Ed McBain (1926-2005)

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Writing Under an Assumed Name


Ed McBain is not a writer to be trifled with, so before delving into his background I thought it prudent to give him his Miranda warning against self-incrimination.

The objective was to untangle this prolific writer's dual identities as McBain, the author most recently of ''The Last Dance,'' and as Evan Hunter. Between the two pen names he has written 94 novels, with 100 million copies in print in almost as many languages as are spoken at the United Nations. In police parlance: Why the different a k a's, and how does he thrive under radically different styles as McBain, the tenacious observer of squad rooms and murder scenes, and Hunter, the literary novelist?

As Evan Hunter -- the author's legally adopted name -- he has also written four screenplays, including the Hitchcock film ''The Birds,'' four children's books and two short-story collections. In his spare time he squeezed out three plays (none of which were critical successes).

Since the sharp-eyed McBain focuses on sartorial and culinary clues to his characters' personalities, it seemed only fair to corner him at one of his favorite hangouts. The sitdown occurred on a soggy winter's day at Primola, an unpretentious restaurant on Manhattan's East Side.

Even with a coppery beard, the 73-year-old Hunter has the look and energy of a man in his 50's. Six feet tall but compactly built, wearing a black crew neck shirt and a conservative gray sports jacket and sitting with his back to the wall, he resembled the prototypical Manhattan homicide detective who knows the value of dressing fashionably and blending in with the environment.

For the record, he volunteered that his original moniker was Salvatore Albert Lombino and that he grew up in Manhattan's East Harlem and in the North Bronx. His first crack at the writing game began in the Navy during the final years of World War II. Combating boredom, he churned out neophyte adventure yarns and short stories for magazines, all of which were rejected.

Back in civilian life, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College and later landed a variety of jobs in New York City; he was a substitute schoolteacher, a lobster salesman and an agent at the Scott Meredith literary agency. Determined to become a writer, he labored nights and weekends and got enough rejection slips from publishers to paper the walls of his bathroom.

Eventually, he began selling (for as little as $12.50) adventure, crime, western, sports and fantasy stories to magazines under an assortment of six pseudonyms. The pen names served as disguises when three or four of his stories were published simultaneously in the same issue of a pulp magazine. In 1952 he sold his first novel, ''Find the Feathered Serpent,'' a tale about a time traveler, under his favorite alias, Evan Hunter. ''All the kids that I grew up with had names like Mario and Rocco and Evan sounded like a real exotic name,'' he explained. ''And Hunter sounded like a guy who wanted to achieve and become somebody in this city.'' There was also a commercial reason. Publishers warned that ''Lombino'' was too hard to pronounce and might hurt sales.

His breakthrough as Evan Hunter came in 1954 with the publication of ''The Blackboard Jungle,'' a best-selling novel about the perils of teaching in an inner-city high school. The book was based on his six-month stint as a teacher in 1950, and he completed it in just two months.

After the triumph of ''The Blackboard Jungle,'' an editor at Pocket Books who recognized Hunter's potential talent as a crime novelist designated him the successor to the company's popular mystery writer, Erle Stanley Gardner. Instead, Hunter conceived a series on urban crime with a collective hero, the 87th Precinct detective squad, as a more realistic and relevant subject than a lone, mythic detective. Before Hunter finished the first book, editors suggested a pseudonym for the series. ''They were certain that if it became known that Evan Hunter was writing mysteries, it would damage my career as a straight novelist,'' he said.

The name McBain ''came out of the blue'' as he typed the last page of the first manuscript, ''Cop Hater,'' in 1956. ''McBain's voice is that of a cynical New Yorker, not a sophisticated guy who has been to Paris or Rome,'' Hunter said. ''He's a guy who has been around -- a police reporter or an ex-cop.''

Before inventing the police procedural novel, Hunter had no experience in the insular world of big-city cops. In the first 20 years of the series' existence, he steeped himself in police dialogue and tactics by becoming a fly on the wall in squad rooms, riding with detectives on calls to crimes in progress, observing them at autopsies and at interrogations. The plots for the novels spring mainly from Hunter's extensive reading and his analysis of contemporary crime trends.

He admitted that the 87th Precinct detectives are idealized while in reality many police forces are rife with corruption, brutality and racism. ''I know that all cops are not sterling characters,'' he said. ''But you have to have someone to root for. I balance it with rotten cops who will take a bribe, who will beat somebody up.''

