Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Series
When it comes to reading mystery series, I generally follow a simple procedure: Start with the third or fourth book in the series and then work back at some later point if the author grabs me. My reasoning is that most series writers don’t really get moving, don’t really get a feeling for their characters, don’t fully grasp the world in which their detectives live until the third or fourth novel. And so, if you start with the first novel, it is quite possible you might give up on a good series simply because it got off to a poor start.
That said, there are some remarkable first books in a series. A Study in Scarlet, which introduces us to Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, is one, and Ed McBain’s Cop Hater – which kicks off his long-running 87th Precinct crime series – is another.
One advantage McBain had over other mystery writers starting a series was that he was already a successful author when he got the idea for his 87th Precinct novels. As Evan Hunter (his real name, having legally changed it from his birth name of Salvatore Albert Lombino), he already had written several fine stand-alone novels including Blackboard Jungle. When he was approached about writing a mystery series, he decided that he wanted to focus not on an individual detective but rather on the precinct, making the precinct itself the central character. As he says in his introduction to Cop Hater, “it … seemed to me that something new in the annals of police procedurals … would be a squadroom full of cops, each with different traits, who — when put together — would form a conglomerate hero.” And so was born the 87th Precinct.
Clearly the city in which the 87th Precinct stories take place is based on New York City, but McBain didn’t want readers fixating on New York. And so, he named his city Isola, which is (but is not) New York just as Metropolis and Gotham City are (but are not) New York. He takes care in the first novel to describe the geography of the 87th Precinct in some detail, devoting a couple of pages. In giving us a very strong feel for a city that is like, but isn’t quite, New York — in creating a sense of place — McBain demonstrates the highest level of skill.
McBain, however, was not entirely successful in avoiding having a main individual character. One, Steve Carella, appeared in the first novel and remained a prominent figure in many of the subsequent stories about the precinct. Still, it is clear that Carella is part of a team that is almost family, absent the dynamics one sees in a family. In envisioning the 87th Precinct, McBain may have been inspired by films about World War II, many of which focus on “the squad” rather than an individual. Battleground (1949) is an example.
Cop Hater, released in 1956 and available through interlibrary loan, sets the start of McBain’s series in the hottest July anyone can remember. At a time when air conditioning was not omnipresent, the heat adds to the tension felt by the cops as they try to find out who has cut down one, two, and ultimately three of their number. Just look at how McBain describes the heat, as if it were one of the characters in the drama:
“The heat on that July 26th reached a high of 95.6 at twelve noon. 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.”
McBain knows how to start his book with a bang. Within the first few pages, we already have our first murder victim, Detective Mike Reardon. His introduction is brief but skillfully handled. We get the sense that he is a good cop and a loving family man, and so we are eager to see his killer brought to justice.
It is fitting that we are introduced to the world of the 87th Precinct through the eyes of a cop at home — about to go to work — for family life gives us insight into the cops themselves and how they are molded by the world beyond the station house walls. Some, like Mike Reardon, are good family men. Others, like Hank Bush, Steve Carella’s partner, are good cops but jerks.
McBain aims to enhance the reader’s feel for the investigation by using actual police forms throughout the book, and so we see facsimiles of ballistic reports, coroner’s reports, and the like. We get snippets of news stories and headlines, as well. All of this gives us a sense of the action happening in a real place and in real time. And, just as in any police investigation, though we see more than the cops do, we are not given any information pertinent to the investigation until they get it. Our third-person narrator is not omniscient, and that makes for a more challenging mystery.
A film version of Cop Hater stars Robert Loggia as the chief detective, and is available online through Amazon.com or other outlets. But if you really want to see a stunning film adaptation of an 87th Precinct novel, catch Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low — loosely based on McBain’s King’s Ransom. Moving the story to Tokyo entails some changes. But it’s refreshing to see what a Japanese master makes of a largely American form, the police procedural.