Evan Hunter/Ed McBain: Urban legend
Published: January 18, 2002
After 90-plus novels, Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) is still going strong
It is just the sort of voice you might expect from Evan Hunter/aka Ed McBain: a little bit of gravel, a lot of savvy, and a very urban, street-smart quality that's right out of the 87th Precinct in Isola, his fictional rough equivalent of New York City. His engaging vocal manner aside, Hunter also comes across in an interview as highly focused in his work and alert to material that can be turned into stories.
In his 50-year writing career, he has spun his tightly written tales into more than 90 novels, including 51 87th Precinct novels and 13 Matthew Hope novels by his pseudonymous sidekick, Ed McBain, and another 17 or so under his own name, including his breakthrough novel The Blackboard Jungle (1954), which later became a popular movie.
Hunter is considered a master of the "police procedural" (a label he shuns as too narrow), and is credited with influencing the modern police drama in both books and on screen. His peers in the mystery-writing community hold him in the highest esteem: He is the only American recipient of the Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association, and Mystery Writers of America gave him its top honor, the Grand Master Award. About 100 million of his books are in print, according to his publisher. His screenplay credits include Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds.
Fans of the 87th Precinct series get to know McBain's main characters and bit players like old friends who seem to age hardly at all. There is Steve Carella, the decent, steady detective with the slightly Chinese cast to his eyes; his deaf-mute wife, the beautiful, dark-haired Teddy; the diabolical Deaf Man; Artie Brown, the only black man on the detective squad; Meyer Meyer, the bald Jewish cop with the funny name; Fat Ollie Weeks, a slob and bigot who, when he's not eating, manages to effectively cover Carella's back.
Readers enjoy the squad's banter, routine and black humor, which offers some levity amid the mayhem. (When lions at the city zoo have at a victim's body, McBain writes, "By Carella's rough estimate, four-fifths of the vic's body was in the Eight-Seven. The remaining fifth, the vic's leg, was over there in the Eight-Eight, where Fat Ollie—watching a young lion claw and gnaw at the leg—was beginning to get hungry himself.") Just as much a fixture in the 87th Precinct novels is the author's prefaced note: "The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique."
But perhaps the leading character is the city, a dazzling but ominous presence composed of one part romance and three parts menace. It is a metropolis of stark contrasts, a theme sounded on the opening page of Hunter's first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater (1956):
"The city lay like a sparkling nest of rare gems, shimmering in layer upon layer of pulsating intensity.
"The buildings were a stage set.
"They faced the river, and they glowed with man-made brilliance, and you stared up at them in awe, and you caught your breath.
"Behind the buildings, behind the lights, were the streets.
"There was garbage in the streets."
Surprisingly, Hunter says his story lines often originate with the search for a good title—and then for a plot to hang it on. That wasn't the case, though, with his latest 87th Precinct novel, Money, Money, Money.
Hunter found the counterfeiting origin of the book on the streets of New York. "I kept wandering into stores in New York and seeing signs saying, 'We will not accept bills larger than $50,' " Hunter recalls. "And I begin asking how come, and they said, 'We've been getting burned a lot, we're getting a lot of phony hundred-dollar bills.' And I thought, humphff, that's interesting—are there more phony $100 bills around now than before? And I began investigating it." Eerily, Hunter happened to tie the bogus bills into a massive fictional conspiracy involving foreign-sponsored terrorism and an American city landmark. The novel, which included a reference to Osama Bin Laden, was officially published only two days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Writer caught up with Hunter by phone at his writing studio in Connecticut. He speaks proudly of his third wife, drama coach Dragica Dimitrijevic-Hunter, his three sons and stepdaughter. At 75, Hunter has had three heart attacks, and survived a life-threatening encounter with an aortic aneurysm last year. But he talks with the grit and energy of a much younger man.
|With Money, Money, Money, I found myself thinking that maybe this fellow is entitled to coast a little after writing 90 novels. But the fact is, this is one of the best 87th Precinct novels of all those I've read, and other readers have said the same thing. One reviewer said the Precinct novels had become "more textured, more thoughtful—and more thought-provoking." Has your novel-writing gotten any easier with experience?|
It gets harder, I think. Actually, my wife mentioned something last night. We were talking about the terrorist bombing and the similarity to Money, Money, Money, and it occurred to me from something she said that that particular book had been germinating for years before I put a word on paper. I think I began researching terrorism and counterfeit money and all that two, three years ago. And it's a very convoluted plot—you know, I almost lost track of it myself [chuckles]. It was a more difficult book to write than most of the 87th Precinct novels. It took longer to research and longer to do the actual writing to make it all come together, and also to give it a comic flair that I think took away from some of the weightiness of the subject matter.
