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Evan Hunter 1926–
(Born S. A. Lombino; also writes under pseudonym of Ed McBain; has also written under pseudonyms of Curt Cannon, Hunt Collins, and Richard Marsten) American novelist, scriptwriter, short story writer, dramatist, and critic.
Hunter's works of popular fiction explore such family-oriented topics as parent-child relationships, love, and individual responsibility and such social issues as drug abuse, gang violence, and war. Under the pseudonym Ed McBain, Hunter is widely known for his realistic crime novels that center on a fictional urban police precinct. Although Hunter has maintained a large and faithful readership throughout his career, his work has yet to receive much serious critical attention.
Hunter published many short stories and science fiction works early in his career, but The Blackboard Jungle (1954) earned him his initial critical attention. This novel is based on Hunter's own experiences as an English teacher in a New York City vocational high school. The protagonist is a young, idealistic teacher whose enthusiasm is nearly turned to apathy by the indifferent attitude and lack of motivation of his students. The popular success of The Blackboard Jungle, still considered by some critics to be Hunter's finest work, helped foster greater understanding of the problems of teenage delinquency. The novel was adapted for film in 1955. In Sons (1969), another critically acclaimed novel, both world wars and the Vietnam conflict affect three generations of a midwestern American family. Critics contend that Hunter's depiction of America's rise to power—and the consequences of obtaining such power—evokes a poignant sense of history. In Streets of Gold (1974), another multi-generational novel, Hunter's narrative is focused on an Italian immigrant family and their search for the American dream at the expense of their old-world values. Although some critics noted an abundance of clichés and stock situations in this work, others found Streets of Gold rich in moralistic themes and praised Hunter's ironic depiction of happiness and prosperity in America.
Some critics maintain that Hunter has written his best fiction as Ed McBain. His series of detective novels, collectively titled The 87th Precinct Series, are commended for their authentic portrayal of urban crime prevention. Although there are recurring characters in these novels, most critics consider the precinct itself to be the most recognizable feature of the series. Another notable aspect of these books is the absence of the stereotyped detective common in crime fiction; unlike most other detectives, Hunter's investigators exhibit basic human traits and frailties. Although some critics view the later McBain novels as marginal in comparison to the earlier works, chiefly because they revolve around sensational sex crimes and grisly murders, Hunter is considered one of the most creative and original writers in the genre.
(See also CLC, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vol. 25; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)
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Evan Hunter's "The Blackboard Jungle" is the most realistic account I have ever read of life in a New York City vocational high school. I can testify to its accuracy, having had some years of experience in one of them, as has Mr. Hunter. His novel more than matches the sensations in some of the stories we have seen recently, in newspapers that have become happily school-conscious. But it is free of their distortions and dishonesty; it makes no easy moral assumptions nor does it arrive at righteous judgments. Mr. Hunter's North Manual Trades High—it is fairly typical—is a complex organism, the resultant of many forces, economic facts, social emotions, hostilities, suspicions. It can, if it is not to be considered irreparable, be handled only with understanding, courage, in the last analysis, humanity. Nothing else will work. You won't find that in the newspaper accounts, but it is here, implicitly stated in Mr. Hunter's story, and Richard Dadier, the young teacher, is a human and spirited embodiment of that statement.
Dadier's history as we read it covers one term, five months, of teaching in his new job at North Trades. It should be said at once that Mr. Hunter has telescoped a vast body of material into that five months. Nobody ever experienced so much, learned so much in one term of teaching. The alternative, of course, would be a longer and less integrated document, and I am willing to accept this telescoping as a necessary device. Otherwise Dadier's history is incontrovertible. If you have been teaching in a vocational high school for four years, all of this has happened to you, or your neighbor. You have been greeted with, "Hey, teach'!" You have set down some requirements and been told, "Dig that cat, he's playin' it hard," or "Teach', you ever try to fight thirty-five guys at once?" You have faced the cold war in the classroom, and sometimes the hot war in the stairwells or outside the school on a dark night. You have seen the offerings you made riotously rejected—the phonograph records broken, the pictures delaced, the windows and blackboards cracked. And you have had to face a boy with a knife. (pp. 16-17)
There is no happy ending. This very lesson is followed by a vicious experience with Artie West, the blind antagonist, the kid with the knife that you read about. But the whole picture is here, every element of it. Mr. Hunter has been particularly good with his portraits of the faculty and, even more, the pupils. Most memorable is the Negro boy, Gregory Miller, himself so complex a figure. (p. 17)
Nathan Rothman, "Cold-War Class," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XXXVII, No. 41, October 9, 1954, pp. 16-17.
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"The Blackboard Jungle" is that rare combination—a problem novel in which both the problem and the novel are intensely interesting and in which both elements are blended so skillfully as to be inseparable.
Evan Hunter's problem is New York vocational schools, where, as he presents it, all the students who are not intelligent enough to qualify for academic high schools are shunted by the city. The author, who has himself taught in one of these schools, gives a shocking picture of dullness, profanity, disrespect and violence among both the students and the faculty. "This is the garbage can of the educational system," one of the older teachers told Richard Dadier during his first day's work as an English teacher at the North Manual Trades High School. "And you want to know what our job is? Our job is to sit on the lid of the garbage can and see that none of the filth overflows into the streets."
Dadier didn't believe him. He wanted to teach….
The novel concerns his first term, his testing period, and what it did to him, his wife and his students. Before the term is over he has been able to evaluate the cynicism of the faculty expressed daily in the lunchroom. He has been beaten, tricked, badgered. He has played the buffoon, the actor, the taskmaster in an effort to reach his students. He has despaired and seen his friends give up and quit. He has hated the boys and has had a deadly fight with a student who pulled a knife on him. He has had the satisfaction of working with eager students in a school play and the bafflement of seeing the same students become his adversaries again in class. He has seen one student emerge from the "garbage can," and, at last, in one period with one class he has penetrated the children's indifference, and won their participation.
These undramatic victories, more than the violence, more than Dadier's moving relationship with his pregnant wife, are the climax of the story. That the reader is intensely moved by a high school English class' response to their teacher is a tribute to Evan Hunter's skill as a writer. For the author has not used his shocking material merely to appall. With a superb ear for conversation, with competence as a storyteller, and with a tolerant and tough-minded sympathy for his subject, he has built an extremely good novel!
Barbara Klaw, "Garbage Can of the Schools," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, October 17, 1954, p. 4.
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The good surface realism of "The Blackboard Jungle" hides its lack of depth. Hunter lays to rest for all time the notion that high-school teaching is simply a white-collar job with "short hours and long vacations." Education, for thousands of boys in New York City, is often a violent hypocrisy, prime examples of which are the "trade schools" set up as depositories for the unmanageables of the academic school system.
The original reason for establishing these schools was sound enough: adolescents who could not, for a variety of psychological and social reasons, profit from academic education should be given the opportunity to learn useful skills. But the schools swiftly degenerated. Relegated to the oldest buildings and poorest neighborhoods, they became the Siberia of the educational system for teachers and students alike, and the inevitable result was self-perpetuating violence and cynicism.
Evan Hunter breaks through the verbiage which has long clouded the facts of vocational teaching with his story of a young man who tries to extract meaning and hope from this educational underworld. It is true that he makes only cursory attempts to probe the well-springs of the action he photographs so well, but he succeeds in dramatizing an area heretofore neglected in fiction. (pp. 493-94)
Stanley Cooperman, "Violence in Harlem," in The Nation, Vol. 179, No. 23, December 4, 1954, pp. 493-94.∗
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In its simplest terms, "Second Ending" covers the step-by-step disintegration of a trumpet player named Andy Silvera who has become a hopeless hophead. The theme is what happened and how, not the why. Now in his last days, Andy is full of promises to kick the habit and get back in shape for a job audition. Alternating between exultation and despair, emotional anguish and abnormal lucidity, his is a tortured soul….
