novel. Well, it takes McBain only three pages. And it’s a wallop. McBain shows Mike Reardon, regular guy, getting up for work, kissing his wife, seeing his kids sleeping, sipping coffee, and slipping quietly out of the house. Next thing you know, half his face has been blown away from a .45. That’s not the coup de grace. The last sentence of the chapter is: “Mike Reardon was a cop.” If that doesn’t wake you up and grab you by the collar, I don’t know what does.
With the murder of one of their own, the detectives--or “bulls” as they are known by the criminal element--attack the case with the gumption of a cop. Steve Carella and Hank Bush emerge as this story’s lead characters. And they do their cop thing. Anyone who has read the books or watched any of the ‘real’ cop shows on TV know what I’m talking about. Carella and Bush talk to bar owners, youth gangs, snitches, a woman who thinks alien cockroaches are invading Earth (seriously). Reardon’s murder was bad but it got worse when Reardon’s partner was also gunned down. Now, they had something more on their hands. A cop killer, a cop hater, and each man on the squad--and their loved ones--started wondering if they’d be next.
The prose style of this book is unlike anything I’ve read to date in my exploration of crime fiction. It’s quick, terse even, a direct contrast to the plodding nature of the 87th’s investigation. In certain interrogation scenes, there are two, three pages of mere dialogue. No prose except the occasional attribution just to help the reader. These scenes clipped along, rapid fire, just like guys in the old movies. It’s not unlike Erle Stanley Gardner’s use of continuous paragraphs by the same speaker without any prose to get in the way. It works well.
One thing that did not work well was the narrator. Ed McBain, as most everyone knows, is a pen name for a, what, pen name? The man who was born Salvatore Albert Lombino had, by 1952, officially changed his real name to one of his pen names, Evan Hunter. Got all that? Anyway, Cop Hater has a narrator and he sticks his authorial nose in the middle of the prose often. The narrator needs to but in when talking about procedural stuff that the characters would know by heart. But other times, the narrator literally shows up and comments on the action, like a Greek chorus. For example, after a page and a half description of a bar Carella and Bush are going to in order to ask some questions, McBain writes this: “So what did those two big jerks at the end of the bar want?” It was weird because most of the action and thought stay in the head of whatever character leads off the chapter or section.
And speaking of character, the City is a character. Many folks have commented that Pelecanos’s DC, Lehane’s Boston, Connelly’s LA, or Hunsicker’s Dallas are characters in their own books. Yes, they are, but the city of Isola--a fictionalized version of New York--seems to breathe on its own. There were numerous sections where McBain started off a chapter with what Isola was doing or what its citizens were doing. It was the prose equivalent of a wide screen shot. It was almost like McBain was playing tour guide for us in his own town. Regarding the fictionalizing of NYC, with just one book under my belt, I didn’t like it. Folks who live in New York can smile knowingly when the characters talk about the river or the docks on the East side because New Yorkers have a frame of reference. I don’t. I’m one of those readers who likes his crime fiction to be based in reality. It’s what sets the Marvel Comics characters apart from their DC Comics counterparts. Spider-man lived and worked in New York. Batman lived in Gotham which is and isn’t New York. Just set the story in NYC and be done with it.
Joy in writing is something you can feel when you read a book. If the author loves what’s being written, you’re going to know it. Ed McBain certainly has a wonderful way with words, especially his pulp fiction verbs. With a book as short as Cop Hater, every word counts. Here’s that elevator in the downtown police headquarters building: “The elevator crawled up the intestinal tract of the building. It creaked. It whined. Its walls were moist with the beaded exhalations of its occupants.” With one metaphor, McBain puts more in your brain than a paragraph of description. He does this on almost every page. It’s refreshing to have a writer channel his inner thesaurus with good results.
McBain’s gift is bringing these characters to life. They are presented as real, honest, living, breathing, humans and all the baggage that entails. Real people talk about random stuff even when they are focused on something else. This kind of randomness shows up in movies like Pulp Fiction or Saving Private Ryan, television shows like The Wire, or books like those of Pelecanos. It’s here in Cop Hater. The detectives just talk about stuff, women, booze, the weather, whatever. It makes them more three dimensional. Late in the book, Carella goes in to talk with his lieutenant, a man named Byrnes. The lieutenant is on the phone with his wife. In the hands of another novelist, Byrnes would hang up the phone instantly and get down to business. Not here. He finishes his call--like any regular person--and then the two men commiserate on women. Only after that does Carella relate to Byrnes the update of the case. This kind of realism is superb and makes you like these guys even more.
Even for 1956, McBain took some bold choices. The graphic descriptions of the gunshot victims surprised me. The overlty sexual nature of some of the scenes surprised me, too. But what surprised me most was the choice of Carella’s girlfriend. She’s deaf and mute. You just don’t see that kind of attention paid to folks with disabilities unless the person in question witnessed some crime and the killer now stalked them. The scenes between Carella and Teddy were sweet, not cloying at all. It was two people in love and that love came through, even when, say, Carella had always to look directly at Teddy so she could read his lips. With this being the first of the series, I look forward to seeing how their relationship develops.
Which is to say I will certainly be reading more 87th precinct novels. In the past three weeks, I have examined Perry Mason (80 books), Cool and Lam (29), and the detectives of the 87th precinct (54). I enjoyed these characters and books immensely. I have already applied some of the traits of these accomplished writers into my own fiction. If I read nothing else but these three series, it would take awhile and y’all would become quite bored with my reviews. The thing is, I wouldn’t be bored at all. I’d be in crime fiction heaven.
Note: I have my list for my Forgotten Books already laid out. Only after I wrote this review did I realize that Cop Hater was covered in August by Anthony Rainone over at his blog. I missed it at the time but I’ve read it tonight after finishing up my review. In case y’all haven’t read it or if you missed it like me, go on over and take a read. He touches on things I don’t.