An Officer's Final Salute
R.I.P. Ed McBain
by Jim Doherty

As both a policeman and a mystery writer who specializes in police procedurals, it goes without saying that Ed McBain's passing saddens me deeply. In many respects, McBain had an influence on my choice of professions. Of both my professions.

Despite what some obituaries are saying, McBain can't properly be called the "inventor" of the police procedural. I suppose if anyone deserves that title,
it's Jack Webb, whose pioneering radio-TV series Dragnet was, as McBain himself often acknowledged, such a major influence on the 87th Precinct novels. (And indeed, it must be admitted that there were many predecessors to Webb, as well.)

For that matter, the innovations McBain did take credit for were often realized by other writers prior to McBain. For example, the signature "precinct
detective squadroom" setting McBain used to such great effect was also the hallmark of Sidney Kingsley's classic stage play Detective Story (in which McBain once appeared as an actor).

The fictionalizing of Manhattan into "Isola" is anticipated by retired British bobby Maurice Procter's Inspector Martineau series, in which the North England city of Manchester becomes "Granchester," and by two 1930's cop novels, Harness Bull and Homicide, by former Southern California police officer Leslie T. White, in which Los Angeles becomes "American City."

Even the "corporate hero" concept, in which a group of police officers share the lead rather than one single character predominating, was used in a series of novels about the Railroad Police by Southern Pacific cop Bert Hitchens and his wife, mystery writer Dolores Hitchens, the first of which appeared one year before McBain's Cop Hater hit the stands.

But McBain put all these elements together in such a unique way that he seemed to be doing something that had never been done before. If he wasn't the police procedural's "Dashiell Hammett," blazing a new trail to a different kind of crime fiction, he was certainly the procedural's "Raymond Chandler," taking the raw elements that had been discovered by others and fusing them with such superlative style that he becomes the single most influential practitioner of the sub-genre.

One point that should be made is how marvelously he evoked setting. Award-winning mystery novelist and critic William DeAndrea once called the 87th Precinct series "the greatest sustained literary examination of New York City in American literature," notwithstanding its ironically, "pretending not to be about New York at all." That's hard to argue with. Years before I ever visited New York, I felt I knew it through the novels of the 87th, and when I finally did visit, I felt as though I was in a familiar place, for having experienced it through McBain's work.

Another point that should be made is the extraordinarily high quality McBain maintained throughout the nearly five decades he wrote the series. In almost all long-lasting series a certain fatigue sets in after awhile, and "jumping the shark"
becomes almost impossible to avoid. But McBain kept the saga of the 87th Precinct marvelously fresh in every single entry.

In 1956, when Anthony Boucher first coined the term "police procedural" to describe a kind of crime fiction in which the main interest is the authentic depiction of law enforcement, he singled out McBain, Webb, and Britain's John Creasey (in his "J.J. Marric" persona) as the exemplars of this new type of mystery.

McBain, however, never really liked the term, despite being one of the people for whom it was coined. He preferred to be thought of a someone who wrote novels that just happened to be about cops.

He'll be missed, and he'll be in my prayers (though, lapsed Catholic that he was, that will probably annoy him).

Respectfully submitted by Jim Doherty, July 2005.
For a complete list of Ed McBain's work, please go to his bibliography on this site.

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