Old reviews from 2011: The start of two dogged detective series…

Cop Hater Roseanna

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

Ed McBain is the author who really created the police procedural novel, with his series of fifty-five 87th Precinct books written between 1956 and 2005. In the introduction to Cop Hater, he tells how he came up with the idea of a squadroom of police officers, all with different characters, whom together would make a ‘conglomerate hero‘.  Thus was the 87th Precinct born, set in a fictional city similar to New York.  Different policemen star in the novels, and as in real life, they will come and go from the squadroom, with one detective in particular, Steve Carella, holding a central position.

McBain is a pseudonym of Evan Hunter, the author of Blackboard Jungle (1954) in which a new young teacher has to deal with unruly pupils in a New York High School.  Hunter took a new pen-name for this series as he was advised that publishing crime fiction under the Hunter name could dilute his success; arguably he went on to achieve even greater popularity as an author as McBain.

Cop Hater is set at the height of a sweltering summer – everyone is suffering from the heat and humidity, even the cops – especially as they know that with the heat comes open windows, raised tempers, and more crime for them to deal with.  The novel starts with a man getting up to go to work on the evening shift. But he’ll never get there – for a gunman shoots him in the back of the head. The corpse is no ordinary  body either – ‘Mike Reardon was a cop‘.

Steve Carella leads the investigation which faces difficulties from the outset as there were virtually no clues.  Then events take on a more frenzied turn when another cop is murdered, and then a third.  It must be a ‘cop hater’ – who will be next? Carella is then put in a difficult situation when a journalist prints Carella’s off the record remarks and puts his girlfriend in danger leading to a final twist that I never saw coming.

The drama is backed up by wonderful descriptions of solid policework, taking casts of footprints, blood typing and spatter analysis – telling us how its done without being too heavy-handed, (remember this is the 1950s, so no DNA testing or computers here).  Anyone who’s seen the later TV series  Hill Street Blues, or NYPD Blue will be able to picture the squadroom, complete with typewriters, and the bar separating the desks at the entrance.  Carella is  a solid, dependable and likeable detective with a surprisingly tender side to him in his relationship with Teddy, his girlfriend.  The other policemen are also well-drawn and complementary, and those who survive will come to the fore in some subsequent novels.  I definitely want to read more 87th Precinct novels. (8.5/10)

Source: Own copy.  Ed McBain, Cop Hater (1956) Thomas & Mercer paperback, 224 pages.

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Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö

Translated by Lois Roth

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö are the Swedish couple that more than any other authors really defined the police procedural crime novel in their ten book sequence of Martin Beck novels, of which Roseanna is the first.  Writing in the mid-1960s onwards and influenced by Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels (which I’ve still yet to read), they were determined to illustrate real Swedish life in their novels. In real life, crimes are not usually solved in a matter of days or even a couple of weeks; in real life the search for evidence is a painstaking business – things rarely come together as neatly as pictured in most crime novels.

This might make it seem rather boring, but by chronicling the more mundane parts of a police detective’s role they do make it seem real, and what’s more they really breathe life into their characters who are strongly drawn. Martin Beck (he’s rarely referred to as just Martin) is approaching middle age, henpecked at home and a rather absent type of father. He also has a nervous stomach that reacts badly to the endless coffees it is subjected to and smokes too much.  He’s diligent, eager almost, to escape having to go home and brave the awful subway.

When the body of a young woman is pulled out of a lock on the river, the local police call in the National Homicide Bureau and Martin Beck has a new case to occupy his mind. At first they find it impossible to identify the body – no-one has reported her missing; it’s definitely murder though, she was violently assaulted before she died.It is some time before it becomes clear that she is a foreigner who was on one of the river-cruises that ply the area, and it must have been someone on board the boat that did it.  Here, over weeks and months, the detectives ply away doggedly at tracking down the passengers and crew to get their recollections of the murdered girl. Eventually they will get their man in a thrilling finish,  but it takes an awful lot of hard work to get there.

Opening with a long and detailed description of a dredger maneuvering  into position to do some work at the locks, this book took a while to get into.  However once we’d met Martin Beck and his team, they were easy to warm to and I began to enjoy the book thoroughly. A pleasant surprise was that all the policemen were human and largely unstereotyped – no shouty super who’d been promoted above his station here.  They got on with their jobs and seemed fulfilled by their work.

Much is always made of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s communism, and their intention with this decalogue of novels to expose the bourgeois underbelly of Swedish society, which to us was always made out to be very hip and liberal during that period.  This edition of the book is introduced by Henning Mankell who has been very influenced by the series, and also has an interview with Maj Sjöwall at the end too – both of these are interesting extras that are well worth reading. While each book in the series stands alone as a crime novel, there is character progression which goes right from the start so I’m told, so this is a series which is best to start at the beginning.  In summary, a slightly slow start, but a good introduction to the characters and times.  (7.5/10)

Source: Mum’s Books.   Sjöwall & Wahlöö, Roseanna: Martin Beck #1 (1965) Harper Perennial, paperback, 288 pages.

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