Monday, July 21, 2008

You have the right to remain silent--the Police Procedural

Ed McBain (the pen name of Evan Hunter) wrote the "87th Precinct" novel--Cop Hater--in 1956. The last--Fiddlers--was published in 2005, the year McBain died. That's 55 books in 49 years (and McBain wrote a lot of stuff outside this series as well).

But it's quality as well as quantity that makes McBain the obvious choice for great Police Procedurals. McBain's protagonists--most often detective Steve Carella--are are believable characters that you can easily accept as real human beings. Particularly appealing about Carella is the loving relationship he maintains with his deaf-mute wife, Teddy. The very first 87th Precinct book I ever read included a scene in which a beautiful witness comes on to Carella. But Carella shows an almost casual desire to remain faithful to the woman he loves--something that marks him as a thoroughly decent human being and instantly puts the reader firmly on his side.

Good characterizations are, of course, particularly important in a procedural novel. Whereas traditional whodunits and most hard-boiled detective stories are set in a world at least slightly removed from reality, procedurals use real life police methodology to generate drama and suspense. You have to believe in the people you meet within the framework of such a story or none of it will hold up.

Carella and his fellow cops live in a fictional city roughly analogous to New York City. Other than the fact that none of them age appreciably over a half-century, McBain keeps the realism level high. His plots are as solid as his characterizations and (though some of the novels are better than others) I don't think there is a single 87th Precinct book I failed to enjoy.

It's interesting to note, though, that within the realistic confines of the police procedural, McBain does manage to pay tribute to other mystery sub-genres. Killer's Wedge (1959), for instance, involves Carella using some old-fashioned deductive reasoning to solve a locked room mystery.

Killer's Wedge is a hostage drama, as well. While Carella is solving his case, the rest of the cops are being held at gun point back at the precinct house by a revenge-crazed woman. It is in every way a fun novel.

Several other novels, such as The Heckler and Fuzz, feature a master criminal known only as The Deaf Man, who functions as a reoccuring arch enemy. King's Ransom is a kidnapping story, while Lady Killer involves a race against time to stop a killer.

But most often we find a basic police procedural plot lying between the covers of an 87th Precinct novel. Perhaps the most entertaining example of this is Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here (1971), which covers one 24-hour period at the 87th Precinct. Rather than follow just one case, this one is basically a series of interlocking short stories, with each detective assigned to the Precinct investigating a different crime. It is yet another fun read, highlighting McBain's skill at solid plot construction as well as sharp characterizations.

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