Novelist 'Ed McBain' dies at 78

Reply Fri 8 Jul, 2005 12:54 am
Novelist Evan Hunter (born Salvatore Lombino), better known as Ed McBain, who wrote the 87th Precinct novels, has died of cancer aged 78.

Ed McBain

The great crime writer behind the 87th Precinct series

Nick Kimberley
Friday July 8, 2005
The Guardian

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.

ยท Ed McBain (Salvatore A Lombino), writer, born October 15 1926; died July 6 2005
  • Topic Stats
  • Top Replies
  • Link to this Topic
Type: Discussion • Score: 1 • Views: 1,487 • Replies: 9
No top replies

Reply Fri 8 Jul, 2005 05:49 am
I really enjoyed his books. To be sure I thought the use of the same characters was a bit of a stretch but they did change across various books. And as police procedurals they were good fun. I knew nothing about his background so that is very interesting.
0 Replies
Reply Thu 14 Jul, 2005 07:06 am
Interesting this is. I just joined here and then I saw this post about one of my favorite police procedural authors. Well that's only partially true. You see the sad thing about McBain is his later 87th Precinct novels which started to become rather uneven and senseless (among other things).

Examples-In Mischief the characters are all there but it's a bounced around story for at least the first half. We have a character introduced and then put to the side. When they are re-introduced it is in mid-progress and with only a first name and then names which are somewhat similar in minor characters-such as Gloria/Georgia. Neither of these women is particular alive in the descriptions so it is a constant battle to tell them apart.
Then the things which make little or no sense or are given to leave us hanging in midair. When Eileen Burke is next to Georgia who is shot and later dies, there is very little closure involved. It was as if the event of the shooting was just to get rid of Georgia. Along a similar vein let's stay with Burke. Teddy Carella is in some way involved in an anti-abortion protest. She creeps off to it in the early morning hours, her husband Steve doesn't notice she is gone (or did she tell him before hand what her plans were? If so there is no indication of this) She gets doused with animal blood, we never have her discuss this with Steve, the last we have is Teddy and Eileen in a coffee shop discussing it. McBain does well in describing how animated Teddy is and how her hands are signing rapidly but that's the end of it. The problems? What happened next? Why is Teddy involved with anti-abortion protests-a reason of some sort is needed to better understand it. Why is the story line completely dropped after the coffee shop? What does the whole story line have to do with The Deaf Man, a graffiti artist killer or anything else?

Then there is Nocturne. In Nocturne, McBain just tosses the characters out by surname. No Bert Kling, just Kling. Instead of Cotton Hawes, it is just Hawes and so on down the line of return performers as the book begins. No character description either. Now this is all fine and dandy if a person has read a sufficient number of earlier books about the 87th and it's workings but each book even with return performers should offer the basics. Basics which include first names and at least a passing descriptive.

I guess it was true, when he said he considered himself a cinematic writer:'You just touch on things. You don't go round the room describing the furniture." Apparently he ended up deciding that he didn't have to describe the characters either. As for furniture, in his early work he did describe the furniture and at times to almost excruciating detail.
0 Replies
Reply Wed 3 Aug, 2005 02:08 pm
I cannot comment on later McBain novels, since I've missed most of those, but I did at one point read a bunch of the earlier books in the 87th precinct series, and enjoyed them.

I do remember, though, getting irritated that he wouldn't just call New York City - New York City.
0 Replies
Reply Tue 21 Feb, 2006 07:04 am
ossobuco wrote:
I cannot comment on later McBain novels, since I've missed most of those, but I did at one point read a bunch of the earlier books in the 87th precinct series, and enjoyed them.

I do remember, though, getting irritated that he wouldn't just call New York City - New York City.

For me that was part of the enjoyment...getting to figure out just which area of the city he was describing. Some of the locations were tougher to figure, unless I took a peek at the copyright date at which point I could figure the state of the city(New York) at the time and what area was being described since each area neighborhood seems to go through cycles of up and down.
0 Replies
Reply Tue 21 Feb, 2006 07:44 am
sturgis, are they worth getting into ? Im a Larry McMurtry fan, Alexander McAul Smith, and Tony Hillerman. (Years ago I was a consumer of all the Nero Wolfe novels). I started those "A is for Awful" series and didnt make it past 2 before I got tired. Im always looking for a good series and Ive never touched the 87th , Ive only heard of them. Sounds like you get dangerously close to being someone who knows a bit about his products.

I always wondered how Michener kept all his facts from getting out of hand and i was at a seminar where he spoke and when asked that very question he said that, "by having the added ingredient of time as an important component of my(his) work, Ive never had problems sorting out the details and facts" (I paraphrased but could see how a semi-"historical" account could be self sorting with its facts.

Maybe Ill pick one up in a book grab. WHere would you suggest I start? which one is a good intro
0 Replies
Reply Tue 28 Feb, 2006 03:21 pm
Hey farmerman, I am a Hillerman and Rex Stout fan myself - big time... did you see the few Wolfe tv productions? And I believe they made two Hillerman tv movies - did you see those?

Have you tried George Simenon's Maigret series? They were written in Rex Stout's day.

Also, I quite like Reginald Hill (Dalziel and Pascoe), and Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse), and (Detective Inspector Frost) by R.D. Wingfield...

and another one I like is Martha Grimes' series... You know, they're all named after pubs. She's American but writes mysteries in Britain Smile
0 Replies
Reply Wed 1 Mar, 2006 05:48 am
I thought this an interesting quick lesson on creative writing-

0 Replies
Reply Wed 1 Mar, 2006 03:37 pm
Creative writing? Nay, creative accounting.
0 Replies
Arella Mae
Reply Wed 1 Mar, 2006 03:43 pm
Oh no! I love Ed McBain's books! I love the 87th Precinct Series and have never missed a single movie made from them.

This is sad news to the literay world!
0 Replies

Related Topics

  1. Forums
  2. » Novelist 'Ed McBain' dies at 78
Copyright © 2022 MadLab, LLC :: Terms of Service :: Privacy Policy :: Page generated in 0.04 seconds on 10/02/2022 at 04:11:31