McBain, Ed (1956, 2003), Cop Hater, Orion
So this is another brief review, like this one – and for similar reasons. There’s really only one reason I read this book in the first place: I was familiar with the author’s name, and when this book turned up on an otherwise mostly literary list of “1000 (or so) books you should read”, I was puzzled and intrigued enough to give this one a spin. Primarily because of its interesting title and the fact that it’s the first of Ed McBain’s series of novels set in a (fictionalized) New York precinct. Let me just get this out of the way: it’s not great. If you are looking for a crime writing gem, using sparse but exquisite language to sculpt an exciting plot, go to the hardboiled classics. Or to this book. Or if you want a less well known one, try Richard Hugo’s only novel. But don’t read Cop Hater. I will say this, without having read his work, I am fairly sure that McBain gets better later in his career (after all, he wrote, among other things, the script for The Birds). Cop Hater is his first attempt at a kind of writing that was fairly new at the time. Do read Cop Hater if you are interested in an example of very early procedural police novel where not one mustachioed detective or elderly lady come up with the murderer after 200 pages of careful rumination (or in the case of Elizabeth George, 500+ pages), but where the detection is the result of a whole precinct’s carefully detailed police work. Throughout the whole book you can see the author grappling with various parts of the concept, putting elements in place, elements that we now know from a plethora of TV series and novels. It also shows some of the less pleasant elements underlying that genre. As a pioneer work, it’s certainly worth your time. It’s not exciting or well written -but it’s interesting.
First things first, there will be spoilers. One, because one thing that’s interesting about the book is the title, and it ties directly into the identity of the murderer, and two, because at no point are we really excited to find out who the murderer is. The book acts like that’s the case, but McBain at that point in his career hasn’t really learned how to let clues pile up, build up excitement or anything. His vast and prolific work in other genres has not prepared him for this. And I can’t help but feel as if the author is fully aware of this. Like me, his interest seems mostly to toy with the title and its implications, a case bolstered by the fact that the film poster to the 1958 movie version gives away the ending straight away. When Cop Hater was published in 1956, Ed McBain had already published about 10 novels under various pseudonyms and names. Born Salvatore Albert Lombino, he changed his name in 1952 on an editor’s advice to Evan Hunter. Ed McBain is one of Hunter’s numerous noms de plume (including Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Dean Hudson, Richard Marsten, Ezra Hannon and John Abbott), but clearly by far the most successful one. In the foreword to my edition, McBain explains how eventually, writing his 87th precinct novels took only about a month, but that Cop Hater took much longer, in part because of his research. Limiting his plots to the geographic realities of New York City, he created a fictional New York (Isola) that’s both similar and unlike the real thing. Closer to the actual New York than Gotham, and further from the actual New York than David Simon’s work is from the actual Baltimore. According to the foreword he kept talking to and calling the police to add accuracy to his writing.
Given McBain/Hunter’s background in speculative fiction, it’s understandable that he tried to overcorrect his fabulist tendencies. The effect on the book is interesting: there is a lot of dialogue and characterizations that appear to be the result of careful (if distorting) observations, but occasionally, McBain throws an infodump at us that is really odd. It’s like watching CSI-type stories learning to walk when McBain has a character offer a disquisition on how lab technicians can figure out a blood type, or how they can figure out from the type of someone’s hair whether they are children, teenagers or adults. There’s even a little table on the latter fact. Problem is: no one in the book asked for these facts. And not only that, but there are characters saying “why are you telling me this, it’s an irrelevant information.” Today’s reader can see the roots of CSI in this scientifically framed and expressed information, but what about McBain’s contemporaries? Given McBain’s meteoric success, it’s hard not to believe that they found it interesting, that it added to the overall vraisemblance of the writing. That’s probably what it was intended to do. The dialogue shows that McBain is aware of the potentially annoying nature of the information, but his goal is to create a believable, real, blood and guts police precinct that people could believe is in a real New York borough. He is, to repeat what I said earlier, not particularly, at this point, interested in building a consistent case with suspects, leads and developments. The murderer in question is caught, but that’s mostly because he more or less presents himself to the lead detective on the case, voluntarily, surprisingly, murder weapon, motivation and a co-conspirator in tow. It had nothing to do with everyone’s initial suspicion, but it’s that suspicion that lends form to the whole book. The closest we get to a lead on the real suspect is the lead detective’s intuition that basically just says (and I paraphrase): “maybe we’re wrong and it’s someone completely different?”
The murder(s) in question were two successive murders of police officers, with a third following later. Clearly, the murderer must have been a cop hater. But that doesn’t narrow down the list of suspects. As a detective explains early on: “This whole goddamn city is full of cop haters. You think anybody respects a cop? Symbol of law and order, crap!” This is not an insult, this is a sense of frustration and entitlement, a toxic cocktail that has only recently boiled up again in cases all over the US. And following the detectives through their work, it’s not hard to see why someone might “hate” them. A decade before the Supreme Court decided the “Miranda” case, we find the police in fine form, pressuring, bullying and attacking mostly innocent citizens. They are shown to be at least mildly corrupt, and they are not above wishing death on the press and gang members. And yet the author sides with them, using dismissive irony when discussing press coverage that stresses these very problems. Sure there are cops that go too far, but these, the author assures us, are not well-liked by other cops either, and plus, some goons jumped them so you’ll have to understand their preference for beating up prisoners. If you are at all wondering why the American police has been doing what they’ve been doing, it’s not easy (or pleasant) to imagine the 87th precinct as depicted in Cop Hater and equip them with the freedom to do whatever, and military-grade equipment. It’s interesting that in their search for a cop hater, the police talks to people that have been previously imprisoned or terrorized by the police. The way the system is structured becomes quickly apparent. But Cop Hater goes even beyond an examination of that bias. It also offers us the broader way that the police is integrated into the larger world of restriction and punishment.
The most relevant study of what McBain is doing here is probably The Novel and the Police by D.A. Miller a study on 19th century detective fiction that is really really good. Most relevant here is Miller’s assertion that “a policing power is inscribed in the ordinary practices and institutions of the world from the start” (talking about Wilkie Collins). While there is a police here, the border between police work and the policing in every day practices is very flimsy. The murder ends up being the brainchild of a woman, who convinced some brute to do her dirty work for her. Now, this woman is odd from the beginning. She is first shown us as a sexpot who does not offer her husband the sex he craves. In fact she teases him and turns him away. Strike One. Then she dresses slightly provocative at a funeral, enough to get a detective to have dirty thoughts. Strike Two. Finally, she transformed an apartment into some feminine nightmare that a manly police officer cannot possibly want to live in. It’s enough to terrify the lead detective on the case. His encounter with the woman ends thusly: “He was beginning to feel a little more comfortable with Alice. Maybe she wasn’t so female, after all.” – But of course she is very female. Strike Three. All these indications are not of course, real indications of crimes being committed, they are simple misogyny in action. However, the book uses the reader’s bigoted disapproval of nonstandard (submissive) female behavior in order to build a case against Alice that runs parallel to the police precinct’s borderline competent work. And when we finally see who did it, the book allows to quietly let these elements fall into place. In fact, Cop Hater even offers us a “good woman” in contrast: a woman who is literally unable to speak, who has no will of her own, who exists to love her boyfriend and be self conscious about her own shortcomings.
So, it really is an interesting read but the writing is horrific and all the learning and stumbling upon developing this modern genre can grate on the reader. Plus, the awful misogyny, while throwing a light on the “roman-police” as D.A. Miller termed it, is not necessarily pleasant to read, especially since the author does nothing to undercut it. If you have a historical interest in this, go for it. It’s short and despite the writing does read quickly. Would I read it again if I had the choice? Probably not.
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