Monday, September 20, 2010

Stephen Marlowe remembers Evan Hunter

Ed here: I want to run a few older pieces for newer readers. I've always liked this one especially. Stephen Marlowe's autobiography will be out in 2011.

Stephen Marlowe remembers Evan Hunter

In the early 1950s, when we first met, he was still Sal Lombino and I was still Milt Lesser. Sal, a Navy veteran and sometime schoolteacher, was working the phones for a wholesaler of lobsters in New York, taking orders from restaurants, and I was working as chief editor–at the grand old age of 23–of a large literary agency, having been hired straight out of college because the agent, Scott Meredith, didn't like to advance editors through the ranks and dreaded resorting to a classified ad in the New York Times, knowing it would result in a couple hundred wannabes storming his office. I'd got the job on a tip from sci-fi writer Damon Knight the day before Meredith would have placed his ad, and I worked a year or so before deciding to give up the munificent salary of 40 bucks a week (raise to 50, if I stayed!) to freelance full-time–this on the basis of a couple of sci-fi stories I'd sold to Howard Browne at Amazing Stories.

I well knew the problem of those wannabes storming the gates, because interviewing for staff positions had become one of my jobs at the Meredith office. How to winnow the applicants? Well, I wrote a short story called "Rattlesnake Cave," intentionally the worst short story ever written, though on the surface it seemed plausible. Applicants for the job, before being interviewed, wrote a critique of the story, and it swiftly cut the number from hundreds to a handful.

The wholesale lobster salesman, Sal Lombino, showed an immediate and instinctive grasp of all I'd intentionally done wrong in the story–and maybe a few things I hadn't realized I'd done wrong. He wryly observed that this story hadn't come in over the transom, as I'd claimed, but had been concocted for the purpose, and dared me to deny it. I didn't. Milt Lesser became the freelance writer and Sal Lombino the editor who wrote nights.

The Meredith office in those years was a spawning ground for writers, some of whom stayed on for years, some hardly long enough to hang their hats. Two who come immediately to mind are Lester del Rey and Don Westlake, but there are others.
By the mid-1950s, after a couple of years that Sal spent at the agency and I in the army, we were both freelancing. Sal/Evan lived in Hicksville, NY, with his wife Anita and their three children, and I a few miles away in Syosset with my wife Leigh and our two daughters. We had drinks and dinner every month or so, until it became apparent that Leigh and Anita disliked each other. Both were New Yorkers born and bred, both were brash and bright. Possibly they saw in each other aspects of themselves that less than pleased them.

Sal by then had written a couple of suspense novels and a short story that in 1954 became his groundbreaking first straight novel The Blackboard Jungle. Earlier, when Popular Library was about to publish the first suspense novel, Sal had put the pen name Evan Hunter on it. Nice name, I said. He smiled, waiting for me to ask how he'd come up with it. I asked. "Simple," he said. "I went to Evander Childs High School and Hunter College." He would sometimes later deny the origin of the name, but that was what he told me then.

And so a writer with a brand-new name was born, and he made it his legal name (half a dozen years before I changed mine). He quickly needed another one, as Ed McBain split off for the 87th Precinct.

Evan was the easiest writer I ever knew. By this I mean that his stuff just flowed, as they say, swift as a mountain stream, letter perfect, as fast as he could type. And he avoided revisions like the plague. I wrote that way too, when I was young. Evan wrote that way the rest of his life, and the quality of his work never diminished.

One morning out of the blue he phoned me to ask for a short-short story to fill a hole in Ed McBain's Mystery Magazine, which he was editing. When did he need it? That afternoon. We batted it around for a while, and I sat down and wrote "Drumbeat" in about an hour, took the train to New York, and gave it to him. We both smiled. In a way I'd accepted his challenge, as he'd accepted the challenge of "Rattlesnake Cave." "Drumbeat" has been anthologized more times than I can count. Evan was contagious that way.

