Thursday, July 14, 2005

Evan Hunter AKA Ed McBain

It seems that July 2005 has not been a particularly good month for Alfred Hitchcock's screenwriters. Ernest Lehman, who wrote North by Northwest died this month. Now another man who wrote one of Hitchcock's movies has died as well. Evan Hunter, also known by his pen name Ed McBain, died July 6, 2005, of larnyx cancer at the age of 78. Among other things, Hunter wrote the screenplay for the classic Hitchcock horror movie The Birds, although he is perhaps better known for his series of 87th Precinct novels, which he wrote under the pen name "Ed McBain."

Evan Hunter was born as Salvatore Albert Lombino in New York City. He served in the Navy during World War II, which was when he also took up writing. In 1952, feeling that publishers were biased against writers with foreign sounding names, he changed his name to "Evan Hunter." His breakthrough novel was The Blackboard Jungle, drawn on experiences from his own life. It would be made into the motion picture of the same name in 1955. His greatest success, however, would come with the series of 87th Precinct novels, which he wrote under the pen name "Ed McBain." The series centred on a police precinct in New York City, focusing on both police work and the personal lives of the police themselves. In some respects the series was a forerunner of the police procedurals so popular today. The first novel in the series was Cop Hater, published in 1956. The final 87th Precinct novel, Fiddlers, is set for release this September.

Although best known for his 87th Precinct novels, Hunter covered a number of different genres with his works. His novel Streets of Gold focused on an Italian American family. He even wrote a Western, The Chisholms. Hunter is perhaps unique as being one of the few writers to co-write a novel with himself. Candyland was credited to "Evan Hunter" and "Ed McBain." The first half, written by Hunter, was a character study. The second half, written by McBain, covered a murder investigation.

Hunter saw several of his works adapted as movies and for television, and he also wrote screenplays and teleplays. The Ed McBain short story "The Deadly Tatoo" was adapted for an episode of Climax in 1954. He also wrote two episodes for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hunter would later write episodes of both Ironside and Columbo, as well as adapting The Chisholms as a miniseries. Hunter broke into screenwriting with an adaptation of his novel Strangers When We Met in 1960. He would write the screenplay for The Birds and also worked on Marnie before Hitchcock abruptly replaced him.

Evan Hunter has been one of my favourite writers for many years. Indeed, as "Ed McBain" he was probably my sister's favourite writer of all time (I swear she has read every single 87th Precinct novel). Whether writing as Hunter, McBain, or another one of his many pen names, Evan Hunter had a gift for realistic characters. This can be seen in the 87th Precinct series, in which the detectives of the precinct are not simple cardboard cutouts, but complex characters with their own beliefs and motivations. Hunter also had a gift for creating realistic settings. In the 87th Precinct novels, the city of Isola (which is pretty much New York) is as much a character as any of the precinct. The strength of Hunter's settings can also be seen in his other works, from The Blackboard Jungle to The Chisholms.

I must say that I am truly saddened by Evan Hunter's death. He was one of the best and most prolific writers of the late 20th Century. His work has had a lasting impact. The 87th Precinct series helped shape the police procedural genre. The Blackboard Jungle brought new levels of realism to the portrayal of youth in fiction. Evan Hunter has had a lasting influence that only a few of his contemporaries can boast.

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