Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, et al.: The joys of great reporting

January 09, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Felled by a non-Y2K bug (no, I did not get a flu shot this year), I reached for something that could keep my mind off misery -- "The Last Dance: A Novel of the 87th Precinct" by Ed McBain (Simon & Schuster, 269 pages, $25). It worked. Though not a miracle cure -- and full of its own kind of miseries -- it was a delight.

It had been a long time since I had read any of this guy's work. It set me to thinking about the genre -- and about what makes compelling writing work.

Salvatore Lombino was born in New York's Italian Harlem. He is now 73. Writing police novels, he uses the name Ed McBain. Otherwise, he is Evan Hunter, the name under which he wrote his first great success, "The Blackboard Jungle." After that novel, about tough New York schools, was published in 1954 and became a famous movie, he legally adopted the name. Work of his has also been published, mainly in magazines, under the names Richard Marsten, John Abbott, Curt Cannon, Ezra Hannen, Hunt Collins -- and others.

He grew up in New York City, spent a tour in the Navy in World War II, then did all sorts of jobs -- including playing the piano in Borscht Belt hotels. He was graduated, Phi Beta Kappa, from Hunter College in 1950. Since then, with his eyes wide open, he has lived mainly in New York. From adolescence, he has known all he wanted to do is to write.

The evidence makes it crystal clear that he's never been afflicted by writer's block: As Evan Hunter, he has written 20 novels, two short story collections, four children's books, four screen plays -- including Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" -- and three teleplays. This is the 50th in the Ed McBain 87th Precinct series; he also has done 13 Matthew Hope books and six other novels.

If my arithmetic works, that's a total of 95 books -- 102 if you count the screenplays and teleplays. The figure is probably low -- reports vary. McBain's publisher says more than 100,000,000 of his books have been sold.

"The Last Dance" begins with energy -- an outright declaration that interrogating policemen don't believe the daughter of a murdered man. The the 87th Precinct is ostensibly set in the city of Isola, which means "island" in Italian. McBain gives it its own richness of neighborhood and street names of its own -- but I am a native-born New Yorker, and I know Isola is Manhattan Island.

The narrative is very lean. Sentences have one or at most two clauses. Dialogue moves deftly, almost surgically -- snappy, active. There is an easy punctiliousness about detail -- forensic, physiological, legal. The jargon-afflicted call McBain "master of the police procedural," meaning he really knows how cops do things. Crisp descriptions are memorable: In a 269-page book there are more than a dozen players who have significant roles -- and their own characters.

Without spoiling the story, it involves the residual rights to a long-forgotten Broadway musical that serious producers want to revive. Lots of money, lots of different people and heirs.

Of course, the detectives' suspicions are right. Leads are followed, with hard, demanding, relentless work. More murders. Increasing intricacy. Drugs. Street politics, theater politics. In each chapter, complexity multiplies. A situation that was one-dimensional becomes ambiguous, doubtable -- though still understandable.

The book gets inside the cops' heads. But McBain keeps his distance. He does not romanticize cops' roles or natures, though he clearly loves and understands them.

They are not universally likable. They are tough and can be arbitrary and brutal and corrupt. There is smallness, racism, other very unattractive characteristics. One detective, Ollie Weeks, "likes dead people much better than he did most living ones. Dead people didn't give you any trouble." Every one is unmistakably real, human. (For regulars, the other core characters of the series are here: Steve Carella, Artie Brown, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling -- detectives all.)

I know more than a little something about New York cops, and they ring loud and true here. I know less about prostitution and the narcotics subcultures that McBain writes about, but my ear tells me to trust it.

There's a case to be made that books in series, like McBain's 87th Precinct, are best enjoyed in concert: That the whole is richer than the sum of the parts. Perhaps. But I don't remember the last McBain I read, and remember next to nothing of any of them, and I grandly enjoyed "The Last Dance."

Why? Try this:

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