Any reader whose personal experience has touched the arena where drugs and music come together will soon accept the clinical, fascinating truth of Mr. Hunter's details. This truth extends beyond the authentic jargon of jive talk or addict talk to the overwhelming human tragedy looming high above. And it is heightened by the author's compassion for these victims of too much love of living who still register upon each other as accountable human beings long after society has filed them away as problems. At the closing brutal scene, one is reminded again that individuals can climb or they can sink, with freedom of choice sometimes lost to circumstances: "When you are dead, there is nothing but heroin. There's a big H written across the sky, and that's all there is. H, and it doesn't stand for heroin, it stands for Hell."
"Second Ending" (like Mr. Hunter's earlier, hotly debated novel, "The Blackboard Jungle") could be called a tour de force, since its significance does not interfere with its impact as entertainment…. If Mr. Hunter sometimes shows a notable lack of restraint in his use of bravissimo and florid periods, most onlookers will still agree that this second novel was very much worth doing and that he did it well.
James Kelly, "H Stands for Hell," in The New York Times Book Review, January 8, 1956, p. 27.
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[In "Second Ending" there] is nothing stereotyped or simply sensational in Hunter's portrait of the trumpet player Andy Sivera. It is a very human and moving achievement. When he comes for aid to the apartment of his old jazz band associate Bud Donato, who is now boning up for examinations at the College of the City of New York, the trumpeter talks of curing himself by the agonizing method he knows as "cold turkey" (stopping at once, no tapering off). Hunter almost immediately manages to suggest that this is very unlikely in Silvera's case. It proves all of that, despite the efforts of that harassed college boy and of two young women, one of whom has herself conquered heroin. The account of Sivera's final descent is extremely dramatic, and Hunter intersperses long flashbacks revealing the past history of his characters.
His success with his chilling themes is all the more remarkable because he is in many ways an awkward and overblown writer. But he has a great deal of rude power, a sensitive feeling for such matters as adolescent love in the drab streets and neighborhood social clubs of Brooklyn, and a galvanic way with passages in which people oppose each other at the pitch of mutual desperation. The reader is not likely to forget such scenes as that in which Donato chases Silvera, re-equipped with a hypodermic, through the streets of New York, or the book's most searing episode when the all-demanding addict turns on Donato and accuses him of failure in the deepest obligations of old friendship. The wretched Donato is made to feel guilty for his own struggles toward stability and education.
Wilder Hobson, "Hot Music and Cold Turkey," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, January 15, 1956, p. 8.
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With an abundance of compassion and clinical detail, [Hunter, in "Strangers When We Meet",]… has traced a year of tragic adultery by Larry Cole, thirty-one, free-lance architect, and Maggie Gault, twenty-seven, free-lance housewife….
Doggedly realistic most of the way, Hunter gives the whole book an oddly moralistic tone by plunging into a cloudy compound of philosophy and symbolism for his climactic sequence. Finally forced to decide between Maggie and his wife, Larry drives wildly through a shrieking tropical storm lashing New York. He broods on the meaning of his moments with Maggie. Was sex just "a sure thing in a world of uncertainties, an accomplishment in the world of unrealized dreams and frustrated goals?" Or was this affair an escape into a glamorous adolescent concept of romance?
This is the man's story, Larry's story. It is his undoing, his tragedy in his first and last experiment in infidelity. For Maggie, life must go on, but it cannot go on with her husband alone.
Robert C. Healey, "An Infidelity in Suburbia," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, July 20, 1958, p. 5.
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It was inevitable that Evan Hunter would turn his attention to the suburban development jungle. In his earlier novels problem and background were given equal attention—one seemed to grow out of the other. [In Strangers When We Meet] background is merely backdrop; the problem is everything. The predicament of the unfaithful husband occupies these 375 pages of shrill insistence. Perhaps a tract against lust is indeed intended. Still, there is such a ruthless portrayal of the stark realities of the problem that the moral fulcrum is lacking. The best indication of the spiritual poverty in the world Mr. Hunter displays here is that only a deus ex machina … solves the protagonist's dilemma….
Mr. Hunter is serious, strident, and terribly flat in an intended case history which, this time, does not at all come off.
Riley Hughes, in a review of "Strangers When We Meet," in Catholic World, Vol. 187, No. 1121, August, 1958, p. 391.
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["A Matter of Conviction" seems] intended, by both author and publisher, as a serious mainstream novel; and I hate to report that Hunter's commercial and pseudonymous paperbacks, especially those by "Ed McBain," are more satisfactory by any serious standards. The present book starts off well with a blunt account of a teen-gang killing in Harlem; but most of the novel is devoted to the agonizing of Harlem-born assistant D.A. Henry Bell, who must prosecute the case. The coincidences and improbabilities which arise to torment him might be tolerated in soap operas and the subtlety, validity and originality of his social thinking might just about do for that medium. But even the most credulous television audience, trained by now in court procedure, should find the climactic trial scene absurd.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "A Matter of Conviction," in The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1959, p. 27.
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["Til Death" is] the ninth of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories and as good as any of them. Its perturbation for Steve Carella is a threat sent to his brother-in-law on the day of his wedding. McBain's manipulation of a split-narrative mode in tracing the subsequent excitements is nimble, and although he has taken an easy-chancey way out plotwise to justify the multiple thrills, they seem genuine enough at the time and to a lot of people he has made us suitably worried about.
James Sandoe, in a review of "Til Death," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 20, 1959, p. 15.
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Ed McBain's "Til Death" … nobly upholds the traditions of the 87th Precinct: it is a fresh, human, humorous, exciting novel about a vivid and unusual situation—in this case a series of attempts to erase the bridegroom during a wedding and the following reception…. McBain tells a fine suspense story (despite one coincidence too many for purists) while giving an almost anthropological report on an American folk institution.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "Til Death," in The New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1959, p. 26.
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[In "King's Ransom"] here am I once more saying, "McBain has done it again."
Praise of a consistently admirable performer must get monotonous and even boring. If you're tired of reading here about McBain, the best remedy is simply to drop this paper and start in reading the book itself. This one's about a kidnaping, with quite a number of fresh variations on the Big Snatch theme. It's as immediate and convincing as any of the 87th precinct tales, and a little more (in the best sense) theatrical than most. The book is powerful and compelling; and one looks forward to a dramatic version that might be even more so.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "King's Ransom," in The New York Times Book Review, December 6, 1959, p. 42.
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In Ed McBain's 87th Precinct when you "Give the Boys a Great Big Hand" … it's human, of course, and turns up in a small suitcase without the rest of the body. The inquiry that follows makes for as good a tale as any McBain has spun in his lively, lengthening series. The mode is procedural and the company includes, of course, a number of old acquaintances including Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes…. The precinct, the city, some curiously contradictory evidence about a stripteaser, an episode in a crowded men's shop, a garrulous landlady are all elements in a muscular, laconic tale, the tenth item in a valuable account.
James Sandoe, in a review of "Give the Boys a Great Big Hand," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, March 27, 1960, p. 11.
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["The Heckler" tells] how the boys of the Eighty-seventh Precinct worked vigorously and valiantly—and failed to prevent or to punish a singularly daring crime which laid waste a large part of the city…. Despite a number of promising leads, the precinct cops never quite reached [the criminal] (our good friend Steve Carella getting himself nearly killed in the final flight and pursuit.)… Fortunately, the Eighty-seventh is so warmly established in our affections by now that we can find an account of such frustration as fascinating as any of their triumphs, especially when it is told with all McBain's gift for easy naturalism and vivid color.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "The Heckler," in The New York Times Book Review, July 31, 1960, p. 23.
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McBain, fortunately, is not concerned with writing according to the McBain formula, and can sometimes depart from it almost entirely. This latest ["See Them Die"] is not a detective exploit of the 87th Precinct, but something close to a straight novel about life in the precinct, in which the police are among the characters. A bigtime Puerto Rican hood, half-despised, half-idolized by his compatriots, is hiding out from the law. The spectacular police siege of his hideaway serves as dramatic focus for a number of other plots, including an oddly realistic love story and an attempted teen-age killing. The action is tight-packed into a couple of sharply illuminating hours.
