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9 march 2014
I've been working my way with incredible deliberateness through some founding texts in the police-procedural genre lately. It came time to move on to Ed McBain, not the inventor of the genre but certainly its most influential early practitioner. McBain (a pseudonym for Evan Hunter, in turn the name adopted by Salvatore Lombino) was a steady producer of best-sellers all the while I was growing up, indeed well into my middle age: he died less than ten years ago. I was not innocent of his work; I remember reading a stray 87th Precinct novel called Vespers when it first appeared in 1990 and finding it pretty acceptable. But I was functionally ignorant of Ed McBain as a writer.
After reading Cop Hater, the initial novel in the 87th Precinct series, I really regret having been ignorant so long. It's a first-rate detective novel in every respect, despite being so pulpy that the young Evan Hunter had to spin off a new name in order to keep this pulp production from interfering with his brand as a serious fiction writer. Eventually "Ed McBain" would become the most respected of all his various writerly identities, for good reason.
The sheer plot power of Cop Hater shows best in a sequence about 2/3 of the way into the book. Here McBain uses a device that has become familiar, but I suspect it was somewhat less so almost 60 years ago. And it still works. We see, in alternating limited perspectives, a number of cops leave work or home or other venues. We know that a cop hater is out there waiting to kill; he's killed before. We see his limited perspective while he packs his gun and stalks his victim. We even see their encounter: but not till the cop drops dead do we know which of the several possible cops it was. That the device is well-worn should not detract from how extremely well it's deployed. You don't even have to think your way back into 1956 to appreciate it; you just have to surrender to the reading experience.
Cop Hater has dated in many ways, of course. It's a novel full of sultry dames, gangs involved in rumbles, hustling print reporters looking for a scoop, stool pigeons, and all the other endlessly imitated elements of the cop drama – hardly even original with McBain, since even his own characters cite Joe Friday and Dragnet self-consciously.
But in other ways, the novel is surprisingly progressive. One of the solid detectives of the 87th (unfortunately gunned down early) is African-American. One of the sultry dames is deaf and mute. It's a more colorful America than many '50s representations suggest, and one where white Anglos are not necessarily culturally authoritative. Just to judge from the couple of his novels I've read, it would seem that McBain was considerably more in touch with diversity than writers like Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane, to name two other hard-boiled icons. The deaf Teddy Franklin's boyfriend is a detective named Carella, who must put up with prejudiced Anglos who see him as somehow not "American" – possibly as the author himself had had to, growing up in New York. It's not like the guys at the 87th band together to buy the world a Coke or anything, but it's a refreshing trend in mid-century pulp fiction all the same.
McBain, Ed. Cop Hater. 1956. In Ed McBain. New York: Octopus / Heinemann, 1981. 11-127.