I allowed myself to entertain the schoolboy fantasy that some day Evan and I would become friends, and he’d dedicate a book to me.
Evan Hunter (left) with Ed McBain (right) in New York, October 6, 2000. Author photograph by Robert Clark for Candyland (2001).
In the marketplace, Ed McBain largely eclipsed Evan Hunter. I don’t know how much this may have irked Evan. He took the work under his own name more seriously, but he took the Ed McBain books seriously enough, and indeed wrote 20 of them and not a single Evan Hunter novel in the ten years between Lizzie (1984) and Criminal Conversation (1994). He never tired of writing them. (Or I of reading them; I can’t think of another series that lasted so many years, ran to so many volumes, and maintained such a consistently high level of quality.)
Still, Evan delighted in telling how he’d met Dina, the woman who would become his third wife, in a bookstore. When she learned his name, she enthused over his books. Strangers When We Meet, The Chisholms, Streets of Gold, Last Summer, Buddwing... She’d read them all, remembered all their details, and was a devoted fan.
But, he loved to point out, she knew him only as Evan Hunter. She’d never heard of Ed McBain!
Candyland seems to me Evan’s most remarkable book, and his most personal one. He billed it as a collaboration between Evan Hunter and Ed McBain, and if that strikes you as gimmicky, well, it’s nevertheless a legitimate description. Half the book tells the grim and desperate story of a compulsive sex addict who winds up accused of murder. That’s the Hunter half. The McBain portion consists of the 87th Precinct’s investigation of the case.
I’d say this was a book Evan had to write, and he may have needed to bring the twin personae of Hunter and McBain to bear on it. While he strove for discretion in his personal life, enough anecdotes circulated to make it clear that the problem of Candyland’s protagonist was shared by its author.
I’ll tell just one story, because it’s one nobody else is likely to know. I heard it from a media escort, who was discreet enough to mention no names; something else she’d said in another context allowed me to decode the story, to her considerable dismay.
But it’s too good to miss. She was escorting Evan in Denver, taking him to bookstores and interviews, and after a couple of hours he suggested that the day might best conclude with an intimate dinner at his hotel. “And I don’t want you to think that I hit on escorts,” he assured her. “I’m on the road once or twice a year, and I swear this is the first time I ever...”
She let it go, and turned him down gently. And told me how hard it had been to keep from saying, “Yeah, right. Then how come three nights ago you fed that line word for word to my stepmother in Cleveland?”
That Evan was able to address the topic of sex addiction in Candyland, and that he did so as directly and effectively as he did, suggests that he’d already addressed and dealt with it in life. The Serbian woman who knew Evan Hunter but not Ed McBain probably had something to do with that. Marriage to Dragica Dimitrijevic (whom I have known as Dina) changed him. He seemed much happier.
The change manifested itself publicly in one curious way. From the time they found each other, Evan dedicated every book he wrote to Dina. In at least one dedication, he went so far as to apologize for the repetition, saying that he knew this was getting boring, but nevertheless....
I don’t know that anyone else cared, or even noticed, but the change had an ironic impact upon me. Back in my days at Scott Meredith, when I read each of his novels as soon as it appeared, I always noted the dedication. Evan was always a very prolific writer, and each dedication was to a different individual or couple. It was remarkable, it seemed to me, not only that he could write so many books, but that he never seemed to run out of people to whom they could be dedicated.
And I allowed myself to entertain the schoolboy fantasy that some day Evan and I would become friends, and he’d dedicate a book to me.
Then I forgot about all of this, and time passed, and Evan and I became acquaintances, and over a few more years that ripened into friendship. I remembered my youthful fancy and realized that it might actually come to pass. The man was as productive as ever, and we were friends now, so it was not unreasonable to suppose that my turn as dedicatee might sooner or later arrive.
By then, of course, I’d largely grown out of caring about that sort of thing. I’d had a couple of books dedicated to me, and I was not unappreciative of that sort of thing, but I’d dedicated enough books of my own for the bloom to be off that particular rose. Still, given the unwitting role the man had played in my own personal mythology, well, to have Evan dedicate a book to me would represent some sort of triumph.