Anthony Boucher, in a review of "See Them Die," in The New York Times Book Review, December 11, 1960, p. 40.
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Evan Hunter is a man of many talents and many names. As Ed McBain, he is writing the most authentic squad-room thrillers since Sidney Kingsley researched "Detective Story." You may have read him as Richard Marsten. A couple of other aliases tag his science-fiction and paperback and pulp output. Under the parent name, Evan Hunter, he has written what he must consider his serious novels … "The Blackboard Jungle," "Second Ending," "Strangers When We Meet" and "A Matter of Conviction."
Whether he is writing the whodunit, the potboiler, the pulp or the serious novel, he is a thoroughly professional writer: a "pro." His style has drive, pace, tempo and authenticity.
All of these virtues are apparent in his newest, "Mothers and Daughters." There is, however, something more. "Mothers and Daughters" is a panoramic novel, covering a span of slightly more than ten years and a multiple cast of characters. The two pivotal characters are Amanda and Gillian, roommates at a Connecticut college….
The recurring theme of the novel is the difficulty of one generation to communicate with and understand the other. The specifics include a long and candid description of a love affair in a cold-water tenement on the fringes of Greenwich Village: the adulterous romance of a Connecticut matron and an Italian soldier in Rome: the clinical details of insanity: the suicide of a man who discovers his wife's infidelity, and always—the gulf between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.
If there is an occasional touch of melodrama and predictability about the book, life itself is not immune from the same failing.
"Mothers and Daughters" is in the best sense of the phrase, a women's book. It is a book basically about women, told with insight, understanding and compassion. The people of Evan Hunter's novel are three-dimensional human beings, fighting that most vital of all battles, the battle to know, see, touch, and understand each other.
It is a first-rate piece of fiction.
Al Morgan, "Gulf Between Generations," in Lively Arts and Book Review, May 21, 1961, p. 28.
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Mothers and daughters who manage to speak to each other without the urge to kill are going to love this novel because it will make them feel so good.
If you can believe Evan Hunter, there can't be many mothers and daughters who enjoy what we like to think of as a normal, happy relationship. Indeed, he wasn't able to find any, and ["Mothers and Daughters"] is a ghastly parade of intolerably messed up people with tormented psyches and quivering ids.
Incidentally, the title is woefully incomplete. It would have been closer to the mark if it had been "Mothers and Daughters and Sons and Husbands and Assorted Slobs," or something of the sort….
The novel covers 20 years up to about the present, and after three evenings of wallowing in it I was beginning to fear it would take me 20 years to finish it. Hunter goes into the television rat race, and the Broadway theater rat race, and the Hollywood rat race, and the rat race period.
He runs in some fine background stuff on World War II and the decade following it, but most of it is lost in the purgatory of his story.
One of these days Hunter is going to have to crawl out of that hole in which he has been operating. If the shock of seeing sunlight doesn't undo him, I think he is going to write a novel that doesn't leave you in need of a hot bath.
Victor P. Hass, "Tormented Psyches and Quivering Ids," in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, May 28, 1961, p. 3.
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Although it gets off to a slow start, "Paper Dragon" does develop into a quite interesting story of a five-day plagiarism trial. As a novel, though, there are shortcomings which do not permit me to give unqualified praise, although the author is consistent within his own style of presentation. Evan Hunter is an extremely prolific writer who has turned out six novels under his own name, as well as many pseudonymous works and short stories. Perhaps the best known of these is the "Blackboard Jungle." As is perhaps typical with a consistent producer of fiction, acclaim has been spotty. Hunter's books have been appraised alternately as authentically powerful, melodramatic, cliché ridden. "Paper Dragon" has elements of the three.
Set in the New York pre-Christmas season, the direct action takes place in a courtroom on Foley Square. But in the manner of many other courtroom dramas, the character development takes place through flashback and, as the book develops, out of court. Particularly at first, the flashbacks are onerous and irritating; the author seems to be begging the question of creating three-dimensional characters by amassing mere detail…. Much of this is almost insufferably banal. Yet at the final analysis, the bombardment of verbiage has given "roots" to the principals. Some of the stream of consciousness work is excellent.
Although the plot appears at first to have predictable knights and villains, there is a skillful deepening of character and concomitant plot ambivalence. Arthur Constantine is the plaintiff, a man driven to fight the spectre which threatens his creative self. He has brought suit against James Driscoll who has published the lauded novel "Paper Dragon" which Arthur is fully convinced has been substantially pirated from his earlier play "Catchpole." The author has tackled a demanding theme for in a certain sense this is a novel about a novel. The "Paper Dragon" is at the same time Driscoll's (Constantine's?) creation, and Evan Hunter's. Throughout most of the book, the sense of artistic involvement is most keenly felt through Arthur Constantine. (pp. 259-60)
As the trial progresses, what might have been a matter of black and white takes on many hues of gray. Doubts and suspicions gather on all sides, as plaintiff and defendant seesaw back and forth on every aspect of the two works. The protagonists are all creatures of fate—as much so as Arthur Constantine. Sidney Brackman is the not so successful lawyer whose origins are a Lower East Side childhood and Harvard, who now waits anxiously on the answer of Chickie Brown, travel agent, fourteen years his junior, to a proposal of marriage. Jonah Willow, lawyer for the defense, whose very perfect marriage to Christie Dunseath has ended in failure, is weary of successful cases. There is James Driscoll, and his wife Ebie, whose tortured past holds the key to the resolution of the trial. In the web of these tangled lives lies a cross-section of the whole 20th century American experience. It is a frank, brutal, dog-eat-dog world. Unfortunately, passion has taken second place to sex in that world—and, particularly in the flashbacks, there are descriptions of sexual awareness which are nothing less than crude. But others are nothing less than poetic….
Before Judge McIntyre produces his written decision, which comprises a sort of appendix to the book, the skeins of evidence and counterevidence have been disentangled. But, unlike an earlier book of his about a trial, "Matter of Conviction," Hunter has not tamely adjusted the plot to reach a happy ending. It ends bitterly as Arthur Constantine, beleaguered on all sides by script writers and directors, and faced with a fairly inevitable judicial decision, compromises his new play, and his fiercely defended artistic selfhood. (p. 260)
Anne Keehan, in a review of "Paper Dragon," in Best Sellers, Vol. 26, No. 14, October 15, 1966, pp. 259-60.
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Grant that the designation is ours rather than the author's or publisher's—[A Horse's Head] is a light comedy of male menopause. It would make a fine movie vehicle, motor-governed to Jack Lemmon's speed and it's lots lighter and brighter than Hunter's big sellers that went to Hollywood—The Blackboard Jungle and Strangers When We Meet. It's all about the killingly scheduled hours in the life of Mullaney who was standing on the corner of 14th Street down to his last few cents, with a hot tip on a horse called Jawbone and no place to raise the money for a bet, when along comes this limousine … Mullaney had been abducted by a Mafia-esque mob that needed a stand-in for a corpse. From there on it's hairsbreadth chase and escape through Manhattan and environs for over 48 hours…. [Mullaney] gets chased right into middle-age. You kind of hate to see him go.
A review of "A Horse's Head," in Kirkus Service, Vol. XXXV, No. 8, April 15, 1967, p. 524.
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[A Horse's Head] is a lively, fast-moving tale of big-time robbery in New York City recounted by the innocent victim of an abortive plot to spirit the loot out of the country with a genuine corpse. Instead of becoming the corpse, the narrator has two days of whirlwind chases and hair-breadth escapes from Newark to the lower East Side to the Bronx to the Aqueduct race track…. In the end, when the harassed narrator, who is in fact a book salesman on a year's gambling junket, gets trapped by the crooks, he tosses in his chips and goes back to the loving wife he deserted to make a killing with the big-time gamblers. He is a sort of poor man's James Bond character, and Mr. Hunter combines features of O. Henry, James Thurber, James Joyce, and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." This book has unusual literary quality for a light-hearted thriller.
