Long before he became famous as Ed McBain, a young New Yorker named Salvatore Alberto Lombino spent five years hammering out crime stories and selling them for few cents a word to pulp magazines with names like “Manhunt” and “Pursuit.”
In the last year of his life, with a stubborn cancer growing in his throat, he collected 25 of those half century-old stories and pecked out a few words about how he came to write them. Now, a year to the month after McBain’s death at age 78, they have appeared in a new anthology with an appropriate title: “Learning to Kill.”
“Ed McBain made his debut in May of 1956,” he writes in the introduction. “By then, I felt I knew how to write a crime story. Here’s how I learned to do it.”
A few of these stories, including a police detection story called “Still Life,” are seriously flawed – the work of a talented but raw amateur. A few more, including a bank caper called “The Big Day,” are deft and polished, displaying skills that eventually would make McBain one of our finest crime novelists. Most fall somewhere in between.
Together, they are a treasure for McBain’s legions of fans, letting us peek over his shoulder as he painstakingly studies and practices his craft.
Originally, these stories were published under the pseudonyms Hunt Collins, Richard Marsten and Evan Hunter because, as McBain tells it, “If I put S.A. Lombino on a novel, everyone will think it was written in crayon by a ditch digger or a gangster.” Later, he took Hunter as his legal name, slapping it on dozens of mainstream novels while taking pains to conceal his birth name from the public.
Despite the fame and critical praise he earned as Hunter and McBain, he never stopped fearing that anti-Italian prejudice could harm his career. In one of his brief reflections, interspersed throughout the book, he complains of Internet sites that delight in outing him as “that Italian guy.”
“In those early years I was trying my hand at every type of crime story,” he writes. “By the time I wrote the first of the 87th Precinct novels, all of the elements were already in place. Here were the kids in trouble and the women in jeopardy, here were the private eyes and the gangs. Here were the loose cannons and the innocent bystanders. And here, too, were the cops and robbers.”
It was cops and robbers that became the biggest part of his life’s work, his brilliant, 55-book 87th Precinct series virtually inventing the modern police procedural. It’s fascinating to watch him experiment with, and then abandon, the private detective story in favor of this ensemble cast of dedicated cops.
He did so, he writes, because, “I was finding it increasingly more difficult to justify a private citizen investigating murders.”
Yet when he first turned to writing about cops, he knew little about police procedure, and it shows. In “Still Life,” a confession is extracted with ludicrous ease. In “Accident Report,” the detectives don’t think about canvassing for witnesses until well after the killing. And the cops in these stories are forever asking the wrong questions and failing to ask the obvious ones.
But scattered throughout are well-drawn characters, bits of crisp dialogue and gritty, McBain-like passages such as this one:
“His clothes were baggy and ill-fitting, rumpled with the creases of park benches and cold pavement, stinking with the sweat of summer’s heat, crawling with the lice that were the legged jewels of the poor.”