Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct

Paul Abbott of Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast,on the legacy of Ed McBain.

“The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique”.

Between 1956 and 2005, Ed McBain wrote 55 books about his fictional detective squad based in the 87th Precinct of a city which both is and isn’t New York. He didn’t invent the technique of using actual police process to guide the stories that were being written, but he certainly developed and enhanced it to such an extent that we have him to thank for laying the groundwork for programs such as Hill Street Blues, Columbo and The Bill as well as the many, many others that have come since. Even Police Squad! (In Color) owes him a debt of gratitude. McBain’s real coup de grace was creating a corporate hero, the entire Detective squad, yet managing to keep us interested in the individuals within it and how they solve the mysteries they face.

My discovery of the books came about after recommendations from friends. We’d all gone through University, reading Orwell, Greene and heavy Sci-Fi, and the various books about Debussy or Metaphysical poets or Geology required for our courses, and we emerged the other side as addicts of snappy crime fiction paperbacks. My first McBain was, I think, the earliest of the 87th Precinct series – Cop Hater, from 1956, in a cheap modern paperback edition bought from a shop in Liverpool that otherwise sold garden supplies, rat poison and cheap plastic pegs (guaranteed to perish on the line and leave your garden covered in colourful shards and tiny springs). Since then, and discovering that getting new copies of the stories was almost impossible, I have completed my quest to get all of the 87th Precinct novels, in their varying and weird-cover-art-design editions.

McBain was the primary pseudonym of Evan Hunter who, after working at a literary agency with the likes of P.G. Wodehouse, made a name for himself as the writer of The Blackboard Jungle, the film of which caused a moral panic in the mid-Fifties and helped to spread the sounds of Rock’n’Roll to a wider audience. He later found time to adapt The Birds for Hitchcock and carry on writing under both the McBain and Hunter names. All the while he continued to produce the 87th Precinct books, at a rate of about two or three a year to begin with, then settling down to one every seven or eight months. They are, for the most part, short and snappy – usually less than 200 pages long.

The trick McBain pulled off was to give us named characters to focus on and care about, or love to hate, but to make them part of a larger entity, the police detective division. While the stories all take place in the year they were written, the cast never changes that much. Detective 2nd Grade Steve Carella is with us from start to finish, never really ageing in the fifty-one years he appears on the page. This literary technique of the slowing of time enables the author to allow certain characters to grow and change – perhaps get married, have kids – and leave others in place, so the familiar elements of the novels stay more-or-less the same. The lieutenant in charge of the detectives, Peter Byrnes, started as a patrolman in 1931, we’re told, but as of ‘Fiddlers’ in 2005, he’s still there and still in charge. It also allows McBain to explore the changing rules, regulations and technologies that affected the police over the years (it’s not quite Columbo solving a murder with a fax machine, or Robbie the Robot, but what is?).

Crime novelist Ed McBain (Photo: BBC)

Of course the stories aren’t really about the day-to-day police procedure, despite the Photostat reproductions of rap-sheets, arrest and lab reports that illustrate the series. We experience murders, extortion, bribery, terrorism, crimes of passion and daring heists, occasionally perpetrated by the precinct’s own Moriarty, The Deaf Man. McBain’s ability to spin off from the a routine occurrence into a whirlwind of action, exploration and adventure for his cops is a magnificent skill, yet as an author he remains today largely unknown, not least due to the fact that the only versions of the stories you can buy have to come from Amazon’s in-house publishing division, Thomas and Mercer, meaning you won’t stumble across an 87th Precinct book in Waterstones or Blackwell’s. At least the thrill of the second-hand bookshop hunt remains.

So, back to me and my friends. After over a decade of completing our collections and raving about the books to each other we did what anyone would do – start a podcast about them. Well, everyone else has one and we’re on mission to spread the McBain word. As of writing this, we’re eight books in and at the rate we’re going we’ll have reviewed the lot in about, ooh, four years’ time. Still, McBain wrote them over 50 years, so I suppose that’s something. If you’re looking for books to enjoy that capture elements of pulp and noir, detection and mystery, detailed forensic work, social commentary and stool pigeons, then they’re worth a read. One thing is for certain – as the Holmes, Poirots, Hammers and Marlowes of the detective world hung up their respective hats, McBain did sterling work in finding a way to get the police department to fill the void, creating a new kind of complex and often flawed hero in the gestalt of the 87th Precinct.


Paul Abbott runs Hark! The 87th Precinct Podcast, which takes a look at each of the books in series in turn, but usually turns quite silly. He also makes noises with his band in Liverpool, Good Grief, and spends the rest of the time thinking about Transformers, The Beatles, Doctor Who and Monty Python.

www.twitter.com/Hark87Podcast [Hark! is available on Stitcher, iTunes, Hearthis.at]

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6 Comments

  1. PG Wodehouse would surely not have ‘worked at a literary agency’ with Ed McBain when McBain launched his career in the 1950s: PGW was very well established by then and living comfortably on Long Island. The writer with whom McBain has some similarities, not least in their concise and colourful literary style, is Lawrence Block: no coincidence maybe that in this case both of them did work at the same agency, though not simultaneously I believe.

  2. Hi Roger

    Evan Hunter (McBain) worked at the Scott Meredith agency – Wodehouse was that company’s first client in ‘46. When Hunter was working there as an editor, he often worked with Wodehouse. There’s a nice anecdote about their relationship in Hunter’s obituary here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1493582/Ed-McBain.html

    Block is very much influenced by the McBain style and they were good friends. There’s a lovely story told by Block in this clip that’s worth a watch: https://youtu.be/1_CdjSquOrg

    Cheers

    Paul

  3. Saw this piece from Andy Miller reference.
    Made me remember I did read McBain as a teen – 35 years ago. Then saw copy of Blood Relatives yesterday in Oxfam for £1. Am now half way through and very much enjoying the ride. Good work on getting the whole collection together.

  4. Thanks! It’s such an addictive series and one that really rewards revisiting.

    Blood Relatives is fab – the 70s stories are really strong. There was a French-Canadian film made of it ’78 starring Donald Sutherland as Steve Carella.

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