He did it first. You think Hill Street Blues inaugurated the group of detectives scenario, each with his own equally important agenda? No – Ed McBain, aka Evan Hunter, was responsible for this innovation in the remarkable series of 87th Precinct novels, which began with Cop Hater way back in 1956. With very few misfires, McBain has developed this rich, taut and stylish series of books into the locus classicus of the police procedural. Even in this country, The Bill is indebted to McBain’s influence. But McBain has also enjoyed success under his own (adopted) name of Evan Hunter, creating the definitive juvenile delinquent novel in The Blackboard Jungle (the film of which memorably started riots to the strains of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock). As Hunter, he also produced powerful dramas such as Strangers When We Meet (although the latter tends to read as proto-soap opera these days). His finest hour using the Hunter sobriquet was probably the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds (maligned in its day, but now seen as a crucial element in a film finally recognised as one of Hitchcock’s late masterpieces).
McBain/Hunter was at the House of Lords as the first recipient of the CWA/Cartier Diamond Dagger award. In these august surroundings, he was not inclined to talk about his lifetime’s achievement at length, so I cornered him at London’s Mysterious Bookshop, where, plied by manageress Sabine Bessler’s wine and sandwiches, he proved to be a fascinating interviewee.
So… receiving the Cartier award at the House of Lords! How did that feel?
Well, they had a guy there with the Queen’s Seal, you know? I don’t know what his title was, but he had the silver baton with which he’d announce people as they arrived. ‘Sir Percival Denham’ – just like the movies you saw in the 40s. Standing there with my wife (and Keith Miles and his wife), I have to admit it was quite an experience.
And you’re the first colonial to receive the award?
The first colonial. I once came here to accept an award for Ellery Queen, but that wasn’t quite the same. Incidentally, Ellery Queen’s son is now my attorney – at least he’s the son of one half of Ellery Queen.
And you’ve had a very successful series of novels featuring the attorney Matthew Hope running alongside your 87th Precinct books.
Well, The Last Best Hope is, as the title suggests, the last one.
The legal profession is held in a kind of contempt that people don’t have for cops.
You’re right, the legal profession IS held in very low esteem. But cops aren’t liked either, and, you know the third most despised profession? Dentists. Of course, the image of the cop in the States is, for many, just a step away from the Storm Trooper. And this isn’t just LA – Chicago has a similar problem.
The new book hasn’t got a valedictory feel – why are you pensioning off Matthew?
It’s difficult to write about a lawyer. You need to do an awful lot of research – I have to check it with two or three attorneys. I have to speak to a practising lawyer and a criminal lawyer.
But you presumably had to do similar research for the 87th Precinct books?
That became progressively easier, and I often wrapped up the books with a Q & A session with someone from the District Attorney’s office. You need to know the procedure about cutting deals and so forth. But with the Hope books, it’s always been difficult for me to justify an amateur solving crimes: someone hired by somebody to defend them. He has to be in there, for instance, at the showdown, which is not logical. You’d rarely find a lawyer in that position. In fact, you’d rarely find a police detective in that position.
You’re widely regarded as the éminence grise behind the police procedural. You could either be said to have inspired the form, or have been ripped off by a lot of people. How do you see it?
In some instances I feel flattered, and in others I feel violated. I really don’t think Hill Street Blues was an homage to Ed McBain, I think it was a rip off. Without even a tip of the hat – had the creators said somewhere that it was inspired by Ed McBain, I’d feel a little better about it. We are all inspired by what has gone before: none of us sprang out of the earth. But to use the 87th Precinct books as such a clear blueprint is something that goes beyond inspiration.
But most crime readers, when they saw Hill Street Blues instantly recognised it as an unacknowledged riff on your work.
Well, I’m not sure everyone recognised that, although I do hear that expressed a lot these days. But then it was "something exciting and new…first time on television…" and so on. Ironically, in foreign countries, it was recognised more quickly. In France, for instance, it was recognised he minute the series hit the screen. The French said, "Ed McBain comes to television!"
I don’t think you should feel too maligned – certainly, in this country, there’s a tremendous affection for you as a writer.
I’ve never been sure why the British took my very American work so much to heart: I know we have common roots, and we don’t study German literature in our schools. English literature is what we’re taught – there are these controversial moves to prioritise ethnic literature in American schools, but there’s no denying the centrality of the great English writers. And Irish writers: James Joyce is still a great influence. And Shakespeare of course: the milestones of your literature. But one reason why my books may have caught on here could have been that they were so different from what you had. They were grittier, of course, and perhaps the British responded to the humour of the books. You have a very keen and dry sense of humour here.
There’s also what might be called a peculiarly British-seeming irony to the books – and irony is possibly found less in American writers than British.
Well, Americans can be a little slower to catch on. And I sometimes wonder if Americans say Ed McWho?
How do you feel about the way your publishers sell you – both in this country and the States?
You ask any writer, and he’ll tell you that he’s not sold energetically enough. But I know they do try. Actually, I’m not that au fait with the situation in the UK. I know that as a writer you have to remain in touch with the things that readers want.
That leads us into an area which you’ve already discussed with this magazine’s Peter Dillon-Parkin; the increasing violence of your books. You were always realistic in this area, but the books undoubtedly became increasingly graphic. Can you tell me why you moved in that direction?
