87th Precinct // Books 1-5 // by Ed McBain

  • Cop Hater (1956) – 3*
  • The Mugger (1956) – 4*
  • The Pusher (1956) – 3.5*
  • The Con Man (1957) – 3.5*
  • Killer’s Choice (1958) – 4*

The 87th Precinct is one of those “classic” crime series that I’ve heard about here and there but never really picked up for myself.  Although they are billed as books that can be read in any order, we all know that I’m rather OCD about reading all the books in order all the time, so I decided to start at the beginning of this series.  Since there are 55 installments, it may take me a while if I end up reading all of them – which, based on the first five, I very well might!

The beginning of the series was originally published in the 1950’s, so the editions I got from the library were various anniversary editions with intriguing forewords and afterwords that I quite enjoyed.  McBain is a pen name for an author who not only had a lot of pen names, but also at one point legally changed his name, so while I believe Evan Hunter is his legal name, I’ll refer to him as McBain.

So, in the forward of Cop Hater, McBain was explaining how his idea for the series was that instead of having an individual at its heart, he would have an entire precinct of law enforcement.  Every book could focus on a different character, giving a fresh angle to each story.  Originally, McBain said, he intended to set the series in New York City, and as such he got permission to actually ride around with different officers and really observe the whole process.  But when he sat down to start writing, he realized he just still had a lot of questions, and he wanted to get everything right, because he was, at some level, representing the law enforcement of NYC.  At first, he would call and ask questions, but as he began to realize this was inefficient for him, and for police officers who have other things to do rather than answer questions for a novelist, he got the bright idea to not use NYC specifically, but to instead create a fictional location, known throughout the series as simply the City.  (We are given names of various areas and suburbs of the City, but not the name of the City itself, although apparently in some television adaptations they call it Isola, which is the name of one of the districts in the books.)

And so we have the setting, and we have the characters, and we are off to the races in Cop Hater.  The first book is a bit on the meh side.  I figured out the answer partway through, and the whole mystery was of the straightforward type.  What intrigued me much more were the actual characters – I honestly liked them all. I was also interested how McBain was writing during the “racist” 1950’s – I’m told repeatedly that it was an era of the unenlightened, yet McBain somehow managed to casually include multiple characters who don’t fit the straight white male stereotype that we’re told everyone fit in the 1950’s, which only goes to show that throughout time there have always been some people who are racist and some people who aren’t.

At any rate, the main detective in Cop Hater is Steve Carella, an extremely likable, level-headed individual who isn’t a druggie or a drunkard or a rebel.  He’s just a regular, everyday detective trying to keep bad guys off the street.  He’s in love with Theodora (aka Teddy), who, interestingly enough, is a deaf-mute.  I loved this part of Teddy’s character because it doesn’t define her, but it does impact her and how she interacts with the world – for instance, at one point Carella believes she may be in danger, but he can’t call and warn her because she doesn’t have a telephone, obviously.  Minor spoiler, but at the end of Cop Hater, Carella and Teddy head off to get married, and when The Mugger opens, Carella isn’t really in the story because he’s on his honeymoon.

One other thing I really liked about Cop Hater was that the one guy who really was a little weasel was the reporter.  I think it’s weird that we’re in an era (in real life) where the police are considered the bad guys, and reporters are basically gods who are willing to risk their lives to bring us THE TRUTH (ha).  I like McBain’s perspective much better – that while there are some bad cops, for the most part they are hard-working individuals who really do put their lives on the line to keep their citizens safe.  Reporters, on the other hand, don’t really care who gets hurt in the crossfire so long as they get a good story.

The second story focuses on a young patrolman named Bert Kling, who is happy to walk his beat for now, but still hopes to be a detective someday.  I honestly fell a little bit in love with Kling, who is an extremely likable individual.  The rhythm in The Mugger seemed better than the first book.  I also liked the way that McBain began including various paperwork within the text – a copy of an autopsy or a criminal record.  At the end of this book, Kling makes a brilliant conclusion and is promoted to detective.

In The Pusher, Carella is back from his honeymoon.  This was a book with excellent pacing, and some great moral dilemmas are presented.  The lieutenant of the precinct, Peter Brynes, is brought somewhat to the forefront in this book.  He’s already been introduced in the earlier books as a steady, just force, but here he is faced with some genuinely difficult situations that I thought were handled really well.  In the course of all of this, Carella is shot and is hospitalized.  Now, because I had seen Carella’s name mentioned in the synopses of future books, I knew that he lived.  But because McBain is quite casual about killing people off (seriously, he killed off multiple cops in the first couple of books that were characters we actually knew!!), I can imagine that if you were reading this when it was first published you would have been quite concerned about Carella’s safety – and with good reason, according to McBain’s afterword!

