About a month ago, author Gar Anthony Haywood asked a question on the listserv DorothyL. What author have you always wanted to read, and haven't yet read? So, I confessed that as much as I love police procedurals, I hadn't read Ed McBain. The number of books in the 87th Precinct series is intimidating, so I always said I'd read them when I retired. But, not only did Mr. Haywood write back and say I needed to read Ed McBain, so did other authors. Since I'm a mystery fan who starts at the beginning of a series, I picked up Cop Hater, the first 87th Precinct Mystery.
Before I discuss the book, I want to clarify that the edition pictured on my blog is not the edition I read. I was lucky enough to get an edition from Armchair Detective Library from our library. That edition has a wonderful introduction by Ed McBain in which he discusses the beginning of this series. This first book was published in paperback in 1956. The editor-in-chief at Pocket Books said they were looking for a mystery writer to replace Erle Stanley Gardner in their regular rotation. McBain came up with the idea of basing a series around a squadron of police detectives, making them a "conglomerate hero." Then, he created the mythical city of Isola, New York. He made the city a character, and he made the weather a character. I appreciated the opportunity to read Ed McBain's comments about the origin of this series.
McBain skillfully sucks the reader into the story, introducing first the city, then a man who becomes the victim of a killer. But, that victim is a cop. When Detectives Steve Carella and Hank Bush arrive at the scene of the crime, they recognize the victim as a detective in their precinct. The investigation heats up at that point, along with the city itself. The city gets hotter and hotter, as one cop after another is shot. The heat, the tension, and the investigation begins to wear on the cops, and even their wives and girlfriends. No one knows where to look for the killer, although the cops are all looking over their shoulders.
The author does a magnificent job enveloping the story in heat. Take just one scene. "The men in the Squad Room worked in their shirt sleeves. Their shirts were stained with perspiration, large dark amoeba blots which nibbled at the cloth, spreading from beneath the armpits, spreading form the hollow of the spinal columns. The fans did not help the heat at all. The fans circulated the suffocating breath of the city, and the men sucked in the breath and typed up their reports in triplicate, and checked their worksheets, and dreamt of Summers in the White Mountains, or Summers in Atlantic City with the ocean slapping their faces. They called complainants, and they called suspects, and their hands sweated on the black plastic of the phone, and they could feel Heat like a living thing which invaded their bodes and seared them with a million white-hot daggers."
It's fascinating to read this first mystery in the series, a book that's fifty-five years old, and stands up well. It's still intriguing; still realistic. At the same time, the reader is very much aware of the passing of time. When the killer is injured, there's no DNA analysis, although the lab technicians do a magnificent job with the tools they have available at that time. There's a detective referred to as a Negro. But, time really hasn't aged this book too much. It's evident that Ed McBain knew how to write a riveting story even with the first in this series. It wasn't his first book, but Cop Hater originated so much that would become standard in police procedurals over the years.
If you have a chance to pick up an edition of this book with the introduction in it, I urge you to do it. And, thank you to Gar Anthony Haywood for insisting I read Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books without waiting for another twelve or fifteen more years to pass. Cop Hater is only going to be the first of many enjoyable evenings spent with the detectives of the 87th Precinct.
Cop Hater by Ed McBain. Armchair Detective Library, ©1956. ISBN 0922890064 (hardcover), 166p.
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