In my early 20s, I read a lot of Ed McBain 87th Precinct books. There was a detective who had a white streak through his hair from an old wound, and I remember one of my journalistic colleagues at the time, a Vietnam vet, had a white streak in his hair.
Things like that stick with you after nearly half a century. That, and the fact that I really enjoyed the McBain books.
Looking back and after reading Cop Hater, the first novel in the series — and a deft debut it was — I realized that, city lover that I am, I was attracted to the books so much because the City — a slightly askew stand-in for New York with its five boroughs — is a major character in the books. Consider the first few sentences of Cop Hater, published in 1956:
From the river bounding the city on the North, you saw only the magnificent skyline. You stared up at it in something like awe, and sometimes you caught your breath because the view was one of majestic splendor. The clear silhouettes of the building slashed at the sky, devouring the blue; flat planes and long planes, rough rectangles and needly sharp spires, minarets and peaks, pattern upon pattern laid in geometric unity against the wash of blue and white which was the sky…
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.
Ah, the poetry and the grit of a city!
Algren and Liebling
It’s probably not happenstance that Cop Hater appeared just a few years after the publication of two important books about another major city, Chicago.
Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make, an epic prose-poem to the city with the broken nose and rusty heart, debuted in October, 1951. A few months later, A. J. Liebling wrote a series of articles in the New Yorker magazine, collected in a book published in June, 1952, Chicago: The Second City, a caustic critique of the city on the shore of Lake Michigan and, not so subtly, an assertion of the primacy of New York.
In the early 1970s when I was reading the McBain books, I had little awareness of the Algren and Liebling books. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was already taking my first steps in a writing career that would be centered on Chicago and cities in general:
- First, during a 32-year career as a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, specializing in that wide and elastically flexible topic called urban affairs.
- Then, over a nine-month period in 2009, as the writer of a blog about the Plan of Chicago, also known as the Burnham Plan.
- And, now, as the author of The Loop: The “L” Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago, published in November, an examination of the history of the elevated Loop and its importance to the development and success of the city, a study of the character of Chicago that deeply mined the Liebling and Algren books among many others.
While still fairly oblivious about my future, as guys are in their early 20s, I felt a visceral delight in cities — Chicago, especially, but also St. Louis where I went to college and even Los Angeles where I lived for nine months.
McBain’s books fed that delight and probably helped steer me on my path to study cities in great depth over the past half century. During those five decades, I’ve been enchanted by many other cities, walking their sidewalks and following their streets and relishing their city-ness, particularly Paris, London and New York.
McBain, Hunter et al
I interviewed McBain three times by telephone in 2001. Actually, I should clarify that.
Three times, I did a phone interview with Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, Richard Marsten, Curt Cannon and Hunt Collins — all of whom were born in East Harlem in 1926 under the name Salvatore A. Lombino.
In 1952, a few years before Cop Hater, Lombino went to court to legally change his name to Evan Hunter. This was an era when ethnic wasn’t in, when assimilation was king, and he’d been warned that his Italian name would hold him back as a writer. So he came up with a pretty WASPish name for himself.
Hunter used that legal name for his serious books, such as The Blackboard Jungle, and employed many of his pseudonyms for the short stories he was writing for pulp crime magazines. Even calling himself S. A. Lombino once or twice.
As he explains in a new introduction to Cop Hater when the book was reissued in 1989, he was starting what he hoped would be a long-lived 87th Precinct series — eventually, it totaled 55 installments — so he came up, just as he finished this first book, with the name Ed McBain out of thin air.
Two final notes about all of Hunter’s aliases:
In 1955, when the novel Murder in the Navy that Hunter had written under the name Richard Marsten, there was, on the cover, a rapturous blurb — “SUPERB SUSPENSE!” — from none other than Evan Hunter. “I did that pretty much as a gag,” Hunter told me.
My initial phone call to Hunter had to do with another literary gag, albeit more straight-forward, that he pulled in early 2001 with the publication of Candyland: A novel in two parts, the first part written by Hunter and the second by McBain.
In that phone interview, Hunter told me that he wrote the first half, “Rain After Sundown,” from the point of view of Benjamin Thorpe, a sex-addicted architect who was wandering the seamy side of Manhattan one desperate night. Then, he got the idea of having McBain write a second half as a means of demonstrating how Hunter and McBain, although inhabiting the same body, had very different ways of telling a story.
Yes, he acknowledged, it was a gimmick, pure and simple.
I asked Hunter how he was able to switch roles so easily as a writer, and, to explain, not necessarily immodestly, he compared himself to the greatest thespian of his generation:
“It’s like an actor waiting in the wings: He’s Laurence Olivier, and then he walks on stage, and he’s Henry V. Something happened the minute I sat down to write the second half of the novel that caused me to think like a cop, to write like a cop, to become a cop. I don’t know what it is. I don’t like to question it. I’m afraid I’ll jinx it.”
Brisk and vigorous
Although I’d read many of McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, I’m sure I never read Cop Hater. The opening pages focus on a cop named Mike Reardon, and I’m sure, even after half a decade, I’d remember a book with a character of that name.
Cop Hater is as brisk and vigorous as the dozens of 87th Precinct novels that followed, with its focus on the collection of detectives who work together, as opposed to a single hero, and in its lovingly detailed descriptions of the personalities and outside lives of these cops.
Steve Carella, who would become a mainstay in the series, is introduced here, as is his love Teddy Franklin. Other cops, though, have a short time on this stage since the story involves someone who is murdering detectives from the precinct.
There are several places in the narrative where McBain explains the details of police procedures, such as how a fingerprint forms and what happens to a heel print in a dog turd that’s tagged as evidence and what conviction cards are.
Those conviction cards — information on a convicted criminal, kept on a note card, stored with other n cards in a file — is one of several examples of techniques that were used in the mid-20th century but are no longer employed today. Instead, much of the paperwork aspects of the job then are done now with computers.
The novel also is a time capsule of American society in that era, even to the point of hair fashion. A decade or so in the future, the cops would be commenting on the long hair that young men were wearing as part of their anti-Establishment stance.
In 1956, however, there was a different sort of problem when strands of the killer’s hair are found in the grasp of a slain cop, and the question is whether they’re from a man or a woman. The lab technician explains:
“Length of hair used to be a good gauge. If the length was more than 8 cm., we could assume the hair came from a woman. But the goddam women nowadays are wearing their hair as short as, if not shorter than, the men.”
How times would soon change.
Patrick T. Reardon