Recently, I came across Stuart Evers’s cry for fans of the greatest TV show ever, The Wire, to take a look at Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books. Here’s a sample:
These tales – short, violent, meticulously plotted – show the police as more than just an ace detective surrounded by stooges and sidekicks. Here was a company of men and women trying to make it through each shift, through each case, with their humour and their lives intact. The series' brevity, wit and ear for the vernacular of both the tough and the weak are as cracking in their understatements as Chandler and Hammett were with their wise-acre shtick.So I decided to give it a try. I liked Chandler, though not as much as James M. Cain, and I’m always chastising myself for not broadening my horizons with new genres of literature. Being the orderly sort of person I am, I went with McBain’s first novel, Cop Hater.
I’ll give Evers this: it was short and violent. I have doubts that it was actually meticulously plotted. The 87th Precinct’s main character is Detective Steve Carella, a man with a deaf girlfriend he wants to marry. He also wears a hat. Other than that, we don’t find out all that much about him. We find out a lot about three other cops, their backstories well thought out and interesting. Unfortunately, they all end up dead by the end of the book.
It’s not much of a mystery either. I mean, you don’t know who’s doing the killing, but neither do the cops. The reader follows through about eighty pages (of 150) of false leads that really go nowhere. There was a crazy lady who claimed cockroaches were behind the murders. A local gang was established, though not much came of that either. This is the complete opposite of TheWire, which was so meticulously plotted that if someone sneezed in episode 4, another guy got sick in episode 8.
It’s just not a mystery you can figure out. The ending doesn’t really gibe with what’s come before. I guess nothing made me think that couldn’t have happened, but aren’t surprise endings supposed to make you slap your forehead and say, 'Why didn’t I see that coming?’ McBain left me not wondering what I missed, but why he didn’t hint at this along the way.
But this may not be an entirely fair review. Cop Hater felt like a pilot episode, something that gets all the characters introduced and the overall situation established so more stories can be told. If this is the case, I’ll probably like the second book, The Mugger, quite a bit more. If I don’t, I’ll eventually skip to his so-called best novel, Sadie When She Died.
McBain’s novel wasn’t The Wire, nor was it Chandler or Cain. But it was a decent police procedural that makes me miss all those hours I spent as a kid watching Dragnet.