The basic premise behind the 87th Precinct novels … [was]: Conglomerate hero in a mythical city.  Meaning that one cop can step into the spotlight in one novel, another in a next novel, cops can get killed and disappear from the series, other cops can come in …  But I kept remembering what I’d said when I first described the series, all that stuff about cops going and coming, cops getting killed and replaced by other cops, and it seemed to me that a very classy thing to do would be to kill off a guy that we’d all come to like and admire …

Steve Carella was supposed to die in this book.

The way the book originally ended, in fact, the way I delivered it to my agent, and the way he delivered it to my editor was that Lieutenant Byrnes came into the hospital, just as he does now, and saw Teddy Carella coming down the corridor toward him, just as she does now … everything just as it is now.  Except Teddy wasn’t smiling. …

The last two lines of the [original] book were:

It was Christmas day, and all was right with the world.  

But Steve Carella was dead.

I thought this was hot stuff.  I mean, I thought nobody in the history of crime fiction had ever done that, kill off a guy we’d been rooting for through all the book?  I mean talk about innovation!  Gleefully I wrapped the book, hand-delivered it to my agent, and walked out onto Fifth Avenue again, grinning as if I’d just discovered penicillin.

But what McBain goes on to recall is that both his agent and his editor didn’t see the series in quite the same light as McBain.  In fact, they saw Carella as the hero, the main guy, and they didn’t want him to die.  And so, despite his grandiose ideas of drama, McBain ends up letting Carella live, and although we don’t only follow things from Carella’s perspective in the rest of the series, he does become the touchstone for the series, a steady presence in a cast that does indeed ebb and flow.

I feel like this post is getting rather long and rambly, so just a few more thoughts on these first five books – in short, they got better as they went.  While The Mugger did get a technically higher star rating than the next two books, it was mostly because I really loved Bert Kling so much.  If I’m honest, the actual storytelling got progressively better with each book, and by the time I got to Killer’s Choice, it really felt like McBain was hitting his stride.  The main characters of the precinct have been established, and even the City itself feels more authentic.  Some of the harrowing experiences from the earliest books have given background for the main characters going forward, giving them some depth and interest.

While I do agree that these books could be read in any order – McBain does a great job of concisely and clearly summarizing important bullet points about characters and events – as usual, I think the series gains a lot of depth by reading them in order, because past events do impact the actions of the characters.

There isn’t really any swearing in these books so far, which I actually find delightful.  I was cracking up when one character was saying to himself that as far as he was concerned they “could go and.”  And yes, that was it.  “And” with a period – you fill in the blank as to what they can go and do lol

However, there is a bit of sex, not overly graphic, but it’s there.  There is a lot of casual references to prostitutes (it’s left a little vague as to whether or not it’s a legal practice or simply overlooked by the law for the sake of convenience), and McBain’s characters seem to all have a thing for a “nice pair of legs” on a woman, although despite this, the way that McBain writes women who are sharp and savvy meant that his writing didn’t come through as ludicrously sexist to me.

It was astounding to me how much drugs played a part in these stories, I think because we are constantly told that this is all a very contemporary, new problem.  But drug dealing and abuse is an active part of these 1950’s stories.

I think the main reason that I kept reading these books, and intend to continue with the series, is because McBain has a very wry sense of humor that keeps these books from falling into that dark, depressing street that so many crime procedurals follow.  His characters feel real without having to have a bunch of angst of being alcoholics and womanizers.  There are some guys that have some questionable methods, but it’s intriguing to see that they aren’t really met with approval by the majority of their coworkers.  While these books aren’t a joke a minute, there is enough humor there to keep things in perspective and to remind us that McBain isn’t taking his own writing too seriously.

All in all, I found these to be quick, entertaining reads.  While the mysteries in the first couple weren’t super challenging, the books appear to be gaining depth and interest as they go, so I’m intrigued to read the next five soon.  McBain does such a good job summarizing characters and past events that I think this will be an easy series to dip in and out of, which I’ll have to do since I still have 50 books to go…