Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Evan Hunter interview with Barry Forshaw Crime Time

Interviewed by Barry Forshaw
Crime Time

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.
For the rest go here:


Tony Renner said...

Not sure why I haven't read the 87th Precinct books yet. Maybe I'll read the series in 2015.

First I'd heard about Hunter's feeling about Hill Street Blues. Interesting.

Dana King said...

The end of the link to the interview itself was truncated in the blog post. The full link is: