Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter aka Salvatore Albert Lombino) is one of those writers who sometimes seems to get name-checked more than he seems to be read by some modern day crime fiction readers. Despite the fact that he gets into all the top ten crime greats lists there seem to be some folks out there (even in crime fiction circles) who know the name, and the rep, but not the books.
So, I’m telling you now, if you haven’t read McBain before then go and do yourself a favour, and buy one today – and then bloody well read it!
So, why should you read McBain over that flavour-of-the-month novelist whose book you’ve been gazing at on your shelf or Kindle list? Well, I’ll tell you.
For a start, McBain writes clean, pared down prose – he uses words rather than wastes them. Nobody is ever going to describe him as a master stylist (a la Raymond Chandler) but nor will they slate him as an empurpled adverb clown (a la Dan Brown). And as anybody reading modern crime fiction will tell you, that clean pared-down style is currently very much in vogue. McBain’s prose measures up very well with these guys.
Secondly, like Simenon’s Maigret stories, the 87th Precinct mysteries are darker and stronger than you might anticipate, and are happy to get into the blood, the guts, and shit of a major metropolis. They’re happy to put readers into the mix with the criminals and scumbags. To paraphrase Chandler, they did a Hammett, and took crime out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley. McBain used swear words, though sparingly. Quite a few of his tales were fairly violent. But he didn’t dwell on things, which is why he might be seen as tame by today’s gory standards.
Thirdly, are you after a fast-paced read? Well, hello… In the earlier books, McBain nearly always got his business done in under 200 pages (often well under). Even the later books weren’t doorstop fiction. He didn’t do bloated character-building moments. When he dealt with Carella, Kling, Meyer Meyer, or any of the other members of the 87th he wove their personal moments seamlessly into the plot – again, part of that no words wasted ethos he seemed to have ingrained into his DNA.
Ah, so you’re worried he might be dated? Obviously in this time of DNA and CSI the methods in the earlier novels might seem antiquated but any novel written of its time will date to a degree. Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Simenon, Thompson; the moment they mention some outdated argot, or recondite phrase, or mention an item of clothing, or a now ancient piece of technology, then that automatically places the stories in a time and a place. The same goes for McBain, but, like the rest of these guys, his stories deal with age-old human themes of murder, violence, heroism, love, hate, greed, lust, and, frankly, that stuff isn’t ever going to date (not while humans continue to populate this planet, anyway). Yes, I am aware that today’s literary police seem to need a maverick streak, a fatal flaw, or some kind of intellectual brilliance to succeed with modern day readers – but don’t you find all those mavericks a touch tiresome? Wouldn’t you prefer something different?
Well, the policemen and women of the 87th aren’t mavericks or intellectuals, they’re regular folks, which is why McBain is so bloody good. They’re dedicated officers who put in legwork, are dogged, and work on hunches and feelings (backed up by the evidence). You like these guys because they’re just like us, rather than a band apart.
Lastly, and crucially in my opinion, his storytelling chops are spot on. He knows how to hook readers from the first line. He knows how to pace his tale just so. A lot of literary snobs like to put down writers like McBain and other popular authors because they dare to entertain, and have no illusions that what they produce is high art. Well, storytelling is an art and McBain is a damn fine practitioner, and if you pick up one of his novels I guarantee you that you will be entertained.
But where to start, right? After all, McBain wrote a lot of them. Well, Ice is a particular personal fave, along with Sadie When She Died and Shotgun. But why not start with the first one Cop Hater? It’s a tight, top-notch thriller and introduces the boys from the 87th in fine style.
Go on, what are you waiting for. If you haven’t read him before you’re in for a treat. And I envy you that first-time feeling of reading a future favourite author!