Any new corpses today?”
“Pity. I’m getting so I miss my morning coffee and corpse.
It feels odd to read the first 87th Precinct novel, being that I’ve read a half-dozen or so of them as far along in the series as the 1970s, and already reviewed the movie version of this same book. It’s like returning to a favorite character back in their rough and ready early days, seeing them before they were famous—or, in a way, seeing them before they really became themselves, growing into the shoes they’d eventually fill. So, Cop Hater, the first novel of the 8-7. McBain’s helpful introduction explains why he went after the police procedural genre, commissioned to write the first three novels which would eventually spawn a nearly fifty-book series, and how he shadowed real New York police detectives to get the jargon and techniques down right. Interesting stuff.
Someone is killing off cops in the 87th Precinct. It started off with the murder of Mike Reardon, which was bad enough—gunned down just outside his apartment on the way to work. The death of Mike’s partner, black detective David Foster, puts pressure on the chief of police and left the detectives tense and agitated. It’s hard to track down the unknown killer and unravel their mysterious motive when a target’s painted on your back. The oppressive heat from one of the hottest summers in memory doesn’t help.
Steve Carella and his partner Hank Bush are on the case, two of the 87th’s best and brightest. The novel tracks their investigation, going after clues which lead to dead-end alleys and back, keeping their noses on the ground and riling up their stool pigeon; working hard using established technique to try and solve the crime before someone else gets gunned down. Steve has a deaf-mute fiancee name Teddy, while Hank has a tease of a wife he doesn’t quite understand; their home lives become crucial parts of the novel when the killer strikes closer to home.
Meanwhile, we also have a subplot of an investigative journalist with the name of Savage looking into the killer as well, who’s got one of the city’s youth gangs—the Grovers, based around Grover Park (the Central Park analogue)—never mind that the killings are clean and unpredictable, Savage is sure they have something to do with it. And Savage’s prodding ends up putting one of the 87th’s patrolmen, Bert Kling, in an accidental world of hurt, when the Grovers mistake Kling for the similarly-dressed Savage.
McBain was doing a few things that nobody else had really done before: instead of just one character, we have an ensemble cast more in the style of modern TV shows, with a few primary protagonists (Steve Carella) and a number of backups (Havilland, Lt. Byrnes, Bush, Bert Kling, Hal Willis, et al). All the characters emerge fully-formed with their own personalities and backgrounds, making things a bit more complex and realistic, more of a slice-of-life angle from the police view. The cast of detectives—the police squadroom, the unit, the 87th Precinct detective force—is a character unto itself. Plus, we see McBain has a fascination with forensic science. This is all stuff we’ve come to expect from your average police procedural on TV; of course, McBain was writing them back in the ’50s when the only comparable fiction was his inspiration, Dragnet the radio serial.
And if the amalgamated unit of detectives has become a character, so has the mythical city McBain uses as a backdrop. I commented on this—quoted it, for truth—when I reviewed The Mugger, but McBain uses the city, its streets, citizens, the environment and weather, to make the amalgamated city another character. McBain refers to the city as a her, with wiles and motives of her own, and it’s effective stuff, pure urban noir. The city itself was originally New York, but making it into a fictional variant—with its own boroughs like Riverhead, Diamondback, Bethtown, and the island of Isola, nestled between the rivers Harb and Dix. The introduction explains that it was easier to move to a fictional setting, not just for leeway in accuracy—the difference between “based on” established police procedure and “exact” established procedure—but also to allow McBain free reign to develop the urban setting as its own character.
I’d forgotten that early in the 87th Precinct series, McBain had a strong emphasis on including not only real procedures but real documents, and explains a lot of police procedure in detail in the process. He doesn’t do this in the form of a dry lecture, but gently walking us through the rigorous details until we arrive at the characters and their current situation. It’s neat seeing a lot of police jargon and elements explained in layman’s terms; we’ve seen all this detail before in every single cop show on TV, but McBain spells it out without being heavy-handed or dull.
Cop Hater isn’t the greatest entry in the series; I think The Mugger greatly improved on its elements and ideas to create a more well-rounded work, and by the time McBain was a dozen books into the series, things had developed a bit differently from where this first novel started off. But it is something like the pilot of a TV show—it gets you familiarized with the characters, offers an easy way to get into the series before things start to heat up. And McBain has several nice surprises up his sleeves, that you might not expect him to play in a series’ debut novel. I enjoyed it, but there are better 87th Precinct novels that are more polished and have more interesting crimes/elements.