Frank N. Jones, in a review of "A Horse's Head," in Library Journal, Vol. 92, No. 16, September 15, 1967, p. 3056.
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[Last Summer is a] slow-building but compelling story that begins innocently enough with an idyll involving three bright and funny young people—two teenage boys and a girl just turned sixteen—and a seagull on a summer-resort seashore island. The shocking end of that episode should prepare one a little, though not entirely, for what comes later when a new girl joins the three. It is an unforgettable—and highly sophisticated—story, for all its apparent simplicity, of young love and explosive violence, which tells as much about the moderately rich, pleasure-seeking, middle-class adult life that shaped them as it does about the young themselves. It's not a pretty story but once started on it I don't think anyone will leave it unfinished.
Katherine Gauss Jackson, in a review of "Last Summer," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 236, No. 1417, June, 1968, p. 94.
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Novels of any real significance are rare these days. The role of the artist, or the poet, or the novelist as a social commentator doesn't seem to be appreciated. The most effective and the most trenchant comment has often been the least "acceptable" to the "establishment". "Sons" can be an important exception to this observation since it is a powerful novel that says something about the chronic problems that retard the pursuit of the American Dream. Evan Hunter, who has previously enlightened darkened corners of our society in such novels as "The Blackboard Jungle," has now put together an outstanding new work that examines some of our problems as they have appeared to three generations of an American family. (pp. 185-86)
What we actually have in "Sons" is a panorama of major events of three decades of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of the young. Bert, the grandfather, faces the horrors of World War I, the hardships of post-war readjustment, the joys and trials of love, the injustice of the "Red Scare," and racial hatred. Will, the father, sees the glories, the fun-and-games, the pressures, the fears of a combat pilot in World War II, starts a race riot in Chicago while on leave, is strangely depressed when he leaves the challenge of combat and in a terrible moment of self-confrontation comes to the realization that he misses war. Wat, the son, goes to Yale, to Mississippi to try to assist voter registration, meets and falls in love with Dana Castelli in one of the most touching love stories of the year (told primarily through her letters), quits school and ends up in Vietnam.
Throughout this impressionistic mini-history of 20th century America the author catches the speech and character of the three generations of this century with great subtlety and captures the ethic and the ethos of the 'Teens, the Forties, and the Sixties with great skill.
Hunter does not try to solve the problems facing the three generations that his characters represent. What he does is to show the dilemmas of American life are viewed by one family with different experiences of the same problem. Like the proverbial blind men with the elephant, things seem much different to each. To be able, as Hunter does, to give us a look at both the blind men and the elephant is a major accomplishment….
"Sons" is an excellent novel-essay for our times. Let us hope that it helps stay its own dire view of the future. (p. 186)
John D. Foreman, in a review of "Sons," in Best Sellers, Vol. 29, No. 10, April 15, 1969, pp. 185-86.
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To read "Sons" is to read the just-published work of a serious novelist in a Joan Crawford movie. It covers thousands of miles and more than 60 years while unfolding the story of a 20th-century American family over three generations. But it is no mere rugged epic. It has an intellectual frame, like horn-rimmed glasses. Wat, Will and Bert Tyler take turns narrating the novel in the continuously repeated sequence of son, father, grandfather. This is meant to expose ironic twistings in the family line—and, or so one would have thought, differences between the narrators' voices. But the voices are one voice, and it belongs to one thousand writers. Its timbre is no less glib for being earnest as hell….
The Tylers' qualities are glued onto them because Evan Hunter wishes to show us what he supposes to be "typical" representatives of this century's generations in America. But for the typical to be convincing, they must first be specific. Hunter's types are designed for symmetry, not humanity.
Evan Hunter has an industrious research-eye. He knows what a Wisconsin town looked like early in the century, or a Mississippi Air Force base in 1944. He knows how many different kinds of things work, and the names and locations of many kinds of institutions.
As if it were also the result of diligent geographical research, his heart, too, is in the right place, which is to say on virtually everybody's moral map. An occasional scene in "Sons" is peculiar or intense, and thus absorbing, but for the most part there is so little to ponder in the behavior of Hunter's types, and so little mood in the film-clips of their environments, that the book moves at a steadily swift clip right up to the typewriter-bell of its painlessly tragic ending. The Story of Twentieth Century America from the Woods of Wisconsin to the Jungles of Vietnam is too small a subject for a novel without characters or ideas.
Richard P. Brickner, "From the Woods of Wisconsin to the Jungles of Vietnam," in The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1969, p. 54.
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Evan Hunter has a good sense of structure, he can write a lively scene with realistic dialogue, and he can keep a plot in motion; nevertheless, his "Nobody Knew They Were There" is curiously out of focus. It is a futuristic sort of book with only contemporary relevance and very poor projection, a realistic sort of parable that fails in realism though it has its moments of strength as a parable.
It starts off with a man about to blow up a bridge. He manages to project the image of fearless, practical secret agent but it is a fragile image. His co-conspirators, amateurish though they are, find him out rather quickly. They merely wanted him, in the time of the novel which is some few years from now, to kill the president and thus end oppression and war—the president is narrow, strong, and effective. The assassin thinks that the only practical way to kill the president will be to blow up his train at a point just outside the town where the plot is laid. Eventually, the blundering plotters discover that their soldier is not a professional killer but a lawyer who is using his partner's name, who knows nothing about dynamite or any other form of murder, but who wants revenge for the son he has lost in war….
Nobody has very much significance in this story and the wildly improbable plot is annoying. The America of the time is supposedly almost a police state and still, nobody knew they were there. Mr. Hunter has many failings, though he writes better than many novelists who have used more promising materials.
William B. Hill, S. J., in a review of "Nobody Knew They Were There," in Best Sellers, Vol. 30, No. 24, March 15, 1971, p. 536.
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"Streets of Gold," by Evan Hunter, is a novel which encircles the character Ignazio Silvio di Palermo who is also called Iggie, Ike, Blind Ike, and Dwight Jamison. This blind pianist was born in Harlem in 1926, one fourth of a century after his Italian grandfather emigrated from a little southern Italian village. He came, like so many others, in order to make his way on and over New York City's "gold paved" streets. The grandfather of this briefly idolized pianist wanted to return home; but Grandfather never managed to journey home to his beloved and often-dreamed-of Italy. He married Teresa and what with the many years and all the babies—along with her family that naturally became his own—La Vicinanza evolved into a close-knit neighborhood in New York City.
Ike, born blind, grew up in a tight and lusty world. The old man's love, Ike's mother with all of her volatility, the large number of relatives, huge eating bouts weekly, the discovery of women, the excitement of music along with his natural talent, help dot the book with some interesting asides and pictures.
It is some while later that Ike discovers jazz, and somehow—by doggedness and a burning desire to play that art form—he forces his career onto the very famous 52nd street. A career with some good fortune and an appreciable amount of brilliance move Ike up among the greats of his time.
[The] "great American Dream" comes true beyond all of the most extensive dreams or expectations of his grandfather. It is all much too American and much too sentimental to take seriously, even for the author himself. It is, however, reported with as much sincerity as one who is faced with relating such a sugary plot can muster.
Yet the work suffers from other frailties than these very few. One supposes that with a bit of polishing of the language and the elimination of some of the raunchy details, one might get the entire soapy story onto a mid-afternoon serial with some detergent as a willing sponsor….
