Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

Note: I was originally going to post this on my other blog, The Low Culture, but I've decided to post it here instead.
Clocking in at 150 pages, it was also a short start, but by no means was it lacking.

(via Tipping My Fedora)

It was a good book and hopefully a good start on reading that stack of detective/mystery/crime fiction. Some background info on the series and it's author before I start talking about the book itself: Ed McBain was the pen name of Evan Hunter, who famously wrote the novel Blackboard Jungle, which was later turned into an Academy Award-nominated movie starring Sidney Portier and Glenn Ford. McBain was one of the names he used when he wrote "serious" fiction and specifically this was the one he used for his vaunted 87th Precinct series.

The series itself is set in Isola, a district of a fictional city based on New York City. In the foreword of Cop Hater, McBain explains that he originally was going to have the series set in NYC, but went the fictitious route because he kept annoying the NYPD daily with questions about their procedures and such, and decided it would be easier to just create his own city. As far as I know, the city went unnamed, but Isola was a stand-in for Manhattan. The novels follow Steve Carella and the detectives of the 87th Precinct as they do their job of solving crimes and living life. The series was inspired by the Dragnet radio show, and I definitely got a Dragnet vibe from reading Cop Hater. Hell, there's even a reference made to Joe Friday!

That aside, let's get to Cop Hater and I should warn you right now: there will be spoilers, so proceed with caution.

Like I said at the beginning of the post, the book only clocks in at 150 pages, but man, oh man, is it ever packed full to the gills! The compact nature insures that there aren't any dead spots or filler and really heightened the suspense. This was especially true as I neared the end of the book with only twenty, then fifteen, then ten pages left to go, and I wondered how and when the story would be resolved.

I really enjoyed the plot, which involves three detectives being gunned down in cold blood and the efforts of the Carella and the 87th to bring justice to their fallen comrades (one of whom was Carella's partner). Cop Hater starts with the first detective, Mike Reardon taking two .45 caliber bullets in the back of the head as he walked to the 87th precinct's station house. Some time later, his partner, David Foster, is gunned down on his way home. The majority of the book then follows the investigation into their murders, which at first are thought to be grudge killings by a vengeful criminal that the two had arrested in the past. Nothing pans out and little progress is made, aside from having a heel print from the killer's shoe.

Then Carella's partner, Hank Bush, is murdered. Here, the detectives catch a break, thanks to the quick reaction and thinking of Bush. Unlike the first two, Bush managed to draw his gun and put a bullet through the killer's shoulder. He also succeeded in scratching up the killer's face and ripping out some hair before dying. This allows the crime lab to gain some much needed information about the killer, such as race, height, weight, profession, etc. All of this is explain in the form of one of the book's several info dumps. Still, the progress this information provides still doesn't move them anywhere closer to bringing the cop killer to justice. The detectives do make some more headway after a doctor reports getting a patient with a gunshot wound to the shoulder. Unfortunately, by the time the police arrive, the man is long gone. The doctor provides a detailed description of what the suspect looked like and the police lift his fingerprints from some stirrups he had touched, but again, progress stalls - the prints come up blank in both the police and FBI databases, and despite circulating a police artist sketch of the suspect to the media, the 87th's detectives are left spinning their wheels waiting for a break in the case.

There are two small subplots in the book that introduce two characters that have a big impact in the story's climax. The first is Teddy Franklin, Steve Carella's girlfriend (and later, wife). While she only shows up like three times in the entire book, I found her interesting because of her disability: Teddy is deaf and mute. Considering that this book came out in 1956 and she's the main character's love interest, I thought this was very interesting.

The other character is a newspaper (tabloid) reporter named Cliff Savage and man, is this guy a bag of dicks. He's one of those stereotypical reporters out to get a story even if he has to make one up.I call this guy a bag of dicks because he almost succeeds unintentionally in getting three people killed during the course of his four brief appearances in Cop Hater. The first time is after he tries to interview the member of a teenage street gang because he's convinced, CONVINCED, that Reardon and Foster were murdered by teenagers. Well, this street gang, The Grovers, decided to jump this nosy reporter to scare him off. Unfortunately, they jump the wrong guy - in this case, a street cop who happened to be wearing a similar suit as the reporter and with the same hair color - and one of the teens ends up shooting the cop in the shoulder. The cop survives, but the precinct is forced to divert their attention from the main crime itself to rounding up the gang and finding that shooter.

The second time is near the end of the book when he interviews a reluctant Carella under the pretense that it was all off the record. Not surprisingly, Savage publishes a sensationalist version of the conversation and publishes the name and address of Teddy. This was one of the few times in my life that I've wanted to punch a fictional character right in the face. Well, not surprisingly, the killer goes to Teddy's apartment and holds her at gunpoint while waiting for Carella shows up. Here, Teddy saves the day as the killer only knows that she's mute, but not deaf. She uses this to her and Steve's advantage, when she sees the handle of her front door turning left and right (this was how Carella "knocked" and why Teddy opened to door for the killer) and throws a drink in the killer's face. This causes him to yell, which alerts Carella, who in turn, barges in and shoots the killer in the leg.

Apprehended, the killer reveals his name as Paul Mercer and explains that while he murdered the three detectives, only Bush was his true target - Reardon and Foster were killed simply to give the false impression that there was a cop killer on the loose. Mercer drops another bombshell: He was put up to it by a woman, namely Bush's wife, Alice! Now, that was a plot twist! Needless to say, she's arrested and when questioned by Carella, she claims she put Mercer up to it because she hated Bush and knew he would never give her a divorce. She also arrogantly claims that she'll never be convicted "as long as there is one man on the jury", banking on her good looks and bustline.

Heh, the jury has eight men and finds both her and Mercer guilty of murder, and the judge sends them to the electric chair. The book ends on a high note with Steve marrying Teddy, and the heatwave that permeated the story finally breaking.

My rating: 9/10. While I really liked the book and plan on reading the rest of the series, I wish there was a bit more meat on the bone.

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