The buildings were a stage-set.
They faced the river, and they glowed with man-made brilliance, and you stared up at them in awe, and you caught your breath.
Behind the buildings, behind the lights, were the streets.
There was garbage in the streets.
Cop Hater was the first of more than 50 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain. The 87th Precinct covers a large area of the American city of Isola and is the setting for one of the earliest, most influential, and certainly the longest running, police-procedural series in crime fiction.
(In an engaging introduction to this edition, McBain explains that he intended to set Cop Hater in New York, but was finding the overhead of checking every single piece of procedure onerous, so switched to his own city. Doing so clearly opened his creative floodgates – two more 87th Precinct novels followed in 1956.)
If you’ve read any of the novels, you’ll know that the hard-working cops of Isola are very rarely lucky with the weather. It’s so cold you can barely move your frozen limbs to arrest your perp, or so wet you can’t see him through the rain. In Cop Hater, it’s hot, 95.6°F of hot:
At the precinct house, two fans circulated the soggy air that crawled past the open windows and the grilles behind them. Everything in the Detective Squad Room seemed to wilt under the steady, malignant pressure of the heat. Only the file cabinets and the desks stood at strict attention.
And in this horrible damp heat, somebody starts killing detectives. The Squad Room starts chasing suspects – sweatily, and with plenty of stops for beer.
Bush, an experienced but cynical cop, sums up McBain’s philosophy of detection early on:
All you need to be a detective is a strong pair of legs, and a stubborn streak. The legs take you around to all the various dumps you have to go to, and the stubborn streak keeps you from quitting. You follow each separate trail mechanically, and if you’re lucky, one of the trails pays off. If you’re not lucky, it doesn’t. Period.
And this is how it goes. The cops follow up leads – most of them dead ends – meanwhile dealing with reporters, crazies, assorted criminals, and all the inefficiencies of an imperfect and cumbersome system. This is the cop as working stiff, bitching about the job and the weather (especially the weather) but getting the job done.
There is no shortage of leads. Bush again:
This whole goddamn city is full of cop haters. You think anybody respects a cop? Symbol of law and order, crap! Anybody who ever got a parking tag is automatically a cop hater. That’s the way it is.
As with more recent authors, McBain also offers us a glimpse into the private lives of his policemen as a counterpoint to their lives at the coalface. Detective Steve Carella (a mainstay of the series) gets together with his wife Teddy, while his partner Bush deals with his complicated marriage to the négligée-clad Alice.
The atmosphere of Cop Hater seems strikingly contemporary, aside from all the men wearing suits, the ladies’ underwear (there’s almost as much underwear as there is weather), and a couple of chapters featuring hep-cat gang members. It’s almost surprising it was published in 1956. Of course the book feels contemporary – timeless may be a better word – because it uses exactly that mix of bureaucracy and banter that characterises police novels today. In fact, McBain established that formula and proved it worked again and again.
Why should you read this book? It established the template for the modern police procedural, and more importantly, if you like it, there are dozens more in the series to keep you going.
I’ll leave you with today’s weather:
The heat did not help the classic ceremonies of death. The mourners followed the caskets and sweated. An evil, leering sun grinned its blistering grin, and freshly turned soil – which should have been cool and moist – accepted the caskets with dry, dusty indifference.
I am entering Cop Hater into the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Leave it to the Professionals category.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.