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July 07, 2005

Evan Hunter

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I was very sorry to see that the crime novelist Evan Hunter -- who was probably better-known as Ed McBain -- died of cancer on Wednesday, at the age of 78. I've only read four or five of Hunter's many, many books, but I'm completely convinced that he was a giant. His fiction has a distinctive tone -- a combo of thuggish brutality and sophisticated, melancholy courtliness. His stories are street-wise and soulful, canny and exciting, both hardboiled and operatic. And they're full of living, breathing characters.

Hunter had an amazing career that lasted more than 50 years. He was born Salvatore Lombino in New York City and changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. He wrote under the names Evan Hunter and Ed McBain, and under many other pseudonyms too. He was nothing if not a workhorse. He wrote ten hours a day, seven days a week; he tried to average eight finished pages a day. He published his first novels in the early 1950s, while he was still in his 20s, and kept it up until very near the end; a new Ed McBain novel is scheduled to be published in September of this year. One estimate of how popular Evan Hunter was puts total worldwide sales of his books at around 100 million copies.

Hunter is probably best-known for his many Ed McBain novels set in and around one Chicago police precinct; they're known as the 87th Precinct series. [CORRECTION: James M. points out that I goofed here; the 87th Precinct novels are set in a fictionalized version of New York City. Yet one more example of Why Not to Trust a Middle-Aged Memory.] But he published well over a hundred books, novels as well as collections of stories. His work was the basis for some memorable films, including "Blackboard Jungle" and Kurosawa's "High and Low." He worked on around 75 screenplays, and even did screenwriting for Hitchcock on "The Birds."

Hunter/McBain was an important fiction innovator. He was an early writer of what are known as "police procedurals" -- crime stories that are less about criminals vs. heroes than they are simply about how police-people do their jobs. Hunter liked to explain that, in his mind, he wasn't writing mysteries or genre fiction. Instead, he was writing realistic novels about cops.

He's also sometimes credited with inventing the storytelling format that would eventually surface on TV in "Hill Street Blues," and later with "NYPD Blue" and many other series: the ongoing soap-opera cop dramady -- a matter of multiple storylines, ensemble casts, and many arcs weaving through many episodes. Hunter -- who wasn't short on ego, and who wasn't shy about proclaiming his own status either -- sometimes growled that he couldn't understand why he wasn't paid royalties from "Hill Street Blues."

Whether or not you take Evan Hunter as a major artist -- I certainly do -- probably depends on your attitude towards literature. Is it the lofty, non-"popular" crusade that we're taught about in school and presented with in the mainstream press? Or is it that particular stream of prose fiction plus the many, many other streams of prose fiction too? Hunter/McBain's work wasn't Sunday Times Book Review stuff. He wasn't writing to be reviewed, or to impress the profs. Instead, the turf he worked was gritty popular fiction -- novels that were all about stories, situations, predicaments, suspense, and characters. In this field, you won't find many people disagreeing that he was a master.

Hunter was such a creative titan that I'm tempted to ask why his work isn't taught in schools. (Instead, they have kids read Toni Morrison, sigh.) And his books were so expertly crafted that I can't help wondering why they aren't used as models in creative-writing classes. But perhaps now's not the best moment for point-making.

I wish I could remember the titles of the Evan Hunter/Ed McBain novels I've read so I could suggest someplace to start enjoying his work. The only one I recall is "Sadie When She Died," and wow what a book that was. But I suspect that most of his fans are like me: more interested in reading "a McBain" than they are in zeroing in on specific titles. If you're interested in giving Evan Hunter/Ed McBain's work a try, can I suggest visiting Amazon, skimming the descriptions and reader reviews, and then simply selecting a novel that sounds appealing? It's very hard to go wrong.

Here's the official Ed McBain website. Marilyn Stasio's NYTimes obit is a good one. Interviews with Hunter/McBain can be found here, here, and here. He talked about Hitchcock here.



posted by Michael at July 7, 2005


I'm a big McBain fan and was very sad to hear about his death. I've read maybe 30 of his books -- mostly 87th Precinct novels but some others, too -- and want to thank him for all the enjoyment he's given me over the years. The first one I read was "Heat" -- almost 20 years ago -- and I still remember the ending clearly.

Posted by: jult52 on July 7, 2005 4:23 PM

JT -- Wow, you're a real fan. McBain was pretty great. I feel like a dope for not having gotten on board until fairly recently. I'd love to hear more about how you stumbled across his work, and what there was about it that hooked you.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 8, 2005 10:51 AM

Kurosawa's "High and Low" is pretty awesome. It has my favorite Mifune performance.

Posted by: Joe O on July 8, 2005 6:12 PM

I am a big fan of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain. I have all of his 87th books. There will be a huge hole in the police/mystery books without Evan Hunter/Ed McBain. He will be missed.

Posted by: Freda on July 9, 2005 12:24 PM

"Hunter is probably best-known for his many Ed McBain novels set in and around one Chicago police precinct; they're known as the 87th Precinct series."

Chicago? Where'dja get that. They took place in Isola, a fictitious city based on NYC. The obit in Friday's NY Sun, which should still be on your newsstands, will set you straight on how this came about. I'd tell you but I'm pressed for time.

An 87th precinct novel was the first mystery I ever read. My father was a heavy mystery, and my mother too, to a slightly less extent. I was about 11 and we were on a cruise ship, and there was no TV. I generally prefer more challenging text, or else TV. But having recently moved out of the city, to where I take 4-hour round-trip commute 3x/wk, I've come to appreciate the time-killing charms of the genre all over again. There's also that new number puzzle, SuDoku, published in one of the tabloids, but that for another post.

James M.

Posted by: James M. on July 9, 2005 2:53 PM

"My father was a heavy mystery, and my mother too, to a slightly less extent."

That should have read "heavy mystery reader", but there are voices in my head yelling STET. Gotta go.

James M.

Posted by: James M. on July 9, 2005 2:56 PM

Good heavens, that is a goof and a half on my part. Where's my fact-checker? Tks for the correction.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 9, 2005 4:51 PM

Here's to Evan Hunter.
The best author I ever read.
I not only 'read' His books, I also bought the whole lot and the audio's and the movies based on...
He also wrote more than hundred short stories and novelles.Some of them are really great.
He will be missed.
I am still in sorrow.

Posted by: engels jean pierre on July 13, 2005 6:55 AM

Fancy meeting you here, engels!

Evan was indeed a literary giant, though under-appreciated. His influence was immense, his style was brilliant, and as a man he seemed like a good person. His relationship with his fans -- particularly once he got his own website -- was second to none.

Posted by: Jose Chung on July 14, 2005 12:01 AM

Hi JP, Hi Jose, hello everyone. I've not really got used to the idea that Evan is no longer with us ... I've read his works for 30 years and always looked forward to next 87th book, the next Hope. But, no more. I've never felt such sorrow at the passing of a 'media' person, it's almost like a member of the family dying.

Best wishes to his family.


Posted by: Kevan James on July 20, 2005 9:51 AM

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