by Evan Hunter / Ed McBain

I was once the world’s worst piano player.

This was when I was a teenager.  Three kids I knew
were taking music lessons, each and respectively, on
saxophone, trumpet, and drums.  I was studying piano.  
After six or seven months, like kids in a Judy Garland/
Mickey Rooney movie, we decided "Let’s start a band!"  
Well, you can maybe learn how to play trumpet, drums
or saxophone in six or seven months.  Maybe.  You
can’t learn to play piano in that short a time.  The
reason I got to stay in the band was that we were all
good friends.

We knew five songs when we got our first wedding job.  
The bride’s sister came up to the piano, spread some
sheet music on it, and said, "I sing this in G.  Could you
transpose it, please?"  I could not have sight read it
even in its original key.   As I tried to tap out the melody
as discreetly as possible, the band softly filled in
harmony behind me.  The bride’s sister shot daggers.  
Who cared?  I was sixteen years old and in a band!

In the Navy I became the world’s second worst piano
player because a guy on my ship played even lousier
than I did.  In Norfolk and Boston, San Diego and Pearl,
Yokohama and Fukuoko, we played boogie-woogie
duets in bars and USOs.  I was the left hand.  Jerry was
the right.  We were awful.  Who cared?  We were
eighteen and all our shipmates clapped when we
finished playing.  (Maybe because we’d
finished playing.)

I was twenty when I got out of the Navy.  I hadn’t played
with a band for two years.  I got a call one night from a
saxophonist who said he needed a piano player for a
job that night.  I told him I hadn’t played piano in a long
time and, anyway, even when I used to play, I was
awful.  He thought I was being modest.  Or maybe
holding out for more money because he was in a jam.  
He kept begging me to please, please, please take the
gig, he was desperate.  I kept telling him he really didn’t
want me playing piano in his band.  He finally
convinced me that my being there was essential to his
professional happiness and well-being.

There were four pieces in the band that night.

Drums, trumpet, alto saxophone and me.

No place to hide.

The first thing the leader did was spread a "fake book"
on the piano’s music rack.  The songs in a fake book
are printed out with just the notes in the melody line
and the symbol for each chord above them.  For
example, the chord progression (the "chart" as it is
known in the trade) for the pickup and the first two bars
of "Misty" in the key of F major would be C13, FMA7,
CMI9, and F13(b9).  I could not have read such chords
by sight even if they’d been written out note by note.  As
it was, I was looking at the hieroglyphics for "Stardust."

Cleverly, I asked if perchance the leader had any real
sheet music with him, a dangerous ploy in that he
might have a trunkload of popular songs in his car,
which if he’d retrieved them I could not have read in any
case.  But all he had was the fake book, worse luck.
In desperation, he asked me just what I knew how to
play.  I played the dozen or so songs in my repertoire
while the band played on behind me.  For the rest of the
night, I sat staring at the music rack while they
struggled along without a piano player to supply
harmony and rhythm.  

When the leader offered to pay me, I told him I couldn’t
accept the money.  

He thrust it into my hand and said, "Well, you were

It was the most humiliating night of my life.


In 1953, I was working for a literary agency by day and
writing at night and on weekends.  We numbered
among our clients such varied literati as P.G.
Wodehouse, Mickey Spillane, Arthur C. Clarke, John
Jakes, and. . . well. . . me.  This was a year before I
wrote "The Blackboard Jungle," three years before I’d
written the first Ed McBain mystery.  I was writing
science-fiction, westerns, adventure, and detective
stories for the already fading pulp magazines and
earning anywhere from half-a-cent to two cents a word.

One of the better men’s magazines of the day was
called Bluebook, which paid an astronomical five cents
a word!  To my enormous surprise, they bought a story
I’d aimed at one of the lower-paying adventure pulps,
the tale of a sailor adrift in a lifeboat after his ship is
sunk at sea.

I got five cents a word.

It was the biggest sale I’d ever made.

Five cents a word!

A two-page illustration accompanied the story.  The title
was "One, "because there was just this one man alone
battling the sea, and the illustration showed huge
waves and menacing storm clouds and this heroic
solitary man tugging on oars in this flimsy lifeboat.  The
illustration was rendered entirely in red.  It was so

Two weeks later, the editor sent me a letter he’d
received from a merchant seaman who’d read the story
and who dissected it word by word, explaining exactly
where and how my little yarn was at variance with the
true facts of seamanship, right down to the provisions
one would find in an actual lifeboat and the tactics a
real sailor would employ for survival in an open boat on
a raging sea.

