I started on a steady diet of crime fiction when I was in my teens, for which you can blame my parents. I grew up in a house surrounded by lots of books; one my earliest memories is looking up at bookshelves filled with paperbacks, and hardback Book Club Associates editions, bound in a variety of bright colours. John D MacDonald is one name that stands out – I found his titles really striking, and a complete contrast to the friendly, cheerful children’s books I was used to. One Fearful Yellow Eye, anyone? How about The Empty Copper Sea, or Free Fall in Crimson? Even at that young age, I could tell these weren’t exactly Dr. Seuss.
One of the other authors I remember was Ed McBain – and his presence in our family goes way back to my grandad, who started my mum reading him back in the 50s (when she was also in her teens; anybody got the number for Social Services?). I was probably 14 when I read Poison, one of the later books in his 87th Precinct series. I remember being struck by the blurb on the back (which is surely the point; but the plot here concerns someone being poisoned with a nicotine overdose – how could you not engage with that?), and also the cover. It showed a bottle lying on its side, with a suspicious looking liquid oozing out of the neck. I raced through it, loved it, and moved on to the next one (probably Calypso). After that, I spent half of my teens getting my hands on anything else McBain had written; and the other half being told off by my English teacher for reading ‘American trash’.
Wikipedia tells me there are 54 novels in the 87th precinct series, and despite Mrs Henderson’s warnings I reckon I’ve read about half of them – most from the 70s/80s heyday of the series. It’s no understatement to describe the series as epic, covering as it does close to 50 years of American history, and a period that arguably included both the fastest rise in the crime rate, and defining events such as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war.
One of the things that I’ll be documenting as part of this blog is my re-reading of the series in order. Eventually, I’ll finish up with Fiddlers (published around the time of McBain’s death in 2005), but my starting point is McBain’s first 87th precinct novel, Cop Hater (originally published in 1956).
I bought Cop Hater for my kindle; Amazon are in the process of releasing the whole series as e-books, although frustratingly not in order (you can get the first two books in the series, but not the third; and there are other gaps that don’t make much sense). The book includes a lovely new introduction by McBain (presumably written when the book was re-released previously, although it doesn’t say when), describing how the series came about, and which I’d recommend on its own for any fans.
I also enjoyed the book itself. It doesn’t match some of the later entries in the series, but then I wasn’t expecting it to. In Cop Hater, McBain is getting to grips with his setting, clearing his throat (and we all know how difficult that can be – ahem) and mapping the territory. Despite this, many of the elements that become signature features are already there. The (unnamed, but based on New York) city is very much a character in its own right, as is the weather – Cop Hater takes place over two hot summer weeks, and we’ll see McBain use the climate to good effect in future 87th Precinct novels.
I did get a real thrill in meeting again those characters I knew from later books, and seeing how they started out. It was like coming across a photo of a family member, from a time before you were born – whilst still recognisable, it was surprising to learn about the life they had before you came along. It’s clearly important to McBain to draw the policemen as real people, with lives and families away from the job itself. As the series progresses we learn more and more about them, especially Detective Steve Carella who is often (but not always) the central character. Cop Hater ends with Carella’s wedding to his girlfriend, Teddy, and the series also documents their marriage and life together. For all of the squad members, their lives grow more complex, and we learn more about them; and I look forward to seeing how the squad develops over the course of the series.
The book, like much of the rest of the series, is an ensemble piece, and not about one maverick cop. McBain carefully shows the investigation from a variety of angles, with the information building up a picture of the killer that has a blank at its centre: who is this man? With this emphasis on process, careful investigation, and false leads, it’s easy to see where Wahloo and Sjowall got the inspiration for their Martin Beck series (the first of which, Roseanna, appeared in 1965). Just like Beck, the fact that Carella gets his man is down to a large element of luck – and some stupidity on the part of the murderer.
So – one down, 53 to go. I’m now looking forward to reading the next entry in the series, The Mugger – about which, more anon.