Ed McBain, Cop Hater

I took a break from the grim world of cop fiction after Faceless Killers and spent a little time with Rosy Thornton in the Cévennes (I’ll write a little about The Tapestry of Love later, I hope). What a nice interlude that was! But then I got right back on the horse with Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which I had requested as an exam copy because it seemed a strong contender for the Mystery & Detective Fiction survey. Having read it, I think that was a pretty good call, though I can’t say I enjoyed the McBain any more than I enjoyed the Mankell. (I have also added Sjowall and Wahloo’s Roseanna to my Kobo collection and taken Mankell’s The Fifth Woman out of the library, so I’ll be improving my Mankell skills soon.) Cop Hater does seem to exemplify a certain definition and style of police procedural. McBain’s own introduction notes that his 87th Precinct novels were innovative in making the operations of a squad, rather than an individual detective, their focus; this comment made me think of the Dell Shannon series I remember my parents reading steadily many years ago (and I just this very minute, googling the name, learned that is one of the pseudonyms of novelist Elizabeth Linington). Her Luis Mendoza series premiered in 1960, so a few years after McBain published Cop Hater (1956).

I’d read only some 87th Precinct stories before; Cop Hater is my first full-length McBain. I imagine these books, too, get better as the writer becomes more sure of his territory and characters. I found this one a bit cheesy at times, with coy little writing tricks for effect, especially at the ends of chapters:

There was only one thing the investigators could bank on.

The heat.

Some of the writing is much better than this, though; McBain effectively conjures up the sights and, especially, the smells, of urban life in a heat wave:

The smell inside a tenement is the smell of life.

It is the smell of every function of life, the sweating, the cooking, the elimination, the breeding. It is all these smells, and they are wedded into one gigantic smell which hits the nostrils the moment you enter the downstairs doorway. For the smell has been inside the building for decades. It has seeped through the floorboards and permeated the walls. It clings to the banister and the linoleum-covered steps. It crouches in corners and it hovers about the naked light bulbs on each landing. The smell is always there, day and night. It is the stench of living, and it never sees the light of day, and it never sees the crisp brittleness of starlight.

McBain (not knowing, perhaps, quite how his own new subgenre should sound or would develop) sometimes seems to be aiming for a noir-ish atmosphere, and striving for the verbal panache of his hard-boiled predecessors. The results are occasionally awful: “He shook his head sadly, a man trapped in the labial folds of a society structure.” In fact, Cop Hater is most hard-boiled in its claustrophobic masculinity, in its unease with and about women (“trapped in the labial folds” indeed!), in the voyeuristic gaze it directs on all of its female characters, and especially in the femme fatale who turns out to behind the cop killings. I don’t really know what to do about Carella’s girlfriend being deaf and mute: on the one hand, there’s something fitting about that being the novel’s ideal woman, but then, she acts courageously and saves Carella’s life in the novel’s thrilling denouement, which is a refreshing change in a novel in which the women (including her) seem to spend all their time in stuffy apartments just waiting for their men to come home. As our villainess says, “What kind of life is that for a woman?” But I don’t see any room here for seeing, much less adopting, her point of view (despite her hopes, even the men on the jury don’t like her enough to save her), while in The Maltese Falcon Brigid is (arguably) not really worse than anyone else.

What seems really different about Cop Hater compared to earlier detective novels is its attention to the specific procedures of the police investigation, even including reproductions of gun licenses and rap sheets, but also detailed explanations of forensic measures (such as fingerprinting) and lab work. These features, along with the spread of the novel’s attention across several detectives (though Carella is clearly the main character) help us see the police as a system, as part of a bureaucratic organization operating within a network of other supporting (or, sometimes, hindering) systems. The case is not solved by the ingenuity of Poirot or the ratiocination of Dupin or Holmes but by the persistence of men who just keep looking and asking until they find something out.

The other thing that I found striking about Cop Hater is how completely unglamorous it is (setting aside the lacy lingerie bits). There are some quotations from McBain at the end including this one about violence in his books:

I am unflinching about the violence…If someone is getting killed, that person is getting killed and you know it, and it hurts, and it results in a torn body lying on the sidewalk. It’s not pretty…it’s horrible. But there’s a way of doing violence that’s salacious. And that’s wrong…I have never, ever, ever in my books tried to make violence appealing. I’ve made it frightening and I’ve made it ugly, but never appealing.

I respect that, and though the lead-up to violence in Cop Hater is almost always manipulatively suspenseful, the violence itself is as he describes it: blunt, horrible, not appealing. I’d like to discuss his dead bodies with my class in comparison to Roger Ackroyd’s bloodless corpse. And I think Cop Hater would make a good stop in between Hammett or Chandler and Paretsky, and not just because of the timing (right now my book list jumps pretty much right from 1930 to 1982). Perhaps it would also be a good step on the way to a later example of the police procedural–not an alternative to Rankin or Mankell, but a supplement. I think the students would probably like it: it’s short, it moves fast…but it’s also $21, which seems a lot for an edition that seems to be just a reproduction of an earlier version but on larger pages (there are oddly wide margins, especially at the top). I think there is also a page out of order: near the beginning of the book is a title page for Alice in Jeopardy, “now available in hardcover” etc., and it says “turn the page for a preview,” but next is the title page of Cop Hater. Then after Cop Hater ends (happily ever after!), we go right to a new Chapter 1, otherwise unidentified–which I assume is from Alice in Jeopardy. For $21, readers might like Simon and Schuster to make a nicer book.

And now, I need another break from the death and dirt and darkness, so I’ve started May Sarton’s The Education of Harriet Hatfield.

4 Comments to Ed McBain, Cop Hater

  1. February 15, 2011 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    I’m always intrigued by the lyricism of the gutter. I quite agree that McBain does NOT sound a glamourous writer, but there’s a sort of fetid romanticism hanging over his descriptions of impoverished environments, if you see what I mean! Have you tried Ross Macdonald? I recently read The Galton Case and enjoyed it very much. Sharp writing, comedy, tough private investigators, good plot. I’d read him again.

  2. February 15, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I am still struggling with the labial folds. How do you shake your head in such circumstances? And can I find out if it’s even possible through empirical experimentation? Probably not unless I want the students to call the police in, which given the circumstances would be rather ironic. But I do have to read McBain. I have a real gap in relation to American Crime writing of this period and I should do something about it.

  3. Dorian Stuber's Gravatar Dorian Stuber
    February 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Galton Case! The crime is discovered based on a Canadian (a.k.a. correct!) spelling of a word. Great stuff. MacDonald is great, though his plots are all versions of the same premise.

  4. February 16, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Ross MacDonald has been lurking on my “TBR” crime fiction list for some time–guess I should move him up. Several of his Lew Archer titles are available through Kobo but not The Galton Case, which is also not at my public library. Steve! Are you listening? I need me some Ross MacDonald!

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