Cop Hater and Faceless Killers

This month our Crime and Mystery Book Discussion continued its survey of subgenres by taking a look at the police procedural.  While it would seem logical that police procedurals have always been a part of crime and mystery writing since the days of Edgar Allan Poe, this is not necessarily true.

While police have had a place in the canon (think:  Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn of the Yard), the reality is that when they did exist, they functioned more as the Great Thinking Detective, the private eye, or as the Lone Wolf–a category for cops who function best when not in the confines of the police department (think:  Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch).

Police procedure needed an advocate if not an inventor.  The man most credited with this was Ed McBain.  Born Salvatore Lombino, he went to work for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency as a young man and was advised to change his name to Evan Hunter.  He then wrote The Blackboard Jungle (1954) and then could become a full time writer in multiple genres including crime.

For his first cop novel, Ed McBain wrote these words as a forward:  “The city in these pages is imaginary.  The people, the place are all fictitious.  Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.” Dedicating himself to understanding police work and sticking to the established legal requirements was a new idea and McBain stuck to it for 55 novels that stretched from Cop Hater (1956) to Fiddlers (2005).  Besides the procedure, McBain also recognized that individual police officers do not work in a vacuum and do not solve cases individually.  So in his mythical Isola (think:  Manhattan) he created the 87th Precinct, staffed by a host of police officers, some of whom will stick around for the entire run of the series.

In Cop Hater, McBain’s main hero Steve Carella is introduced.  When a fellow cop is murdered, the officers need to understand why an assassin would ambush this man.  When that man’s partner is killed, the cops begin to think differently and a third slain officer of the law really pulls all the resources into high gear.  What is still compelling about this first novel is that the city of Isola is as much a character as the people and the oppressive heat that envelopes the whole book is omnipresent and omnivorous.  The number three is important as one of McBain’s other realizations about the way the police work is that they can never concentrate on just one case.  In this book it is three separate cop murders;  in later books the three cases may diverge quite a bit before the end of the novel provides a resolution.

Our group really enjoyed discussing this police procedural and had no problems finding comparisons to the contemporary work chosen for this discussion:  Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell.  Mankell should get credit for being one of the Scandinavian authors who lead the charge in the current wave of crime fiction being imported in the U.S.  His lead character, Kurt Wallander, is a damaged man who might be unable to see anything positive in his self-image and his work as a policeman.

This novel is very much a police procedure.  The case opens when a farmer and his wife are brutally slain in their remote and rural farmhouse with the wife leaving one word as a dying clue:  foreign.  This opens up the whole issue of immigration into Sweden and the stresses that places on their society.  It also reveals ugly racial intolerance that effects not only the people on the streets but the cops who are investigating as well.  Henning has created an ensemble cast for the city of Ystad’s police force and they do follow procedure as they investigate.

The parallels in these two novels proved to be a great way to focus our discuss of the police procedure.  It was also fun to discuss the subgenre that led from Dragnet to CSI.  If fans of the police procedural are looking for adaptations of Mankell, they can view a few of his cases in the original Swedish TV productions or the BBC versions with Kenneth Branagh as Wallendar.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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