Saturday, July 09, 2005


Salvatore Lombino died the other day. So did Evan Hunter. Ed McBain, too.

They were all the same person, of course. Lombino was an Italian-American writer who changed his name early in his career because he felt authors of Italian heritage didn't get any respect. He became Evan Hunter, who wrote mainstream novels, and then transformed himself into Ed McBain, master of the mystery and the police procedural.

I discovered Ed McBain before Hunter. When I was twelve years old, I devoured anything and everything Stephen King wrote, only to find myself in a curious dilemma -- I had caught the literature bug, quite badly, and I needed a fix, but I had read all of King's stuff, so what was I to do? Panic set. Short-lived panic, fortunately. I soon discovered, while browsing through the bookshops, that King had 'blurbed' quite a number of books, giving his positive comments to any number of thrillers, chillers and, occasionally, serious works of literature. It was how I initially discovered Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Harlan Ellison, even John Irving.

And McBain. I even remember the first McBain books I read, back in 1988, purchased from the Avondale convenience store just down the road from my elementary school. It was a two pack -- a paperback copy of McBain's new release, Vespers, packaged alongside a reprinted edition of his very first 87th precinct novel, Cop-Hater, written in the early fifties.

I was hooked. Instantly. From the get-go. McBain's 87th precinct novels are set in the mythical city of Isola (modelled after New York), populated by fresh cops new to the force and lifers just waiting, dear God, for what the next day will bring. At the beginning of each mystery, there is usually a murder -- the rest of the book revolves around interviewing suspects, following leads, capturing the culprit.

Routine stuff, in other words. But oh, this is Ed McBain we're talking about here. His plots move, his characters are real, their pain is honest. These traits may sound obligatory for any good novel, and I suppose they are -- but how often do you find them? What separates McBain from all of the other suspense novelists out there is 1) character and 2) story. For a long time I didn't read any mystery novels, but I always read McBain; I cared about the people, who I followed from book to book, and I cared about the stories. And what stories! And so many! He started writing his 87th precint stories in the early fifties, usually at the pace of one or two a year, and I started reading them in the late eighties, so you can do the math -- that's a lot of fiction. A lot of fun.

(And I wasn't the only fan, either. McBain was generally considered the grandmaster of his field. The TV series Hill Street Blues was basically a carbon-copy of his 87th precinct books -- albeit without the credit to McBain, which ticked him off to no end. Stephen King even had one of McBain's perennial cops, Steve Carella, show up in the unexpurgated edition of The Stand, which I thought was a fun little 'tip of the cap'. Carella also pops up in the final novel of McBain's other series of books, the ones featuring private eye Matthew Hope. I'm telling you, I don't know when the guy slept.)

Oh, but wait. Ed McBain was only part of the equation. And not the first part, either.

Salvatore Lombino's first novel was written under the name of Evan Hunter, and that novel was The Blackboard Jungle. A stunning success, it was, about a young teacher in the inner city trying to do good. Became a hit movie starring Glenn Ford. And it holds up; I vividly remember reading the last line in my high school cafeteria, shutting the book, and saying: "Wow." (And I still remember that last line, too, though I won't tell you what it is.) Hunter also went on to write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's great film The Birds.

The thing is, when writing as 'Evan Hunter', the novels were serious novels, often family novels -- what movies would call 'dramas'. Fathers and Sons traced a grandfather, son and grandson through life. Streets of Gold was probably the only novel I ever read told from the point-of-view of a blind person. A blind musician. It sounds gimmicky, but it isn't, because Hunter makes it real, and it's a great novel about the costs and sacrifices associated with the American dream. He wrote a moving novel of adolescence called Last Summer, and followed it up with an equally moving sequel, Come Winter. A story of father-daughter love, realistically told, was captured in Love, Dad. And just last fall, on a layover in Taiwan, I read most of his recent novel The Moment She Was Gone, which was advertised as a thriller but, instead, dealt sensitively and movingly with a young girl's mental illness, and the effect that it has on her family. (Most of his 'Evan Hunter' novels were written in the seventies, and are now, sadly, out of print; lucky for me, the St.Catharines Centennial Library, where I slaved and toiled for a few years in high school, had an excellent fiction section, so I was able to find most of his old work there. I still remember the smell of those books The yellowed paper. The black-and-white photos on the back. I remember reading Last Summer in the basement of my old house, because we did not have air conditioning and it was cool down there, cool and hidden. Tied up, tangled up in my adolescence, Hunter was...)

I always felt that the skills Hunter employed in his 'serious' novels, namely the depth of his characterization, were what made his 'Ed McBain' thrillers come alive and resonate; and, conversely, the storytelling skills he employed in his police procedurals also enabled his mainstream work to move and flow and not get stuck in the kind of endless navel-gazing that so much of modern fiction seems to dwell on.

(A few years ago, he published a book called Candyland under both of his pseudonyms, Evan Hunter and Ed McBain. The first half was written by Hunter, and felt like a mainstream novel; the second half was written by McBain, and felt like a crime book. Wonderful fun.)

Hunter/McBain was one of the first writers who showed me that writing was writing. If you were good, you could dip in and out of different genres with ease. If it was real, and true, then it didn't matter if the label was 'thriller' or 'drama' or 'fiction'; all that mattered was the story, and he was a master storyteller. And I will miss him.

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