Ed McBain

Master of the police procedural in the '87th Precinct' novels
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The Independent Online

The writer who became better known as Evan Hunter and world-famous as Ed McBain once admitted that as Salvatore Lombino, the name he was born with, it would have been difficult to make any kind of headway in the world of American paperback publishing in the 1950s. "Seven syllables," he wryly commented at a 1980s crime-fiction convention, "was three or four too many on a paperback cover."

It was certainly too many for the often minimalistic contents pages of the crime-fiction digest magazines Hunter cut his literary eye-teeth on, such as Mantrap, Pursuit, Guilty, Two-Fisted, Justice and the standard-bearer of the 1950s American crime noir genre Manhunt, which flung open its doors in January 1953 fanfaring a new story by the million-seller Mickey Spillane, together with tales by other established noir writers such as William Irish (the great Cornell Woolrich) and Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald). Not to mention Hunter himself.

When the suspense writer Bill Pronzini and I put together a massive 36-story, 250,000-word collection of American noir crime stories from 1925 through to 1992, Hard-Boiled, for Oxford University Press in 1995, we hoped it would be definitive, or at least representative, but we knew we'd get letters. Mainly from disgruntled aficionados whose favourite author had been excluded - for a variety of reasons: we couldn't get the rights, we couldn't trace an heir or assignee, the rights were too heart-stoppingly expensive, the book was getting too long.

"Why no Evan Hunter?" we were asked, "why no Ed McBain?" Simply because, although Hunter certainly wrote for the hard-boiled digests of the 1950s - not to mention a handful of tales for the last of the genuine pulp magazines, Famous Detective Stories and Smashing Detective Stories, before the entire breed passed into publishing history - Hunter, in essence, was hard-edged rather than purely hard-boiled. There is a moral dimension to much of his work, and evidence of a deep compassion which surfaces when it's least expected, especially in his most famous and long-lasting mystery series (as McBain), the "87th Precinct" novels.

Salvatore Lombino was born in New York in 1926 and educated at city schools, going straight from High School into the United States Navy in 1944 and serving until 1946. After leaving the navy he enrolled at Hunter College, New York, majoring in art and graduating in 1950.

During the early 1950s he managed to engage in three distinct trades - literary agent, busy hack, and teacher - which in the end transformed him into the hugely successful writer who "never had a day job after the 1950s". He worked for a short period at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency: this gave him numerous contacts as well as an all-important insight into precisely what editors were looking for. More crucially: what was hot and what was not.

At the time tough detective stories and science fiction were market leaders, so Lombino became "Hunt Collins", aiming at magazines such as If and Amazing Stories, and "Evan Hunter" and "Curt Cannon" aiming at the mystery digests. At times his literary affairs could get complicated. "Richard Marsten" wrote punchy tales about deadly, double-crossing dames for Manhunt and its brother magazines, while at the same time gripping science fiction for juveniles, such as Danger: Dinosaurs! (1953: young adventurers go back in time a few million years looking for uranium). "Evan Hunter", meanwhile, turned out tough tales for digests with grim, gun-carrying shamuses menacing pencil-skirted blondes on their covers, as well as fantasy and SF for juveniles - Find the Feathered Serpent (1952), e.g., another time-travel tale, the time back to the Mayan empire - and adults.

And it got even more Byzantine. As Hunter he wrote (in 1954) for the SF digest If "Malice in Wonderland", an excellent novella about a future in which highly addictive mind-altering drugs played a major part. He then proceeded to turn it into the full-length novel Tomorrow's World (1956), which the library-supplying publisher Avalon put out - as by "Hunt Collins".

Hunter (as he became professionally known) also found time to teach in vocational high schools. This gave him the background, as well as the confidence, to turn to the mainstream and write one of his most successful novels, The Blackboard Jungle (1954), which was not only a sensational best-seller, gaining an instant notoriety on first publication, but the following year became an outstanding motion picture which had an influence far beyond its, admittedly excellent, storyline.

Throughout the opening credits and the film itself, a tightly plotted and tense drama about big-city juvenile delinquency starring Glenn Ford, Bill Haley sang "Rock Around the Clock", whose nagging riffs and frantic beat alerted teenagers the Western world over that the day of crooners like Guy Mitchell and even Frank Sinatra was suddenly dead and gone.

