by ZJ Czupor
The Inventor of the American Police Procedural and More
Salvatore Albert Lombino (1926-2005) was born in East Harlem, New York, the son of a postal worker. He served as a radar man on a destroyer in the Pacific after World War II and to avoid boredom began writing short stories. They were all rejected by pulp magazines.
After his stint in the Navy, Lombino graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College in New York City where he majored in English. As he was beginning to establish his writing career, he was also newly married and with a growing family. He took a series of jobs in 1950 to make ends meet. He worked as a lobster salesman, substitute teacher, and as an executive editor for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency.
While at the agency, he began selling crime, adventure, westerns, and fantasy stories to pulp magazines under several pseudonyms such as S. A. Lombino, Curt Cannon, Hunt Collins, Ezra Hannon, Richard Marsten, D. A. Addams, and Ted Taine.
He said, “Sometimes I had three or four stories in a single magazine without the editor knowing they were all by me.”
An editor convinced Lombino he could sell more work if he changed his name. In those days, there was a conceived prejudice against writers with foreign names. So, at the age of 26, he legally changed his name to Evan Hunter.
In 1953, he had $3,000 in the bank and quit the literacy agency to write full time. He was down to his last $300 when he wrote his breakthrough novel, The Blackboard Jungle (1954).* The novel dealt with juvenile crime and the New York City public school system.
He said he often went home at night nearly in tears and frustrated that he couldn’t get through to his students. He said, “It was like I was throwing gold coins in the air and no one was picking them up.”
The story developed out of his seventeen-day teaching stint at the Bronx Vocational High School. That experience, and real-life stories from other teachers, resulted in a novel that sold five million copies and brought him fame as a New York Times bestselling author.
The black and white film version was released a year later (MGM, 1955) starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. It won four Academy Awards and made more than $8 million at the box office on a budget of $1.1 million.
In 1956, an editor at Pocket Books approached Hunter to write a series in the style of Erle Stanley Gardner’s profitable “Perry Mason” series. However, his agents strongly advised him that crime stories under his Evan Hunter byline would weaken his literary reputation. Therefore, Hunter began his new series writing as Ed McBain. His crime novel, Cop Hater (1956), became the first in a series of fifty-four novels about the fictious 87th Precinct.
His prose was considered hard and blunt with a sophisticated style. Hunter said, “the central idea was to make the stationhouse the star. I wanted a cast of characters that would act as an ensemble.” The series featured several characters with multiple story lines, brutal action scenes, images of ghetto violence, teamwork, authentic forensic procedures, and tough, cynical, yet sympathetic police officers speaking real-sounding dialogue. The popular series made Evan Hunter better known as Ed McBain.
Hunter once told The New York Times (1997), “I can call a restaurant and make a reservation as Ed McBain, and when I get there the chef will be coming out of the kitchen with books for me to sign. If I call as Evan Hunter, I get a table near the phone booth.”
In 1961, NBC ran a short-lived police drama called 87th Precinct based on McBain’s novels. It was not well received. But Adam B. Vary writing in Entertainment Weekly said, “Without McBain, there would probably be no Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, or Law & Order. He essentially invented the American police procedural with a single pulp paperback.”
Mystery expert and publisher Otto Penzler said, “He’s the guy who defined the police-procedural novel. He didn’t quite invent it, but he certainly made it popular.”
Hunter didn’t like labels and disagreed that he wrote police procedurals. He said, “They were simply novels about cops. The men and women in blue and in mufti, their wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, lovers, children, their head colds, stomachaches, menstrual cycles. Novels.”
His twenty-second novel in the series, Fuzz (1968), is a suspenseful black comedy of murder and mayhem. It starts out with this sentence:
“Oh boy, what a week. Fourteen muggings, three rapes, a knifing on Culver Avenue, thirty-six burglaries, and the squadroom was being painted.”
He sold the film rights to Fuzz for $100,000 and wrote the screenplay. The movie (1972) starred Burt Reynolds, Yul Brynner, Raquel Welch, Tom Skerritt, and Jack Weston.
Hunter was married three times. After his first divorce in 1973, he started writing a new mystery series about a Florida divorce lawyer Matthew Hope—a New York city boy who moves to Florida—a virtual “fish-out-of-water” but with a humorous three-dimensional personality. The titles all carried fairy-tale themes like “Goldilocks,” and “Beauty & The Beast.” He retired that series after thirteen novels.
He also wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitchcock liked his work and invited him to write the screenplay for The Birds (1963), which he adapted from a novella of the same title by Daphne du Maurier (published in the short story collection, The Apple Tree, 1952).
Hitchcock told Hunter to develop new characters and a more elaborate plot while keeping du Maurier’s concept of unexplained and shocking bird attacks. Hunter and Hitchcock developed a mutual respect which Hunter documented in his autobiography, Me and Hitch (1997).
His 2001 crime novel, Candyland, carried the byline of both Evan Hunter and Ed McBain. He wrote the first half, “The Rain May Fall Till After Sundown” as Hunter and the second half called, “By Eight, the Morning Fog Must Disappear” as McBain. The back jacket cover depicts two men standing together—Hunter in a dark suit and McBain in casual jeans, sunglasses, and cap.
Publisher’s Weekly called the writing “as alike as sauerkraut and cookies.”
The Los Angeles Times said, “It was a literary exercise that showed readers that while he is both Hunter and McBain, each tells stories in dramatically different ways.”
Hunter was a prolific writer and a major influence on Stephen King and Elmore Leonard as well as Henning Mankell, a Swedish crime writer, who also wrote police procedurals and is considered to be the “father of Nordic noir.”
While he was best known for his crime fiction, he was also successful as an author of mysteries, science fiction, and possibly, pornography.
To this day, rumors remain that Evan Hunter wrote several pornographic novels using the pen name Dean Hudson. But he adamantly denied this and there’s little evidence to support the rumor. His agent, Scott Meredith, reportedly sold Hunter’s works (as written by Dean Hudson) and received cash payments, under the table, of $1,000 per manuscript. Many of Hunter’s friends felt that Meredith claimed the novels were by Hunter simply to make a sale. Nevertheless, between 1961-1969, ninety-three “sleaze” paperback novels authored by a Dean Hudson were published by William Hamling’s paperback syndicate.
The Mystery Writers of America awarded Ed McBain its Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in 1986 and in 1998 he was the first American to receive a Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain.
In his illustrious 53-year career as an author, Hunter/McBain wrote 119 novels, thirteen collections of short stories, four produced screenplays, three teleplays, two theatrical plays, and two autobiographies. Seven of his novels were adapted into films. His agent estimated that McBain sold more than 100 million copies of his work.
Hunter wrote ten hours a day at his desk, seven days a week until a heart attack slowed him down in the 1980s. Considering Hunter’s literary output, a conservative estimate would put his total word count somewhere north of six million words. But near the end of his life, he couldn’t say one out loud. He lost his larynx to throat cancer after years of heaving smoking.
Lombino/Hunter/McBain died at the age of 78 after a five-year battle with laryngeal cancer. He was survived by his third wife, three sons, a stepdaughter, and two grandchildren.
And, that’s your Mystery Minute.
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*The Blackboard Jungle (MGM, 1955) film was directed by Richard Brooks and starred Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier (28), his breakout role. It was the first Hollywood movie about school violence and sparked a national debate on the crisis of juvenile delinquency and the American education system.