Book Review : Ed McBain - Cop Hater (1956)
The post-war years were interesting in pop culture, to say the least. Noir aesthetic was taking off, along with crime novels and a distrust in authorities society never really had before. Antiheroes were becoming a thing. But they weren't for Ed McBain, who wanted to write about cops *. Cop Hater, his first 87th precinct novel went against the tide culturally and narratively. There's nothing about this book that's like its contemporaries and it's why it's interesting. That and, you know, being incredibly well-written doesn't hurt.
Cop Hater begins with the cold-blooded murder of Mike Reardon, an 87th precinct detective gunned down in the street for no apparent reason. His colleagues Steve Carella and Hank Bush are tasked with the homicide investigation, but finding an angry man wielding a .45 in New York is like finding a needle in a haystack in the fifties. Their colleagues start falling one after the other and the closer they circle to home, the less they like the answers that emerge. Something something even more fucked up than vendetta against cops is going on.
So, here's a novel featuring an entire precinct of cops for protagonists, which attempts to humanize law enforcement and inspire people to trust authorities. Kind of refreshing in the golden age of noir, don't you think? And Cop Hater is interested in little else than that. It's a social drama masquerading as a cop mystery. McBain's cops investigate New York's underbelly of street gangs, disgruntled army veterans and alienated workers and show post-war America with an honesty fellow noirists simply don't have. In the 87th Precinct, there's good, there's evil and there's people just trying to get by.
It's like the real world, isn't it? Cop Hater, despite its lurid title, expertly surfs the line between ordinary and extraordinary (or extraordinarily tragic, I guess) in order to up its stakes. Ed McBain painstakingly crafts his characters through mundane, but relatable details, only to snatch the away from us later. That's just good, believable writing. I don't think there's any grand, underlying statement to Cop Hater, just a supremely confident writer going against the tide of world weary, faux-tough guy novels of his era.
So yeah, Cop Hater is... interesting. There's an undeniable mastery to Ed McBain's writing and the humanizing angle is commanding, but for a novel centered around a series of murder, it oddly dances around the issue. It wasn't unpleasant, just a little odd that what McBain built up for two hundred pages took like, 6 pages to resolve. Cop Hater left me with almost as many question as it did with answers, but I'm looking forward to more. This is definitely unique and daring. And not only for its time. City cops aren't exactly considered to be folk heroes nowadays.
* Before you feel the irrepressible need to tell me McBain wrote noirs before that, I know. It doesn't change the fact he started writing about cops in 1956, doesn't it?