The great crime writer behind the 87th Precinct series
Friday July 8, 2005
By their very nature, literary genres belong to no one writer, but are composite creations, shaped by the way different authors respond to shared possibilities, shared problems. Yet more than most, Ed McBain, who has died from cancer aged 78, could lay claim to having created his own genre, or at least sub-genre, for the police procedural was defined by what McBain achieved with his long series of some 50 87th Precinct novels.
Set in the fictional city of Isola, but clearly intended as an imaginative portrait of McBain's own New York City, the novels took the reader inside the 87th Precinct station house to show how a group of ordinary policemen, including Detective Steve Carella, the heart and conscience of the squad room, struggled to stay on top of the mayhem around them.
Despite the limitations of the format, McBain found enough significant variations to occupy him for a large part of his prolific career. The first in the series, Cop Hater, was published in 1956, and it was McBain's first novel.
Or was it? Like a character from one of his novels, McBain had many disguises. He was born Salvatore A Lombino in New York City, but when he started writing, he was advised that a more Anglo-Saxon name would serve him better. So he adopted a pseudonym, or rather, many pseudonyms. They concealed not only his Italian origins, but also his prolificacy.
He published his first books, four of them, in 1952: two for children, Find The Feathered Serpent (as Evan Hunter), and Rocket To Luna (as Richard Marsten). That same year Hunter took the credit for two adult novels, The Evil Sleep! and The Big Fix. It's a measure of McBain/Hunter's flexible approach to nomenclature that the latter was republished in 1956, but under the name Richard Marsten; while most of the eight novels first credited to Marsten were later republished as by Ed McBain.
Yet the story of names does not end there. In 1954, Abelard Schuman published Cut Me In by one Hunt Collins: another identity assumed. In 1956, McBain made his debut. In 1958, the novelist Curt Cannon introduced himself with I'm Cannon - For Hire: pseudonym number five. Then, some 20 years later in 1975, even though by then McBain/ Hunter had little need for disguise, he published the novel Doors as Ezra Hannon. Some interviews with McBain have referred to books written as SA Lombino, but they may be chimerical; and perhaps, hidden in the undergrowth of 1950s pulp magazines, there lurk yet more Lombino alter egos.
Nevertheless six is an impressive tally of noms de plume. At first, Hunter was the "serious" novelist, while the others wrote the money-spinners, the pseudonyms required because in the US, he said, "mystery fiction was considered a stepchild of literature". Hunter never quite managed to achieve the kind of acclaim (or sales) he desired, while McBain won over many critics who might otherwise find crime fiction tainted, and it is certainly the 87th Precinct novels that will ensure the writer a place in literary history.
Salvatore Lombino was born into a poor but respectable family in Italian Harlem. He studied art at Cooper Union, New York 1943-44, and saw service (but not combat action) in the US Navy, (1944-46). It was while in the navy that he took up writing, and after the war he graduated in literature from Hunter College. He did a little teaching but quit in frustration; and he spent some time working for a literary agency: PG Wodehouse was a client, and the two apparently got on well. Meanwhile he began selling stories to the pulps, and he never lost the discipline required to turn prose around at half a cent a word.
By way of children's fiction, he graduated to crime fiction, and then in 1954, writing as Evan Hunter, he published his sixth novel, The Blackboard Jungle, based in part on his own experiences teaching in the South Bronx. The concept of "teenagers" had only just been born, and The Blackboard Jungle was one of the first novels dealing with this new "problem". Hollywood bought the rights to the novel, and Richard Brooks's movie duly appeared in 1955, with Glenn Ford as the teacher struggling to cope with adolescent rebellion.
In 1958, Hunter published Strangers When We Meet; this time he wrote his own script for the ensuing movie. In the meantime he had provided a few scripts for television's Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . . series, and in 1963 wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock's The Birds.
Between 1956, when the first was published, and the release of The Birds, no fewer than 15 87th Precinct novels appeared. The pattern was set, but it was a pattern that McBain managed to vary with consummate professionalism, born of solid liberal values: "When I started writing," he later said, "most of the police department in New York City, especially above the rank of detective, were Irish, Irish-American. I thought it would be more interesting . . . to use the actual ethnic background in New York City at the time."
Accordingly the 87th Precinct cop-house is a bona fide American melting pot. Although most of the characters remain more or less the same, the city around them changes to reflect the world as McBain saw it, and as time went on, the tone became ever so slightly sour, increasingly pessimistic. It was McBain's ability to keep abreast of the zeitgeist that made his novels such an attractive model for TV series such as NYPD Blue and, particularly, Hill Street Blues.
Unsurprisingly, McBain considered himself a cinematic writer, even when not writing for the screen: "You just touch on things. You don't go round the room describing the furniture," he said, providing a summary of all that's best in his, and US, crime fiction. He tried his hand at writing plays: The Easter Man was staged in London in 1964, and The Conjuror was staged in Ann Arbor in 1969. Evan Hunter novels continued to appear, but as McBain took up more of his time, the Hunter novels became less easy.
In the meantime, he found himself another character, another city, in the series of novels that featured the Florida lawyer Matthew Hope. These are as efficient as you would expect, but less involving than the 87th Precinct series. (In 1998, McBain brought Hope and the Precinct together in The Last Best Hope.) McBain was rightly proud of the research put in to ensure that the details were right. Sometimes he overplayed the authenticity of detail, often represented by photographic reproductions of evidence. In the end, though, the true authenticity of the 87th Precinct novels resides not in those details. Without ascribing them greater weight than they can carry, 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.
His current publisher, Otto Penzler/Harcourt, will bring out Fiddlers, the 55th and last in the 87th Precinct series, in September, and Learning to Kill, a collection of five decades of stories, next spring.
His first two marriages, to Anita Melnick and Mary Vann Hughes, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Dragica; a son with Melnick, two sons with Hughes, and a stepdaughter.
· Ed McBain (Salvatore A Lombino), writer, born October 15 1926; died July 6 2005