. When did you start reading Ed McBain?
My sister gave me my first Ed McBain book, 1997’s Nocturne, for my birthday in 1999. She knew I loved cop shows like Law and Order and NYPD Blue and I was starting to read more fiction for fun.
2. What initially attracted you to the series?
I was getting sick of academia. I’d spent a few years reading a lot of literary theory and cultural theory and I actually enjoyed playing with it, but eventually I just got tired of it. I was writing a dissertation on cross-dressing in Victorian literature but my supervisor left and I felt like I needed to change topics in order to get my PhD done. I decided it would be more fun to write my dissertation on something I was really interested in, pop culture-wise. I started out with the idea of tracing the development of the homicide detective, or just the detective figure, from Poe and Doyle and Collins all the way up to American T.V. shows like my favourite at the time, Homicide: Life on the Street. Fortunately, I realized pretty quickly that it was an impossibly huge topic for a 250-300 page dissertation and by that point, I’d read a few more of the 87th Precinct novels and decided to focus solely on Ed McBain.
I’ve always been drawn to books and shows about cops, having grown up with a cop for a father. There’s something so satisfying about the idea of a real-life hero, even though the best procedurals in my opinion are usually the ones that don’t always have happy Hollywood endings. McBain’s series wasn’t just about sensational thrills and page-turning suspense, although those things are great, too—it was about society. At least that’s what I got out of it—I just immediately saw the series as one long, complex comment on North American society, issues of gender, race, and class. At that time in academia, pop culture was just starting to become an acceptable topic of study, and I was determined to prove that a writer like Ed McBain was addressing those issues just as often as, or even more than, the so-called literary greats.
3. Do you generally read mysteries?
I’ve been reading mysteries since I was a kid, taking Ellery Queen magazine out of the library, watching Murder, She Wrote with my mother, and reading Sherlock Holmes stories to her. I even wrote my own mystery stories and designed little books with illustrations to go along with them. My whole family was drawn to the mystery genre. That said, people are always asking me if I’ve read so-and-so and I usually have to say no, I’ve read nothing but Ed McBain and Ian Rankin for ten years. Oh, and a couple of Elizabeth George novels and M.C. Beatons for fun—I have a bit of a thing for Hamish Macbeth. Also the Stieg Larsson series—I think Evan Hunter would have liked Lisbeth Salander.
4 Do you prefer certain sub-genres?
When I was younger I didn’t really have any preferences—any mystery would do. In the last couple of decades, though, it’s become fairly clear to me that I tend to prefer police stories or other realistic crime stories to the old Golden Age, Agatha Christie types. I don’t think I like hard-boiled, private-eye mysteries any better than the cozies—I tend to like realistic, cynical, usually urban crime fiction that has strong characterizations and a sharp, liberal view on social problems. This includes people like Richard Price and Ian Rankin, among others.
4. How did the idea for this companion evolve?
Elizabeth Foxwell, the series editor of McFarland’s mystery companion series, tracked me down on the internet, found out I’d written a dissertation on McBain, and sent me a message inviting me to submit a book proposal. I had just started a full-time college teaching job in a new city and was pregnant with my first child, so I kind of looked at my husband and said, “I know it might be crazy to take this on now, but I don’t want to pass up the opportunity” and he agreed.
5. Were you ever daunted by all the reading and note taking you had to do?
Of course! It was a hugely daunting project, and with everything I had going on in my life over those years, I could only work on the book in bits and pieces and on holidays. I was working on the book when I was in labour with my second child and I went back to work on it just a few days after he was born. I had to get a few extensions on my contract, because even though I knew from the start that it was going to be huge, I don’t think I really understood what that meant. I hadalready read and written on the 87th Precinct books when I started the companion, because of my dissertation, but I had just started reading the non-87th McBains and the Hunter novels, and I was adamant about including them even though I was told I could just focus on the mysteries. Evan Hunter was such a talented writer, in so many genres, that I couldn’t see writing a book about him that didn’t include a serious look at the non-mysteries.
