Top positive review
A real classic...
on 20 September 2017
When a cop is shot down in the street one night, the squad from the 87th Precinct in Isola swing into action. At first the reason for the shooting isn't known. Was it random? Was it personal? But when another cop from the precinct is killed in the same way it begins to look like there's a cop hater on the loose. Now Detective Steve Carella and his colleagues have two reasons to find the killer quickly – to get justice for their fellow officers and to stop the perpetrator before he kills again...
First published in 1956, this is the first in the long-running, successful and influential 87th Precinct series. I read many of them in my teens, but this is the first time I've revisited the Precinct in decades. I have no memory of the individual plots, but vividly remember the setting and several of the characters – a testimony to how well drawn they are. In this one Steve Carella is the main focus but as the series progressed McBain developed an entire group of detectives who took their turn in the spotlight, which is why the series is known by the name of the squad rather than any one detective. Carella stays at the forefront more than the other detectives overall, though, throughout the series. The books are based in Isola, an area of a major city which is clearly a fictionalised New York. The various boroughs have been given different names but are apparently recognisable to people who know the city (which I only do through books and TV or movies - I suspect my first impressions of New York may in fact have come from this series).
The style seems to me like a kind of crossover point between the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Chandler and their generation, and the more modern police procedural that would come to the fore and perhaps dominate crime fiction over the next few decades. (I hasten to add I'm no expert and not particularly widely-read, especially in American crime fiction, so this is just my own impression – perhaps other writers had been making the transition before McBain got there.) When he writes about the city – the soaring skylines, the dazzling lights, the display of wealth and glamour barely hiding the crime, corruption and violence down on the streets – it reads like pure noir; and in this one there's a femme fatale who equals any of the greats, oozing sexuality and confidence in her power over men.
But when he writes about Carella and the squad his tone is warmer, less hard-edged. While hardboiled and noir detectives always seem to be loners, rather mysterious men without much in the way of backstory, McBain's police officers are real humans, who joke and watch sports, who have wives and children. Personally I prefer that mix to pure noir – McBain's detectives aren't always wholly likeable, but they're human enough to allow me to care about them. Also, because he uses an entire squad as his protagonist, each individual is more expendable than the single hero or partnership of many other authors, so there's always an air of real suspense as to whether they will come through dangerous situations. They don't always...
The plot is excellent – I won't give any spoilers, but I will say that it was only just before the reveal that I really got any idea of where it was heading. McBain creates great atmosphere with his writing, which actually is of much higher quality than I remembered. Some of the scenes had me on the edge of my seat and he left me shocked more than once, but without ever stepping over the credibility line. In fact, realism is at the heart of the book – these detectives have to rely on doing the legwork, using informants and hoping for lucky breaks. There's a fair amount of casual police brutality, with the impression that this was the norm back then, and rather approved of than otherwise, both within the service and by society in general (and, I suspect, by McBain himself). Times change – depictions of casual and repeated brutality by police protagonists in contemporary British crime fiction annoy me because it wouldn't be considered acceptable here today and so jars as unrealistic. But it feels right in this book, and isn't over-emphasised; it's just part of the job.
There's also a strand about the relationship between the police and the press, with an irresponsible journalist creating problems for the investigation. This is handled very well, with the reader put firmly on the side of the police. They may not always be nice guys, but McBain leaves us in no doubt that they're the good guys. And yes, I do mean guys – no women yet in this detective squad. Women are strictly either femmes fatales or loving wives and girlfriends. Well, it was the '50s!
The ending has aspects of the thriller and again reverts to a more noir-ish feel as we discover the motivation behind the crimes.
I was expecting to like this but perhaps to find it a bit dated. In fact, I loved it. Writing, setting, atmosphere, characterisation – all superb. While some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn't at all, and the vices and weaknesses of the human animal haven't changed much over the years. Excellent stuff – definitely a classic of the genre, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a realistic police procedural with an edge of noir.