Hunter / McBain's 'Candyland' -- odd bedfellows

January 07, 2001|By Bill Morris | By Bill Morris,Special to the Sun

"Candyland: A Novel in Two Parts," by Evan Hunter and Ed McBain. Simon & Schuster. 302 pages. $25.

At last, a book you can judge by its cover. The back cover of "Candyland" shows its two co-authors leaning against the corner of a building. The dapper guy in the suit is Evan Hunter, who has published more than two dozen books since his smash 1954 debut, "The Blackboard Jungle." The tough guy in the shades is Ed McBain, who has published more than 60 novels, the bulk of them police procedurals set in the mythical 87th Precinct.

Look closely and you'll notice that Hunter and McBain are the same man -- though neither exists.

Evan Hunter and Ed McBain are the pen names of Sal Lombino, the man in the picture, who started writing pulp fiction after World War II and used numerous pen names before settling on the WASP-ish Evan Hunter for his mainstream debut in 1954, back when publishing was dominated by gentlemen in tweeds. He added Ed McBain for his first cop novel two years later.

And now, for the first time, the nonexistent yet phenomenally successful Hunter and McBain have teamed up. The result, "Candyland," is a lot like the trick photo on the back cover: it's more a lopsided Rorschach blob of a novel than the "ground-breaking" event its publisher promises.

The first half of "Candyland" is standard Evan Hunter. Ben Thorpe, a successful Los Angeles architect, is in New York to attend a party at a law office he designed. Away from his frosty wife for one night, Ben goes prowling for a sexual partner but is thwarted at every turn. Small wonder. He's a self-absorbed misogynist, and it's deeply satisfying when he gets thrashed by the bouncer in an Upper East Side bordello.

The writing is sloppy and stale. Several people dress "elegantly," others "to the nines." Ben looks "hither and yon" for a pliant woman who is "his cup of tea." When one of them flees his hotel room, he "wonders idly how Bob Dole manages mood swings within the parameters of erectile dysfunction and popping Viagra pills." And I wondered: Has any man ever wondered such a thing at such a moment?

The second half of "Candyland" is standard Ed McBain, meaning there's a dead body, crackling dialog and much attention to police work. One of the hookers from the bordello Ben visited has been found in an alley, raped and strangled, and the case falls to Detective Emma Boyle. She must walk a typical McBain tightrope, doggedly investigating sex crimes while her own marriage unravels and her philandering husband wins custody of their daughter. Life isn't always fair in the big bad city.

But at least you'll fly through the pages to find out if the killer is actually Ben Thorpe or not. Keep in mind that McBain is an admitted believer in "the long arm of coincidence" in police work. "Candyland" needs a coincidence.

Let's hope Sal Lombino lets Evan Hunter and Ed McBain go back to working their own sides of the street. This wandering hither and yon into each other's precincts is not their cup of tea.

Bill Morris is the author of the novels "Motor City" and "All Souls' Day" and the forthcoming "Mr. Mediocre." He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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