But our friendship got hung up for a time on the rock of geography and our wives' mutual dislike. I began to wander the world in search of background material for my globe-trotting private eye, Chet Drum. Evan, meanwhile, was a quintessential New Yorker. How he loved that town–and showed it in every page of his nameless 87th Precinct city. The geography may have been turned on its side so that Isola was a sort of horizontal Manhattan, but the entire city itself was straight-up New York, though in the 87th Precinct's fifty novels he never called it anything but this city.

When I next saw Evan, in the 1980s, it was not in New York. After some phone tag, we caught up with each other in London, where I was lunching at the Groucho Club with my second wife, Ann, and Liz Calder of Jonathan Cape to celebrate the publication in the UK of my novel The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus, and Evan was at Claridge's with his second wife, Mary Vann. I had reason to thank Evan. A couple of years earlier, I'd begun to write Columbus but felt very insecure about such an offbeat novel. I wrote to Evan and he urged me on. After I finished it, four good U.S. agents said its anachonistic tone made it unsalable. It was many months–by which time Ann and I were in Spain with scarcely a peseta–before a Brit agent saw it, loved it, and sold it at auction. Other countries followed, including the USA, with advances of the sort I'd never seen before. Evan didn't know any of this until I wrote him a long letter that seemed to be saying, "You and your advice, thanks for nothing, pal"–until I divulged the good news at the end. The letter didn't fool Evan. Hey, he wrote back, I write mysteries too and I know how to foreshadow happy endings, but I didn't peek at the ending, I read your letter in the order you wrote it.
In London we had lunch, and I met Mary Vann for the first time. She was very much the Suth-ren belle, and my wife Ann had been born in a village on Canada's Gaspe Peninsula, literally within sight of spouting whales. Both had done some writing–Ann had published a trio of romantic suspense novels, Mary Vann a literary novel. As they felt each other out, a look passed between Evan and me, as if to say, Is it happening again?

Evan and I stayed in touch, and back in Connecticut for a spell, where the Hunters owned a splendid house in Norwalk and the Marlowes rented one in Madison, we got together periodically. Evan and I talked nostalgically about old times and with great optimism about what we still planned to do. (Like most writers, we both lived as much in the future and the past as in the present.) Our wives remained as studiedly sweet to each other as only women who disdain each other can.
Ann and I wandered overseas again, and came back to find that Evan and Mary Vann had split, and Evan had found the delightful Dragica (called Dina early on, until Evan decided people could handle Dragica's real name)–and Ann and Dragica liked each other!

In all the years I knew him–half a century and more, on and off–Evan's writing never changed, except to get better. "One and only," indeed. Long friendship aside, he was the sharpest, clearest, and best suspense writer I ever knew.
posted by Gormania at 5:42 AM
posted by Ed Gorman @ 7:52 AM 1 comments


Higgy said...

Thanks for the nice repost. Sal/Evan/Ed was a fine writer. I've enjoyed many hours of visiting Isola and the rest of the City.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Who will be publishing the autobiography? I look forward to reading it.

Also, do you have a favorite book of Marlowe's?

Max Allan Collins said...

Lovely. Just lovely.

The seeming effortless of the writing is a reminder how good Marlowe was, and for that matter Hunter.

George said...

I need to buy this autobiography!

Ed Gorman said...

Stark House will be publishing Stephen Marlowe's autobiography. I've read a few parts of it and it's excellent. Cullen my favorite Marlowe would have to be TURN LEFT AT MURDER which Stark House published with VIOLENCE IS MY BUSINESS, my favorite of his Chet Drum novels. Turn Left was neglected for years but when Stark House republished it people got to see just how good Steve really was. I got to know him reasonably well. He was sure one of the good ones. As I once reminded him, I was reading his science fiction when I was twelve years old!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reposting. Did Evan Hunter ever discuss his novel LAST SUMMER in interviews? It was made into a movie and he wrote a sequel. Overlooked.

Brendan DuBois said...

I'm proud to say that in my library somewhere, I have a very old copy of a science fiction novel that Evan Hunter wrote back in 1952, called "Find the Feathered Serpent." A great read...