The extraordinary success of The Blackboard Jungle (around five million copies were sold at the time) as both book and movie relieved Hunter of the necessity of earning his living in uncongenial occupations. Another success - this time on a much slower burn - was the creation, initially as one of those jobs merely, as the old pulp-writers had it, to "put bread on the table", of a cop series set in the fictional 87th Precinct of a city that bore a remarkable resemblance to New York. Hunter changed his name again, this time to "Ed McBain", for the first of the series, Cop Hater, published in 1956.

There were police procedurals before McBain - Lawrence Treat in America, Maurice Procter in Great Britain, and Jack Webb, whose brilliant show Dragnet ran on both US radio and then television, were all pioneers - but the 87th Precinct series had all the better attributes of a high-class soap opera, involving characters, both sympathetic and unlikeable, who come and go, live and die, get older (though only very, very slowly: time, in the world of the 87th Precinct, does not act quite according to the laws of physics) and sometimes wiser.

Most of the books - over 50 at last count - tell a linear tale of one or two (or three) crimes, to be solved by the end of the book. Refreshingly, on occasion McBain changes not just the pace but the rules: in He Who Hesitates (1965) the story is seen through the eyes of the killer, who gets away scot-free; Fuzz (1968) is a wild farce in which the cops act like nincompoops (the 1972 movie with Burt Reynolds was just as perky); Hail to the Chief (1973) is pure political satire, with President Richard Nixon as the target.

But the series' success lay in the future. In the late 1950s Hunter assumed his fortune lay not in the pulp world but the literary mainstream. He began writing family melodramas, such as Mothers and Daughters (1961), and novels of suburban adultery. Strangers When We Meet (1958) was another best-seller which he turned into an excellent film (1960), with Kirk Douglas, Kim Novak and the scene-stealing comic actor Ernie Kovacs. This led to Alfred Hitchcock's inviting him to script a Daphne du Maurier terror tale as The Birds, which came out in 1963 to much acclaim, as well as, later, Winston Graham's suspense novel Marnie. Halfway through the latter assignment Hunter discovered the normally unflappable director had taken against him, "for no reason I could ever think of", and the film ended up with a screenplay by Jay Presson Allen.

Other directors fell on Hunter's novels over the years. Claude Chabrol made Blood Relatives (1975) in 1977 with Donald Sutherland, as a co-production in Canada, Les Liens du sang; Philippe Agostini turned Killer's Wedge into La Soupe aux poulets (1963), fudging over the novel's "impossible crime" aspect; William Berke made The Mugger (1956), only the second 87th Precinct thriller, in 1958 with a screenplay by the pulp-writer Henry Kane; The Pusher (1956) was produced in 1960 by United Artists with a so-so script by Harold Robbins.

The Japanese took to Hunter with enormous enthusiasm, especially his McBain books. Akira Kurasawa (with a small posse of writers) transformed King's Ransom (1959) into Tengoku to jigoku (a.k.a. Heaven and Hell, High and Low or The Ransom, 1963) with the great Toshiro Mifune as the bewildered shoemaker who has to part with a fortune to save someone else's child from kidnappers. In 1982 Kon Ichikawa turned the 1961 87th Precinct novel Lady, Lady, I Did It! into Kofuku (a.k.a Happiness or Lonely Heart).

Never afraid to attack a new area of storytelling, Hunter wrote a sprawling western saga, The Chisholms, in 1976, and then sold the book as a series to television, scripting most of the hour-long instalments himself (1978-79).

Hunter's body of work is impressive and wide-ranging. He always wrote compellingly - his early pulp work is just as involving as later material - and seemed able to juggle three or four literary balls in the air with the same kind of relish as his readers felt on reading him (latterly, he added another series alongside his 87th Precinct books, featuring the Florida attorney Matthew Hope). And he never seemed to rest on his laurels. Only three years ago, at the age of 76, he published The Moment She Was Gone, an extraordinarily gripping and suspenseful novel which touched on schizophrenia, sex, psychiatry, and appalling mothers. And only this year he began an entirely new suspense series with Alice in Jeopardy; a second book, Becca in Jeopardy, is due next year.

Evan Hunter was awarded the title "Grand Master" in 1986 by the Mystery Writers of America, and the Crime Writers Association "Diamond Dagger" for lifetime achievement in 1998.

Towards the end of his life he suffered three heart attacks, was given a triple bypass, and then was hit with throat cancer. Ever the professional, he turned the experience of having most of his oesophagus cut out and a prosthetic voice-box replacing it into Let's Talk, a quirky and dispassionate account of what happened to him, which was published this May. The final 87th Precinct novel, Fiddlers, is due out in September, and a new volume of short stories, so far untitled, will be published in 2006.

Jack Adrian