When Hit Man came out, I dedicated it to Evan. If this was a manipulative act on my part, I have to say it was wholly unconscious. I had a book to dedicate, and he was a friend who I thought would enjoy Keller. I wasn’t expecting reciprocity. The dedication read “For Evan Hunter.” It didn’t say RSVP.
Still, I could hardly avoid having it in mind that eventually it would be my turn in the barrel. I didn’t really think about it, and then as each succeeding book was dedicated in its turn to Dina, I realized it wasn’t going to happen.
No matter. I treasured his friendship, not only for the pleasure of his company but it told me how far I’d come. I didn’t need a dedication to remind me. I was in no danger of forgetting.
Sometime in the late '60s, Evan left Scott Meredith. The break was probably inevitable, but what precipitated it was Scott’s having made innumerable photocopies of a manuscript of Evan’s for film submission. Nothing came of it, and Scott charged Evan $1,100 for photocopying, all without ever having consulted him. That sounds like a hefty sum now, and was a good deal more so in 1967. Evan blew up, and called it quits.
Scott died in 1993, and as soon as Evan got the news he started calling his friends. “Did you hear the news? Scott died! Scott is dead! Isn’t that great? Isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever heard?”
Now I was aware that the end of that particular author–agent relationship had not been entirely amicable, but at the time Evan’s reaction seemed just the slightest bit extreme. Much later I learned he had his reasons.
Evan was going through a divorce from his first wife at the same time that he was attempting to extricate himself from Scott. At one point Scott picked up the phone and called the first Mrs. Hunter. “You and I have interests in common,” he told her, “and perhaps ought to join forces.” Whereupon he divulged no end of personal and financial details—about the mistress, for example, and all those unrecorded payments made to the Dean Hudson account.
Evan constantly generated ideas, and not all of them were for books. It must have been sometime in the late ’90s that he came up with the notion for Grand Jury.
As he saw it, it was to be a television program, most likely for cable. It woud consist of himself, Don Westlake, and me, all of us MWA Grand Masters (hence the Grand) discussing and judging the work of other writers (thus the Jury). He figured it would be great fun for the three of us, who’d already established that we enjoyed one another’s company, and that it would generate enormous publicity for our own work, and make us all rich and famous.
We had a few meetings toward this end. Once, I remember, we sat down for lunch with my good friend Patrick Trese, a distinguished writer and producer of TV news and documentaries, and discussed the form the show could take and the possibility of Pat’s producing it. Another time producer Richard Rubinstein took an interest, and set up a meeting with a couple of young guys from one of the cable stations. They seemed pleased to be in the same room with the three of us, but couldn’t quite pull off the trick of appearing interested in Evan’s idea.
I don’t know that Don or I believed for a minute that this would work. Who would put it on the air? And, if someone did, who would watch it? But that doesn’t mean either of us entertained the notion of saying as much to Evan. His enthusiasm was enough to keep us on board.
Besides, who knew? Maybe he could bring it off.
Consider Transgressions. After no end of invitations to edit an anthology, Evan decided just what kind of an anthology he’d do. He wanted ten prominent authors each to do a 20,000–word novella. And, in order to get us all on board, he wanted assurance that we’d all be well compensated for our trouble. I’m not positive of the figure, but I believe we were to get $20,000 apiece.
If anyone else had proposed this, you’d have to figure he was just trying to get out of editing anything, ever. A publisher was going to have to come up with $200,000 in front—plus whatever Evan was getting as editor. Big names or no, that’s daunting. And the book itself, at 200,000 words, would be expensive to produce and probably too costly to sell well.
And how were you going to get the big names on board, anyway? Yes, the money was decent enough, but a 20,000–word hunk of fiction is an impossible length to market. If the deal fell through, if the publisher backed out, what on earth could you do with the damn thing? Cut three–fourths of it and peddle it as a short story? Pump another 50,000 words into it and call it a novel?
Well, go figure. Don and I turned in stories, of course, and so did Jeffery Deaver, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Perry, John Farris, Sharyn McCrumb, Walter Mosley, Stephen King...and one Ed McBain. Forge published it, and did well with it, and a slew of overseas sales brought in some more dollars (well, yen and euros, anyway) for all concerned.
