Review: Cop Hater by Ed McBain

The city in these pages is imaginary.
The people, the places are all fictitious.
Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.

Thus begins each entry in Ed McBain’s massively successful and influential 87th Precinct series. And while I felt it should be noted when looking at the first book in that series, there’s no need for me to dwell on it–plenty has been said elsewhere about the importance and influence of these novels on police procedurals and crime fiction in general, and I have nothing new to add. I will quote Donald Westlake on the topic, though, from the introduction to his short-story collection Levine:

[Evan Hunter’s] 87th Precinct novels, as by Ed McBain, had started being published just around the time I was first seriously trying to figure out how to be a self-supporting writer. Naturally I read them. They were that rarity, that near-impossibility, something new under the sun, and naturally I was impressed by and influenced by them.

I’ve got no special love for police procedurals, so it isn’t that aspect that makes the 87th Precinct novels appeal to me. Police work, like most work, is often boring, and while the attention to detail adds to these novels, it isn’t what makes these novels.

What makes these novels are passages like this:

The city lay like a sparkling nest of rare gems, shimmering in layer upon layer of pulsating intensity.

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.

There was garbage in the streets. That, not the procedural details, is a crucial element of what makes Cop Hater, not in and of itself a remarkable novel, the successful launch of one of crime fiction’s most successful series.

The 87th Precinct novels have a moral worldview. Criminals prey on the innocent, and the police protect the innocent. The criminals are not glamorized–they are garbage. And while the police, and the everyday Joes and Janes they protect, are far from perfect, there is ultimately no doubt who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. As they go about their day-to-day work of following leads, walking beats, doing forensic work, and filing reports, McBain’s police are part of something much larger–they embody the old expression about the thin blue line that stands between civilized society and chaos.

The other element is McBain’s characters. In Cop Hater, his ensemble emerges almost fully formed. With just a physical description and a couple of sentences of detail, McBain gives us a number of characters, each distinct from one another. It can be easy to get confused as to who’s who in ensemble pieces, but not here.

So what about the novel itself? As a standalone, it’s good but not a classic. Someone is knocking off cops. Detective Steve Carella and others chase a lot of leads down a lot of dead ends that aren’t annoying wastes of time (for the reader) because McBain does such a good job of letting the reader know that that’s what the police do. (The book’s chief flaw is that these guys are almost too professional. In the real world, I think any cop would be screaming for blood under the circumstances, but not these guys. They are unfazed, or at least not fazed enough, by the murders of their friends and co-workers.) And the break comes, as they so often do, from a totally unexpected direction.

Cop Hater works, and works well, as the pilot episode of the literary equivalent of a great TV series. It introduces the cast, and puts them in a situation where we can find out who they are, what they do, how they work.

Nice to meet you guys. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together.