The McBain mysteries are easier to write and more fun to create than the complex Hunter novels, he said, adding, ''Changing writing styles is like an actor taking on a different part.'' But the dual roles have spawned difficulties for him with critics and authors. ''I'm not quite accepted among mystery writers because they suspect that I think I'm slumming when I'm Ed McBain,'' he said wistfully. ''And I'm not quite accepted in the 'literary community' because I write mystery novels.''

Hunter writes at his home in Connecticut and spends a day or two each week in New York to keep up with big-city currents. Although he suffered three heart attacks between 1987 and 1997, he has never been afflicted by writer's block and continues to generate 10,000 words a week under one name or the other.

He recently completed the 22nd Evan Hunter novel, ''Rain After Sundown,'' but is mum about discussing the theme. He has also returned to the theater long enough to write the book for ''The Night They Raided Minsky's,'' a musical comedy about the old burlesque theater, soon to go into rehearsals.

Retirement is not in sight for Hunter or McBain. But Hunter has chosen the title ''Exit'' to close out the 87th Precinct series if he decides to lay down his pen. With the final plot he hopes to prevent another writer from continuing the series and tampering with his concept and style.

''I haven't written it yet,'' he added with a trace of superstition. ''I'm afraid that as soon as I put in the final period for 'Exit,' I'll be hit by a bus.''

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

Barnes & Noble bn.com Live: Chat Transcripts Wednesday, June 18, 1997 8pm ET

On June 18, 1997, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Ed McBain, author of more than 50 novels and creator of the gritty 87th Precinct series, the most recent installment of which is NOCTURNE.

Moderator: Hello, and welcome to the barnesandnoble.com Live Events Auditorium! Tonight we welcome author Ed McBain. Was it with a twinge of regret, or nostalgia, that you have watched Times Square rebuild itself into less of a seedy neighborhood of New York City? I mean, that's been a lot of inspiration for you...

EM: The whole city is regenerating itself. I never think of it as the soul of New York City anyway. I can do what I want to do. I can deconstruct Times Square tomorrow, if I wish.

Foxy@rockstar.net from Jacksonville: Ed, do you read a lot of mysteries? Who do you love to read?

EM: Dutch Leonard. Donald Westlake. Larry Block. I don't read very many mysteries.

Ron and Julie from San Diego, CA: Hi Ed -- do your cop friends ever ask you for favors? A mention in a novel, a story about a particular case, a free copy, advice on a case, etc.? Thanks -- you're the man!

EM: I don't have very many cop friends. I have a cop friend who I met when he was sergeant in the New York Police Department. A mutual friend brought us together. I watched him rise through the ranks through Inspector, Private Inspector, up to Police Commissioner, Richard Condon, and I'm the one who usually asks him for favors. He's in the private sector now.

Tommie from Staten Island, NY: I've read a few of your books and loved them. Is there any chance you will ever write any nonfiction? (excuse my ignorance if you have already written published nonfiction).

EM: I have just published, in England, a memoir called ME AND HITCH about my experience working on "The Birds" and "Marnie" with Hitchcock. It should be published here in October. It's just a slender book, a little memoir.

Theodore Holder from Chicago: Do you think that after all this police procedural writing, you could be a detective?

EM: No, never. I don't know. It takes me a long time to figure out how things happen. A detective doesn't have that luxury. As the gap widens between a murder and the solution of a murder, the harder it gets to solve it, and it takes me three or four months to solve it, when I'm writing the book.

Evan Friedel from Hartford, CT: Hello Mr. McBain.... Just curious to know your opinion on the recent decline in crime in NYC. Do you think Safire and Rudy G. are the genius behind the NYPD and are solely responsible for this improvement in NYC?

EM: I don't know WHAT it is, but it's amazing that it's happening. Now, I think we're 137 on the list, and Atlanta is number one, which is shocking, and I think what happens is that people get a perception that crime is lower, but there was still close to a 1,000 murders last year, so we're not exactly in the back woods. But once people get a perception that a city is safer, it becomes safer -- there are people around, lighter areas, etc. Tonight, I'm sitting here looking out the window and the city is shrouded with fog -- it looks like a good night for murders and rapes and everything else.

Stan from Concord, CA: Are you doing a reading tour and if so will you be coming out west?

