My tale takes place in the early 1980s, when I was working for Portland, Oregon’s “alternative newsweekly,” Willamette Week. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but what I recall is that I was laboring away at my desk one day, when the sweet-voiced receptionist buzzed me, announcing that somebody named Ed McBain was on the line, and he wanted to know whether the paper had anyone on staff who was interested in crime and mystery fiction. At the time, I was still a pretty raw book critic, and I wasn’t as familiar with McBain’s fiction as I was with what others (including Ross Macdonald and Robert B. Parker) were doing in the field. However, I was young and overly self-confident, and I said, sure, I’ll talk with him.
I don’t recall which book McBain was promoting at the time; it might have been Heat (1981) or Ice (1983) or Lightning (1984), but I’m quite sure it was one of his 87th Precinct police procedurals. I did my best to ask him about the tale, and remember anything of his personal life or career that I could use to beef up our discussion and make me sound semi-intelligent. If memory serves, I’d at least received a copy of his latest novel, though I had not read it. For some peculiar reason, it didn’t occur to me to suggest that we schedule an interview for another occasion, when I might be better prepared. I just barreled ahead. It’s likely I was not the best questioner McBain encountered on that year’s circuit, but I probably wasn’t the worst. Looking back now, I can’t help wondering how much better I could have done had I actually been prepared for our exchange. But at least I extracted enough information to pen a short piece for the next week’s issue.
I never again had the opportunity to speak with McBain, and then the author (whose real name was Salvatore Alberto Lombino; he legally changed it to Evan Hunter in 1952--McBain was simply his best-recognized pseudonym) died in the summer of 2005. Shortly thereafter, I wrote this as part of a January Magazine tribute:
In many ways, McBain was a pioneer. In the 1950s and ’60s, his “cops resembled the real America, not the Dragnet straight arrows playing on TV sets in wood-paneled rec rooms,” writes [his screenwriter-journalist friend, James] Grady, who adds that McBain “bucked the clichés of police fiction, in which cops were nearly always Irish or almost certainly white.” New York Times crime-fiction critic Marilyn Stasio concurs, writing in her obituary of the novelist that he “took police fiction into a new, more realistic realm, a radical break from a form long dependent on the educated, aristocratic detective who works alone and takes his time puzzling out a case.” And South Africa-born author James McClure, whose own procedurals, featuring Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Zulu Sergeant Mickey Zondi (The Steam Pig, The Sunday Hangman) were clearly prompted by reading McBain’s police yarns, applauded the New York writer’s skill at making gold from “cop corn.” McBain, he explained, “accepts things as they are; if the field that engrosses him is knee-high in clichés, so be it. In he goes, as eager and uncompromising as a child, to grasp the thistle that grows between the rows.”Today’s forgotten books bloggers give McBain’s “cop corn” some much-deserved attention, remarking on a diverse collection of his works. Everything from Blood Relatives (1975) and The Gutter and the Grave (aka I’m Cannon--For Hire, 1958) to The Con Man (1957) and Cinderella (1986). It’s a good representation of his work. I wish I could talk with McBain about it. This time, damn it, I’d be ready for him …
(Ed McBain photograph by Sean Smith.)