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Literature / 87th Precinct

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A typical book cover for the series.
The 87th Precinct series is a Long-Running Book Series in the Police Procedural genre, written by Ed McBain (the crime-fiction writing pseudonym of Evan Hunter). It features a revolving cast of police officers from the eponymous precinct, located in an unnamed city that isn't exactly New York.

The series began in 1956 and continued until 2005 with the novels progressing from short pocket novels of roughly 200 pages (often released two or three times a year) to the longer style of novel common today (released once every year or two). The series was atypical in a number of ways from most other mystery/police drama series in that cases were often solved through routine police work, mistakes made by the criminals, or the criminals were not apprehended at all. Also atypical was that the detectives were usually less invested in the case - they went home at night, let other detectives handle part of the foot work, and treated the cases as a matter of routine. Detectives who served as the primary protagonist in a previous novel in the series would often be a secondary character in the next and there was no set pattern as to which detectives were partners or not. Given the time-length of the series it also had its own version of Comic-Book Time where the officers stayed roughly the same age throughout the series but still referenced previous cases and major events.


There have been several screen adaptations, including the feature films Cop Hater (1958), The Mugger (1958), The Pusher (1960), Fuzz (1972) and Blood Relatives (1978); a short-lived weekly series, 87th Precinct (1961-62); and three Made for TV Movies, Lightning (1995), Ice (1996), and Heatwave (1997). Most famously, King's Ransom was adapted into the Japanese film High and Low (1963) by Akira Kurosawa. So Long As You Both Shall Live and Jigsaw were also adapted for Columbo (as "No Time To Die" and "Undercover" respectively, with Arthur Brown joining Columbo in the latter).

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This series provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Both Columbo adaptations strip out almost all the social, racial and sexual commentary, as well as combining several detectives into one role that Lt. Columbo himself fills (although as mentioned above Arthur Brown does appear in the second one). They are essentially the same basic plot with a lot of changes to the finer details.
  • The Adjectival Man: The recurring villain the Deaf Man, a cold-bloodedly vicious criminal with a Complexity Addiction who is usually beaten but never caught. He's sometimes been seen wearing a hearing aid, has described himself as "hard of hearing", and tends to use aliases alluding to deafness in different languages, such as "L. Sordo" and "Taubman". Whether he actually is deaf or if it's an affectation is unknown.
  • Arch-Enemy: The Deaf Man is this for the precinct and for Steve Carella in particular.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • The victims in Fiddlers become less sympathetic when you discover just what rotten people they were, and what they did to Charlie to make him so deranged.
    • Michelle, the main victim in Romance, is a whiny, spoiled diva who gets her boyfriend / agent to stab her for attention and is later stabbed for real.
    • Gregory Craig in Ghosts is one as well; he blamed his wife for his penultimate novel being slated by critics, dumped her for a younger woman who claims to be a psychic, and was killed by the man whose story he basically stole for the basis of his final, hugely successful book. The author's lover later declares through her powers that he killed his wife - she drowned, but she was an excellent swimmer. It's never proven... but her powers are real, and see also Haunted House below.
  • Badass in Distress: Carella is kidnapped, chained to a radiator and injected with heroin in Doll.
  • Berserk Button: Emma is Brother Anthony's in Ice. And vice versa, as the novel's killer ultimately finds out when he murders Anthony...
    • Don't even think about insulting or mistreating Teddy Carella. Steve will tear you a new one.
    • As a father of a teenage daughter, Meyer absolutely hates paedophiles and has to be cautioned by Carella in Lullaby when dealing with the father of the murdered baby, who was having an affair with the other murder victim - the 15 year old sitter.
    • And in Lady, Lady, I Did It!, when Carella, Brown and Kling go to arrest the killer, Kling loses all control and beats him half to death, because one of his victims was Kling's girlfriend Claire Townsend.
    Carella was already typing up the false report in his head, the one about how Manners (the killer) had resisted arrest.
    • In Killer's Choice, the normally patient Meyer loses it when the owner of the liquor stone Annie Stone was shot dead in is visibly more concerned about the four thousand dollars' worth of booze that was destroyed in the process.
