Evan Hunter Hunter, Evan (also Ed McBain) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hunter, Evan (also Ed McBain) 1926–

Hunter is a prolific writer whose work includes novels, detective fiction, a science fiction novel for children, and a play. He is perhaps best known for an early novel, The Blackboard Jungle, which was adapted into a popular film. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most consistently skillful writer of police novels is undoubtedly Ed McBain. Under his real name of Evan Hunter … he has written some highly successful novels, and he has used other pseudonyms, but the formula of the police novel suits his talent particularly well. He began with Steve Carella, a detective working for an unnamed big-city police force, and equipped him with a wife named Teddy, who is beautiful but both deaf and dumb. As the series developed, Carella's fellow detectives—like Cotton Hawes, who was named after Cotton Mather, and Meyer Meyer, whose father thought it would be an excellent joke to duplicate surname and first name—were introduced. Sometimes half a dozen detectives appear in a book, sometimes only one or two. The cases vary from the macabre to the comic, and the stories are told largely in crisp believable dialogue between detectives and suspects, or between the detectives themselves. Often the dialogue has a nice note of deadpan comedy. (p. 205)

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's hard to see why the Ed McBain books about the 87th Precinct have been so popular through the years. He turns them out by formula, and his 26th title, "Let's Hear It from the Deaf Man,"… is no exception. The best that can be said is that the prose moves fast, even if it is of the roughhewn-features-and-flinty-blue-eyes department. Otherwise, this novel about police routine has nothing to recommend it…. (p. 34)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1973.

[Last Summer] was mildly convincing on the surface … but oddly superficial at the core. Deep down, as the saying goes, it was shallow, the stuff perhaps of a modish, middle-brow, box-office film….

The scene is set [in Come Winter] for a repeat—and a development—of the activities of the earlier book…. Will Mr Hunter write the mature study of people drifting casually, almost insensately, into evil which Last Summer promised but did not achieve? Will he make the concept of evil plausible in what they do, show that he has something to tell us about it? A sequel to a previous book like Last Summer inevitably sets such questions, and hopes, stirring in the reader's mind.

The hopes are not fulfilled. Come Winter is a repeat, and little more,… with the same characters—almost….

Resource has gone into the making of the tale; it has pace, and conviction about its detail. But Mr Hunter poses questions he does not answer, hints at depths which he does not explore. It would be pleasant to hope that subtle and imaginative treatment could give a film of the novel the dimension it lacks, expanding what are no more than hints and suggestions to serious and interesting themes.

"The Slippery Slopes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 13, 1973, p. 797.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ed McBain] has, in some ways, broken his usual format [in "Hail to the Chief"].

Gang war is the substance of the book. There is no mystery. McBain, early along, introduces us to the strange mind of the guiding genius of one of the teen-age groups, the young man responsible for all the trouble. His name turns out to be Randall M. Nesbitt. He has dark hair, dark brooding eyes, a sloping, bulbous nose and heavy jowls. He looks as though he always needs a shave. And he has his own kind of logic….

It's a bleak, curiously convincing character McBain presents. You'd almost think he patterned him after a living model. Could the title of the book offer a clue? (p. 49)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1973.

["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…. The scenes of tenement life are warm, witty, and accurate-sounding, yet tend toward coarseness and violence, and it's an open question whether the truthfulness of, say, the homosexual-rape scene (reminiscent of the teen-age rape that climaxes Mr. Hunter's "Last Summer") can redeem its squalor and familiarity. 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. (pp. 90, 93)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 13, 1975.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[McBain's hero in "Where There's Smoke"] is a retired detective lieutenant named Benjamin Smoke, and McBain labors greatly to make him believable.

But he doesn't really succeed…. Smoke is a bored man; he has left the force because he is bored. Crime is predictable, criminals are stupid…. He has always solved anything that came his way; he wants to fail in a case, to come across a mind smarter than his.

All this is, of course, is an authorial gimmick: McBain has seized upon it as a means of attempting to infuse his character with something a bit different. But Smoke is an ordinary man, basically, who in this book has an ordinary case with ordinary criminals and an ordinary solution. "Where There's Smoke" (even the title is a gimmick) is competent, but there is not a shred of originality in its plotting or characterization, much less its writing. (p. 47)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1975.

James R. Frakes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The country may not be exactly drooling with hunger for another novel about "Westering," but Evan Hunter, in ["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…. 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.

Perhaps it was wise to make this novel back away from the larger issues raised by the graphic events; perhaps it was nothing more than a failure of nerve. At Fort Laramie, Will, the eldest Chisholm son, lying in a tipi between two Indian women (well, one's a white woman from Boston who has gone native), starts to brood about his experiences. And he almost has a revelation about such issues as law vs. justice, the eye-for-an-eye absurdity of capital punishment, human predatoriness, limited natural resources, racism, but, "Trembling in the night, troubled, he moved closer to the squaw for warmth, and finally fell asleep. By morning, he'd forgotten what he'd almost understood." Because he forgets—and because the author stays on the surface of the prairie—we can only nod complacently and wearily when, on the last page, the whole crew turn into frieze figures: "'See?' Bonnie Sue said, pointing vaguely west. 'That's California there.'" (p. 43)

James R. Frakes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1976.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In "Goldilocks", Ed McBain] leaves his famous 87th Precinct to write a novel about murder and adultery in Florida. A man coming home finds his wife and children murdered. His story has a few holes in it, and he comes under suspicion…. There is considerable soul searching before things get straightened out. McBain goes through all this in his usual professional manner. But there is one little mistake in the book. A suspect says she was listening to the radio. "They were playing a Stravinsky piano quartet, I don't know which one." Sorry, Ed. There is no such thing as a Stravinsky piano quartet. (p. 34)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1978.