Evan Hunter, who manages to use the novel form with more freedom than skill, belabors not only a somewhat fictitious tale but a sketchily biographical one. His style is crude rather than candid, harsh rather than honest, loose rather than lyrical. Upon declaring his own blindness the author skirts by many opportunities to observe some most profound states of being. He understates some of the attitudes towards blindness from both the sighted man's point of view as well as from his own. He does not seem to be able to handle the many ironies of blindness, the metaphysical twists, the double levels of meaning, the slanted truths and the imposing myths, the distant awkwardness of those who see and fear blindness, and the tender understanding that often intrudes into the somewhat remote state. He misinterprets—often misleads the reader concerning—the anxieties and the social intercourse that result from the condition of blindness when it comes face to face with the world which sees most and thinks little. Somehow he fails to investigate the loss of perception and the gain of insight that must accompany the transcendental nature of blindness.
I find the book arduous to read. It suffers from its inadequate message and a frightening delight in trying to titillate. I fear that the sexy sections are not even amusing to say nothing of their lack of attraction. Perhaps this book will sell, but so did Edgar Guest.
Louis D. Mitchell, in a review of "Streets of Gold," in Best Sellers, Vol. 34, No. 16, November 15, 1974, p. 369.
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McBain's forte is his ability to evoke the atmosphere of big-city streets and the workaday world of a police squadroom. In Bread …, the familiar faces of the 87th Precinct are investigating arson in a fire that gutted a warehouse jammed with a half-million dollars worth of miniature wooden animals. This lilliputian menagerie leads to a tale of greed, double-dealing, a real estate firm and love nest in the black ghetto, and some very unpleasant characters and facts…. McBain not only solves an exciting case but, as always, captures a feeling for the problems of everyday law enforcement on the streets.
Jean M. White, "The Case of the Cornflake Crunch," in Book World—The Washington Post, November 17, 1974, p. 4.∗
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["Streets of Gold" is a] pop epic that takes the form of a family history and autobiography by Iggie Di Palermo—in later years known as Dwight Jamison—a blind jazz pianist who rises from a New York slum and attains stardom briefly in the fifties and sixties…. At times, Iggie speaks of the confusion of someone who has exchanged his ethnic past for an Anglicized "American" illusion; since Mr. Hunter is also of Italian blood, the book can be read as a disguised search for the author's own roots. The scenes of tenement life are warm, witty, and accurate-sounding, yet tend toward coarseness and violence…. When we come to Iggie's decline, which hinges on a bit of standard adultery, the familiarity of his story becomes really depressing. Yet much of the book has a definite personal stamp, and its evocations of jazz—of a "jump into water that's icy cold and deep"—are pleasant.
A review of "Streets of Gold," in The New Yorker, Vol. L, No. 47, January 13, 1975, pp. 90, 93.
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The country may not be exactly drooling with hunger for another novel about "Westering," but Evan Hunter, in his 17th book ["The Chisholms"], evokes some freshness from the tritest materials and focuses our concern on complex, often perverse, human beings rather than on the vacuous panoramic vista that too often dominates this genre. When the Chisholm family pull out of barren Virginia in 1844 and head doggedly for the promised land, they do not automatically become archetypes, rendered featureless by the author's grim determination to make some Big Statement about the pioneering spirit of our hardy forefathers or how Noble Women Helped to Win the West. (p. 42)
This family may be the center of the action, but the action itself is familiar if not hackneyed by now. "The Chisholms" contains just about every standard ingredient of frontier narrative: a buffalo stampede, river crossings, Indian raids, saloon whores, horse theft, hanging of horse thief, scalping, childbirth, gang rape, seductions, murder, tongue removal by knife. But Mr. Hunter still plays fair by judicious proportioning: the buffalo gallop for only a few paragraphs, the gang rape occupies only four sentences, the saloon whores are only local-color bits. The stripped narrative line is one of Hunter's prime virtues, so that when he decides not to cut short an action—the harrowing Indian raid on the isolated family, the tonal mixture of comedy and horror when the rather charming horse thief is hanged—he has truly earned his license. (p. 43)
James R. Frakes, in a review of "The Chisholms," in The New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1976, pp. 42-3.
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The first of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories, "Cop Hater," appeared in 1956, and for a while he published two or three tales about the Precinct each year…. Mr. McBain did not invent the police procedural story, in which the investigation of a crime is shown as it is handled by a police department, but his books are among the best in the field.
This is chiefly because Mr. McBain has succeeded in making his detectives distinct individuals. Steve Carella, who appears most frequently, marries the beautiful deaf and mute Teddy in "Cop Hater." Cotton Hawes, who has a white streak in his hair and was named for Cotton Mather, plays the feminine field; Meyer Meyer had a father who thought the double name would be a good Jewish joke; Arthur Brown is that color; Bert Kling is young and impressionable. The author skillfully avoids making them stereotypes, and he avoids also the pietism about the police that marred John Creasey's Gideon books by introducing some rogue cops like the sadistic Roger Havilland (killed off in an early book), Andy Parker and the fat, unsavory Ollie Weeks of the 83rd Precinct.
Though Mr. McBain offers a reasonably balanced view of what policemen are like, he is an entertainer, not a sociologist or social reformer. Any idea that these stories approach realistic accounts of police activity is well off the mark. One hopes that no detective's wife is as often in danger as beautiful Teddy Carella, and Mr. McBain feels the need to bring the private lives of several detectives rather intrusively into the books. No doubt as an entertainer he is perfectly right….
The 87th Precinct stories also offer the pleasures of much crisp, credible dialogue that is never too smart for its own good or our enjoyment, and some alert observation about the contemporary scene. "Calypso" exemplifies this aspect of the saga. A calypso singer is shot to death after a concert, a hooker is shot to death on the same night in another part of the city…. We know that the two crimes are connected, but Carella and Meyer are ignorant of it until they get this information from Ballistics. Perhaps half the McBain books offer a detective problem to be solved, but in this story we know all the things that Carella and Meyer are trying to find out.
We also understand early on that the plot's basic concern will be with sadomasochistic pornography, and its expression in actual rather than make-believe violence…. [Without] explicit moralizing, [McBain] shows what appalling things can happen when sadomasochistic games go wrong.
"Calypso" is admirable in its concision, in the sharpness of some images, in its awareness of contemporary language and attitudes…. This is a story that will not suit those who want a cozy read, and the plot has improbabilities that put it into the second class of 87th Precinct books, but the narrative grip and storytelling zest are still there. To have maintained those qualities through a series of more than 30 books, so that we are still eager to read a new story about Carella and his colleagues, is Ed McBain's principal achievement.
Julian Symons, "Procedure at the 87th Precinct," in The New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1979, p. 12.
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[Ghosts], Ed McBain's latest 87th Precinct mystery (the 34th), has a new twist for the many fans of this long-running police procedural series. Can you imagine Steve Carella, the hard-nosed cop experienced in the routine of tracking down criminals in a grimy big city, going off with a psychic to a New England haunted house?…
The spooky scene in an abandoned summer cottage (yes, Carella does see ghosts) is scary enough. Yet, it's a strange interlude. Carella and McBain are much more convincing on their big-city turf. In the end, it's slogging police work that turns up to the clues to the killer. Ghosts is middle-grade McBain but far superior to last year's Calypso with its kinky sadism.
Jean M. White, in a review of "Ghosts," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 18, 1980, p. 6.
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There's a high degree of magic in a novel when you now and then find yourself so acutely frustrated by the self-destructive behavior of a character in it that you want to grab him by the shoulders and shake sense into him. Or her. Nor is the frustration eased by your awareness that of course this behavior stems from the very nature of the character and has a terrible inevitability.
Evan Hunter's Love, Dad has that magic. A long book but never a dull one, it deals with a segment of comparatively recent social history—the upsurge of youth against the parental Establishment under the impetus of the Vietnam conflict—which even in retrospect has the power to hit a good many nerves.
The focus throughout is split between two members of a single family, the Crofts: father Jamie and teen-age daughter Lissie. The period covered extends from 1968 through 1971, but the final chapter carries us in one leap to the present and provides us with a marvelously ironic epiphany toward which the story has been moving from its opening lines….
