A final farewell to Ed McBain, the novelist -->

by J. Kingston Pierce


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



In January 2003, I conducted an e-mail interview with Ed McBain, following the release of his then-new 87th Precinct novel, Fat Ollie's Book. Setting up the interview was effortless, given McBain's willingness to talk about his work. The author was cordial and forthright in his communications, and we discovered that we both shared similar New York backgrounds -- both Italians (his real name was Salvatore Lombino); he lived in the Bronx and I was born there; and we both eventually settled in Manhattan. I even once took a course at McBain's New York alma mater, Hunter College.

While there are some 87th Precinct novels I have yet to discover (after all, he published 55 of them), those I have read strike me as being produced by a man who knew the heart and soul of the New York Police Department (or, in McBain's fictional world, "Isola Police Department") detectives about whom he wrote so eloquently over the last five decades. One imagines McBain was no stranger to the cinderblock and muted colors of Manhattan's roughest precinct houses. I recall seeing a photo of him standing out in front of the 17th Precinct building, on 51st Street -- the same one that served as the police command center, following the hit on mafia boss Paul Castellano back in December 1985 -- and I could easily imagine 87th Precinct detectives Steve Carella and Bert Kling emerging from the door that was framed in the shot behind McBain. Later, I ran into the author at two different Edgar Awards presentations, and once I remember looking down at his nametag and thinking, Why on earth would Ed McBain need a nametag? Who wouldn't recognize his distinguished bearded features, his intelligent eyes and easy smile? Or for that matter, his other famous nom de plume, Evan Hunter? We had made plans to meet sometime after our e-mail exchange two years ago, but circumstances just never permitted it.

For a variety of reasons, I never published the interview I conducted with McBain two years ago. But now that he's gone, it seems right to let him have his say -- at last.

As I mentioned, our interchange took place in the wake of the publication of Fat Ollie's Book, so my questions revolved mostly around that tale. If you haven't read it, the novel finds Detective/First Grade Oliver Wendell Weeks having just completed a crime novel -- only to see it stolen from his car while he's busy investigating the murder of a local politico. Weeks' fiction winds up being misinterpreted by the manuscript's thief as a report to the police commissioner of an event that actually occurred. Fat Ollie's Book is one of the more humorous of the 87th Precinct stories, giving full exposure to Weeks' propensity for bigotry. It's also one of the more complex entries in that series, featuring a novel-within-a-novel structure.


Anthony Rainone: With the duality of main plot lines in Fat Ollie's Book -- City Councilman Lester Henderson's death and the theft of Ollie Weeks' novel -- how did you approach the writing? Did one story present itself to you first, and you worked that through, or was there a working through of both simultaneously?

Ed McBain: I seem to recall first writing portions of Ollie's novel, and then picking up on the actual murder in my novel, and then writing connective tissue to keep the engine humming. It was a difficult book to write, but lots of fun, too.

Why was it difficult to write? And do you mean more so than usual, or were there particular facets of Fat Ollie's Book that presented greater difficulty?

Difficult to write because (a) it's harder to write bad fiction (as is the case with Ollie's novel) than it is to write good fiction; and (b) Ollie's novel had to be misinterpreted by [thief] Emilio [Herrera], who thinks it's a real report to the commissioner; and (c) Emilio's wrong take on it has to jibe with a real-life drug bust that's going down; and (d) all of this has to be integrated into a solid murder investigation. And besides, Ollie's novel couldn't simply be bad, it had to be funny as well. It was something like putting together the pieces of a very difficult jigsaw puzzle. Frankly, it's a miracle it all worked out.

You mentioned Ollie's novel being funny, which it was -- especially the portions of the novel dealing with Ollie himself. I found myself laughing out loud. Is this overt humor something new for you? Not to say that there aren't threads of humor in your other books, but while I won't say this book is a comedy, the humor is dominant.

It's impossible to write about Ollie without making it funny. That's why he's such a dangerous bigot. We like him in spite of ourselves. There's humor in all of my 87th Precinct novels, but certainly not as much as in this one, which I deliberately set out to make very funny. I've written overt comic novels before (as Evan Hunter) but Fat Ollie's Book can't be defined as a comic novel, since there is a genuine murder mystery at its foundation, and this must be solved -- that's my first obligation in an 87th Precinct novel. I think what accounts for my good mood (and subsequent humor in the novels) these days is my recent marriage (I still think of it as recent, though we just celebrated our fifth anniversary) to a wonderful woman who makes me very, very happy.

Ollie Weeks is so clearly prejudiced -- over-the-top prejudiced. He is dangerous, yet he's interested in [police officer] Patricia Gomez, a Hispanic woman. There is a complexity to him that you don't expect. Is there hope for ol' Ollie, after all?

There's hope for everybody; they just have to learn. In the book I've just finished (it's called The Frumious Bandersnatch), Ollie is actively dating Patricia Gomez and learning a thing or two. (Maybe the reader will learn a thing or two at the same time.) I really don't know how this string will play out, but it's worth a shot. There's a white-black romance in the series that's been going on for quite a few books now, and it starts with either the man or the woman, I forget exactly who, saying, "Let's give it an honest shot." So far, in the new book, Ollie's giving it an honest shot. But, of course, he's a bigot. So we'll have to see what happens.

I'm trying to get a handle on the gullibility of Emilio's character. Without doubt, there are those who would read Ollie's terrible novel and misinterpret it as fact. Yet, I'm wondering: Is Emilio a stand-in for a public that too readily accepts some of the incredible plots and characters fed to them by published and televised thrillers? I don't want to read into the character, but hey, as a former English Lit major, it's a bad habit.

Maybe so, I don't know. I myself hate these "penny dreadful" thrillers that supply a new incredible plot twist on every page, just to keep the action juiced. You know who the writers are, I don't have to name names. At the same time, Emilio's a junkie, so his thinking's not too clear to begin with and he's liable to accept anything, even Ollie's patchwork quilt. I felt very sorry for those two -- Emilio and [his friend and fellow druggie/street prostitute] Aine [Duggan] -- hence their final scene with both of them stoned out.

Staying with your thoughts about manipulative thrillers, the criticism of writing/publishing that you present in this novel, including your comments about authors who've never been cops or medical examiners, and the posted reviews at Amazon.com: Is all that just poking fun at the writing industry, or does it represent a personal dissatisfaction with the world of publishing? The rules Ollie gives for cracking the bestseller list are hysterical.

It's both, I suppose. I don't think that anyone who's never been a cop or a medical examiner (I've been neither) should try writing a mystery novel. Those are Ollie's thoughts, not mine. What I resent is bad writing and the publishing mentality that actually encourages bad writing. (This extends to the posting of badly written reviews on Amazon.) This mentality is clearly expressed in the rules for writing a bestseller. That's how the publishing industry thinks, believe me.

One last question. The relationship between [white cop] Bert Kling and [the police department's black deputy chief surgeon] Sharyn Cooke is touching and obviously loving and respectful. You've mentioned black-white relationships in your past few novels. Are there certain social messages that you like to transmit in your works? Issues that are important to you to get across to your readership?

I don't think so. I forget who said it, it might have been George S. Kaufman, but it goes something like this: "If you want to send a message, try Western Union." I try to keep the messages low-key. If Bert and Sharyn set a good example, if Carella's decency in a brutal job causes readers to respect him, that's good enough for me. | October 2005


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.


A final farewell to Ed McBain, the novelist -->

by J. Kingston Pierce


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

by Wayne Allen Sallee