The city in these pages is imaginary. The people, the places are all fictitious. Only the police routine is based on established investigatory technique.
The opening of every single one of the 87th Precinct crime fiction novels by Ed McBain, the pseudonym used by Evan Hunter. Hunter was born Salvatore Albert Lombino in 1926 and by the time of his death in 2005 his name, all of them in fact, were synonymous with the police procedural genre. His output was extraordinary and today I’d like to honour his contribution to crime writing and writing in general.
Ed Mcbain was the most well known of Hunter’s pseudonyms. He wrote first as S.A. Lombino and cut his teeth writing short stories at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency where he rubbed shoulders with P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur C. Clarke. His first sale as a writer came in the form of a science fiction story and he was as at home in this genre as he was in crime fiction. He didn’t restrict himself to the page and was an accomplished screenwriter for film and television. Among his extensive writing credits is the screenplay for The Birds (1963) which became a cult Hitchcock classic. Many of his own novels became films and, in the case of the 87th Precinct series, television shows. One of his first full novels The Blackboard Jungle (1954) was about juvenile crime and was based on his short experience as a teacher in the Bronx. It was made into a film the following year starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier and was nominated for a clutch of Academy Awards. Hunter’s output is dizzying in its scale and consistency. Over a 50-year writing career, he published over 100 books and dozens of screenplays. Whilst at his peak he was capable of writing for 10 hours each day and was, even in the mid-1990s producing 40 pages of manuscript a week.
It is, however, for his 87th Precinct series that he is probably best known. His first novel in this long-running series was Cop Hater (1956) and his last, published the same year he died was Fiddlers (2005). A 50-year masterclass in the police procedural inspired by his own love of the television show Dragnet. The star of the series is Detective Steve Carella and he was nothing like anything crime fiction readers had seen before. Broadly, the crime fiction genre was, by the time of Cop Hater, divided into two camps when it came to the detective. On one hand, there was the intelligent, erudite amateur (Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes) and on the other the hardboiled detective (Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe). Detective Carella offered a third way based on routine, procedure and teamwork. In both a literary and a social context, it was radically different. The end of The Great War had seen a shift in detective fiction and by the 1930s the hardboiled nature of crime writing was a reflection of impending global conflict in the form of World War II. Once the 1950s arrived, however, the hard-living private detective seemed dated. Detective Carella heralded a new beginning and a new, more optimistic outlook. Police officers were the good guys and the moral arbiters of a society who wanted to look and move forward.
It was both a reflection of the post-war outlook and a staggeringly successful formula which readers flocked towards. The plots are clever, the focus on routine investigation thrilling and the real, human element of the police officers is totally compelling. Here is how Hunter described his own approach to writing police procedural crime fiction,
I only knew one thing about policemen: they were inhuman beasts. The problem was how to turn them into likeable, sympathetic human beings. The answer was simple. Give them head colds. And first names. And keep their dialogue homey and conversational. Natural-sounding people with runny noses and first names had to be at least as human as you and I were.
It is a formula which has been copied countless times on both page and screen. Perhaps its most famous replica came in the form of Hill Street Blues, a television series which ran for nearly 150 episodes between 1981 and 1987. The series won award after award and prompted Hunter to say if it hadn’t been stolen from me, I would have admired it greatly. It is the greatest form of flattery and a fitting tribute to a phenomenal career. What I love the most is how easy Hunter makes the police procedural genre sound.
I usually start with a corpse. I then ask myself how the corpse got to be that way and I try to find – just as the cops would.
Only a genius can make it that simple.