Modern police procedurals are generally found on television shows of the C.S.I. variety. Actors who are too “hot” to really be cops and detectives stand around making quantum leaps of deductive reasoning in a few lines of dialogue, arriving at conclusions that would take an actual police force months. There is always a lab test that will solve the crime, or a criminal profiler who is spot-on about the perpetrator. The audience is wowed by all the pseudo-science and techno-speak. But the real world doesn’t work that way.
One of my guilty pleasures is vintage police procedurals, all the way back to the introduction of fingerprinting in detective fiction in Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Ed McBain (most famous pseudonym of prolific author Evan Hunter) quietly produced a slew of procedurals, mostly set in his fictional 87th Precinct of a city reminiscent of New York. “The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places, are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.”
McBain does not give us brilliant, hunky cops who dazzle us with technology to solve crimes. He gives us hard-working, real men and women of the force who have real-life issues and problems. He sets their work against a dazzling array of cats up trees, pimps, prostitutes, low-lifes, thugs, panhandlers, con artists, and more. McBain is rarely a prose stylist, but his books propel themselves to their conclusions with can’t-put-down swiftness.
He is also a master of irony. There is a tongue-in-cheek haphazardness about the way his mysteries get solved. He likes pointing up how regular people get in over their heads, situations spiral out of control, and crimes happen for often the stupidest of reasons. The crime in Axe, an ax-murder, turns out to be the outcome of a really trivial fight between neighboring landlords. Most of the book is spent on the detectives tracking down false leads. McBain is convincing, because he is just showing us a slice of life, the way things really happen.
The Dalenberg Library copy of Axe is the first British edition of 1964, published by Hamish Hamilton (London.) I kept the bookmark that came in it, because it is so utterly British, from The Old Station Pottery and Bookshop, Maryland, Wells-Next-the-Sea, Norfolk. The paperback edition in the Dalenberg Library is the first Signet printing from 1977. The books are identical except the British add an e to make it “Axe,” and the Americans shorten it to “Ax.”