|Can you take your average 87th Precinct novel from start to finish and generalize about the process?|
When I say I usually start with a title, there was a time when I was doing a title for every letter of the alphabet—Ax, Bread, Calypso, Doll. And as an example—this is a very good example because it shows how a novel did evolve from a title—when I was looking for a title for "i," I came up with ice, and the first association this had for me was diamonds—diamonds are ice in the underworld lingo. And then I began thinking, OK, ice, what else is ice? And the association was snow, which is cocaine. So I already had in the mix diamonds and cocaine. And then because of the very literal meaning of ice, it had to be wintertime, so I knew it was going to be set in wintertime. And then I discovered that ice was a show biz scam, a way of robbing the box office—selling tickets to a hit show at exorbitant prices, what's called ice. So I knew then that it had to be a background of show business somehow in there. So I had diamonds, cocaine and show business and I had wintertime and then to ice somebody is to kill somebody. So there was murder. I had virtually the whole plot simply from the associations of the title.
And I went from there. It opens with a show girl coming out of the theater at the end of a performance and it's snowing, and instead of getting on the bus, she decides to walk home, which we all know in an Ed McBain novel is a bad idea.
|It sounds like your mind forms itself around a concept and you then fill in.|
I think so. I hate to keep saying titles because maybe it's not the title itself ... . We said something the other day to someone—"No good deed goes unpunished." I thought, gee, "No Good Deed" is a good title for a mystery. And it would be about guys who are doing good deeds—they're benefactors of mankind, they give huge monies to charity—and they're being killed and you can't figure out why. Why are these good guys being killed? And that's the way my mind works.
|Your books are often full of specialized information. I recently read one of your Matthew Hope novels, Jack and the Beanstalk, that's full of snapbean farming and cattle-raising. Do you just head to the library, or how do you go about getting all this specialized information into your books?|
Well, nobody goes to the library anymore; we go to the Internet. But I also have a guy who does a lot of research for me. Specific things. For example in Money, Money, Money, a lot of the research on counterfeit money was done by this guy [Daniel Starer]. He does research for Nelson DeMille and Ken Follett, a lot of guys; he's a good researcher.
|In the early days, you spent a lot of time riding around with police in a number of cities. But investigative techniques are always evolving. How have you kept up?|
Anything that ever appears about scientific techniques or DNA or what have you I will immediately clip out of the paper. I have a whole file on stuff like that.
I also have a friend who's a criminal lawyer and used to be a district attorney, so I will call him and I'll say, "I've got this guy found with 20 pounds of heroin and he claims so and so, blah, blah, blah. What's the deal I can offer him?" And he'll say, "Well, why don't you offer him blah, blah, blah?" And I'll say, "He won't accept that deal; what can I counter with?" And he'll say, "Why don't you counter with blah, blah and blah?" And we get a whole dialogue going for 20 minutes, plea-bargaining a guy. I think those are some of the best scenes in the 87th Precinct novels.
|If someone had known Evan Hunter as a youngster, would they have said, "Man, does that kid have an imagination"?|
I think so. I was very fortunate. My father was an uneducated man who was a letter carrier. He had his own band. He was the kind of guy where I went to him and said, "Hey Dad, let's start a newspaper." He'd say, "Wow! Great idea!" And the next thing I know, he'd bought a little hectograph [duplicating] machine and he was hand-lettering all the stories I wrote for the paper because, you know, I had a childish hand and he had a beautiful penmanship. We were selling ads around the neighborhood to the butcher and the baker. We got all the neighborhood kids to dig up stories and write about them. It was an enterprise.
Another time I said to him, "Dad, why don't we put on a puppet show?" He said, "Yeah! Wow, great idea!" Next thing I know, he's building a stage. And I remember we had a war scene in it where soldiers were on the battlefield and one of them yells out, "Gas! Gas!" And my father was crouched offstage with his cigar blowing smoke across the stage to simulate a gas attack. So he was great in that respect. He encouraged every creative urge I ever had, and joined in.
|When you're doing a series, how do you avoid becoming formulaic? A series has its conveniences, but you are stuck with the same cast of characters to a certain extent, right?|
Yeah, you are. Carella is almost always at the forefront. Not always—sometimes he's a sidekick. And I try to bring one of the minor players into focus, so that we learn something about him or her, and get a different slant.
The next 87th Precinct novel, for example, is called Fat Ollie's Book [to be published in October]. It's partially about him solving a murder mystery but it's also about his book—in Money, Money, Money he's writing a book. He's a hard character to write about and a hard character to use to carry a book because he's so obnoxious. So you have to concentrate on the humor of him, but you must never forget he's an outrageous bigot. So that's the challenge in this one.
|It has always seemed to me that Carella and Teddy have acted as the moral center of gravity in the 87th Precinct series, and I always got the impression that you admired them. Where did you get the inspiration for these two characters?|
I don't know where Carella came from. I just figured I could have a decent cop who is happily married to a woman who needs a lot of help. In the beginning of the series she needed a lot of help—she's a deaf-mute; now she's developed into a very strong and resourceful character on her own.
