A critic reflects on his last conversation with the Master -->

by Anthony Rainone


How a little luck and politeness led to one writer’s long-distance mentoring -->

by Wayne Allen Sallee







Fiddlers: A Novel of the 87th Precinct

by Ed McBain

Published by Harcourt

272 pages, 2005

Buy it online


Befitting an author who lived most of his 78 years primarily under two different identities -- those of Ed McBain and Evan Hunter -- although neither of those was his real name (he was born to Italian parents as Salvatore Alberto Lombino), McBain, as he's best known, seemed very much a dualistic character.

His 87th Precinct police-procedural novels, the first of which was Cop Hater (1956), inspired not only innumerable tough-guy knockoffs, but also TV dramas such as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and The Shield; yet McBain once described himself as "a softy," and added, "I think the 87th Precinct novels are very sentimental and the cops are idealistic guys ..." He could come off in interviews sounding arrogant, as he did when he proclaimed, in the early 1980s, that he didn't read police procedurals -- "because, immodestly, I feel there is no other writer of police procedurals in the world from whom I can learn anything ... So there's no real sense in reading them. That's like Michelangelo watching an apprentice paint in the white of an eye"; yet he sounded genuinely hurt when he'd remark that, despite many nominations, none of his more than 130 books or his equally daunting number of short stories was ever recognized with an Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America. (It wasn't until 1986 that the MWA finally tried to rectify that slight, giving McBain its coveted Grand Master Award.) And though he's been described as an "adamant realist," the more than 50 books he wrote over half a century about 87th Precinct cops Steve Carella, Bert Kling, Meyer Meyer, and their compatriots were set not in the genuine, brilliant mess of his native New York City, but in a fictionalized metropolis in decline called "Isola" ("island" in Italian).

Bringing together those multiple, and sometimes contradictory, parts of a crime novelist who so often inspired hyperbole ("To say that Ed McBain is a giant among popular writers is like saying the Colossus of Rhodes was a pretty fair piece of municipal sculpture," opined interviewer/author John C. Carr) will be one task for speakers at a public memorial service to be held tomorrow, Saturday, October 15, in honor of McBain, who died of cancer of the larynx on July 6. That service is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. at Manhattan's Ethical Culture Society (2 West 64th Street, at the corner of Central Park West). Saturday would have been the author's 79th birthday.

In Carr's The Craft of Crime: Conversations With Crime Writers (1983), McBain recalled that "I was born right here on 120th Street [in New York's Italian Harlem], between First and Second avenues, October 15, 1926, on the kitchen table. My aunt Jennie was a midwife and she delivered me and referred to me for the rest of her life as 'my baby.'" In 1944, not long before World War II ended, and just prior to his 18th birthday, the then-Salvatore Lombino joined the U.S. Navy, principally, he acknowledged, "to get out of going into the army. Anyone at the time who was drafted was being sent to Italy, to get their asses shot off," and he certainly didn't want that. Instead, he was dispatched to Hawaii, and then reassigned to Japan. It was during his navy stint that he wrote his first story, called "Chalk" ("a detective story really, a madman story -- about a guy who commits a murder, and it was sort of poetic and all that"). Though he'd once thought to become a cartoonist, "Chalk" helped convince him to pursue the life of an author, instead. After leaving the military in July 1946, he studied literature at Hunter College in New York, eventually graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He subsequently taught high school "very briefly" -- an experience he would draw upon when penning The Blackboard Jungle (1954), which he published as "Evan Hunter," a name he had legally adopted in 1952. (As his friend James Grady, a screenwriter and journalist, explains in Slate, McBain reasoned "that publishing would buy a WASP moniker more easily than the 1950s ethnic- and class-conscious marketplace would buy the books of a novelist with a name like Lombino.") That gritty tale about a young teacher whose idealism is challenged by the reality of an urban vocational school filled with troublemakers, was quickly adapted for Hollywood, the film version starring Glenn Ford and a very youthful Sidney Poitier. (Asked years later what he thought of the 1955 picture, McBain called it "a pretty good movie," though "I don't think there was a line of dialogue in the movie that came from the book.")

Only two years after gaining acclaim as Evan Hunter, the writer picked yet another pseudonym, "Ed McBain," to appear on Cop Hater. In The Craft of Crime, the novelist remembered coming up with that nom de plume:

When I finished the first of what would become the 87th Precinct series ..., I just walked out of there -- I was living on Long Island at the time and I was working out of the bedroom of a very small development house -- and I went into the kitchen. My former wife was feeding the twins or something, and I said, "How do you like McBain?" She said, "Good, that's good." It was really out of the blue. I think there may have been some unconscious association with poison: bane. But it sounded to me like the kind of name that would be associated with someone writing about cops; it sounds like a former cop or a police reporter. It just felt right to me.

