All Evan Hunter did before cancer killed him last week at age 78 was invent himself and alter American culture.
Oh, and sell 100 million books.
Self-determination for Evan (whom I knew professionally) began with his name. He was born Salvatore Lombino. After World War II, he became Evan Hunter, reasoning that publishing would buy a WASP moniker more easily than the 1950s ethnic- and class-conscious marketplace would buy the books of a novelist with a name like Lombino. A high-school teaching job inspired his first risky whack at America’s culture, a resounding thunk heard round the world as a 1954 novel called The Blackboard Jungle, which was quickly adapted into the movie starring Glenn Ford and young, pre-Oscar Sidney Poitier. As Hunter said in an interview with bookreporter.com, when the book came out he was 28 and “just a kid … I never expected the whirlwind that followed.”
Evan may have bowed to the conventions of his time in changing his name, but his debut novel about gritty high-school realities was a wake-up scree of rebel fingernails run across the blackboard of a white-bread culture desperate to believe that Ozzie and Harriet (airing on TV since 1952) and Father Knows Best (aired the year of Evan’s debut) were The Way Things Are. Writing his novel the year before Rebel Without a Cause and four years ahead of the legendary movie High School Confidential, Evan revealed that the kids were a long way from all right. Quite the contrary: In TheBlackboard Jungle they were angry, sullen, and defiant. They were juvenile delinquents or honorable rebels, and even when they were bad, they were cool.
But today Evan’s subsequent re-invention of himself, as Ed McBain, is remembered better than his pioneering fiction about the American creature called the teenager.
After struggling in the 1950s to eke out a living as a writer—a period in which he used several different pseudonyms—Evan got a three-book contract to write about cops, and “Ed McBain” was born. In 1956, McBain published Cop Hater, a novel that used an ensemble cast to grab readers with the kind of story literati relegate to fiction ghettos with names like mysteries, thrillers, and crime novels. McBain created his famed 87th Precinct series with that novel, a franchise that eventually became more than 50 books, the last of which will be published this September. To write about cops, and write about them as people, was revolutionary in the ‘50s, when readers were buying “cozy” mystery novels by Agatha Christie or lone knight “private eye” books popularized by Raymond Chandler. McBain chose cops to be the forces of his fiction because, as he said, “the last time a private eye solved a murder was never.” His New York Times obituary credited Ed McBain with creating “the police procedural,” a genre in which how cops do their job is a key element of the fiction.
Indeed, McBain was much more of an adamant realist than Christie or Chandler. His characters faced their challenges in a fictional city called Isola, a metropolis that looked a lot like the author’s beloved New York. If there’s any doubt about how different his work was from the “cozies,” consider this bit of description from The Big Bad City (1999):
So if you came here thinking, Gee, there’s going to be a neat little murder … and some blue-haired lady will solve it in her spare time when she isn’t tending her rose garden, then you came to the wrong city at the wrong time of the year. In this city, you had to pay attention. In this city, things were happening all the time, all over the place, and you didn’t have to be a detective to smell evil in the wind.
McBain’s cops resembled the real America, not the Dragnet straight arrows playing on TV sets in wood-paneled rec rooms when the 87th Precinct series began. McBain’s “hero”—though not always the focus of the novels—is Steve Carella, squad detective and husband to Teddy. She was a deaf-mute star in an era where characters with any physical “challenge” were usually written small and with more pity than passion. McBain’s “rainbow” ensemble of cops included Meyer Meyer, who’d been cursed with his double-barreled name by an angry father; fat Ollie Weeks, who never met somebody he couldn’t hate; Arthur Brown *, whose skin was black and whose soul was blue; and handsome young detective Bert Kling, who once thoughtfully explained to a girlfriend how and why a claw hammer is the perfect weapon for a woman.
In doing so, he bucked the ruling clichés of police fiction, in which cops were nearly always Irish or almost certainly white. He maintained diversity in his novels even as it evolved from pioneering to pro forma. He was also a literary pioneer in using “reproduced” pages of a police or lab report to “break” the lines of ordinary type. And he fought the idea of novels being shunted off to literary ghettos with labels like police procedurals, mysteries, thrillers, or crime stories.
But Hollywood work grabbed Evan and never let go. His books became movies, and Evan wrote screenplays, most memorably for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, where a chaste blonde sat smoking on a park bench, assuming she was safe while one by one hundreds of angry avians perched behind her.
TV changed because of McBain—though not because of his screenwriting byline. Without the success of his novels, we might never have had Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, NYPD Blue, Law & Order, CSI, The Wire, or The Shield. McBain created the dramatic template of an ensemble cast of cops whose lives became as important to their audience as the resolution of the show’s weekly crime.
Evan Hunter may have fallen silent last week, but the whirlwind that began with The Blackboard Jungle still blows around us.
Correction, July 13: The article originally and incorrectly identified Cotton Hawes as a black detective in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. The detective’s name is Arthur Brown. Return to the corrected sentence.