One Bite at a Time




Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ed McBain

I’ve been truly serious about writing—by which I mean willing to exclude other things to find time for it—since about early 2001. Written novels, short stories, flash fiction, reviews, articles; probably produced finished works containing over a million words. The more I read and write and think about reading and writing—which I do a lot—I’m coming to the conclusion that Ed McBain was the greatest writer of crime fiction to date.

His 87th Precinct novels spanned fifty years, and the latest were even better than the earliest, when he was making his name. He wrote other series, and under other names. Evan Hunter wrote novels and screenplays (most notably the novel Blackboard Jungle and the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds.) He wrote under pseudonyms (Richard Marsten, Hunt Collins, Curt Cannon, Ezra Hannon, John Abbott), and even wrote a “collaboration” between McBain and Hunter. Oh, and his birth name was none of the above: Salvatore Lombino. He changed it because the odds were long for an Italian-American writer in the 50s.

He pretty much invented the police procedural. Others may have written cop-based stories before him, but he elevated the form and perfected it. His 87th Precinct stories (with which I am most familiar) have plots of varying complexity, never so much as to detract from the characters or force the reader to take notes to keep track of what the hell’s going on. You may guess who did it, but the reason may ot be what you expected. The ending will make sense, and he won’t cheat you with unprepared twists.

His ensemble cast evolves and grows older, though not in real time. His primary cop, Steve Carella, gets married and has kids, ages maybe twelve to fifteen years over the fifty years of the series. The books stays current with police techniques and modern technology; people who may have needed to go to the drug store to make a phone call when the series started have cell phones by its end, with few gray hairs in between. He pulls it off.

Recent interviews have made me think about who are the major influences on my writing. The more I ponder, the more I realize McBain has been the key influence, though not in obvious ways. It’s said the 87th Precinct novels aren’t so much cop novels as they’re novels about cops; I’ve been consciously trying to move that direction without thinking of it in those terms until research for this post reminded me. McBain often wrote self-contained secondary stories with little or nothing to do with the main plot. Or it might; you’ll have to read on to see. The WIP has some of that. He’s not afraid to step outside and interject a small authorial comment into his descriptions. Not so boldly it interrupts your fictional dream. More along the lines of hearing the story from an omniscient narrator who’s bullshitting with you at a bar. It’s a great way to inject levity or sardonic humor unexpectedly, especially while conducting stage business. When used judiciously, it’s effective as hell. Yeah, I’m working on doing that too.

Trimming down an interrogation so the only speech attributions are Q. and A. Done that. Create a fictional city that is a thinly disguised interpretation of the real thing. Works great. Ensemble cast? Check. My writing voice is quite a bit different; anyone who tries to steal voice is a fool. I still strive for the type of understated eloquence he achieved as a matter of course. I might get a sentence like that every 50,000 words or so, if I’m on a roll.

He doesn’t seem to get as much attention since he died. No one has lined up to continue the Eight-Seven stories. His name isn’t often mentioned at the beginning of discussions of “bests;” it will come up down the trail a bit, followed by the general acclamation, “Oh, right, McBain. Of course.” It used to bother me, his excellence so quickly taken for granted, almost forgotten. Now I figure it’s because he’d set himself apart, doing so many little things so well such discussion assumed his name, and we’re left to haggle over who else is worthy of inclusion.

9 comments:

Charlieopera said...

McBain's 87th Precinct novels were probably some of the very first I read post Higgins and I loved them all ... might have to go back and reread ... excellent stuff, as I remember.

Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...

I bought two of the 87th Precinct novels in that recent sale by the company named for a river full of flesh-eating fish. Could it be that McBain gets taken for granted because so many people do what he did that people think it has been around forever and forget that someone had to invent it?

Dana King said...

Peter, I think that's a great deal of it. There's also nothing spectacular about them. They're routinely excellent, but there are no (or very few) shootouts, bizarre serial killers, or other titillations. Just half a dozen cops doing their jobs. Nothing about his excellence jumps out at you. It's just there, waiting. Every time.

eviljwinter said...

I've been reading all the 87th's from the beginning, and it's never a dull moment. When the series starts to get tired, he brings in the Deaf Man to shake things up, then sends him off with his tail between his legs. And suddenly the series is new again.

I've got Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here and Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man up on deck next.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I've read just two or three of the books, but I;d say the plotting in Nocturne is spectacularly good.

Dana King said...

Jim,
Yes, the Deaf Man is always fun. I have the feeling TDM was available for those occasions when McBain was getting a little tired of the series and wanted to shake things up for both him and the reader.

Dana King said...

Peter,
I phrased my comment badly. His books are spectacularly plotted, but the plots themselves are not spectacular. No holding the city hostage or BLACK LIST-ish criminal masterminds. He always leaves me thinking, "That could happen. Absolutely." What's spectacular is how he works them out.