I don’t honestly think anyone but Evan could have made this happen. And, now that I think about it, I have to wonder if those cable guys missed the boat. Maybe Grand Jury could have worked. If Evan thought it could, who am I to say it couldn’t?
Transgressions came out in April of 2005. Three months later, the cancer that had taken Evan’s larynx took his life. (He wrote about his illness in a memoir called Let’s Talk, an extraordinary book that somehow didn’t get published in the States; Orion brought it out in the UK two months before his death.)
Evan wanted to go on living. He had a wonderful marriage, he had a fine career, and he was able to write. In a late interview, he talked cheerfully about planning to live to be 104. I don’t know if he believed this, or to what extent he saw the end coming.
We who knew him were aware the end was imminent; because we knew what he’d been going through, we could only regard his death as a mercy, even as we regretted the loss.
A while later, Dina had Becca in Jeopardy sent to me, with the thought that I might undertake its completion. I was honored to be selected, and felt that such an enterprise was not one Evan would find unwholesome; back in 1959, he had completed The April Robin Murders, which Craig Rice had left unfinished.
But when I read what he’d left, I decided the few chapters and several pages of amorphous notes weren’t something I could turn into a book that would do either of us credit. I don’t doubt that Evan could have made it work, but that was because it was a story of his devising and he had an idea where he was going with it. I said as much to Dina, and she decided at once to trust my judgment rather than look for another writer.
I’d have liked to finish my friend’s book. But I’m grateful I decided not to try. It’s not as though he doesn’t have enough books to his credit—and not a dull page, a lifeless paragraph, or an ungainly sentence in any of them.
A SELECTED ED McBAIN & EVAN HUNTER READING LIST
The 87th Precinct Novels, by Ed McBain
Cop Hater (1956)
The Mugger (1956)
The Pusher (1956)
The Con Man (1957)
Killer's Choice (1957)
Killer's Payoff (1958)
Lady Killer (1958)
Killer's Wedge (1959)
'Til Death (1959)
King's Ransom (1959)
Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (1960)
The Heckler (1960)
See Them Die (1960)
Lady, Lady, I Did It (1961)
The Empty Hours (1962)
Like Love (1962)
Ten Plus One (1963)
He Who Hesitates (1964)
Eighty Million Eyes (1966)
Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here! (1971)
Sadie When She Died (1972)
Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man (1972)
Hail to the Chief (1973)
Blood Relatives (1975)
So Long as You Both Shall Live (1976)
Long Time No See (1977)
Eight Black Horses (1985)
And All Through the House (1994)
The Big Bad City (1999)
The Last Dance (2000)
Money, Money, Money (2001)
Fat Ollie's Book (2002)
The Frumious Bandersnatch (2004)
Matthew Hope Novels, by Ed McBain
Beauty and the Beast (1982)
Jack and the Beanstalk (1984)
Snow White and Rose Red (1985)
Puss in Boots (1987)
The House That Jack Built (1988)
Three Blind Mice (1990)
Mary, Mary (1992)
There Was a Little Girl (1994)
Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear (1996)
The Last Best Hope (1998)
Other Novels, by Ed McBain
The April Robin Murders (with Craig Rice; 1958)
The Sentries (1965)
Where There's Smoke (1975)
Another Part of the City (1986)
Driving Lessons (2000)
Learning to Kill (2005)
Transgressions (edited by Ed McBain; 2005)
Women in Jeopardy (2005)
Alice in Jeopardy (2005)
Other Novels, by Evan Hunter
The Evil Sleep! (1952)
Don't Crowd Me (1953)
The Blackboard Jungle (1954)
Second Ending (1956)
Strangers When We Meet (1958)
A Matter of Conviction (1959)
Mothers and Daughters (1961)
The Paper Dragon (1966)
A Horse's Head (1967)
Last Summer (1968)
Nobody Knew They Were There (1971)
Every Little Crook and Nanny (1972)
Come Winter (1973)
Streets of Gold (1974)
The Chisholms (1976)
Walk Proud (1979)
Love, Dad (1981)
Far From the Sea (1983)
Criminal Conversation (1994)
Privileged Conversation (1996)
Candyland (with Ed McBain; 2001)
The Moment She Was Gone (2002)
Me and Hitch (1997)
Let’s Talk: A Story of Cancer and Love (2005)
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #119.