I ended up panicking at one point, I think a year or two after I started the book, thinking I would never be able to get it done. That’s when I tracked down Jane Gelfman, Hunter’s agent, and she put me in touch with Dragica, his widow, and they got me in touch with Akira Naoi and Ted Bergman. I sent them both an e-mail asking if they might have any interest in helping me with the book, since I knew they had exhaustive, encyclopedic knowledge of the 87th novels, and luckily for me, they were interested. It was an amazing experience, working with a man in Japan and one in Sweden, sending letters and e-mails back and forth. They helped me a lot with some plot summaries of some of the 87th books, character names, and things like that but probably the coolest things they sent me were letters they’d received from Evan Hunter, maps they’d drawn of the 87th Precinct, and anecdotes of conversations they’d had with Hunter. Ted also got me in touch with Peter Sommerstein, who donated a couple of his photos of Hunter to the book, and I asked a friend of mine at work to help out, as well. So without all of those people, the book would still have been completed, but it would have taken a year or two longer and just wouldn’t have been as good, I think.
6. Can you describe the process involved in putting such a massive book together?
My process for writing the book was, I have to admit, not terribly methodical or systematic or practical. Usually I just started reading a book and wrote notes with a pencil in the margins, then transcribed those notes into an alphabetized file on my computer and added to them later. I didn’t read the books in chronological order and I didn’t have meticulous files where I sorted everything by theme or anything like that—it was just one gigantic file that I kept adding to until it was over 800 pages long (double spaced). This was my first time writing a book of this length and scope, though, and I think I learned a few things along the way so that the next book will be more systematic.
7. Did you run into any particular problems in the course of writing and compiling it?
In addition to the time crunch and just the overwhelming size of the project, I also had the problem of locating all of Hunter’s books—most of them were out of print so I had to order them from eBay and other places like that. I managed to find almost all of them, but it was slow going. Of course I think they should all be back in print! Younger readers who’ve never heard of Ed McBain would be surprised to discover how timely and controversial they still are.
8. What do you think are the strengths of the 87th books in general?
Like I said before, I love the 87th books because they are the best combination of anything I could want, as a reader—they’re suspenseful, thrilling, entertaining, sexy, etc. etc. but they’re so much more than that because they attempt to address some really complex social issues, like racism in America, in a really intelligent way. I admire Evan Hunter so much for being able to put all that into his works without it coming off too didactic, like a lecture.
9. Do you see any consistent weaknesses or failings in the books?
I don’t think there are any failings in the books. I said in the companion that the older novels use some fairly one-dimensional, stereotypical characterizations to make certain points, but I don’t really see that as a failing. I mean, I’ve read novels that have more character development, or that are more realistic at times, or more experimental. But from within the genre of mystery fiction, I think they are an incredible accomplishment—who else could have kept a police series alive and bestselling for 50 years? And even outside of genre fiction, I believe that the books have contributed to the quality of American postwar fiction in general. Hunter had a way of cutting through the crap, stylistically and thematically, that I think a lot of authors emulated.
10. If you had to name the five most accomplished 87ths what would they be?
I can’t name only five, but a few of my favourite 87ths, for their level of complexity and their treatments of contemporary issues like race, gender, and media, are, in no particular order, Mischief, Kiss, The Big Bad City, Romance, The Last Dance, Merely Hate, The Frumious Bandersnatch, Fat Ollie’s Book, He Who Hesitates, Doll, Calypso, Ice, Lulllaby…
A couple of my favourite McBain mysteries belong to the Matthew Hope series: There Was a Little Girl and The Last Best Hope, and a couple are really old ones written under the Marsten name: Runaway Black and The Spiked Heel. Two non-87th McBain novels, Doors and Guns, are in some respects basically the same novel, but I like it. Every Little Crook and Nanny and A Horse’s Head are hilarious. Actually, maybe Downtown is my favourite McBain crime-comedy. Petals (a novella) and Scimitar (published under the name John Abbott) are two really great thrillers. In terms of non-mysteries, or what Hunter called his “straight” fiction, Streets of Gold and Far From the Sea are favourites.
I never think of any of his works as being totally devoid of anything good, but probably a few of my least favourite 87th novels, mostly for their lack of realism and for being slightly too contrived, would be And All Through the House, Shotgun, Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here, Hark!, and So Long as You Both Shall Live.
13. What do you think makes the series so popular around the world?
Hunter’s writing. After reading virtually nothing but his works for about ten years and then picking up another author, I could really see the difference. He was just such a good writer, so concise--never a wasted word. Others have said this before but it bears repeating: he was a master storyteller. I also think his works are universal because he had an ability to touch something very human--very fragile and selfish and generous and ambiguous—in his readers.
14. Will you continue to read the 87ths for pleasure after reading them so analytically?
Definitely. I wish he was alive to keep writing them! I’m actually sad that I probably won’t have time to reread them again for a couple of years, while I’m working on my next book, but I will return to them, this time without a pencil in hand.