RogerBW's Blog

Cop Hater, Ed McBain 12 January 2019

1956 police procedural, first in the 87th Precinct series. When an off-duty detective is murdered, it might have been for any number of reasons. Then his partner is shot with the same gun…

It's not the first police procedural, of course; even if you restrict the term to stories attempting an accurate depiction of police work, there were examples scattered through the early twentieth century, and of course Dragnet started in 1949 and moved to television in 1951. In the year this book came out, Anthony Boucher noted in the New York Times Book Review that such stories were becoming so popular that they constituted a subgenre in their own right, and coined the name.

But while it isn't the first, even without considering the rest of the series, this book was clearly highly influential. All sorts of small tropes, familiar to me from TV cop shows and later novels, are here in primitive form. To take just one example, what's the concept of CSI beyond an expansion of this paragraph?

The heelprint was instantly photographed, not because the boys liked to play with cameras, but simply because they knew accidents frequently occurred in the making of a cast. The heelprint was placed on a black-stained cardboard scale, marked off in inches. The camera, supported above the print by a reversible tripod, the lens parallel to the print to avoid any false perspectives, clicked merrily away. Satisfied that the heelprint was now preserved for posterity—photographically, at least—the Lab boys turned to the less antiseptic task of making the cast.

But I think the key novelty here is that the book is not about a single heroic investigator. Yes, Detective Steve Carella is the principal character and the guy who figures things out, but he's not a genius; other detectives get their share of time on the page, and even have useful things to contribute. Without the "Lab boys" he wouldn't have a starting point. It's quite a difference from the lone detective, with or without the sanction of the law, who's a key part of the cosy template.

At the same time this is a very grim book, going out of its way to make sure nobody is a flawless hero. This isn't helped by 1950s culture; as always when I read a book written noticeably before the present day I try to compensate, but when the first murdered man's widow (talking about bedtimes when he was working on a late shift) can say:

"Well, you know, we discussed it. Mike preferred staying up, but I have two children, and I'm beat when it hits ten o'clock. So he usually compromised on those nights, and we both got to bed early—at about nine, I suppose."

it's hard to remember that it really wasn't considered a father's job to have much to do with the day-to-day raising of children. And then Carella takes his girlfriend out for an exotic Chinese meal, of which the crowning glory is… a whole pineapple.

Considered as a mystery, the story fails slightly in that you can't hope to identify the criminal before the police do; there's no neat set of suspects to be eliminated, because the pool of suspects is everyone in the city, and the killer will have to be caught by more direct means. On the other hand, the experienced mystery reader will be able to work out broadly what is going on.

For a book clearly written to be easy to read and appeal to the mass market, there's some remarkable subtlety here. Carella's girlfriend is both deaf and unable to speak, and this is introduced so sympathetically through his eyes that when someone else refers to her (in valid contemporary parlance) as a "dummy" it's a shock. While people can pretty much be divided into good and bad, that doesn't entirely align with which side of the law they're on. The heat of a city summer is almost a character in its own right. There's banter and bureaucracy, gangs of teen-agers (sic) and a troublesome reporter from back when people could still say with a straight face that newspapers didn't lie.

I took a look at this book because a friend's running a game in a setting loosely inspired by the series, and I'm impressed. I certainly plan to read more. Followed by The Mugger.

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