Better Lock the Door

Evan Hunter Was Ed McBain

How do you replace such a prolific author as Erle Stanley Gardner? That was the question Pocket Books had to answer when the author of 80 Perry Mason novels had to slow down because of age. They needed an author who could give them the same type of output.

So, they turned to Evan Hunter, who signed a multi-book deal that turned into the 87th Precinct series under his pseudonym, Ed McBain. The 87th Precinct became one of the longest running crime series ever published, running from 1956 to 2005, and featuring over fifty novels.

Early Life

 

Salvatore Albert Lombino was born on October 15, 1926, in New York City. His family moved around while he was growing up. He spent part of his youth in East Harlem and then the Bronx. His family included several artists, so he took art classes as a child and planned to become an artist. He enlisted into the U. S. Navy, where he served aboard a destroyer in the Pacific. Part of his down time was spent drawing portraits of “everyone aboard the ship and all the smokestacks, torpedo tubes and depth charge racks. When there was nothing left to draw, I borrowed a typewriter . . .and wrote several stories and found I liked it.”

The stories were not published until after he was already established as an author in the 50s.

After the war, he returned to New York and attended Hunter College, majoring in English and Psychology, before graduating Phi Beta Kappa.

He did a few weeks as a high school teacher before going to work as an executive editor for the Scot Meredith Literary Agency where he worked with authors such as P. G. Wodehouse and Arthur C. Clarke. He sold his first short story that same year, a science fiction tale called “Welcome, Martians”, under the name S.A. Lombino.

Lombino began selling stories under several pen names, including Evan Hunter. In 1952, he officially changed his name to Evan Hunter for both personal and professional use. He gained attention with his novel Blackboard Jungle (1954) dealing with juvenile crime and the New York City public school system. The movie followed in 1955.

During this time, Hunter wrote a lot of genre fiction. His agents advised him not to use his name as it might weaken his literary reputation. Writing in several genres between 195 and 1956, he published nearly two dozen science fiction stories and four science fiction books.

Ed McBain and The 87th Precinct

 

Ed McBain's Cop Hater

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater

Hunter’s best-known pseudonym was first used in the 87th Precinct debut novel, Cop Hater (1956).  He knew he wanted to make the books to give a realistic look into the life and work of a cop, but he had no experience as a police officer. So, according to his friend and mystery columnist for The New York Sun, Otto Penzler, he approached an officer on the street and began quizzing him. He was extremely fortunate in his choice. That officer, Richard Codon, turned out to be the future police commissioner and he vetted each book for authenticity.

The books are set in Isola, a fictional part of New York City. It involved a revolving cast of characters, led by Detective Steve Carella.

The series brought something new to the genre, everyday police officers shown doing through the jobs few of us get to see. These were not special-gifted geniuses who worked alone and only on one case at a time. Instead, Hunter took us inside the precinct, with the daily chaos and crush of so many cases at once. The officer worked as one of a team that had to stick to procedure in a world that was constantly changing.

Some of the new evolutions he brought to the genre can still be seen in the numerous series that have followed its style that include a big, bad city that becomes as much a part of the story as any character; multiple story lines; swift, almost camera-like descriptions; and brutally realistic action scenes. The characters served as part of a team that includes authentic forensic procedures, with dialogue that could have come straight of the street.

He wanted to write stories that “were simply novels about cops. The men and women in blue. . ., their wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, lovers, children, their head colds, stomach aches, menstrual cycles.”

Writing For Movies and TV

 

Because of the success of the series, around 1960, Hunter retired his other pen names and only used Ed McBain for all of his crime novels.

From 1958 to his death in 2005, he published one or two novels of the series each year. In 1961-1962, NBC ran a police drama called 87th Precinct based on his books. He was also writing other novels under his Hunter name. And he had established himself as a successful screenwriter. He worked with Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds, but parted ways with him over how to do a rape scene in Marnie.

Columbo

Columbo

Not only did he write for movies, but he also wrote for many TV series including Columbo.

In 1973, Hunter divorced his first wife, Anita Melnick. This led to the appearance of another series of novels about Matthew Hope, a Florida divorce lawyer. He wrote a dozen books for the series under the Ed McBain label before retiring in 1998.

Writing Career

 

Hunter was known to write ten hours a day, every day of the week. Penzler said when he visited that Hunter worked from nine a.m. to lunch in a little office in the back of his house, when he left even if in mid-sentence. Then he would return to work until five.

In an article he wrote in 2005 for The Writer, titled “Dig In and Get It Done”, he gave some tips for writers. He wrote that the writer needs to find the voice they want to use before outlining or anything else.

He also encouraged a writer to just write. Get the story down first, then you can edit.

An interviewer once told him that his “authentic sound makes his technique seem invisible.”

“”Invisible?” he repeated. “That’s what it should be, isn’t it? If you’re the narrator of a book, you want to disappear. This is my theory of writing in general. Whenever I read a review that says this is stylistically impeccable, I think, run for the hills. I don’t want to read a book for the author’s style. I want the writer to disappear. I want the words to transport me some place.

“Sometimes when I’m writing, I really do feel like I’m eavesdropping on a scene. It’s playing out before me while I’m writing it. I’m seeing it and gearing it, and these people don’t know I’m there. So, when I read it back onto the tape, it’s as if I’ve been there already.”

Later Life

 

Hunter’s first two marriages ended in divorces. His family included three sons and his third wife who survived him.

Hunter had always been a heavy smoker, as many people were in his day. He experienced three heart attacks beginning in the 80s.

After his first heart attack in 87, he changed his writing routine of writing ten hours a day. This resulted in fewer, darker, more thoughtful books. His new philosophy was “when it’s no longer fun, I’ll stop.”

He died in 2005 at the age of 78 from cancer while living in Connecticut.

Awards

 

Evan Hunter has sold more than a hundred million books. He was recognized as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1986. The British Crime Writers Association awarded him the Diamond Dagger in 1998, the first American to receive the award. He, also, earned four Edgar nominations.

A Diamond Dagger Award winner Evan Hunter, as Ed McBain, brought us the 87th Precinct, the standard fir police procedurals. #mystery #police procedurals Click To Tweet

1 Comment

  1. Laurie Schnebly Campbell

    I love remembering the 87th Precinct — nice to think that whole series is still in print someplace; it’d be fun to read again one of these days. Thanks for a great description of the author at work!

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