I’m about halfway through the 87th Precinct series, Ed McBain’s police procedural novels set in Isola, part of a fictional unnamed city that bears close resemblance to New York. While the city and its history parallels that of New York, it does have its own unique features. There do not seem to be any iconic buildings like the Empire State or the World Trade Center. However, the sections of the city correspond to New York – Isola is Manhattan, Calm’s Point is Brooklyn, Riverhead is The Bronx, Majesta is Queens, and Bethtown is Staten Island right down to being accessible only by ferry until the 1970’s.
It’s this fictional City that attracted me to the series, in many ways like Chris Nolan’s Gotham City (itself reinvented for the television series Gotham.) However, the real appeal is that the 87th Precinct is an ensemble work. Steve Carella, the no-nonsense, serious detective who features in most of the series, may be first among equals, but there’s a whole cast who get their turns as leads. In one novel, Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here, McBain (real name Evan Hunter, who wrote Blackboard Jungle and the screenplay for The Birds) bends himself in knots to get every then-current detective in the 87th into the book.
But Carella is the heart and soul of the series. A veteran and a family man, Carella is often the most focused member of the squad. Even when he’s not the central character, everyone turns to him for advice. Carella is frequently partnered with one of three detectives – Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, and the tragically named Meyer Meyer. Hawes is a ladies man and originally introduced as a possible replacement for Carella. In his novel, Carella is seemingly killed off, only to have him recover in the final scene. (Which incidentally is one of the most emotionally intense scenes in the series.) Meyer is a patient man, his father giving him his first name as a joke that Meyer had to live with. Kling is a hot-headed young detective generally unlucky in love.
There are others. Arthur Brown, the squad’s only black detective (really a reboot of a detective killed off in the first novel, Cop Hater) is hip, suave, and popular. His polar opposite is the lazy, racist Andy Parker. However, McBain seems to grow tired of Parker by the mid-1970’s and demotes him to occasional appearances in favor of the racist, slovenly, but infinitely smarter and oddly likeable Fat Ollie Weeks. Weeks is that obnoxious uncle who makes you cringe but can’t help like. Parker is just an asshole.
There is also Detective Rick Gennero, promoted to plainclothes too soon and spectacularly dim. Hal Willis is the shortest man on the squad, though he can still kick ass. In the first half of the series, Detective Eileen Burke is almost completely absent. Though a later addition to the 87th, she shows up as an undercover detective from downtown.Her portrayal, too, is inconsistent. In her first appearance, Mugger, she’s a young officer annoyed with the boys of the 87th fretting that she’s putting herself in danger. In Fuzz, she’s portrayed as a young, sex-starved girl enjoying her cover making out with Gennero while trying to catch the Deaf Man.
Speaking of whom, the Deaf Man generally appears whenever McBain wants to shake up the series. He is an odd variation on Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes, usually undone by his arrogance.
The series starts out as a parallel to Dragnet, but it eventually takes on its own character. If it has a parallel in later years, it’s the eighties police drama Hill Street Blues, which also takes place in a fictional unnamed city. Hill Street, though, was a bit of a soap opera. Homicide, which also has a lot in common with 87th Precinct, was actually a retelling of real stories from the Baltimore Police Department. It’s a far cry from The Wire, perhaps the best known police show today, but there’s something comforting in the 87th Precinct’s slow pace of change. The series is divorced from the calendar the way a lot of literary crime is, but it still illustrates the changes in police work since its inception in 1956.