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Orange County Register (06/Oct/1990) - Writing is no mystery to Ed McBain



Writing is no mystery to Ed McBain

Mystery writer Ed McBain chooses fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme titles such as "Goldilocks," "Cinderella," and his latest, "Three Blind Mice," for the ironic contrast they cast on the books' vicious, bloody murders.

And the author breaks up the pace between those mysteries — set in a slow, sunny, west Florida town — with his popular 87th Precinct police novels and their gritty big-city backdrop.

But if McBain's writing is a study in contrasts — he's also penned mainstream novels such as "The Blackboard Jungle" and the scripts for films such as Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" — the author is forthright and unguarded when he talks about writing.

"I get a sense of enormous fulfillment at the end of every day," said McBain, 64, the author of 55 mysteries and other novels under his pseudonym, Ed McBain, and more than 20 mainstream novels under his real name, Evan Hunter.

"And when I finish the book and I read it over from beginning to end and all the pieces fall into place, it's like solving a great mathematical puzzle; it just feels so good. It's very enriching for the soul."

Reviewers, too, find pleasure in McBain's efforts.

"A master," Newsweek called him. "He is a superior stylist, a spinner of artfully designed and sometimes macabre plots."

People magazine said: "He is by far the best at what he does. Case closed."

The author recently made his first visit to Orange County to promote a book, appearing at the Book Carnival in Orange. Enthusiastic and natty in a tweed sportcoat and colorful tie, McBain looked nothing like the stern figure that glowers from the book jacket of "Three Blind Mice" (Arcade; $18.95).

McBain's long and varied writing career was launched with a flourish in 1954 with the best-selling "The Blackboard Jungle," a work set in his native New York City and inspired by his short-lived teaching career.

The book became a controversial 1955 film starring Glenn Ford and Sydney Poitier and sold 5 million paperback copies shortly after its release.

"It was a big cause celebre because the movie was so inflammatory, and people said, 'No it isn't like this,' " he said.

"But I was lucky because it opened the way for me in Hollywood, where I could make a lot of money. It opened the way in books for me because people said, 'Oh, this is the guy who wrote 'The Blackboard Jungle'; he must be pretty good.' It enabled me to become a full-time writer. I didn't have to get an honest job anymore. I could write."

Following his second book, "Second Ending," an urban tale about drug addiction that proved a commercial flop, he turned to mysteries with "Cop Hater," the first of his 87th Precinct series.

He published it under the pseudonym Ed McBain because at that time, he said, "Mysteries were considered the stepchildren of literature. Graham Greene called his mysteries 'An Entertainment by Graham Greene.' "

While his pen name seemed to come to him out of nowhere, "there may have been some unconscious assocation because b-a-n-e is poison. But also, it seemed to me that Ed McBain sounded like someone who might have been a cop at one time or covered the police beat."

As McBain, he introduced the crime-solving lawyer Matthew Hope in "Goldilocks" in 1987. He speculates that the popularity of his 87th Precinct novels — 42 in all — might have hampered the early success of his second series.

"There was a period of time when both readers and reviewers were resisting Matthew Hope. They looked at him with great suspicion. 'Who's this new kid on the block? Is Matthew Hope going to replace the 87th Precinct?' " he said.

"But he's slowly, slowly won them over because he really is a good, decent man. Unlike many lawyers, he will never represent anyone he feels is guilty, ever. He's a rarity in the universe."

In the latest mystery, Hope is hired to represent a wealthy farmer accused of killing three Vietnamese immigrants. The farmer is a logical suspect; he'd publicly threatened them after they were acquitted of raping his wife.

As Hope attempts to find the real killer, he becomes involved with Mai Chim Lee, his Vietnamese interpreter, and learns of the uneasy relations between Southeast Asian immigrants and west Florida residents.

McBain said he wove the theme of racial prejudice into the work because he believes the problem is on the rise in the United States.

"It seems we always need people to hate in America; now we have new people," he said. "Anyone foreign is someone to hate, and when people don't speak the language, it becomes exacerbated. I think this is one way of telling about it."

And with his exploration of social issues, he believes he's able to add a dimension to his mysteries that other crime stories might lack.

"I think they say more than just whodunit," he said. "Being a mainstream novelist, I think I can bring a sensibility to the mysteries that many mystery writers don't bring to it — he said modestly.

"I don't think very many mystery writers could write a mainstream novel. With mysteries, there's an underlying crutch, the who-did-it. You've got a dead body to start with, and this is the thrust of the story.

"In the mainstream novel, you don't have that. You have some other problem that the hero may have, but it's not a dead body."

But juggling the demands of writing two series and mainstream novels is no problem for McBain.