Ed McBain is the only American to receive the Diamond Dagger, the British Crime Writers Association's highest award. He also holds the Mystery Writers of America's coveted Grand Master Award. His books have sold over one hundred million copies worldwide, ranging from his first bestselling novel, THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, to the bestseller PRIVILEGED CONVERSATION, both written under his own name, Evan Hunter. He also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. His most recent 87th Precinct novel was THE FRUMIOUS BANDERSNATCH. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Dragica.


January 21, 2000

The prolific Ed McBain --- real name Evan Hunter --- writes prolifically under these two names and many others in the past. As Ed McBain he's produced fifty 87th Precinct novels starting with COP HATER published in 1956 and now his latest, THE LAST DANCE. Longtime fan Senior Writer Joe Hartlaub has been following Hunter and his pseudonyms for years. Thrilled that 87th Precinct Detective Steve Carella had returned for another case, Hartlaub was eager to interview the author. There's a lot you probably didn't know about Hunter, such as his very colorful and varied professional background --- a stint in the Navy, a brief moment as a lobster salesman, a successful career as a literary agent, and then finally, an author. Find out everything else you don't know about this highly successful and talented writer, who incidentally was never a cop despite his dead-on portrayals on paper and on film, in this forthright interview.

TBR: You published your first book, FIND THE FEATHERED SERPENT, in 1952 and you have just published THE LAST DANCE, your fiftieth 87th Precinct novel, and you are still going strong, writing some of your best work to date. In the interim period between the publications of your first and most recent novels you have amassed a bibliography of work in several different genres which is remarkable not only for its quantity but also, for its consistent quality. What sort of writing schedule do you maintain? And how has it changed --- if it has changed --- over time?    

EMcB: I write from 10 AM to 6 PM, Monday to Friday. I try to write eight pages a day. When I had a 9-to-5 job, I used to write at night and on weekends, but not anymore.

TBR: What is your educational, and prior to being published, your professional background?

EMcB: I studied art at the Art Students League in New York, and then at Cooper Union. When I got out of the Navy I switched my career aspirations to writing. I got a B.A. from Hunter College, worked as a school teacher, a lobster salesman, and a literary agent before being published.

TBR: I have noticed what I hope is a coincidence and not a pattern. Your 1998 Matthew Hope novel, THE LAST BEST HOPE, is said to be your last Matthew Hope novel. Your new 87th Precinct novel is titled THE LAST DANCE. Is this happenstance? Or is THE LAST DANCE the last, best 87th Precinct novel?

EMcB: THE LAST DANCE may or may not be the best 87th Precinct novel --- that's for the readers to decide. But it certainly is not the last. I'm already plotting the next one.

TBR: The 87th Precinct books were the basis for a popular television series in the 1960s as well as the film FUZZ, for which you also wrote the screenplay, and a number of other movies. The 87th Precinct books also, however, inspired and influenced any number of other police procedural series, from Naked City to Bourbon Street Beat to Hill Street Blues to Homicide, to a dozen others I could name. Have you ever considered doing script writing for television?

EMcB: I have written scripts for television, most notably the eight part-series mini-series The Chisholms, the three-hour Walks Far Women, and the six-hour Dream West --- all of them Westerns, don't ask. I also wrote several segments for the 87th Precinct series while it was on the air.

TBR: Your book THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE remains a classic as both a novel and a film. The title has even entered the vernacular of our modern language --- a feat that few authors have ever accomplished. Both the book and film were --- and remain --- quite controversial. Were you prepared for the reaction you received when THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE was published?

EMcB: No, I was just a kid --- twenty-eight years old --- writing a novel about my first meaningful work experience, which happened to be teaching in a vocational high school. I never expected the whirlwind that followed.

TBR: From the publication of COP HATER, your first 87th Precinct novel, in 1956, to this year's THE LAST DANCE, you have demonstrated an uncanny knowledge of police procedure, not to mention an uncanny ability to describe it. Do you have a background in law enforcement? And if not, what sources have you used for your work?

EMcB: I've never been a cop nor hope to be a cop, thanks. I spent months with the police before writing the first book, and I've maintained good relations with them since. I also have a professional researcher who fills me in on matters unrelated to police work, so everything seems real, no false steps --- I hope.

