Ed McBain: Exit Of A Master

I’d planned to write my next entry about pseudonyms. I’ve just finished reading Brian Moore’s Intent To Kill, which he wrote as ‘Michael Bryan’ shortly after the publication of his first ‘literary’ novel, ‘Judith Hearne’. It took me twenty years to track down, via eBay, and I still haven’t got my hands on his other Bryan novel, the earlier Wreath For A Redhead, or the novels he wrote as ‘Bernard Mara’. These novels, 25 cent paperback originals, now go for serious money. I was outbid the only time I found a copy.

The Bryan novel was interesting, combining good clean writing with a sharp sense of suspense and characterisation that rarely rose above pulp fiction level. You could feel a writer learning to write, testing himself, unashamedly pleasing his audience. One could sense the freedom that writing under a pseudonym gave him. There were elements in his writing that served him well in his screenplay for Hitchcock. They would also appear in the literary suspense novels he wrote in the late part of his career, beginning with Lies Of Silence.

I did my undergraduate dissertation on Moore. He was, and remains, a huge influence on my writing, and I’m sorry I never wrote to him to tell him this before he died. I’ve only written two fan letters in my life. One was to Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith, too, wrote under a pseudonym, publishing her second novel, ‘The Price Of Salt’, as Clare Morgan. (Her first, ‘Strangers On A Train’ was filmed by Hitchcock, my favourite director, who we haven’t finished with yet.)

The other fan letter was to Evan Hunter, also known as Ed McBain, who died two days ago. I discovered McBain’s 87th Precinct novels shortly after graduating. These tight, beautifully written police procedurals have been amongst my favourite reading ever since. The Ed McBain novels created a major subgenre, the police procedural. Half the world’s crime writers owe Evan a major debt. These novels were also hugely influential on many of my favourite TV series, from Hill St Blues through Homicide to The Wire.

I tried to acknowledge my debt to him. The rubric at the front of every Beat novel (the city in these pages is real etc) is a careful inversion of the one that McBain used in the 87th Precinct novels. Many of his early books used small illustrations to add authenticity, a technique I copied in The Beat, partly as theft, partly as homage.

I wrote to him eleven years ago. Evan (his real name was Salvatore Lombino but Evan Hunter was the one of his half dozen pseudonyms that became his chosen name – it was the one he used for his most serious fiction) sent me a brief note back, congratulating me on the book I’d sent him and mentioning that my heroine’s surname, Coppola, was also his mother’s maiden name. Three years later, my friend Michael Eaton invited me to dinner with Evan and his wife Dragica. He was about to interview Evan about writing The Birds at the Shots In The Dark film festival.

You should be wary of meeting your heroes, but this worked out well. Evan had not long since had major heart surgery, I later learned, and was showing his age. Much of the talk was of Hitchcock. I hung on every word. When writers meet, we tend to bitch about publishers and the press and Evan was every inch a writer. Bearded and wiry, he was bitterly resentful of the lack of awards and serious reviews he’d received, only too aware that this was because he was such a prolific author. He proudly wore his silver dagger from the British Crime Writers association, given for lifetime achievement, the only major award he’d received. He was pissed off that Sight And Sound had just published almost the entirety of his book about writing ‘The Birds’ as an article, which would severely affect sales. But he was also unashamedly, soppily in love with his new wife, Dragica, and overall, I think, happy with his lot.

I was doing really well at the time, writing three books a year, as he had at the same age.
‘Smell the roses’, he told me, aware as I wasn’t how short the seasons can be.

Towards the end of the evening, I confessed to being a major fan, got him to sign a couple of books and asked the question that any 87th Precinct series fan would want answered. Had he written the promised final novel, which he’d often said would be called Exit. He hadn’t, he said. Then, as we were walking down to the taxi rank, he told me an involved dirty joke. I already knew the story, but was flattered he wanted to share it with me, as he knew I would be. Evan was a classy guy and an even classier writer. We should remember him well.

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