This plot device has been used many times in mystery fiction—whether in X Vs. Rex by Phillip Macdonald, or, more recently, Cop to Corpse by Peter Lovesey. (Why yes, this is a pathetic attempt at foreshadowing some soon-to-be-read books!) But this time it is being used by Ed McBain in one of his 87th Precinct police procedurals: Cop Hater. Sergio over at Tipping My Fedora is on a quest to review the entire series, and his reviews are always extremely intelligent and for the most part enthusiastic. So I decided to give McBain a chance despite my historical dislike of the police procedural… so could McBain rise to the challenge?
Well, yes and no. McBain is a gifted writer and the way he describes something such as lab techniques in detail is fascinating. In particular as a science student, I was fascinated to see how a police lab in the 1950s worked, since many of these techniques are long out of date and in some cases scientifically worthless! In the hands of a lesser writer, these segments would come out dry and that would kill the novel’s chance of success…
Enough of my whining— this book does have some things working to its advantage. We get to know some of the cops in detail and this helps us sympathise with all involved—although the opening slab of dead meat is onstage so briefly that the attempt to characterize him via his desire for an air conditioner comes across as a very poor bit of writing. But putting that aside, since this is the first book in a series, everyone is a potential casualty (unless you know who the main detective is going to be in later entries). This helps to ramp things up a notch since you’re not given a clear-cut detective to look towards.
But also, the climax is just brilliant. It is everything a climax should be: it keeps you turning the pages in suspense, holding your breath as you wonder how everything will turn out. It’s a thrilling confrontation that seems like it can only end in tragedy… and I will say no more about that.
So overall, despite some excessive padding, Cop Hater turned out to be a wonderful and most entertaining read. I would recommend it to fellow aficionados as a solid starting point for this series. It takes a classic plot device and does a really nice job with it… and I will say no more out of fear of those darned Spoiler Rapids!