Over the last few years, I’ve become rather fond of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. The more I read them, the more I come to love the whole setup.
Curiously, though, it never occurred to me that I should make any attempt to read them in order. That could be because I buy a lot of my books in second-hand stores and charity shops. There’s something about the pot-luck nature of that kind of browsing that I really enjoy and the prices aren’t too shabby either. I know that by shopping this way I’m doing authors out of royalties, but the whole process fits in with my love of novels and my views on recycling and reusing that mean my conscience remains clear.
That’s only relevant because I recently decided to read Cop Hater (US), the book where the 87th all began. What I was a little surprised by was the excellent quality here. I tend to feel that writers mature as they go on and that a series is improved as the depth and the layers are added over time. In this case, I reckon this opener is as fully-baked, well put together and as compelling as any of the other later works that I’ve read.
In this one, there’s a heat-wave that swelters on the page and brings with it the smouldering lust that permeates the book. There’s a cop killer on the loose and Detective Carella is losing his friends and colleagues on a regular basis. As he investigates, the case literally arrives at his doorstep and there’s an uncomfortable and exciting sequence to bring the whole thing to a close.
It was great to meet Steve and Teddy in the early years of their relationship, but in many ways I feel like I already know about those days because of the references in the later stories. It was also something of a surprise to realise just how rounded and substantial Corella is as a character from the off. The nature of the crimes had me hooked from the beginning and the cops are all sympathetic characters even when they’re unlikeable.
Something I particularly like about McBain’s style is the way the tangents work. The red-herrings never feel contrived. Instead, they feel like real avenues of exploration and they all bring something to the books in their own right. It might be that we learn a little more of the character or there may just be a light interlude from the more substantial threads. They become tales in their own right, small vignettes and side shows that add flavour to the main event. I never get the feeling that I’ve been lead down the garden path or that I’m being manipulated by an author who is artificially creating hooks and tension just to keep me interested.
Cop Hater is definitely a good place to start if you’ve never picked up a McBain. Then again, if you’re like me and have already been working your way randomly through the series, this will be a terrific addition to your collection and will be another great read for you to appreciate.