The novel's title is very much part of the story. Jamie Croft, an attractive and talented young man, quintessentially middle-class with an eye toward upward mobility, marries a girl just out of school. She envisions a partnership where each will move into successful careers and, when the logical time comes, will share in the bringing up of a family. She conceives a child almost immediately however, and that, to all intents and purposes, destroys her dream, turns her into a resentful housewife who never forgives her husband for this betrayal and for the huge success he does eventually achieve as a photographer-journalist….
Jamie, however, with a fund of affection to offer, finds an outlet for it in daughter Lissie. Is there a suggestion of incest here as the girl emerges into her late teens? Hunter touches on this Freudian cliche and wisely moves on, choosing to deal only with what Jamie knows about himself, never mind the unverifiable unconscious. As for golden girl Lissie, we first come to know her in depth and breadth in that troubled year 1968 when she's about to graduate from one of those traditionalist boarding schools which, rowing hard against the prevailing current, is still trying to maintain some semblance of scholastic and moral standards.
From there on, through alternating views of father and daughter, we watch Jamie more and more futilely struggle to impose on his daughter his concern for her, while Lissie inches her way into the disorderly ranks of that youthful host now raising its psychedelic banners on the far side of the generation gap. The transition from golden girl to hippie, partly accidental, partly wilful, is very soon complete, and what Jamie finds himself contending with is a daughter on the verge of maturity who is totally immature, self-righteous, disingenuously exploitative and, like the company she keeps, stoned more often than not. Sliding out of daddy's reach, she makes the requisite hegira from Amsterdam southeast through Europe and Asia to India, promised land of cheap and plentiful pot and hash, circles back to her homeland—Jamie's money paying her way—to take up with male company that brutally exploits her, all the while followed by her father's pathetic letters making frightened inquiries, assuring unshakable love.
That love, turned against him, becomes her ultimate weapon in her undeclared war on him; her ultimate triumph comes when Jamie, having at last found the right woman to share life with, divorces his wife, and Lissie can now impale him with the charge that he has cruelly betrayed her mother.
So in wholly human terms we have here a microcosm of a whole period of social history now fast receding into the distance, as Hunter's last chapter sharply reminds us. It all adds up to an exceptionally rewarding and entertaining novel.
Stanley Ellin, "Daughter of the Revolution," in Book World—The Washington Post, March 29, 1981, p. 5.
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Born "Lombino" in New York City in 1926, Evan Hunter, under that pseudonym and the further noms de plume of Hunt Collins, Richard Marsten and Ed McBain, has published upward of 60 books of fiction since 1952, which should make him one of America's most prolific authors over the past 30 years. Lately, without greatly affecting production, Marsten and Collins have dropped from the picture. But in the banner year of 1956, all four were represented, McBain weighing in with three thrillers and Hunter contributing a collection of stories as well as a novel, for a total of seven full-length works.
One could more easily accept this kind of productivity from pornographers or pulp writers, but Mr. Hunter is neither. A number of his books, notably "Last Summer" (1968), have been well received, and his 1954 novel, "The Blackboard Jungle," was turned into what has become something of a film classic. (A master of swift, smart dialogue, Mr. Hunter himself penned the screenplay for Hitchcock's 1963 movie, "The Birds.") While his fiction has been called "aggressively topical," he has also been praised over the years for his professionalism and versatility, and Ed McBain's "87th Precinct Series" of gory detective novels has a loyal following. It does not appear, therefore, that awesome speed of composition necessarily entails a sacrifice in quality; and (here to let the matter rest) the judgment that some of his books are better than others can also be passed on the perpetrator of only 10 novels, or a mere five, or a pair.
In "Love, Dad," however, something seems to have come loose at the seams. As the story opens, professional photographer and doting father Jamie Croft is mounting a retrospective of his daughter Lissie's life, in his own living room, in celebration of her 17th birthday…. Melissa (or Lissie) discovers him at the task, is touched, and they have a tearful loving scene. The year is 1968; the family has moved recently to a converted sawmill in Connecticut, largely to satisfy Jamie's wife, Connie. It soon becomes apparent that Jamie is not overly fond of Connie, in part because she speaks in a "Vassar voice," and uses obscenities without much élan. But there are more substantial difficulties—their conjugal relations are in a poor way, and in one of the many bits of sexual business Mr. Hunter is adept at rendering, Jamie brings himself imaginatively to climax, following a longish scene in which his wife seems to offer, then withdraws, her favors.
By the time 1971 rolls around, Jamie has abandoned Connie for a beautiful young flutist named Joanna Berkowitz who appears to be afflicted, or blessed, with multiple personalities (one, for example, is "Jewish," another is "musical"), and who seems to want to talk interminably about her various lives, or about, less charitably, the sundry elements of her character the author has failed to knit together. Also by 1971 Jamie will have finally renounced Melissa, his beloved and only child, who has grown into a creature of consummate obnoxiousness: liar, fishwife, thief, addict, a will-o'-the-wisp moral cipher (self-described as a "hippie"). Mr. Hunter appears to want us to hold "the sixties" responsible for her behavior, rather than her upbringing or character….
Along the way, Mr. Hunter, through Jamie, shares his thoughts on literary cocktail parties on the Vineyard, takes swipes at shrinks, digs away at the flabbiness of suburban living; none of the observations seem particularly off the mark, but they're like items crammed into an overflowing portmanteau. There is, as the title implies, an epistolary novel, and a good one, scattered through the book; there is a short book (if we need yet another) analyzing "the sixties"; a thoughtful novella on a jaded marriage; an essay (perhaps to be called "So It Goes") on the odd inequities of the literary life in America; there is an Asian travelogue …; even a still-born detective novel.
"Love, Dad," in sum, is thin gruel, a never-boring hybrid of genres. Mr. Hunter is a serious and honorable writer trying to entertain us, and also trying to tell us, now and again, some useful things about our lives. If his enterprise has here sprung a leak, we should not, on the evidence, have to wait long for repairs.
Ivan Gold, "Family Relations," in The New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1981, p. 14.
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[Heat] demonstrates why McBain, even when he is not at the top of his form, still writes the best American police procedurals.
The McBain hallmarks are there: dogged police leg-work, crisp dialogue, Q. and A. transcripts with the ring of authenticity, detectives who have become human beings with personal lives, victims and murderers lifted full-bodied from big-city streets, and sinewy, taut prose.
In Heat, Steve Carella, the quiet, steady man of the 87th Precinct regulars, investigates the apparent suicide of an alcoholic commercial artist. But Carella is bothered by some nagging questions. Why did the victim turn off the air-conditioner in the midst of a sweltering heat wave? Why did a man who had a phobia against swallowing pills decide to end his life by downing sleeping pills?…
Carella's case is intriguing with an odd coupling of two unlikely suspects. But the ex-con ploy seems thrown in for contrived suspense. Never mind. McBain still is fresh with his observations, and his prose is as sturdy as ever. He knows that a good police-procedural novel is more than a hodgepodge of cases lifted from the police blotter.
Jean M. White, in a review of "Heat," in Book World—The Washington Post, December 20, 1981, p. 8.
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A maudlin score of violins has maundered down the scale. 'Well then,' admits the officer in charge, 'the airplanes got him.' But our hero has another theory: 'Ohhh no. It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.' And thus the last, melancholy seconds of King Kong surrender to the credits. Ed McBain, effortless progenitor of so many mutilations, amputations, and general spiller of the common corpuscles, is up to the third in his new sequence of novels [with Beauty and the Beast]. They are 'based' upon fairytales (the last two were Goldilocks and Rumpelstiltskin), although most of the original plot is cheerily jettisoned…. But if the Beast unfairly cops it in King Kong, Beauty is given shorter shrift in the McBain—she's bound hand and foot with wire hangers, doused in gasoline on a deserted beach, and burned to a quick crisp.
