The last time we mentioned mystery novels, it was with a view to looking at Golden Age and hard-boiled writing. There’s another side to that coin though, one we neglected to look at and that is the police procedural.
There are two series that worked to introduce us to this kind of writing. One was Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, to whom we owe a serious debt in the shape of our knowledge of the cryptic crossword. It’s worth noting that Book Morse isn’t nearly so civilised as Televised Morse. He loves opera, certainly, and he can solve a Times crossword in 10 minutes, but he’s as likely to read The Sun as he is the news portion of The Times, and is much more inconsistently gentlemanly than his televised equivalent. Perhaps the greatest thing about these books, second only to the mystery, is the friendship between Lewis and Morse. It’s a temperamental, imperfect, stiffly articulated thing, but is summed up with touching succinctness by Strange; ‘he didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought, but he cared about your opinion, Lewis.’
The other though, the one we want to talk about, is Ed McBain’s undeservedly obscure 87th Precinct series. Described by the author as a ‘conglomerate hero,’ Steve Carella and the other precinct detectives seized a long history of policemen outwitted by amateur detectives and turned it on its head, arriving on the page a collection of capable, competent men and women who knew their job and did it well. We see them not only catching murderers, but organising line-ups, analysing fingerprints, following clues, in other words doing all the things we expect of the police in a mystery -or would if they weren’t routinely made out to be antagonistic towards our detective champion of choice.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 87th Precinct though is the counterpoint it offers to the hardboiled detective story. Among the many tropes of that genre is the isolation of the private eye. Because the law is often antagonistic to the detective preserving it, s/he is forced to work alone. But in the police procedural, especially under the eye of McBain, we are offered an alternative. The 87th Precinct aren’t nuclear family, but they are a kind of family, something hinted at as early as Cop Hater, the debut book of the series. Without exception it is the reliance of the men of the 87th Precinct on one another that sees the mystery solved, managing somehow to unite all the best aspects of Golden Age writing, its warmth and community, with more realistic detective cases. It isn’t the visceral reality offered by McBain’s contemporary writers, but then, if we had any taste for visceral corpses and gruesome murders we’d never have thrived on those Golden Age stories in the first place.
Short, with clear, crisp prose, we’ve never been sorry that our Crime Fiction course brought McBain and his books to our attention. We do wonder though why they aren’t better-known and more widely loved.