But I thought [this would make] Carella a man first and a cop second—you know, it happened that he went to work every morning and his job was being a cop, but he didn't have to particularly enjoy pistol-whipping guys or anything like that. Just a decent man in a job that required extreme patience and a strong stomach.
|How many hours and pages are you writing a day?|
I usually start sometime about 9:30, 10 o'clock, I would say, and break for lunch, and I continue through to 6. Occasionally I'll take my wife for a cappuccino in the afternoon and come back and continue till about 6 o'clock.
I'm working on two novels simultaneously now and this is something I started doing about six months ago, I guess. I'll work on one book in the morning and then I'll put it aside, and then in the afternoon I'll go to a different book. I like the way it works. Instead of coming back after lunch and feeling tired and "gee, I have to continue with this," instead I switch over to the second book and it's like a pick-me-up, you know. And I can look at it and say, "Ah, here we are, something fresh."
I try to do five pages in the morning on the Evan Hunter novel and five in the afternoon on the Ed McBain. So I try to do 10 pages a day, and I figure four days a week is a fair amount of time without, you know, doctor visits or going to the city for some reason or another.
|How much are you outlining?|
[I'm working now on] an Evan Hunter novel with a rather complicated family in it and my outline consists, of course, of their ages and their dates of birth and when they married whom and how many children they have and all that stuff, but it also highlights important events in the lives of the guy and his sister, who are the two lead characters. And it'll be just a headline outline—"1987: She goes to India following the drug trail, whatever."
In Fat Ollie's Book, it's again, as they tend to become these days, complicated. In fact, there's one character in it who says, "Oh shit, it's about to get complicated again."
So there are sort of three plots that I haven't fully outlined in my head yet and I know I must do it and it's staring me in the face and it's saying, "OK, kid, you've done enough winging it. So let's get down to brass tacks and see what this is about!"
You know, I will often write myself a sort of letter on paper, saying, "OK, now what have we got? Here's where we are, here's what we don't have, and here's what we have to learn. And here's what we have to look at and examine and see where it's going." It's like a heart-to-heart talk with myself.
|Traditionally, there's such an entertainment component in writing mysteries. Is that your first obligation versus things like social commentary, cultural insight, literary achievement?|
Well, with whatever I write I feel I have to keep the reader engaged, I have to keep the reader reading. And that's the contract I make. You may not have a good time but you're going to be engrossed.
With anything I write, I have the reader firmly in mind. And if I find that I'm getting too erudite, if I find that I'm examining my own navel, I'll back away and say hey, there's somebody out there who is going to read this.
I once got a letter from a guy saying, "If you have a speech to make, get a soapbox." And I remembered that. I thought, hmm, he's right, I shouldn't make speeches; I'm just writing.
|Since you're a champion of productivity, what advice do you have for writers about being productive?|
I always tell anyone who wants to be a writer: You had better love it more than anything in the world. You had better want to write more than you want to do anything else in this universe. And if you don't love it, forget it, forget about being a writer—just develop a strong backhand and a good serve.
But I think aside from loving the act of writing itself, I know what keeps me productive is that I still feel I have a lot of things to say. I have books ahead of me that I just want to write and I want to get them published before I'm dead.
|What words of advice do you have for people who are trying to get a novel together, to develop a regimen of writing?|
I've always felt this and I think it's very important: Even when I was in college and writing stories and sending them out to the magazines—I papered an entire small bathroom with rejection slips and it filled every inch of space on the wall—even then I had a supreme sense of confidence that what I was writing was good and that one day it would sell. I would ask every beginning writer, if he believes in what he's doing, to keep that belief in himself, that sense of confidence. And keep writing—the more you write, the more you learn.
The other thing I learned in those years [was about editors]: I used to feel, "These guys, they don't know what they're talking about, I'm too good for them. I'm too good for the pulps, I'm too good for the slicks, I'm too good for the quality mags—they don't understand me." Right? And that's wrong. That is dead wrong. These people do know what they want for their particular market. If they're an editor at Ladies' Home Journal, they know what their Ladies' Home Journal readers want to read. And so just don't dismiss them. Try to learn from what editors tell you, if they tell you anything at all.
|You wrote many years ago in our magazine the line: "If you want to win either the Pulitzer or a National Book Award, stay far away from corpses among the petunias." Does that get into the issue of mystery writers not getting the respect they deserve?|
Oh yeah. I see so many times still, reviewers—even though we [mystery writers] have all hit upon that [goal of] "transcending the genre"—saying the writing is incredibly good "for a mystery." That's what you see all the time in reviews, in literary journals. It's not right.
|Has the writing life been a good life? Any regrets?|
I can't imagine anything I'd rather be.... I still enjoy it, and I'm paid well for what I do, there's some measure of respect in the community for me, I'm very happily married now with a wife who loves my work and is creative herself.
A creative life is a good one. You know, I think a lot of people have jobs they don't like to do, and that's really sad. I can't imagine getting up in the morning and going to some place where you don't want to go.