The lights are about to go out at the 87th Precinct.
Salvatore Lombino, aka Evan Hunter, even better known to crime fiction readers as Ed McBain, died of throat cancer last week at the age of 78. McBain wrote his first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater, in 1956. He wrote over fifty more, fitting them in around the time required to write another good series about attorney Matthew Hope, more “serious” work as Evan Hunter, movie and television scripts (including Hitchcock’s classic The Birds), and even more books under so many names he claimed not to be able to remember them all.
It’s no disparagement of his other work to say that he’ll be remembered best for the 87th Precinct. Aside from virtually inventing what is now called the police procedural, McBain gave us an assembly of characters that presaged what is now known as the ensemble cast. If his detectives had been actors, none would have cause to feel cheated.
Hill Street Blues is credited with revolutionizing police drama, folding multiple stories over the lives of real people who happen to be cops. Not a police or crime show, but a drama about cops. There would be no Hill Street in its imaginary city that looks a lot like New York had there been no 87th Precinct in an imaginary city that resembled New York more than a little. Not crime or mystery books, books about people who happen to be cops.
And what people they are. Not were, the Eight-Seven’s detective squad will live long past its creator’s demise. Steve Carella, as human a cop as ever put on paper, and his deaf mute wife, Teddy, regularly showing an intimacy that went beyond sexual; Bert Kling, Artie Brown, Meyer Meyer, even fat Ollie Weeks from the Eight-Eight, another half dozen slightly less prominent. All flawed, some more than others, all with enough redemptive qualities to make the reader comfortable with wanting them to succeed. (Even if you have to look pretty hard to find those qualities in Fat Ollie, m’dear.)
McBain wrote with a stark eloquence, evoking the darkness without letting the gruesome become grotesque. His detectives’ professional mixture of distance and compassion make them successful without making their success inevitable, or universal. Some bad guys get away; the Deaf Man eludes them still. Some relationships succeed, others fail for all the reasons to which flesh is heir. Witnessing the detectives’ occasional fallibility makes their continuing efforts more noble.
What may have been the best part of McBain’s writing is also now the greatest disappointment: he was still getting better. Money, Money, Money (2001) was as good as any, with 2002’s Fat Ollie’s Book a noble sequel, picking up a story line from its predecessor and running with it. His plots stayed current, the writing tight. His recent books read as though written by someone forty years younger, on the cutting edge of contemporary criminal evolution. His laurels would have made a comfortable bed on which to rest: Mystery Writers of America Grand Master (1986), the only American recipient of the British Crime Writers Association’s Cartier Golden Dagger (1998).
Ed McBain could have phoned it in for the last ten years and sales would have stayed high enough to keep getting him published. He need not have written a word in the past twenty years to be universally and forever recognized as among the handful of greatest crime writers. It is our great good fortune he chose neither course, continuously honing his craft, producing electric fiction that will be read for generations to come.
And he left us a present: Slate’s obituary says the next (and, sadly, last) 87th Precinct novel will be out in October. Thanks, Ed. Wherever you are, let’s be careful out there.