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.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog. ["As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases."]

Series: 87th Precinct | Next in series: The Mugger

Comments on this post are now closed. If you have particular grounds for adding a late comment, comment on a more recent post quoting the URL of this one.

Tags 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s 2010s 3d printing action advent of code aeronautics aikakirja anecdote animation anime army astronomy audio audio tech aviation base commerce battletech beer boardgaming book of the week bookmonth chain of command children chris chronicle church of no redeeming virtues cold war comedy computing contemporary cornish smuggler cosmic encounter coup covid-19 crime cthulhu eternal cycling dead of winter doctor who documentary drama driving drone ecchi economics en garde espionage essen 2015 essen 2016 essen 2017 essen 2018 essen 2019 essen 2022 essen 2023 existential risk falklands war fandom fanfic fantasy feminism film firefly first world war flash point flight simulation food garmin drive gazebo genesys geocaching geodata gin gkp gurps gurps 101 gus harpoon historical history horror hugo 2014 hugo 2015 hugo 2016 hugo 2017 hugo 2018 hugo 2019 hugo 2020 hugo 2022 hugo-nebula reread in brief avoid instrumented life javascript julian simpson julie enfield kickstarter kotlin learn to play leaving earth linux liquor lovecraftiana lua mecha men with beards mpd museum music mystery naval noir non-fiction one for the brow opera parody paul temple perl perl weekly challenge photography podcast politics postscript powers prediction privacy project woolsack pyracantha python quantum rail raku ranting raspberry pi reading reading boardgames social real life restaurant reviews romance rpg a day rpgs ruby rust scala science fiction scythe second world war security shipwreck simutrans smartphone south atlantic war squaddies stationery steampunk stuarts suburbia superheroes suspense television the resistance the weekly challenge thirsty meeples thriller tin soldier torg toys trailers travel type 26 type 31 type 45 vietnam war war wargaming weather wives and sweethearts writing about writing x-wing young adult
Special All book reviews, All film reviews
Produced by aikakirja v0.1