Beauty and the Beast pushes me to the miserable conclusion that McBain has lost his touch. To my astonishment, more than 50 of the maestro's efforts are spilling off my shelves. But his shift away from the 87th precinct has led him out of the whydunnits into the whodunnits. In particular, it has brought in a new hero, the vapid Matthew Hope, an attorney whose innermost secrets we are forced to share because he's our narrator. Carella of the 87th had the advantage of being one among many. Here, Ed McBain is squandering his energy, and that wry commentary, always just the right side of parody, is a shadow of its former self.
Bill Greenwell, "Tall Tales," in New Statesman, Vol. 103, No. 2674, June 25, 1982, p. 23.∗
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Evan Hunter writes the kind of reliable engrossing novel that is a welcome sight in the paperback racks at airports and bus stations. The police procedurals he's written under the name of Ed McBain, and his popular novels, which include The Blackboard Jungle, Strangers When We Meet, and Love, Dad, are sometimes slick or overwritten, but always readable. In Far From the Sea, he's done it again, but he's chosen to work with a most dismal set of circumstances….
Hunter's interest is primarily in his characters—their reflexes, preoccupations, foibles. Instead of dumping stereotypes into a situation, he shows how the small details animate people: the relatives gathered every day outside the intensive care unit obsessively discussing soap operas; the dying man worrying about his tax return; and, most poignantly, David Weber, struggling to be frank with his wife despite the distance and her answering machine, reliving his randy youth as he feeds his father ice chips, and wearily negotiating with non-English-speaking room service for a whiskey and soda. By the end, when David begins to shed the cynicism with which he's protected himself for years, the reader wishes him well, and that's to Mr. Hunter's credit.
Helen Rogan, in a review of "Far from the Sea," in Harper's, Vol. 26, No. 1592, January, 1983. p. 76.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
Hooked into a cat's cradle of life-sustaining apparatus, few of us today can hope, with Keats, for an "easeful Death" in which we "cease upon the midnight with no pain"—to say nothing of the humiliation of having tubes jammed into every available orifice. So thanks to the marvels of modern medical science, it takes Morris Weber, the moribund central figure of Evan Hunter's 17th novel ["Far From the Sea"], a full Monday-to-Friday workweek in which to die, following a colostomy. And thanks to Evan Hunter's keen reportorial eye, we're with him all the way, or at least with his son, David, who has flown down to Miami from his New York law practice to be at his father's bedside.
Approaching 50, David himself is nearly tired to death. He has just lost an important case. Relations with his wife, Molly, have been strained ever since their 15-year-old son was killed in a car crash on the great Bicentennial Fourth of July weekend.
Even the 600-room Miami Beach hotel he checks into is practically at death's door. Few of the rooms are occupied, the air conditioning has conked out, and the incompetent staff lives in the wan hope of a transfusion of South American tourists
But the 82-year-old Morris Weber, inveterate punster, perennial business failure, Bronx Lothario—in short, the classic Jewish luftmensch—is literally dying. He is simply not rallying properly after his operation, and the doctors don't quite know what to do about it.
Although it's no "Death of Ivan Ilyich," "Far From the Sea" is very eloquent about the way in which we leave this world. Always a joker, old Morris keeps making dreadful puns to the last; he hallucinates that the hospital can't wait to sell his effects at a tidy profit; and conveniently, maddeningly, but mercifully, he forgets that his grandson was killed five years ago. David in turn alternates between profound love for his father and a heartfelt desire that if he is going to die, he should get it over with as soon as possible.
The novel is at its best, in short, when it deals with the conflicting emotions and harrowing duties of the soon to be bereaved: tracking down an elusive doctor to get a straight prognosis, wondering if the nurse will see fit to admit him a few minutes before official visiting hours, feeling guilty about cravings for food, drink, sex and sun on what is, in its morbid way, really an unexpected vacation for him from everyday cares and commitments.
Although father and son are close to the sea that languidly licks at Miami Beach in this torrid June, both are far from the mythic sea of David's remembered boyhood, when the family would journey by subway to Coney Island. Soon his father will lie "full fathom five." But not much that is rich and strange by way of transformation can be expected to emerge from this unsparing and personally felt novel of how we go about the business of dying in the late 20th century.
Richard Freedman, "Father and Son," in The New York Times Book Review, January 16, 1983, p. 12.
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I must be one of the unfortunate few who have never read Ed McBain before. He has written more than 60 novels—including those under his real name, Evan Hunter—and that is clearly impressive in itself. But more important is the fact that his work is good and entertaining—something I am pleased finally to discover for myself….
[In "Ice"], "the Eight-Seven" must solve the murders of Sally Anderson, a dancer in a hit musical; Paco Lopez, a teen-age cocaine dealer; and Marvin Edelman, a precious-gems dealer, among other things. There is only one common link in these cases: A .38 Smith & Wesson is the murder weapon. As Detectives Carella, Meyer, Kling et al. begin looking for other connections, one is impressed by their diligence in tracking down leads and asking tough questions. Equally impressive is the crash course one receives about the procedures, minutiae and language of police work….
There are some things in the book that are too obvious, like the connection between Sally and Paco. But what the novel occasionally lacks in mystery is more than compensated for by its razor-sharp dialogue and its exciting climax, as well as the many things one learns about the drug trade and its practitioners, the theater business ("ice" refers to a lucrative ticket scam) and the importance of informers.
Jonathan Coleman, "Assorted Murders," in The New York Times Book Review, May 1, 1983, pp. 14, 19.∗
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[Ice] is grim stuff, as McBain usually is. By now McBain has the 87th Precinct down pat: he could probably write in his sleep. But then Arnold Bennett wrote a good bit of his prose in his sleep too, and if a writer really knows his craft, there surely comes a time when it is possible to coast. Ice begins with a seemingly senseless killing on a New York City street—not a novel idea—and moves through the underworlds of drugs, diamond smuggling, and a scam involving theater tickets, with the usual patented McBain ease, in which real people sound like real people. In the classic mystery every detail counts, or may be assumed to count; with McBain, as with real life, there is an enormous amount of what proves to be truly irrelevant detail, and none of it seems like padding…. We are told that Ice is a major work that transcends the genre of crime fiction, doing for crime novels what John Le Carré has done for espionage fiction. This is nonsense: the gap between Ice and The Little Drummer Girl, Le Carré's truly transcendent novel, is enormous. But taken on its own terms, Ice is just fine….
Robin W. Winks, in a review of "Ice," in The New Republic, Vol. 188, No. 23, June 13, 1983, p. 36.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
Ed McBain is an acknowledged master of the detective subgenre known as the police procedural, and in "Ice" he returns us to the Detective Division of the 87th Precinct in Isola. That imaginary metropolis bears more than a passing resemblance to New York City, McBain's hometown. Like its more than two dozen predecessors in the 87th Precinct series, "Ice" features a conglomerate hero—in this case, officers Carella, Meyer, Kling and Brown. Their ethnic identities correspond, in one of McBain's many comic asides, to the sandwiches they eat for lunch: sausage and peppers on a roll, hot pastrami on rye, tuna on white and ham on toasted whole wheat, respectively.
Three apparently unrelated homicides put this quartet's sleuthing to the test. A dancer in a hit musical, a cocaine-pushing punk and a middle-aged diamond merchant have all been "iced" the same gruesome way, with the same weapon. Searching for the missing links, the cops fan out through a variety of urban enclaves, from the ghetto to the theater district, from high-rent high-rises to "Ramsey University," en route to a denouement that gratifies our desire for plausible surprises. McBain aims, he has said, at "a tone of clinical verity." With his adroit handling of police routine—ballistics reports, laboratory analyses, bureaucratic snags—he has little trouble getting us to suspend our disbelief.
McBain's razor-sharp prose creates some stunning effects. Consider the multiple meanings of "ice" that he brings into play. Besides the murders, there is the ice of winter, the "ice" of ill-gotten jewelry, hidden in a tray of ice cubes, and of actors "doing ice," a particularly profitable form of ticket scalping. ("A hot show always generates ice," a producer explains.) With the proceeds, they indulge an appetite for "snow," or cocaine. In the precinct of McBain's imagination, winter kills. Where there's ice, there's gunfire as well.
