Cop Hater (87th Precinct 1) by Ed McBain

A real classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn’t known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there’s a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again…

First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. I read many of them in my teens, but this is the first time I’ve revisited the Precinct in decades. I have no memory of the individual plots, but vividly remember the setting and several of the characters – a testimony to how well drawn they are. In this one Steve Carella is the main focus but as the series progressed McBain developed an entire group of detectives who took their turn in the spotlight, which is why the series is known by the name of the squad rather than any one detective. Carella stays at the forefront more than the other detectives overall, though, throughout the series. The books are based in Isola, an area of a major city which is clearly a fictionalised New York. The various boroughs have been given different names but are apparently recognisable to people who know the city (which I only do through books and TV or movies – I suspect my first impressions of New York may in fact have come from this series).

Apparently the series was made into a TV show. I had no idea – I wonder if it wasn’t shown on this side of the pond…

The style seems to me like a kind of crossover point between the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Chandler and their generation, and the more modern police procedural that would come to the fore and perhaps dominate crime fiction over the next few decades. (I hasten to add I’m no expert and not particularly widely-read, especially in American crime fiction, so this is just my own impression – perhaps other writers had been making the transition before McBain got there.) When he writes about the city – the soaring skylines, the dazzling lights, the display of wealth and glamour barely hiding the crime, corruption and violence down on the streets – it reads like pure noir; and in this one there’s a femme fatale who equals any of the greats, oozing sexuality and confidence in her power over men.

But when he writes about Carella and the squad his tone is warmer, less hard-edged. While hardboiled and noir detectives always seem to be loners, rather mysterious men without much in the way of backstory, McBain’s police officers are real humans, who joke and watch sports, who have wives and children. Personally I prefer that mix to pure noir – McBain’s detectives aren’t always wholly likeable, but they’re human enough to allow me to care about them. Also, because he uses an entire squad as his protagonist, each individual is more expendable than the single hero or partnership of many other authors, so there’s always an air of real suspense as to whether they will come through dangerous situations. They don’t always…

The plot is excellent – I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that it was only just before the reveal that I really got any idea of where it was heading. McBain creates great atmosphere with his writing, which actually is of much higher quality than I remembered. Some of the scenes had me on the edge of my seat and he left me shocked more than once, but without ever stepping over the credibility line. In fact, realism is at the heart of the book – these detectives have to rely on doing the legwork, using informants and hoping for lucky breaks. There’s a fair amount of casual police brutality, with the impression that this was the norm back then, and rather approved of than otherwise, both within the service and by society in general (and, I suspect, by McBain himself). Times change – depictions of casual and repeated brutality by police protagonists in contemporary British crime fiction annoy me because it wouldn’t be considered acceptable here today and so jars as unrealistic. But it feels right in this book, and isn’t over-emphasised; it’s just part of the job.

Ed McBain
Copyright: Getty Images

There’s also a strand about the relationship between the police and the press, with an irresponsible journalist creating problems for the investigation. This is handled very well, with the reader put firmly on the side of the police. They may not always be nice guys, but McBain leaves us in no doubt that they’re the good guys. And yes, I do mean guys – no women yet in this detective squad. Women are strictly either femmes fatales or loving wives and girlfriends. Well, it was the ’50s!

The ending has aspects of the thriller and again reverts to a more noir-ish feel as we discover the motivation behind the crimes.

I was expecting to like this but perhaps to find it a bit dated. In fact, I loved it. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven’t changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir. I was intending to read this as a one-off as part of my Classics Club challenge, but I’ll certainly be revisiting the 87th Precinct again.

Book 13 of 90

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42 thoughts on “Cop Hater (87th Precinct 1) by Ed McBain

  1. So glad you liked this so much, FictionFan, even after a long time. It really is still a fresh series, isn’t it, although this one was written in the ’50s. To me, that’s the mark of a fine book. And I do like the fact that the series isn’t really about just one of those cops. It’s about the precinct and the people who work there. And that allowed McBain a lot of flexibility in terms of plots, etc.. Definitely a series to recommend to anyone who enjoys crime fiction.

    • Much fresher than I was expecting, Margot, and also I didn’t remember the writing of being such a high quality – I have a feeling we just took good writing as a given in published books back then. I always liked that the books were about the squad too – as you say, it allows McBain to range a bit more widely. Some of the charcaters I remember weren’t in this one, so he must have kept adding to the team as he went along. Good stuff – I’ll definitely be reading more.

  2. I love a good hard-boiled detective series/police procedural. I’ve been going back to old series, because of the writing. Yet, can you believe it, I’ve never read one of Ed McBain’s books? My dad was a Mickey Spillane fan, so we had those and Dashiell Hammett’s books around the house when I was growing up.