For the next 49 years, Evan Hunter and Ed McBain would appear in magazines and climb the bestseller charts together, though not on the same ladders. (The author also penned stories under pseudonyms such as Hunt Collins, Richard Marsten and Curt Cannon, though those seemed to disappear by the 1960s. For a full accounting of Hunter/McBain's works, click here.) As Hunter, he wrote more mainstream fiction, including not only The Blackboard Jungle, but also Mothers and Daughters (1961), Last Summer (1968), the haunting Lizzie (1984, which fictionalized the 1892 Lizzie Borden murders) and The Moment She Was Gone (2002). Yet it was as McBain that he earned wider recognition, turning out a phenomenal 55 87th Precinct novels, including The Heckler (1960), Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man (1973, which introduced an ongoing villain), Ghosts (1980, a venture into what might be called "police supernatural"), Vespers (1990), Romance (1995), The Last Dance (2000), Fat Ollie's Book (2003), and Fiddlers, which was published only in September. (A new collection of McBain short stories, Learning to Kill, is still due out from Otto Penzler/Harcourt in July 2006.) Besides the 87th Precinct series, he produced more than a dozen novels (beginning with Goldilocks, 1977) that starred a Florida-based lawyer named Matthew Hope, who always seemed to do as much investigating as he did litigating. And, late in life, he acknowledged his two main authorial personas with Candyland (2001), a novel ostensibly created by both McBain and Hunter. That story kicks off as a Hunter tale about a middle-aged gent who wrecks his life during one evening of debauchery, but then segues into a police procedural.

Curiously, despite the fact that McBain's 87th Precinct novels -- with their multiple plot lines and an ensemble cast of cops old and young, progressive and bigoted, married but mostly not -- stimulated the development of a score of memorable U.S. TV crime dramas, a 1961 NBC series called 87th Precinct, based specifically on the books and starring Robert Lansing, Norman Fell and Gena Rowlands, didn't manage to stick around past its debut year. The author had better success with movies, both for the large and small screens, several of which (including 1958's Cop Hater, 1972's Fuzz and the 1995 teleplay Ed McBain's 87th Precinct: Lightning) were adapted from 87th Precinct novels. McBain/Hunter even wrote the screenplays for some adaptations, as well as for series that had nothing to do with his books, such as Ironside and Columbo. However, he was undoubtedly best recognized as a screenwriter for having penned the script from which Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1963 suspenser, The Birds, was made.

In many ways, McBain was a pioneer. In the 1950s and 60s, his "cops resembled the real America, not the Dragnet straight arrows playing on TV sets in wood-paneled rec rooms," writes Grady, who adds that McBain "bucked the clichés of police fiction, in which cops were nearly always Irish or almost certainly white." New York Times crime-fiction critic Marilyn Stasio concurs, writing in her obituary of the novelist that he "took police fiction into a new, more realistic realm, a radical break from a form long dependent on the educated, aristocratic detective who works alone and takes his time puzzling out a case." And South Africa-born author James McClure, whose own procedurals, featuring Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Zulu Sergeant Mickey Zondi (The Steam Pig, The Sunday Hangman) were clearly prompted by reading McBain's police yarns, applauded the New York writer's skill at making gold from "cop corn." McBain, he explained, "accepts things as they are; if the field that engrosses him is knee-high in clichés, so be it. In he goes, as eager and uncompromising as a child, to grasp the thistle that grows between the rows."

McBain always resisted being boxed into a corner as a crime writer; he had grander literary ambitions than that. Still, few crime novelists have contributed as much to the field as did the former Salvatore Lombino, both as an author and as an editor of anthologies (The Best American Mystery Stories 1999, Transgressions). However, remarks Nick Kimberley of the British newspaper The Guardian, the 87th Precinct stories are about more than cinematic and sometimes brutal action, forensic procedures and the interaction between officers growing more cynical over time. "Without ascribing them greater weight than they can carry," Kimberley observes, "the novels are best considered as an immense saga in which the dilemmas of modern life are played out, but varied with tremendous narrative vigour. Or perhaps they constitute a love-letter, millions of words long, to the city: New York City first of all, but the American city in general."

And so it's appropriate that New York should host a final, if rather belated good-bye to its native son. Even if you can't attend tomorrow's memorial, you can still honor the passing of a giant of the crime-writing craft. January Magazine does its small part today with a pair of stories: the first, Wayne Allen Sallee's ode to McBain, who helped mentor him into a novel-writing career of his own, despite Sallee's physical ailments; and the second, Anthony Rainone's previously unpublished interview with the "captain" of the 87th Precinct. You can pay your own kind of tribute, simply by picking up a McBain or Hunter novel. It doesn't much matter which of those names is on the cover; inside, you'll find the same master at the story's helm, steering you right every time. | October 2005


J. Kingston Pierce is the senior editor of January Magazine, host of the cable-TV series Eccentric Seattle and author of the general-interest Web log Limbo. He's currently working on a novel.



A critic reflects on his last conversation with the Master -->

by Anthony Rainone


How a little luck and politeness led to one writer's long-distance mentoring -->

by Wayne Allen Sallee