  • Best Served Cold: The main plot in Ten Plus One and Fiddlers. In the former, the killer is targeting people who were in a play with his wife at university, and who participated in an orgy-turned-gang rape during the aftershow which left her infertile. In the latter, the killer is targeting people who screwed him over in some way, from his own mother - who abandoned him and his brother - to a teacher who refused to give him an A and made fun of him.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama: Kling's relationship with Sharyn Cooke has some of this.
  • Brick Joke: Meyer's long, wonderfully orchestrated story about a cat thief in The Mugger.
  • Broken Bird: Eileen Burke, so very much. She becomes a cop after her father and uncle, both policemen, are murdered, and dreams of avenging her uncle's death. She is raped and slashed in one book and suffers PTSD as a result, and it gets worse after the events of Tricks, when she shoots a man who was killing and mutilating prostitutes, after he tried to kill her.
  • Busman's Holiday: "Storm", from The Empty Hours, has Cotton Hawes investigating a murder while on vacation at a ski resort.
  • Cartwright Curse: Bert Kling. The poor guy just can't catch a break. His girlfriends either end up dying, having too many issues to cope with a relationship, going off with another man or just getting fed up with him.
  • Caught on Tape: Crucial evidence in Doll and Bread.
  • The Chessmaster: The Deaf Man.
  • Christmas Episode: The Pusher, Sadie When She Died, Ghosts, Eight Black Horses, Money Money Money
  • Comic-Book Time: The same cast of characters were used for the entire 49-year run of the series. This necessitated revisions over time, such as characters who originally had seen military service in World War II getting rewritten so that their service occurred during Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, etc.
  • Con Man: Several in the fourth book of the series.
  • Continuity Nod: Later books in the series frequently reference events or characters from earlier ones.
  • Cop Killer: In Cop Hater, the first novel, a murderer kills three policemen; as it turns out at the end, the third was the true target, and he only killed the first two to mislead the police into thinking that he's a Serial Killer who targets cops.
  • Creator Cameo:
    • Axe:
    "Who wrote Strangers When We Meet?."
    • The opening line of The Blackboard Jungle is quoted in Killer's Payoff.
    • A drunk sailor in The Mugger says his ship is "U S S Huntuh".
  • Criminal Mind Games: Most noticeable with the Deaf Man who increasingly targeted his plans or modified them to specifically antagonize the 87th Precinct detectives, even to the point of causing his own plans to fail.
  • Crossover: One of McBain's Matthew Hope novels, The Last Best Hope, has that character teaming with Steve Carella on a case.
  • Cutlery Escape Aid: In So Long as You Both Shall Live, a kidnapped woman uses the vinegar and oil left with her salad to remove the rust and lubricate the door hinges of the room where she is being held. She then uses the fork to scrape away the rust and pop the pins out of the hinges to escape the room.
  • A Day in the Limelight: Fat Ollie's Book.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: In Shotgun and Tricks.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Meyer, often.
  • Death Faked for You: Carella's, in Doll. He's found and rescued just before his kidnappers are about to make it very real.
  • A Death in the Limelight: Frankie Hernandez in See Them Die.
  • Detective Patsy: Happens to inexperienced patrolman Bert Kling in The Mugger. Bert gets a promotion to Detective after that.
  • Disabled Love Interest: Theodora "Teddy" Carella, a deaf mute.
  • Distracted by the Sexy:
    • The officers on duty in Ten Plus One when a hot blonde actress - and potential victim of the book's villain, a sniper - arrives at the station. She does not get killed, by the way.
    • In Tricks, the principal of a high school where Sebastian the Great and his sexy assistant Marie are performing sees most of the male students can't keep their eyes off her, and while he's supposed to be watching the students "he himself was having a little difficulty (taking his eyes off her), to the extent that when Marie takes her leave the principal thinks "Shit." Then again, how was he to know she's part of a murder plot involving Sebastian and his male protege?
  • Dying Clue: In Lady, Lady I Did It, one of the victims manages to gasp the word "carpenter" before dying. Investigation by the 87th Precinct fails to turn up a suspect who is named Carpenter or who works with wood. It turns out the victim was actually saying "car painter" (i.e. the man who had recently painted his car) but his thick accent turned it into "carpenter".