    • It’s funny you should say that – I was thinking while reading this that I hadn’t remembered how well written they were, and that made me think that maybe we just expected good writing as a given back then, which sadly is not always the case in genre writing these days. I’ve only read one Mickey Spillane and thoroughly enjoyed it – I’ve got one on my Classics Club. Same with Hammett actually – I think I’ve only read one of his too, also excellent. I really must read more American crime of that era…

  3. I think I have this on my shelves somewhere. I Identified McBain as a gap in my reading portfolio some time ago, would have automatically bought the first in the series but then didn’t get round to reading it. Perhaps one long winter’s night.

    • My older sister loved this series back in the day, so I read all the ones she had on her bookshelf, but I’ve never revisitied them till now and had forgotten just what a good writer he is. And the joy of books of this era is that they’re not full of padding, so actually can be read in one or two evenings! If you get around to it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

  4. Ah I loved these as a teen too! I especially remember Carella’s wife/girlfriend for reasons i wont mention as it may be a spoiler – it was a long time ago. I seem to remember there was one title in the series i didnt like – it might have been He who Hesitates – the rest were wonderful,. Now I will have to search them out again! Curses!!!

    • Yes, Carella’s wife had always stuck in my mind too – even then it seemed quite refreshing for a detective to have a happy relationship, apart from anything else. I don’t remember the books individually at all, but I realised when reading this one that I remember the team very well and I actually think my idea of New York is still based on these. It also reminded me of some later stuff, like Cagney and Lacey and Hill Street Blues.

  5. I’ve never heard of these, but I’m glad you brought them to my attention because now I can recommend them to my brother. I have to admit that I’m even tempted, and temptation is something I do not need. 😉

    • Haha – go on, there’s only fifty-five in the series! 😉 Seriously, though, loads of the positive reviews of these are from men so I think they’d be an excellent recommendation for your brother.

  6. I like how you have chosen the longest running series ever to try and bump up the entire community’s TBRs in one go! I have never read any of these and expected the review to mention how dated they were but apart from the attitudes, it appears not. Great review as always and I’ll consider adding one 😏

    • Haha – I know! I knew it had been a long-running series but I had no idea it ran to 55! I’m restricting myself to adding them one at a time – I feel my poor TBR has had enough shocks recently… 😉

    • I have a feeling the series kinda disappeared for a couple of decades but is now enjoying a bit of a revival. Definitely still very readable despite a couple of outdated attitudes – the quality of the writing and characterisation is so good!

  7. I loved this book too. Like you I read lots of the books in my teens and when I picked this one up in a secondhand bookshop a few years ago I was amazed that it was the style of McBain’s writing that struck me – with such vivid, precise descriptions, terse and tense dialogue as well as a dramatic plot. I’m sure I didn’t notice this the first time round – I just read it for the story and, as you say, took the writing for granted.

    • Me too, Margaret – I was really stunned at the writing and much more aware of the noir feel to it than I remembered. Perhaps we were less observant about writing back then – or perhaps, sadly, so many crime novels these days are really quite badly written, so that it makes us appreciate good writing as something to be savoured…

    • I’ve really been enjoying reading some of the older crime fiction recently, especially since it tends to be the better stuff which is still in print. I had forgotten how good the writing in this series is – throughly recommended if you do get a chance to read more classics. 😀

  8. Oh I like the sound of this series, it sounds really interesting (outdated attitudes aside). Its sometimes difficult to swallow the sexist or racist opinions that these older books hold, but I have to remind myself that it was a different time, etc. And who knows what people are going to think of our contemporary books in 2060?

    • Yes, sometimes I struggle with the attitudes – somehow sometimes they seem more unplasant than others. In this one, though the women are hardly shown as modern, McBain on the whole treats them with respect and as if he likes them. Ha! Given literature’s current obsession with gender identity, I suspect our books will seem very dated and “of their time” to the people of the future… 😉

  9. Your review made me think of two things: 1) How many Sweet Valley Twin books I read while I was growing up. There are times I want to go back and re-read some of them, but about a year ago I read the first page of the first book in the high school series and was completely disgusted! How I brainwashed myself so thoroughly reading those stories. What made you decide to revisit your high school book love? And 2) I really need to read the graphic novels on which the movie Atomic Blonde is based. My god, she kicked and punched and fought that whole film. It was so good to watch. Femme fatale indeed.

    • Yes, sometimes revisiting much loved books is a big mistake. In this case, I decided to put some classic crime on my classics club list, and this series was pretty influential on the genre, so it seemed like an obvious choice. I only intended to read the first one though, but I enjoyed it so much I now want to re-read more of them. Ha! She sounds it! Though back in the classic crime days, femmes fatales did it all through sex-appeal – a carefully crossed leg, a hint of cleavage, a husky voice. Men were pushovers back in those days… 😉

  10. Great review, one of the few books I’ve gone back to re-read. And on a positive note for people who haven’t read the series – the books are short, especially in comparison to today’s crime fiction!

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