EM: No, I'm not. And if I were, I certainly would be coming out west, but I am not on this trip.

Kirk from Wisconsin: I saw you at the Chicago Fantasy Writer's Convention last October, and noticed a number of very intense fans. Do you deal with over-the-top fans often?

EM: Never met any fans who were over the top. My readers are calm people. Should I be disappointed that they're not more fanatic? No, I'm thinking back over the various cities I've been in, and I don't recall anyone storming the barricades to grab locks of my hair or anything like that.

Kirk from Milwaukee, WI: What are your writing habits? Hours/pages a day?

EM: I get up at about 7:30-8:00 in the morning. Go exercise. Have breakfast and then get to work. I usually work at around 9:30 a.m. I break for lunch. Then I work through 'til about 5 or 6 at night. I never work at nights or on weekends because I vowed that if I was ever fortunate enough to write full-time, I would never write at nights or on weekends, since that was what I did when I had a full-time job.

Edgar Wetherburg from Grand Forks, IA: Ed, who would you get to play your detectives in a feature-length film?

EM: I don't know. That's a tough one. Carella, especially, has been played by a wide variety of actors. There were three cheapo films made of the first three novels. Robert Loggia played Carella. Burt Reynolds played him in "Fuzz," and Donald Sutherland played him. In a French movie, Jean-Louis Trintignant played him, in "Without Apparent Motive," based on TEN PLUS ONE. In "High and Low," there was a Japanese actor playing him. In Japan, we've done five or six or seven two-hour movies with a continuing cast of characters, and the series is set in Tokyo. They're really very good and exciting. I couldn't tell you if you tortured me who's playing Carella, though. I used to think when Sam Waterston was younger, he would have made a good Carella. Robert Lansing was Carella on the TV series in the '60s, and Normal Fell was on it as well.

Tommy from Cali: Doesn't writing about gruesome murders and rapes and crimes get to you after a while? What made you so hardened to that stuff to be able to think about it all day?

EM: I don't think about it all day. I write very gentle scenes. There's not really very much blood and gore in the 87th Precinct novels or in the Matthew Hope novels. There's the occasional outburst of violence, but for the most part the books are about decent men and women trying to do a job, trying to find the guys making it difficult for the rest of us to live in peace. So there's not a lot of bloody violence in every chapter.

Tracy from Lansing, MI: I love the character of Teddy. What led to your development of her character, her blindness, etc.?

EM: She's speech impaired and hearing impaired, and in the beginning I thought it would make for situations that would be highly threatening because she would be in jeopardy because of her so-called handicap. In fact, in the first several books in the series, she WAS in dangerous situations where she could not hear or speak. Over the years, she's developed as a very strong woman, who no one could EVER conceive of as being handicapped.

Nicolas from NYC, NY: I love your 87th Precinct series and am about to read NOCTURNE.... What are your favorite police TV shows? Are you a fan of "NYPD BLUE"?

EM: No to "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues" for obvious reasons. I like "Law and Order" a lot. "Homicide" is sometimes good, but the actors seem to be chewing the scenery a lot, and I don't know why they seem to be yelling all the time. In truth, I don't really watch much television, except for the news and the weather.

Bobby Simone from 14th Precinct: I love anything to do with the New York Police Department and I love your books...I especially enjoyed NOCTURNE!! Can you give us a sneak preview of your next novel?

EM: I'm currently working on a Matthew Hope novel that will be the last in the series. It's called THE LAST BEST HOPE. I hope it's the best one. I know it's the last one. I'm about 200 pages into it, about halfway through. And I'll probably finish it by the beginning of August, I hope, but it won't be published until the spring of 1998.

Richard Zaine from Seattle, WA: Do you read your reviews? What is your opinion of the numerous big-time book reviewers out there?

EM: Yeah, I read them. Writers read reviews for different reasons than readers read them. We read them to see if there's a quote we can use. So it doesn't really matter what any reviewer has to say about the work, because most of the time they're wrong. This isn't just me, it's every writer I know. So if you let a bad review go to your heart, or let a good review go to your head, then you'll pretty soon be destroyed. So you just sort of ignore them. You look to see how much space they gave you and whether there's anything quotable in it.

