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

by Anthony Rainone


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

by J. Kingston Pierce



Fiddlers: A Novel of the 87th Precinct

by Ed McBain

Published by Harcourt

272 pages, 2005

Buy it online



Ed McBain was going to come to Chicago to crown me.

And I fully expected him to, driving straight to the Windy City from the hinterlands beyond Westchester County, New York, possibly stopping for an egg cream and crullers along the way, for extra energy, maybe rubbing elbows with cops Steve Carella and Bert Kling. But then -- BAM! Everything changed, as they say.

So, why was he was going to crown me? No, it wasn't because I had been stalking him. Nor was I a new writer pestering him incessantly for expert help. I wasn't even requesting that he autograph the first 43 of his 55 87th Precinct novels, though that might have been nice.

The reason was that I called him "Sir" all the time.

* * *

Let me explain. I had the chance to interview Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter) for Mystery Scene magazine back in 1991, long before the Internet and e-mail were popular. And although I failed to realize it, over the course of a series of Q & A letters, I kept referring to him the way butler Alfred Pennyworth addressed Bruce Wayne in the Batcave. McBain was just that polite a man, and even now, three months after his death, I still find myself thinking about his work -- and his impact on my work, both as a result of his words and his general good advice.

You probably don't know my name, unless you read a lot of short fiction. I have cerebral palsy and it would take me years to type a novel (although I do have one to my name: The Holy Terror, published by Mark Ziesing in 1992). But, if I am a complete unknown to most of you, I can guarantee that you know the city I write about: Chicago, Illinois. "Chi-town." Sandberg's "City of the Big Shoulders." And I have Ed McBain to thank for encouraging me in my urban imaginings. He taught me how to internalize my world of cops and crazies and everyone in between, just as he did with his own fictionalized city of "Isola" in his 87th Precinct novels.

Fifteen years ago, I had made my mark, small as it was, by having a few stories reprinted in four successive editions of DAW's Year's Best Horror Stories. And then I lucked into the last spot in a Martin Greenberg-edited anthology called Nightmares on Elm Street: Freddy Krueger's Seven Sweetest Dreams (1991), even though my deadline window was the weekend of my sister's wedding, and I had to scribble the story out on napkins and coasters between wedding photo poses. When editor Ed Gorman contacted me about interviewing Ed McBain for the April 1991 issue of Mystery Scene, I was both honored and baffled. I was completely under the radar as a mystery writer, because the beginning of my career was also the birth of the category "Horror," which replaced "Suspense" or "Dark Fantasy" in the used-book shops and chain bookstores that pre-dated Barnes & Noble and Borders, and that's where the powers that be thought my work belonged. I still feel that I had been improperly pigeon-holed as a horror writer, when my stories were just about people in a big city who had no idea, for instance, what was going on in the mind of the person stopped next to them at a light, during their lunch break or rush hour.

In any case, Gorman had read my fiction, knew I had been using the same detectives and patrolmen in my stories -- Jimmy Leland, Len Rizzi, Bill Christopher, Mitch Mamach, and others -- and guessed correctly that my work had been inspired in some part by the 87th Precinct novels. Little did I know that through the course of the Ed McBain interview, my career would take a drastic, though perhaps expected, turn. And through it all, McBain was my mentor. Me, a product of the generation that ate paste in grade school, asking intimate details about a series that began three years before my birth.

I typed up my questions to novelist McBain on my old Smith Corona Galaxy Twelve -- back then, I think Tandy computers held a whopping two megabytes of data and sold for a measly ten grand -- and mailed them off, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, to the post office box Gorman had provided me for the author. Reading my questions now as they appeared in Mystery Scene, I realize that I referred to McBain as "Sir" in seven of the 15 queries I was allotted. I might as well have typed everything on letterhead with clowns or ducks on the borders.

McBain sent his responses back to me in February 1991, commenting on a warm spell in Connecticut that he would have been enjoying, if not for typing back to me on his manual typewriter. And he finished the letter off by stating, "Please stop calling me 'Sir,' or I will come up to Chicago to crown you." That phrase alone took me back to my childhood on Crystal Street, a block off Division, with our near-sighted landlord, Anna Bonino, waving her shrunken fists at the juvies next door to our three-flat, squeaking, "I ought to crown you holy terrors, fer cry-eye."

When Mystery Scene No. 29 came out, it boasted a black-and-white cover photo of "Ed McBain" looming over a wrought-iron fence with his name in huge white letters below. However, the interview inside was titled "Coming of Age With the 87th: An Interview With Evan Hunter." Evan was never shy about telling people his various noms de plume, though he always signed his letters "Evan." For the sake of this article, though, and on behalf of our shared metropolitan perspective, I'll always think of him as McBain.

