Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cop Hater (1956)

Cop Hater is the first novel in what became the giant 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which wasn't his real name either). It's about what you'd expect from a hungry young writer in his late 20s with a lot of raw talent: uneven and a little crude. It's worth the visit for completists but not many others. (I would say start approximately anywhere else but here—selected by random and out of sequence. But that's just the way I've done it. Every time I have tried to read them in order I have foundered in the first handful.) The debt to Dragnet is perhaps nowhere else so clear, and the story perhaps nowhere else so shapeless. The main idea, putting the focus on an ensemble of detectives and policemen rather than a single hero, is also perhaps nowhere so abused. No fewer than three detectives appear and die: Hank Bush, David Foster, and Mike Reardon. Gone. R.I.P. We hardly knew ye. But fair enough, sanctioned by the title. We see Steve Carella for the one and only time as a single man—the story ends on his wedding with Teddy. We see Bert Kling as a patrolman and already unlucky, though not yet specifically with women. The story is structured like a mystery, which means a reveal. It feels slightly rote and mechanical, but it's also fair by the rules of these things. We might have guessed the identity of the culprit, and it could have been others as well. McBain got better at this, especially when he found other ways to approach the problem of a mystery—or, better, all but abandoned it, using it only as one more element, sometimes a minor one, along with police procedure, character development, and his seductive bantering language. Obviously McBain learned to be more sparing and deliberate with his kill-offs of continuing characters, and he was quick to feel his way into developing them across the series. He got better at everything in every way. That's the reason I point away from this. He worked at it, and got better, but the enterprise came to him in patches, fits, and false starts over many decades. He was best—most consistent, complex, conversational, rollicking—in the '80s, though there are many great novels in every decade before that. I'm just happy some acquisitions editor saw fit to keep throwing contracts at him—or maybe that was the book-buying public beating down doors. Cop Hater is a good start, but it's rough.

In case it's not at the library.

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