Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ed McBain

Work on the web site continues, with the soft deadline I set for myself of January 1 looking eminently doable. (The text and graphics are ready, with a few updates required. All that remains is to get the colors to match on all 34 pages.) Included in the pre-planning work were inspections of other writers’ web sites. I wasn’t interested in making mine as elaborate as some. What I cared about were what kinds of things were included elsewhere. I was able to find a consensus, and lost several hours wandering the halls of various writers’ sites.

Among those I enjoyed most was Ed McBain’s. He’s been dead almost ten years, so I’m not sure why I checked. Maybe to see what a more or less bare bones site looked like, if anything was there at all. Turned out he did (does?) have a site, though it has not been updated since 2010, when he was made an honorary citizen of Ruvo, Italy.

The site consists of what you might expect from the web presence of an author with his background. The navigation bar links to pages titled Home, Newsdesk, Booked, Bios, etc., Forum, Links, and Contacts. It’s the “Newsdesk” page that caught my eye. In it is a page called Articles by the Author. These are essays—blog posts, essentially—written by McBain between May 23, 2002, and March 18, 2004. (He died July 6, 2005.)

The posts are priceless. (For those of you who are unaware, “Ed McBain” is a pen name of Evan Hunter, who was born Salvatore Lombino.) Evan Hunter a Ed McBain. He writes of growing up in “the big, bad city” in such a way even a country boy such as myself gets it. Why an author should never fake it. His contract with the reader. Books he abandoned, and why. Altogether there are nine. I read them all, and can’t pick a favorite.

What I like best is how they work so well as vehicles for McBain to speak candidly and directly to the reader. The wit found in his books is present, as are the little bits of whimsy. Phrasings just different enough to let you know this came out exactly how he wanted it, if not quite how you expected. In “Trials and Errors,” he writes of four novels he began as Evan Hunter, never to finish any of them; one only got three paragraphs written. This essay concludes with, “I've never started an 87th Precinct novel I didn't finish,” which, to me, spoke volumes about how he felt about his seminal, and most successful, series.

In “About That Novel,” Evan Hunter explains how he writes a novel, in the guise of explaining to you how to write one. All writers should read this, regardless of your level of experience. That’s not to say you should then follow his advice to the letter, but everyone who has made the effort will appreciate what he’s talking about.

“Coming Along Happy” describes growing up in New York. Here’s how it ends:

My father was a postman. During the Depression, he never earned more than eight bucks a week. But he always found enough money to take me to the Apollo Theater to hear the big bands on Saturday nights.

After the show, we would walk down 125th Street together, hand in hand, chattering about what we'd just seen and heard, chattering, chattering, all the way back to the apartment on East 120th Street.

Years later, when I was living in a luxury high rise on 72nd and the East River, I thought Gee, it's taken me only fifty years to move fifty blocks downtown.

“The Nature of the Beast” is billed as “McBain’s contract with his readers.” It’s a brief list (nine paragraphs) of things he promises always to do. Its conclusion:

I promise to keep you awake all night.

I promise to keep writing till the day I die.

I will sign this contract in blood if you like.

I have not done these priceless little essays justice, and cannot in such a space. Read them. They are full of the little, non-intrusive flourishes that made every Eight-Seven novel a pleasure to read. The bon mots are too many for me to pick favorites. The picture that emerges is of a man in love with his calling, and the craft involved. In them, he speaks to his readers as the friends we wish we could be with favorite authors.

To me, McBain is the most underappreciated great writer of crime. “How can he be unappreciated?” you ask. “MWA named him a Grand Master in 1986. He was the first American to receive a Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers Association. The 87th Precinct novels were nominated for an Anthony Award as Best Series of the Century in 2000.” All this is true. However, his name seems to have dropped out of the conversation since his death. He’s mentioned in the discussion of the greats, but too often as an afterthought. (“But what about McBain?” “Oh, of course, McBain. That goes without saying.”) He was so good for so long he, more than any other writer, became taken for granted. His books were still getting better fifty years into the series. Even after all the awards and the luxury high rise on 72nd and the East River, he never mailed it in.

This post is almost twice as long as I originally intended. That should give you an idea of how strongly I feel about this subject. Go to the website yourself for some small insight into why I’m so worked up. Check out the “Newsdesk/Articles by the Author” page. Make sure you have time to spend.

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