Cop Hater is the first in Ed McBain’s long, long series of police procedurals about the 87th Precinct. There were, in the end, over fifty of them, plus a smattering of short stories, all of them taking place in the great imaginary city of Isola. McBain started writing them in the 1950s, sometimes writing two or three of them a year, and you’d think that with so many of them, they would be formulaic or dull, mere potboilers. But I read them all about ten years ago, and each one is full of life and interest. The city itself (based loosely on New York — the borough of Calm’s Point roughly approximating Brooklyn, for instance) becomes a character, and McBain sketches the detectives so deftly that you get to know them in just a few sentences. The prose is lovely:
At night, coming down the River Highway, you were caught in a dazzling galaxy of brilliant suns, a web of light strung out from the river and then south to capture the city in a brilliant display of electrical wizardry. The highway lights glistened close and glistened farther as they skirted the city and reflected in the dark waters of the river. The windows of the buildings climbed in brilliant rectangular luminosity, climbed to the stars and joined the wash of red and green and yellow and orange neon which tinted the sky. The traffic lights blinked their gaudy eyes and along the Stem, the incandescent display tangled in a riot of color and eye-aching splash.
The city lay like a sparkling nest of rare gems, shimmering in layer upon layer of pulsating intensity.
The buildings were a stage set.
They faced the river, and they glowed with man-made brilliance, and you stared up at them in awe, and you caught your breath.
Behind the buildings, behind the lights, were the streets.
There was garbage in the streets.
Cop Hater opens with the shooting of Detective Mike Reardon, execution-style: two bullets in the head. The 87th Precinct, where he worked, is thrown into a frenzy, trying to find his killer with virtually no clues; was it linked to one of Mike’s prior arrests, someone who recently got out of jail, an old grudge, a new flame? The point of view shifts in the novel fairly frequently from one person to another, but it’s safe to say that Steve Carella is the main character, and his investigation becomes increasingly frustrated. Then the entire landscape changes when another detective is shot and killed, and then another. The tension mounts when the foolish actions of a reporter put Carella’s fiancee in danger, and the ending is a genuine surprise — even though I’d read it before, I enjoyed it all over again.
I re-read this book because the mystery book club I’m joining was reading it for this month’s selection. It almost made me want to re-read all fifty. McBain’s books are addictively enjoyable: quick, solid, well-written police procedurals with deliciously human characters. The only thing wrong with them is that they are such quick reads that you need to take three of them out of the library at a time. And how can that really be “wrong”?