Monday, November 19, 2012

Cophater by Ed McBain

From the river bounding the city
 on the North, you saw only the 
magnificent skyline.
Opening to
Cop Hater
by Ed McBain
Early in Ed McBain's novel two police detectives have the following conversation:

     "We haven't even started yet, and you say we're in over our heads.  What the hell's wrong with you, Hank?"
     "Nothing," Bush said, "only I don't happen to think of cops as masterminds, that's all."
     "That's a nice thing for a cop to say."
     "It's the truth.  Look, this detective tag is a bunch of crap, and you know it as well as I do. All you need to be a detective is a strong pair of legs, and a stubborn streak.  The legs take you around to all the various dumps you have to go to, and the stubborn streak keeps you from quitting.  You follow each separate trail mechanically, and if you're lucky, one of the trails pays off.  If you're not lucky, it doesn't.  Period."
     "And brains don't enter into it at  all, huh?"
     "Only a little.  It doesn't take much brains to be a cop."

That's a heck of a think for a police detective to say, especially a fictional one in a 1956 paperback novel.

I'll be honest here and admit that I've always dismissed Ed McBain novels as supermarket check-out fodder.  The kind of book you find priced four for a dollar at the local library book sale.  I was more than a little surprised to find Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, co-authors of the Martin Beck series, praised Mr. McBain's 87th Precint series as books that inspired their own work.

So I read one, Cop Hater, the first in the 87th precinct novels.

Mr. McBain's series does not have a single detective hero.  Instead, he creates an entire precinct which he uses as his 'detective.'  Cop Hater moves fluidly from one police detective to another, following this one as he pursues a particular lead, then that one until he meets his end at the hands of the title character a killer who is targeting off-duty police officers.  While his device works very well to create both an interesting, entertaining read, it also presents what I take to be a very realistic portrayal of police work, decades before Tana French had essentially the same idea.  There really is nothing new under the sun.

I was so taken with Mr. McBain's book that I thought I'd give reading them all a try.  I recently read all ten of the Martin Beck series by Sjowall and Wahloo and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  The Beck books and the 87th Precinct books are tautly written novels that all come in near  the 200 page mark, so reading them all isn't nearly as big a project as it sounds.  When I looked the 87th Precinct series up on Wikipedia, I found what looks like 50 titles, too many for me to read them all.  But not so many that I won't read any more.  I've a feeling Mr. McBain will become a lifelong pleasure for me, much like Georges Simenon's Maigret novels have been.

There's  something very appealing about the old-fashioned detective novel, the kind that featured crime you could believe really happens all the time.  One thing I liked most about Cop Hater is that the killer turned out not to be a copy killer at all, but just a man killing other men who happened to be police officers, the motive for his crime as common as love gone wrong.

While it doesn't take much brains to be a police detective, it takes even less to be a criminal.


Sandy Nawrot said...

I've read a million detective books in series, but many of them just blend into one another. And they are so unrealistic, and seem to be trying to out-gross each other. Ones that are grounded and real, focus on the clash of personalities, and throw important people under the bus are what I really like. Still, 50 of them eh? Eek.

Teresa said...

I read and enjoyed a few of these many years ago, but they ended up falling by the wayside, and I never got back around to them. Jenny, who like procedurals more than I do in general, is a big fan of the series. I think she has actually read them all!

C.B. James said...

I've put three more on hold at the library. McBain really cranked them out for a while there, up to three a year. The last one was published the year he died. It could take a while to get throm them all, but they are quick reads.