* * *

I explained all of this to the author in a subsequent letter. At the time, I'd just written a cop story for another Greenberg anthology, Murder for Father (1994), and McBain wrote back with encouragement, offering a quick diagnosis of my work that let me know he understood what I'd been trying to do all along. His words were like a blood transfusion. He told me that what he admired most about my writing was how I could describe Chicago as a character in every piece I composed. He recognized the Chicago he had often toured during book signings, but from the "level of detectives wrought with angst or thoughts of revenge, much like my own men fighting the daily fight in Isola."

I might have fainted with that letter in my hand; more likely I rushed to the bathroom and poured cold water over my head. It was the way he put it, the way I would hear it from fans and fellow writers years later: that I had created a shadow Chicago that lurked in the lee of the scenic spires and concrete towers built to exalt businesses and please tourists. "I don't know if I'd be safe in Chicago after reading your work" was a typical comment, made by men in tweed jackets or Gen X-ers with pierced eyebrows and neck tattoos. My approach to the Windy City eventually gave me a certain cult status as an author. As, to a certain extent, did my own body modifications, which were accidentally self-inflicted. I was born with cerebral palsy on my right side, and in 1989, I was hit by a car; the accident left me with severely broken bones in my left arm, and part of my right hip bone had to be fused into my forearm. I have written about people who fight against all the odds, and my fans understand that I do the same thing. So prone am I to physical misfortunes, in fact, that my writing compatriots wonder whether they should keep Holy Cross Hospital on their speed-dial.

I continued my love/hate relationship with my timeless city, still mostly unknown in the mystery field, although I had made 11 appearances in Year's Best Horror Stories and been a five-time finalist for the Bram Stoker Award in five different categories. But the tales involved stalkers and child molesters, beat coppers and alleys, melodramas or hostage scenes being acted out in modern-day bungalows or the sort of three-flats I grew up in. And all the time, I thought of McBain, sometimes even as I walked home (driving is not an option because of my cerebral palsy). Having the long thoughts as I trudged along, I'd see myself through Steve Carella's eyes, scanning the streets and planning my next move.

I wound up corresponding with McBain for years. We exchanged Christmas cards and the usual pleasantries. I sent him a photo of my niece Ashley "reading" one of his novels, There Was a Little Girl (1994), the book then almost bigger than she was. (Ashley is now 14 years old, and has a story in the 2002 horror anthology Dark Offspring.) As a goof, I sent him a VHS tape of Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory, an early 60s film in which the makeup was so bad, the lycanthrope in question resembled Morey Amsterdam on The Dick Van Dyke Show. McBain did get a kick out of the film, he explained in a letter, adding that we could finally meet at the next book signing he would be doing in Chicago, after the 52nd 87th Precinct installment, Money, Money, Money, was published.

But the date of that book signing turned out to be September 11, 2001. He was scheduled to appear at the Borders outlet at State and Randolph, right across from the Chicago Theater. However, downtown was evacuated that day, after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. McBain had flown in from Newark, New Jersey, the night before; images of the later United Flight 93 from Newark International Airport, one of the four planes hijacked as part of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, still fill my mind.

Unfortunately, I never had another chance to meet McBain, although he would send me notes when he saw something of mine in an anthology, or to thank me for writing several chapters for the uncoiling Ed McBain Companion, a massive volume being compiled by Ed Gorman and myself, and edited by Martin Greenberg, which should see print in the summer of 2006.

* * *

Thirteen years after I published my first novel, Holy Terrors, I'm finally working on another, City of No Second Chances, this one set in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, still seedy, with the barest hint of gentrification. It's not simply my handicap that kept me from writing anything longer than novellas during all those intervening years; it was also my need to create a character I could live with in my head for any length of time. And I finally found one in a story I wrote last year called "Shank of the Night," featured in the Chanting Monks Press anthology Sex Crimes. Its protagonist was Frank St. Cyr, a detective who is haunted by the ghosts of women he could not have saved, and one that he could have. St. Cyr has been stuck in my head ever since, and he's been joined there by a character named Tava Benevides, a love interest and the owner of a piano bar, who will share the limelight in City of No Second Chances.

But while Frank and Tava are the driving forces behind this novel, I also owe it to Ed McBain, to Evan Hunter, to write this story. It's my small payment of a debt for the timeless fiction he provided us with for so many years. I think of him every day, and I miss him greatly.

Yet the timelessness remains. | October 2005


Wayne Allen Sallee, a Chicago native, has published 173 stories in various crime and horror anthologies since 1986. In 1996, Silver Salamander Press published a collection of 23 of Sallee's horror stories, With Wounds Still Wet, and in 2006 Midnight Library will publish a 15th anniversary edition of his novel, The Holy Terror. Sallee is single and describes himself as looking "like Bruce Willis, if he'd been hit with a disfiguring and aging ray."


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

by Anthony Rainone


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

by J. Kingston Pierce