That came because I was riding with the cops. I’d get out of a cop’s car, you’d walk over to the kerb and there’d be a guy lying in the gutter with his brains all over the sidewalk. There’d be the police photographer snapping pictures, people crying or shouting in the background, blood splattered all over the brick wall. And there’d be brain tissue on a nearby parked car. As a writer, I felt you couldn’t pull punches in this area. If you wanted your books to be authentic, then it was essential to tell the truth. As I saw more of just how tough things were out there, the books undoubtedly reflected this. It’s not like it is in the movies – well, actually, it IS like it is in the movies nowadays, rather than the discreet amount of blood you were allowed in the 40s and 50s. But what they don’t do in the movies – and what I try to do in the books – is to represent the fact that when you get shot it HURTS. I’ve started to close in more tightly on murder scenes now. In The Last Best Hope, there are several deaths that happen in the book. I had this curious feeling while I was writing it, that I was somehow an observer: that I was witness to it, watching it. I’m hoping that this sense of immediacy will be conveyed to the reader.
The deaths in the book are very vividly realised.
I hope they are. I’m hoping for a feeling of cinéma-vérité.
That could be said to be another area in which you’ve been pretty comprehensively ripped off. You were the first person to emphasise the importance of forensic detail. Now there are writers who’ve carved a whole career out of that single element of your work. How did you feel when you saw that catching on with other writers?
I don’t know what to say about that. I can’t honestly say that Patricia Cornwell read my books and said, ‘Gee, I think I’ll write something making the forensic elements centre stage’. On American television there was the character that Jack Klugman played – what was his name? Quincey! So those ideas were around in general: I can’t lay exclusive claim to them. One thing I’m quite proud of is making a certain concept a part of crime writing: the fact that the 24 hours before a crime and the 24 hours after a crime are the most important. I labelled this the 24/24. I invented this phrase. Shortly after, I was reading a novel by a writer who quoted this virtually verbatim: he said, ‘This is known in police jargon as the 24/24.’
I’m one of those people who’d actually read Evan Hunter before I’d read Ed McBain. How do you handle both careers?
Well, I think that’s simplified by the fact that Evan Hunter is virtually unknown these days, don’t you think? Certainly, my publishers have a harder time selling Evan to the booksellers than Ed.
I’d dispute that at least in the case of the one great movie that Evan Hunter is really associated with, Hitchcock’s The Birds. Although at the time there were criticisms of Hitchcock’s lengthy dallying over his characters’ relationships before the bird attacks began, that’s been retrospectively perceived as a master strategy in lulling the audience into a false sense of security, or alternatively spinning out the viewer’s anticipation to audacious lengths. And your screenplay (which only takes from Daphne du Maurier’s short story the concept of birds attacking people) is intelligent and thoughtful – as well as being able to deal with the apocalyptic theme of the film. And you inaugurated the revenge of nature theme that resulted in so many lesser movies. Your book Me and Hitch, which dealt with your working relationship, was very well received. And Blackboard Jungle is still very well known as both a movie and a book…
Well, for a long time The Birds was simply considered a Hitchcock movie. Hitch always downplayed the writer’s contributions to his films, and sold himself as their onlie begetter. Which is fair enough, as he was undoubtedly the main reason for their greatness. But his best films ARE well written. You mentioned Me and Hitch: I always remember the story that I tell there in which one of my kids says to his classmates, ‘We were just in California because my father was there writing The Birds‘, and his classmates reply, ‘No, he didn’t. Alfred Hitchcock wrote The Birds‘. But most directors don’t consider the writer really important.
You, of course, followed Raymond Chandler as one of Hitchcock’s screenwriters. And Chandler was famously unhappy with the collaboration, feeling that he was there more to stitch the set-pieces together than to develop character. But Hitchcock was no fool, surely? He was aware that character is what makes his movies work so well, as much as the generation of suspense?
We began The Birds with only the title: Hitch told me, ‘We’re throwing away the Du Maurier story’. Ironically, that’s still happening: Ruth Rendell recently commented in The Telegraph that Almodovar bought a book of hers, and Live Flesh had only the sketchiest connection with what she had written. Anyway, I went out with some ideas, and he had some ideas. I came up with the notion of doing a screwball comedy set against the terror. In my estimation, that never quite worked, because we didn’t have Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
But surely, The Birds is all the better for the fact that Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren AREN’T Grant and Kelly: they’re not such big stars, and the audience had fewer preconceptions about them.
That may be, but that wasn’t the original intention: the comic timing of the earlier scenes simply didn’t have what I was aiming for. If there’s something else there which works as well or better, fine. But I didn’t feel that there was any chemistry in that first meeting between them in the pet shop.
But the most accepted analysis of the movie is that it’s about complacency – an attack on complacency. Surely that was your imput as much as Hitchcock’s?
Maybe. But the scene in the movie that I feel is really mine is the scene in the restaurant with the ornithologist. There’s the drunk at the bar, ‘It’s the end of the world’. The fisherman who complains that the birds are playing hell with his fishing boats… That whole scene is like a one-act play, and I really love it. I wrote that after I left California, and I sent it to Hitch. And he shot it without a moment’s hesitation.
You’d worked together so well, it must have surprised you when you got dumped on Marnie.
It did surprise me, because I thought he’d recognise that I was right about a crucial thing in Marnie. That after the rape, you’d never get the audience’s sympathy back for the lead character. I didn’t know how to make a rapist seem likeable. Still, despite the crude back projection, that movie has a legion of admirers, so maybe I was wrong. I’m satisfied to have made one movie at least as Evan Hunter which will be remembered. And as long as people remember the 87th Precinct books, that’ll be satisfaction enough for me.