    • The Swedish procedural, The Laughing Policeman, about a mass shooting on a Stockholm bus, with a member of the Violence Squad among the victims, turns on exactly the same sort of obscure dying utterance which the cops misunderstand because he has an American accent.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The Deaf Man at his introduction in The Heckler wins a poker match by calculating hand probabilities.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Some books take place over the course of a single day.
  • Fair Cop: Bert Kling, Eileen Burke, Annie Rawles.
    • Sharyn Cooke is both this and a Hospital Hottie, being Deputy Chief Surgeon for the department.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: Like Love, although the main clue can be confusing for the modern reader.
  • Fatal Method Acting: In-universe in Eighty Million Eyes, where a famous comedian is murdered on live television in front of forty million witnesses.
  • Fat Bastard: 88th Precinct detective Fat Ollie Weeks, and police informer Fats Donner. The former is a bigot, the latter a pedophile.
  • Halloween Episode: Tricks. There's even a group of circus midgets who yell 'trick or treat!' before shooting people.
  • Identifying the Body: In Tricks, a stage magician's decapitated body is found and his wife identifies him by some scars on the body. They actually had faked his death and the body is that of his assistant.
  • Insists on Paying: Steve Carella (and, by extension, every honest cop).
  • Interrupted Suicide: One was unsuccessfully interrupted in Like Love.
  • It's Personal:
    • 'Til Death, in which the wedding day of Carella's sister is marred by someone targeting her husband-to-be.
    • So Long as You Both Shall Live, in which Bert Kling's wife Augusta is kidnapped after the actual wedding by a Stalker with a Crush who wants to have sex with her and then kill her. And then himself.
  • Just Got Out of Jail: Subplot of Heat, where a recently released prison inmate is out for revenge on the man who arrested him - Bert Kling.
  • Karma Houdini: The murderer who is the protagonist of He Who Hesitates.
    • Said murderer ends up confessing in Shotgun and does get charged and presumably convicted. Karma caught up to him.
    • And the Deaf Man, who remains at large at the end of Hark!, the final book in which he appears.
  • Killed Off for Real: Roger Havilland in Killer's Choice, Frankie Hernandez in See Them Die, Claire Townsend in Lady, Lady, I Did It!.
  • Kissing Cousins: In Blood Relatives, a man is suspected of murdering his cousin, to whom he is engaged. The culprit turns out to be the man's sister.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: The entire roster of the 87th (up to that time) only appears in one book — the appropriately named Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here, the 25th of the series.
  • Locked Room Mystery: A fairly realistic version in Killer's Wedge.
  • Love Letter: A series of erotic ones left behind by a murder victim in Widows.
  • Never Suicide: Shotgun, although the detectives see through it straight away.
  • No Kill Like Overkill: Pepe Miranda's death in See Them Die. First, he is shot repeatedly by the army of cops. Then Andy Parker empties his gun into him. And then, Parker grabs another gun and shoots Miranda in the head. Twice.
  • Non Sequitur: Meyer often blurts his (unrelated to the topic at hand) thoughts out loud, confusing the others.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: some of the most mild and harmless-seeming people turn out to be killers, such as Timothy Moore, the victim's medical student boyfriend in Ice.
  • Meaningful Name: Usually averted, but played straight with Don King from King's Ransom.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The novels are set in Isola, a district of an unnamed, fictional city in an unnamed state which, as mentioned above, closely resembles New York. Isola includes many features of Manhattan, and the other districts mentioned are clear expies for New York City's other four boroughs.
    • More specifically, according to The Other Wiki, "Calm's Point" is Brooklyn, "Majesta" is Queens, "Riverhead" is the Bronx, and "Bethtown" Staten Island. Then there's the Harb (Hudson) and Dix (East) Rivers, and the similarly unnamed "next state" (New Jersey). George M. Dove's unofficial 1985 companion to the series, The Boys from Grover Avenue, analyzes the geography of McBain's "Imaginary City" and describes it as NYC shifted to the side, so that north becomes east, east south, etc.
