The introduction to this first novel in Ed McBain’s series on New York’s 87th Precinct Cop Hater is pretty awesome if you like noir and you like cities. First, a primer on the world of hack writing, the regular churning out of quick novels that were then issued and re-issued.
Over lunch, Herb told me that the mainstay of Pocket Books was Eric Stanley Gardner, whose books they reissued on a regular rotating schedule, with new covers on them each time out. He told me Gardner was getting old…and that they were looking for a mystery writer who would eventually replace him.
Luck and skill and prolixity brought Ed McBain to write this series, with an idea then unique — to make the precinct itself the focus, with a cast of characters rather than a principal. I don’t know why it also surprised me to read this:
It is next to impossible to overlay a map of my city on a map of New York. It’s not simply a matter of north being east and south being west or Isola representing Manhattan and Calm’s Point representing Brooklyn. The geography won’t jibe exactly, the city remains a mystery.
The city, then, became a character.
So did the weather, which figures prominently in Cop Hater.…
It’s fascinating, then, to find described all of these things I study, redlining, segregation, the shifting racial faultlines of the city and the poverty, misery and changed policing (and increase of police brutality, but you won’t find that here) that it brings with it:
Across the street from the theater was an empty lot. The lot had once owned an apartment house, and the house had been a good one with high rents. It had not been unusual, in the old days, to see an occasional mink coat drifting from the marbled doorway of that apartment house. But the crawling tendrils of the slum had reached out for the brick, clutching it with tenacious fingers, pulling it into the ever-widening circle it called its own. The old building had succumbed, becoming a part of the slum, so that people rarely remembered it had once been a proud and elegant dwelling.
This is the classic white narrative: a grasping and greedy slum, a force of nature reaching out to wrest from them the neighbourhoods they love. It takes over their apartments and their bars, and is often driven by the rising tide of colour:
The flare-ups within the gaily decorated walls of the bar were now few and far between, or–to be poetic–less frequent than they had been in the good old days when the neighborhood had first succumbed to the Puerto Rican assault wave.
It doesn’t much matter that he’s nice enough about the Puerto Ricans later in the paragraph, they’re still an assault wave at the white community. This is a world where police are the good guys and the papers are bleeding-heart liberal — “first three pages of cheesecake and chest-thumping liberalism…”
This is a world where poverty exists and will always exist, same with crime and same with prostitution — anchored into a geography and unchanging. And of course, one that firmly believes whites built the cities on ground after Native Americans peacefully moved along:
La Via de Putas was a street which ran north and south, for a total of three blocks. The Indians probably had their name for it, and the tepees that lined the path in those rich days of beaver pelts and painted beads most likely did a thriving business even then. As the Indians retreated to their happy hunting grounds and the well-worn paths turned to paved roads, the tepees gave way to apartment buildings, and the practitioners of the world’s oldest profession claimed the plush-lined cubbyholes as their own.
Ah, the happy hunting grounds in the sky. It’s both extraordinary, and fucked up, this view that attempts to be that of the common man.
That passage also shows that it’s not just racism prominent of course, it’s also misogyny:
The femaleness reached out to envelop him in a cloying, clinging embrace.
The ladies are bound to betray you, but that is a common and well-known failing of theirs.