Hau Boon Lai from Singapore: Hi Mr. McBain, or should it be Mr. Hunter? I am curious to know what makes an author choose to use a pseudonym in writing a certain genre of books and then use his real name for yet another genre...and while your police procedural stories are gripping and great reads, I have never been able to finish any of your books written under your real name of Evan Hunter...another question would be, do you feel like a different person when you write as Evan Hunter as opposed to when you are writing as Ed McBain? Thanks.

EM: When I first started the 87th Precinct series, and the BLACKBOARD JUNGLE had been published in 1954, I was building a reputation as a serious novelist. My publicist felt it would be damaging to my career if it was known that I was writing a mystery series as well. They weren't quite disreputable at the time, but neither were they considered in the mainstream of literature. It might be a different story today, when 10 out of 15 books on the bestseller list are either mysteries or thrillers. But back then it was a serious concern. I still find it hard to convince booksellers that Ed McBain and Evan Hunter are two different people who write two different types of novels, so listen up.

Frank Hughes from Jasper, WY: Are you ever going to get tired of the 87th? And have Carella and Hawes become more than just characters? After so many cases, are they a part of your fabric? How do you leave them behind?

EM: I don't think I'll ever get really tired of them. Of Carella or Hawes or any of the cops in the precinct. They're so much a part of me, that a lot of time in bookstores, readers tell me they think of them as family, and I do too in a way. I always feel very comfortable when I come back to the precinct. I feel as if I know the men and women there very well. I feel I can put my feet up on the desk and they would say 'Hi, Ed! How you doing?' I think sometimes about writing fewer of them. There are things I want to try, to try exploring ideas that I can't fit into the police procedural novel.

Robert from Los Angeles: Who were your some of your favorite authors that inspired you to become an author?

EM: Back then, when I first decided to write, the people who were influencing us all were Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, many of whom have fallen out of favor, as happens over the year. Among the mystery writers who first influenced me were Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. He was a very good writer, I think. But these people come and go. You look at the bestseller list from 20 years ago and you won't recognize a name on it. Take heed.

Nathan Riggio from Rochester, NY: Being a distinguished crime/police novelist, what is your opinion of the LAPD?

EM: Well, they've made some big mistakes, haven't they, in the past several years. I hope they recover from it. When you're writing a movie or fiction there are scenes that you don't want to write because your main character will never recover from it. You'll never win the audience back if your main character does something that goes against their grain. If Bert Kling had a fling with Carella you could never recover from a situation like that. I hope the LAPD can recover from these various stupidities they've become embroiled in over the years. They are, after all, the law and order out there. Without law and order, there's anarchy.

Kirk from Chatham: What was it like working with Hitchcock on "The Birds"?

EM: It was a good experience all around. I learned a lot from him about suspense and shock. I learned a lot about audiences from him. I had a lot of fun. He was a charming man, a generous man with his time and with his energy and with his information. And I really enjoyed the entire experience, as you'll see when you read ME AND HITCH. When you're dead, you get second billing, you know.

Arlene from Oshkosh WI: Love the 87th! Any chance that the Deaf Man (or someone like him) will be in any future novels?

EM: Oh sure. He'll be back. It's difficult to write about him, because he's brilliant, and I'm not. So I have to dream up these complicated schemes that the cops can't solve, and then I have to figure out a way to have each of them foiled by some dumb acts that the cops have nothing to do with. So it's a double-barrelled challenge: first to find a brilliant plot, and then to find something stupid to foil it. That's why his appearances are few and far between. But he'll be back two or three times more before the series reaches its end. In fact, in NOCTURNE, one of the suspects is a tall blond man, and a reader wrote to me and said that while he was reading it he thought 'Oh my god, it's the deaf man!' but I never intended that to even occur to readers. And of course, when they cast the Deaf Man in "Fuzz," they cast Yul Brynner, who was rather bald and not a "tall, blond man."

Harvey from New Orleans, LA: What are some of your all-time favorite crime movies?

EM: "Diabolique," the original. "Charade." Only because the McGuffin was so interesting. A lot of Hitchcock films were truly marvelous. You can't call these true-crime films, but "North by Northwest" was brilliant. These films -- the suspense was marvelous. "Spellbound." The movies that Carroll Reed made -- "Odd Man Out," "The Third Man." There have been some wonderful ones in recent years. "One False Move," "The Usual Suspects," "Fargo," "Pulp Fiction" -- these are all pretty good films, with good solid plots, that held together. A lot of crime films, you can drive locomotives through the holes in them. These films had strong plots that held up.