Readers spoiled by "Ice" are likely to find McBain's other new novel, "Beauty and the Beast," something of a letdown. Attorney Matthew Hope, whose previous exploits are told in "Goldilocks" and "Rumpelstiltskin," seems destined to solve murderous puzzles that spring from sinister, modern-dress versions of fairy tales. Beauty makes a quick exit from the script. Shortly after she files assault-and-battery charges against her husband, the charred remains of Michelle Harper's "carved from alabaster" body turn up on Whisper Key beach. George Harper, the most obvious suspect, is an ugly hulk of a man. He is also "the color of coal, the color of midnight, the color of mourning," and Hope's footwork on Harper's behalf leads to a clandestine black and white social organization that calls itself The Oreo. The writing here is solidly competent rather than inspired—perhaps because Florida's Gulf Coast, where Hope operates, seems insufficiently congenial to McBain's urban sensibility. (pp. 70-1)
David Lehman, "Murder Most Entertaining," in Newsweek, Vol. CII, No. 2, July 11, 1983, pp. 70-1.∗
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108
[In "The McBain Brief"] the creator of the famed 87th Precinct gives us eight stories with policemen…. Also included are an amusing story about a con man who gets conned ("Hot Cars"), a private eye mini-whodunit ("Death Flight") and a miscellany of other amusements, including a case of infanticide and one of fratricide. Mostly, the violence is by men against women, but there's one ruthless female here. The stories vary in merit—a few are too predictable—but all entertain. The reader is drawn in from the start, and the pages seem to turn themselves.
A review of "The McBain Brief," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 224, No. 3, July 15, 1983, p. 43.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 184
Through the years, Evan Hunter has written stories under a number of pseudonyms, including those of Richard Marsten and Hunt Collins. His most familiar nom de plume, is, however, that of Ed McBain. The McBain Brief is a collection of his short stories which were published at various times under other names….
This book isn't just an excuse for McBain to clean out his closets, though; it is a museum of an author in transition. Arranged in no apparent order, the stories reveal a writer in search of his style….
Occasionally, the rough edges show. As with any compilation, there is trash lurking among the treasure…. Some experiments simply don't work, while others display flashes of brilliance which eventually were translated to a commercially successful technique.
Through these experiments, McBain evolved into the master of the police procedural. With these tales, he developed his art. It was in these stories his characters lost their innocence, and no fan of McBain's will be satisfied without reading the Brief.
John L. Stubing, in a review of "The McBain Brief," in Best Sellers, Vol. 43, No. 8, November, 1983, p. 289.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70
McBain's new mystery [Jack and the Beanstalk] is another in the series featuring Florida lawyer Matthew Hope, a strong rival of the author's popular 87th precinct police series. Based on another macabre fairy tale burlesque, it is the story of Hope's young client, slain Jack McKinney, and his stolen fortune. And it's racy, intricate, well-crafted suspense.
A review of "Jack and the Beanstalk," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 225, No. 5, February 3, 1984, p. 398.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 192
[In Lizzie] Hunter has … produced a hybrid work that is not successful as a novel and only partially convincing as a detective story. Using the actual transcripts of the inquest and Lizzie Borden's trial in August 1892, he intersperses fictional flashbacks to Lizzie's trip to Europe two years previously, and comes up with a provocative theory to explain both the motivations and circumstances under which the murders were committed. The contrast between the actual and the invented material is so acute, however, that it is almost like reading two different books that do not fuse. Hunter's account of Lizzie's trip abroad amounts to a travelogue of London, Paris and the Riviera, full of local color and period details but written in the style of a campy gothic novel. This florid prose jars with the flat, factual nature of the inquest and trial testimony, retarding dramatic tension until the very last scenes. Hunter's theory does explain why the actual murder weapon and blood-spattered clothes were not found, but this in itself is not enough to infuse life into a tepid narrative. (p. 66)
A review of "Lizzie," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 225, No. 12, March 23, 1984, pp. 65-6.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 196
[Lizzie] is a retelling of the famous murder trial of a spinster girl of New England whose name has become immortalized in the four-line bit,
Lizzie Borden took an ax,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.
It would be wise to read the very last chapter of this bulky novel before embarking on page one, because Hunter admits he has mixed facts with lots of fiction. A reader may easily become befuddled at the way the story is told. The novel cleverly alternates the whole story between Fall River, Massachusetts (where the two murders were perpetrated in the year 1892) and several swanky European cities where Lizzie is supposed to have sojourned. It was there, Hunter opines, that she became sexually involved with a pretty lesbian girl whose bedroom exploits and hedonistic philosophy are graphically narrated. Hunter has splendid skill at portraying people, times and events. In the questioning of witnesses for the trial, he has used even some of the original court documents. (pp. 88-9)
Eugene A. Dooley, O.M.I., in a review of "Lizzie," in Best Sellers, Vol. 44, No. 3, June, 1984. pp. 88-9.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 224
The mystery novel has changed in many ways since 1900, and this Matthew Hope adventure [Jack and the Beanstalk] is a tour de force of the new genre. Hope, who has appeared in three earlier novels, is a long way from the omniscient Sherlock, and even from the suave, self-assured sleuths of the Forties. He is a lawyer with apparently an indifferent practice, and his former wife despises him…. He can't fight too well, and even an old country lawyer with diploma-mill credentials outfoxes him. Worst of all, he can't determine whodunnit without turning to the detective who also has to teach him that Marquis of Queensbury rules of pugilism are as archaic as his professional and romantic methods. Indeed, the conflict in the book is between theory and practice, between the world as he was told it would be and the way, to his discomfiture, he now finds it….
There's a murder or two, and we don't know the perpetrator or the purpose. That's certainly standard fare, but in the context of the author's artful dodges from the stereotypes of the genre, even these elements tend to unsettle us, so that we share the narrator's sense of irony and cynicism. Yet, where there's Hope, there's hope.
D. V. O'Brien, in a review of "Jack and the Beanstalk," in Best Sellers, Vol. 44, No. 3, June, 1984, p. 93.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 103
[In Lizzie] Hunter presents his case in chapters that alternate between the imagined story of Lizzie's seduction by a hedonistic English lady during an 1890 European tour and the almost verbatim court record of her 1893 murder trial. This approach is not always satisfying and at times seems a curious cross between a court stenographer's emotionally uninvolving transcript and a sexed-up version of Henry James. Yet the portrait of Lizzie that emerges is fascinating, ultimately sympathetic: a murderess yes, but the victim of the repression and sexual exploitation of her time.
Charles Michaud, in a review of "Lizzie," in Library Journal, Vol. 109, No. 11, June 15, 1984, p. 1252.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 240
[The case of Lizzie Borden] has inspired more than a dozen books, several plays, two television treatments, even a ballet. Like many of those before him who have been fascinated by the case, Evan Hunter [in "Lizzie"] comes away from his research with a theory, a handful of facts rounded out with supposition and the zealous conviction of the amateur sleuth who's cracked an elusive nut. Widely known for the police novels he has written as Ed McBain, Mr. Hunter is a keen analyst of criminal motive, and his reconstruction in the last chapter of Lizzie Borden's actions on the day her parents were slain is an intriguing piece of speculative history that makes for the best reading in the book. Unfortunately, the platform on which that final scenario is played seems rather wobbly at times…. The fictional chapters, which alternate with the factual, send Lizzie on a trip to Europe, where she is seduced into a lesbian affair by a woman she meets in London. Curiously, these episodes, based entirely on conjecture, are more important than those rooted in fact when it comes to shoring up Mr. Hunter's ultimate argument. He has a good punch line, but the way to it is long and murky. "Lizzie" is less a well-built suspense novel than a provocative speculation on one of America's most notorious crimes.
John House, in a review of "Lizzie," in The New York Times Book Review, June 17, 1984, p. 20.
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