    • Oddly enough, New York itself is occasionally mentioned in the books. Apparently McBain's universe has two huge and virtually-interchangeable metropolises co-existing very close to one another on the East Coast of the United States.
    • The film adaptations of Cop Hater (1958) and The Pusher (1960) are explicitly set in NYC. Meanwhile, the film of Fuzz (1972) is set in Boston for some reason, and the film of Blood Relatives (1978), being a French-Canadian co-production, is set in Montreal!
  • Obfuscating Disability:
    • While the Deaf Man wears a hearing aid, it's suggested on various occasions (including by the Deaf Man himself, in The Heckler) that it may just be a prop.
    • Elmer Wollender in "Storm", from The Empty Hours.
  • Oddball in the Series: He Who Hesitates is the only novel in the series told from the villain's POV.
  • Once More, with Clarity!: Taped evidence in Bread, misunderstood at first.
  • One-Letter Title: "J" in The Empty Hours.
  • One-Word Title: Many of the books, particularly in the '80s and '90s.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Deaf Man.
  • Paranormal Episode: Ghosts is the only novel to feature supernatural, and with Det. Steve Carella seemingly being saved by a ghost.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Captain Frick. The best thing that could be said about his leadership is that he realises his own incompetence and most of the time just don't do anything.
  • Pun-Based Title: Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man, Give the Boys a Great Big Hand
  • Rabid Cop: Masterson and Brock in Ten Plus One.
  • Rape as Drama: Eileen Burke. In Lullaby, she goes into therapy after the events of Tricks (see Broken Bird above).
  • Repetitive Name: Meyer Meyer.
  • Scary Black Man: Arthur Brown, and he's more than happy to play on white people's prejudices (see Jigsaw for an excellent example). Unfortunately, some white suspects have a tendency to talk to the white cop who's interviewing them (usually Kling) and ignore Brown completely.
    • Mostly subverted in the Columbo film "Undercover".
  • Secret Diary: There's one belonging to the victim in Blood Relatives.
  • Self-Deprecation: Both Meyer Meyer and The Deaf Man admit to hating Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, the screenplay for which was written by... Evan Hunter.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: Cop Hater, Long Time, No See and Mischief.
  • Serial Rapist: Lightning involves one who keeps re-attacking the same women.
  • Skunk Stripe: Detective Cotton Hawes has a white streak in his otherwise red hair as a result of his hair growing back over a knife scar.
  • Suspect Is Hatless:
    • In Lady, Lady I Did It, a gunman opens fire in a crowded bookstore; killing several people. Despite there being multiple eyewitnesses, the police are unable to get an accurate description as most of them were focused on the gun. And, even then, the description of the gun varies greatly from person to person. It turns out, the gunman was using two quite different guns; one in each hand.
    • Lampshaded in Blood Relatives when a victim fails to pick a suspect out of a lineup. The narrative then describes how at some time during their training, police officers have to describe someone who entered their classroom during a lecture (results of which are, to say the least, varying).
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Andy Parker for Roger Havilland. After Havilland's death, Parker fills the role of a large, brutal, racist jerkass cop. Even his backstory is similar to Havilland's.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Several, for example Charles Tudor from Give the Boys a Great Big Hand. Both Carella and Meyer feels sympathy for him for being such a Love Martyr.
  • Themed Aliases: The Deaf Man always uses aliases that are some sort of play on words on 'deaf' in a variety of languages.
  • This Is a Work of Fiction
    "The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique."
  • This Is My Name on Foreign: The Deaf Man's aliases are always some kind of play on 'deaf' in a foreign language: sometimes literally translating as 'The Deaf Man'.
  • Those Two Guys: The buffoonish and arrogant homicide detectives Monoghan and Monroe.
  • Tomboyish Name: Though Mrs. Carella's given name is Theodora, everyone calls her "Teddy".
  • Unintentionally Notorious Crime: In Lady, Lady, I Did It, a shooter opens fire in a store and guns down four people. One of them happens to be Detective Bert Kling's fiancee, thereby guaranteeing that the crime has the attention of every cop in the city.


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