Geraldwes@earthlink.net from Hopkins: Ed, are you angry at things you see in the world, and is that why you write like you do about people? Is writing a release for you?

EM: I get more and more discouraged by things I see happening all over the world. The front page of The New York Times three or four weeks ago had side-by-side stories about the Swiss hiding the Nazi Gold -- the gold the Nazis had taken from Jews -- and a story about the Israelis torturing prisoners in captivity. I thought, "I can't believe this." It's like, what goes around comes around. You see the world breaking down into tribal structures again, as if it wasn't good for us to live together in harmony, but it's better to try to kill each other. So I see the city in the 87th Precinct as being a metaphor for the entire world. I'm fond of describing NOCTURNE as a book that takes place all at night and almost everyone in it is rotten.

Nancy from Metaire, LA: What is your opinion of the recent bestseller UNDERBOSS? Did you read the book, and do you read nonfiction crime books? How do you feel about "Sammy the Bull"?

EM: I haven't read UNDERBOSS. I do occasionally read nonfiction crime books, but I haven't read that one.

Nicolas from Bridgeport, CT: Do you prefer writing books or screenplays, and how is it different? I write myself, but have yet to attempt to write a screenplay.

EM: I prefer writing books because I'm all by myself, it's not a collaborative act. I don't have to worry about directors, actors putting in their two cents. It's just me -- I'm the writer, I'm the director, I'm the set designer, I'm the cinematographer, I call all the angles and it's much more fun. At the same time, I am involved in a collaborative effort: I'm writing the book for a musical comedy, so it means working with a director, a composer, and a lyricist, and down the line I'll work with the costumer designer and a choreographer and the like, so there's something to be said for stepping out of the ivory tower now and then and meeting other people and exchanging ideas with them. It can be very exciting.

Moderator: Ed, thanks for joining us tonight! And thanks to those who participated! Any final words?

EM: I'm just thinking that I don't know where all you are out there, but when I'm writing, you're very much on my mind. I like to feel that if I write something that makes me laugh, it will make you out there laugh. And if it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I'm very aware of the readers out there, and I thank you for keeping me honest.

From an interview for the Shots e-Zine circa 2001:

Explain why you decided to keep the [87th Precinct cop] characters "ageless"? I mean they must be well past retirement age by now.

If I hadn't they'd be arriving on the scene of the crime in a walker! I started in 1956 and the guys were about 30-ish - they'd be doddering by now and we can't have that, can we?

In the book you slip up and called Isola New York. Your mythical city was becoming more recognisable as the Big Apple.

When I started writing the series it was supposed to be New York. Then I discovered that I was in dangerous waters because the cops' ground rules kept changing and if I was going to keep up with police procedure in New York City it was going to be a fulltime job. So I froze the police procedure. Then there were problems with locations; my cops would go to a building which I described as red bricked but actually turned out to be limestone or whatever. I couldn't do it, I'd be getting letters everyday of the week telling me I was wrong. I'm glad I changed it to a mythical city because I can invent a lot of things.

One of your recurring themes is the weather. Is it of importance to you?

It is important to each novel. I set it them at a certain time of the year. Money, Money, Money is set over the Christmas holidays and Fat Ollie's Book is set in the spring. The weather nails it down and gives me the mood of the characters.

Name your favourite 87th Precinct book? And not the last one!

I'm always tempted to say the most recent. Several previous novels, actually. I liked Long Time No See a lot because it was a novel where you didn't quite know what was happening and Carella is almost tempted to stray. I like Sadie When She Died, and I just finished a two-hour teleplay of the novel, which is going to be the pilot for a television series - I hope. The book wasn't greatly received but I liked it because it put Carella out of his element having to go around with a smart-ass sophisticated lawyer, trying to get to the bottom of the crime. Blood Relatives is another one.

From Wikipedia:  Isola is a section of a fictional city that is the setting for the 87th Precinct series of police procedural novels written by Ed McBain.  The city is based on New York City, and similarly, has five sections, corresponding with the five boroughs of New York: Isola (Manhattan), Bethtown (Staten Island), Calm's Point (Brooklyn), Majesta (Queens), and Riverhead (Bronx). It has two major rivers, the Harb and the Dix, which inexplicably flow in a westerly direction despite the fact that Isola is on the East Coast.

Click here for my webpage on the 87th Precinct Series

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