"Answer it,"  the editor suggested.

I spent a full day at the Seaman’s Institute in New York,
and another at the Public Library on 42nd Street,
attempting to compose a letter that would justify the
myriad mistakes I’d made in the story.  The editor
published the seaman’s letter and my answer to it, and
the incident passed into literary history.

The next story I sent to Bluebook was about two guys
climbing a mountain, and was brilliantly and blithely
titled "Two, "in order to take advantage of the infamous
"One" that had almost been my undoing, phew.  It was
returned unopened with the speed of two climbers
falling to their death from Anapurna.  The letter I’d
written in response to the seaman’s J’Accuse letter
hadn’t fooled anyone.  He had known, and I had known,
and -- worst of all -- the editor had known that I’d been
faking it.

I had lost an important market forever.


The moment Bluebook bounced that second story, I
vowed never again to commit to paper anything I hadn’t
thoroughly researched.  Before I wrote "The Blackboard
Jungle," my teaching experience had been only brief.  
The raw emotion was there when I sat down at the
typewriter, but the technical facts had become fuzzy with
memory.  I checked every aspect of a teacher’s working
day with at least half a dozen experienced
professionals before writing the book and again after it
was finished.

I researched "Lizzie," my novel about Lizzie Borden, for
a year and a half before I wrote a word of it, poring over
the trial transcripts, learning everything there was to
know about Fall River in 1892, studying 1890 street
maps of London and the French Riviera, reading
newspapers of the time, going so far as to obtain actual
menus of restaurants Lizzie might have visited on her
grand tour.

For "Criminal Conversation," the Evan Hunter novel that
will be reissued by Pocket Books in July of 2002, I
spent weeks in the District Attorney’s Office, and
countless hours reading transcripts of taped
conversations of the mob.

I learned how to install telephone bugs.

I learned how a wiretap works and what a wiretapped
voice sounds like.  

I learned the laws governing court-ordered
eavesdropping and the seizure of such evidence.

I was taking no chances.

Somewhere out there, experts were lurking, ready to
pounce.  And whether they were editors, readers, critics
or gangsters (redundant, I know) they knew everything
there was to know about anything in the universe.

With Ed McBain, the approach is identical.  I knew
when I began writing the 87th Precinct series that if any
single aspect of police work sounded false, the entire
structure would collapse.  The police routine had to be
impeccable.  But it was also essential that I knew
whereof I spoke when I wrote about guns, for example,
or cocaine, of which there is an abundance of each in
mystery novels, kiddies.

If I was writing a coroner’s report, I had better sound
like a medical examiner.

If I was offering a plea bargain to an accused, hey,
where did I go to law school?

The longitude and latitude of an approaching storm?  
Yes sir, I had to become a meteorologist.

Nowhere could I seem to be faking it.  If ever I made a
mistake, it would be an honest one, and not one
committed through ignorance of the subject.

Even so, there were pitfalls in the mystery novel that I
could not anticipate.  Mystery readers are a breed apart.  
They do not expect you to make mistakes, and when
you do make one, they are irate and will tell you so in
lengthy letters.  Get the date of Easter or Yom Kippur
wrong in the year 1995 and you will hear about it from a
thousand different corners of the earth.  (April 16 and
October 4, by the way; I looked them up.  I also bought a
fake book and looked up the chord progression for

On the other hand, if you report on page twelve that
someone has blue eyes and on page sixty-four that his
eyes are brown, mystery readers don’t think you’ve
made a mistake (you’re not supposed to make
mistakes in mysteries.)  They think this is a clue.  They
think the blue-eyed person has put on a pair of brown
contact lenses in order to commit a nefarious crime
and they are sorely disappointed when he doesn’t.

The peculiarities of mystery readers do not, however,
release the  writer from what he should consider a
sacred obligation.  Whenever I’m tempted to cut
corners -- so, okay, I won’t learn how a paper mill works
-- I remember that embarrassing night long ago when I
sat staring at an empty music rack and the
professionals behind me tried to pretend I was one of

  Or, worse, I remember when I broke my own rice bowl
at what was a new and exciting market for a struggling
young writer.

I used to have a recurring dream:

I am standing at a bus stop, waiting for the bus to
arrive.  I am wearing a tuxedo.  A woman carrying a
shopping bag looks me up and down and then says,
"Who do you think you’re kidding?"

No one, I hope.

© Evan Hunter


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