While there seem to be as many continuing detective characters as there are mystery writers, only a few transcend the genre. Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe and Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer come quickly to mind. Those series featured private eyes who explored society as much as solved crime.

But one series is startling not only in its quality but longevity. In 1956, Ed McBain (alias Evan Hunter) launched the 87th Precinct series with the publication of "Cop Hater." What has set the 87th apart from the others is that the author examines the officers in a precinct house as opposed to focusing on one character.There are certain traits to an 87th Precinct novel. The books exude an atmosphere of mean streets, macabre sense of humor and, surprisingly, an overriding humanity. The police officers work very hard. There are no easy clues and few fortuitous coincidences. The only way the police crack a case is by investigating all leads, asking questions, and slowly putting together the pieces of each case. Like Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain spends much time exploring the criminal mind and world. While each novel stands alone, there are continuing themes.

"Lullaby" is the 40th book in the splendid series and may be one of the best. As in the others, the author has several plot lines going on in the novel. The centerpiece of "Lullaby" is a harrowing New Year's Eve double-murder of an infant and her baby sitter. That assignment goes to detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer. While they are working on the murders, Officer Bert Kling breaks up a street fight and winds up in the middle of a drug war.

One of the 87th's fine features is that actions have a consequence. The violence is not easy. The police officers have lives outside the force and quite often the two areas spill over. There is a poignant subplot about a policewoman who shot a rapist in an earlier book. Both guilt-ridden and angry, she is treated by a police psychiatrist as to her future on the force.

If you have missed out on this superb series, "Lullaby" is as good a place to start as any. Be warned: The 87th Precinct is addictive.

Bob Baylus (Baltimore Sun)