TBR: One of the many classic elements of the 87th Precinct novels is the ensemble of Carella, Hawes, Brown, Meyer, et al. They are basically a bunch of guys who, for various reasons, have become police homicide detectives. While some of them are smarter than others, they all have strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes a clue is dropped into their collective lap, but more often than not they have to painstakingly dig it up. What is fascinating to me, though, is that you were one of the first --- if not THE first --- mystery writers to utilize this ensemble method of police detection in a mystery novel. What was the impetus behind the creation of the detectives of the 87th Precinct?

EMcB: I felt that the only people who should be investigating crime were cops --- not private eyes, not amateur sleuths. I further felt that a repertory company, so to speak, would give me wider range in what I hoped would be a long-lived series.

TBR: Perhaps the most noteworthy nemesis of the 87th Precinct detectives has been The Deaf Man. He has been, to me, the modern equivalent for Doyle's Professor Moriarity, a diabolical genius who is a brilliant and more than worthy adversary of his moral, if occasionally flawed, protagonists. What was your inspiration for the Deaf Man?

EMcB: I think not so much Moriarity as it was The Joker, or perhaps even The Riddler in BATMAN, the comic I used to read as a kid. I hope I'll be able to bring The Deaf Man back soon --- but he's very difficult to write about, simply because he is so brilliant, and I'm not.

TBR: You have kept the 87th Precinct novels fresh by, among other things, giving us new insights into one or more of the detectives in each of the books, while keeping them true to character, and thus familiar to the reader, as time has passed. Is there still more to be revealed about the men of the 87th Precinct?

EMcB: I don't know.  I'll find out when they find out.

TBR: On a related note, when you wrote your first 87th Precinct novel, did you ever imagine that, some 44 years later, you would be writing and publishing a 50th?

EMcB: The first contract was for three books. I thought that might be the end of it, easy come, easy go. The next contract was for another three. I began to suspect then that I might be around for a while.

TBR: After reading a recent New Yorker article, I learned that the name you were born with is Salvatore Lombino, and Evan Hunter and Ed McBain are pseudonyms. Why did you, from the outset of your career, use pseudonyms?

EMcB: First, Evan Hunter is not a pseudonym. It has been my legal name since 1952. It is the name I answer to, the name on my passport, the name I sign to my checks, the name my family and friends know me by. Ed McBain is the pseudonym. I began using pseudonyms early in my career, when I was being paid a quarter a cent a word for my work, and when I had to write a lot to earn a living. Sometimes I had three or four stories in a single magazine without the editor knowing they were all by me.

TBR: You have used other pseudonyms --- Hunt Collins, Ezra Hannon, Richard Marsten, John Abbot, and Curt Cannon --- for a wide range of novels, including, but not limited to, biker stories, adventure, detective, and even science fiction. Most, if not all, of your books published under these names are out of print, though they are very highly prized on the secondary market. Are there any plans to reissue any of your out-of-print novels?

EMcB: I try to keep all my novels in print. Sometimes publishers don't agree with me as to their worth.

TBR: How did you become involved in writing the screenplay for The Birds?

EMcB: Two of my short stories had been in the Hitchcock television show, and I'd adapted someone else's story for the show as well. Hitch knew my work. He called to ask if I'd do the screenplay for the DeMaurier story.

TBR: What are you working on presently?

EMcB: I am finishing a double novel, the first half of which is a mainstream story written by Evan Hunter, the second is a mystery written by Ed McBain. They can be read as one novel, or as stand-alone novels. I've finished the EH segment and have just began the McB segment. After that, it's on to the new Eighty-Seventh.

TBR: Your first published work was FIND THE FEATHERED SERPENT, a children's novel, and you have returned to that genre, albeit infrequently since then. Have you been tempted recently to return to that field?

EMcB: No.

TBR: What authors have influenced you?

EMcB: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, T.H. White.

TBR: What are you reading now?

EMcB: Nothing. I'm starting a book tour. I'll be taking a week's vacation afterward, but I haven't yet bought the books I'll be taking along. Got any suggestions?

TBR: You have written any number of classic novels, in several different fields. You have written screenplays for movies which are regarded as masterpieces. Your own name and your pseudonym, Ed McBain, are both household names. Given these accomplishments --- the attainment of any one of which would be enviable --- is there anything you would like to accomplish which you, as yet, have not?

EMcB: Yes. I would like to win the Pulitzer Prize. I would like to win the Nobel Prize. I would like to win a Tony award for the Broadway musical I'm now working on.  Aside from these, my aspirations are modest ones.

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