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Lawrence Block

mcbain_edLong before I first met Evan Hunter, he bought me a drink.


I remember it well. It was champagne, Mumm’s Brut, and it was one of half a dozen bottles that he sent to the office at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. It was Christmas, 1957, and I’d been working there since a bemused fellow at Qualified Employment sent me over in August to take a blind test.

The test consisted of reading a story (“Rattlesnake Cave”) and writing a letter to its author (“Ray D. Lester”). One could tell the author the story was fine, or suggest revisions, or explain why it stank. Ray D. Lester was in fact the science fiction writer Lester Del Rey, and he’d written the story to Scott’s order, striving to encompass every plotting flaw he could think of. I pointed them out in my letter, and got the job, which consisted in doing essentially the same thing 40 hours a week, with other stories that were every bit as bad as “Rattlesnake Cave,” but not by design.

They hired me in spite of both my youth—I had just turned 19—and the fact that I’d be going back to Antioch College on the first of October. They didn’t know that part, and I figured I’d cross that bridge when I came to it, but after two months I burned it instead and told the college I wouldn’t be coming back after all. It was the best job in the world for me, and I could write a whole column about the place, and will, but this one is about Evan Hunter.

Our office was on the 18th floor at 580 Fifth Avenue. A couple of years later Scott moved to more spacious quarters on the seventh floor, but on 18 there were just six of us hirelings in the outer office, and everybody got a bottle. Champagne bottles come in a great variety of sizes, and each size has a name all its own. There are Magnums and Jeroboams and Methuselah and Nebuchadnezzars, and don’t they sound grand? There is also the split, which contains just enough champagne to fill two glasses, and that’s what each of us got, and I couldn’t have been happier.

I saved it for New Year’s Eve. A date and I could each have had a glass, but I didn’t have a date, so I drank the whole bottle.

I read The Blackboard Jungle in high school, probably within a year of its 1954 publication. I was reading a rich diet of Steinbeck and Wolfe and Farrell and O’Hara, and I can’t say Evan’s novel blew me away. I thought it was okay, certainly, but it didn’t make me kneel in homage.

My next contact with the man, albeit from a distance, was when my dad brought home a copy of Writer’s Yearbook. Scott Meredith had contributed a self–serving article, explaining just how much money Evan had made from Jungle, how he’d sold film rights in advance of publication, and all the other great deals he had made on his author’s behalf. I think the total sum ran to $100,000.

That impressed me, but I can’t say it made me salivate. I knew by then that I was going to be a writer, that I’d somehow produce books and stories, and that I’d somehow make a living doing this.

Then, some months later, I bought a paperback at a drugstore. It was The Jungle Kids, a collection of stories Evan had originally published in magazines, mostly Manhunt. They all had youthful protagonists, and they’d been collected to cash in on the success of the novel.

hunter_theblackboardjungleI thought they were terrific. And I had a solid experience of identification—not with the juvie characters, but with the author himself. Because the two things that struck me about what I was reading were: (a) that these were genuinely good, and (b) that I could see myself writing them.

And I immediately got an idea for a similar story, and sat down and tried to write it. It was terrible, and died a few pages in, and I threw it out and forgot about it.

But when I sold my first story, it was to Manhunt. When I got a job good enough to quit school for, it was where Evan started; he’d gone to work for Scott when the office was even smaller, and had been good enough at it that the Meredith brothers had talked about making him a partner. Instead, he’d done well enough writing to devote himself to it full–time, and when I started there he was the agency’s star client—which is why noblesse oblige led him to send some champers to the wage slaves.

Do you think I minded that I didn’t have a date? Or that two sips of Mumm’s don’t make New Year’s Eve any more than two swallows make a summer? What, are you kidding? Evan Hunter bought me champagne!

hunter_streetsofgoldLet’s talk about names.

He was born Salvatore Albert Lombino, and his first sale was a science fiction story bylined S. A. Lombino. His employer, whose name at birth was a far cry from Scott Meredith, convinced him that an Italian name was an impediment to success, and Evan Hunter was born out of his high school (Evander Childs) and college (Hunter). There were other pen names during those pulp years—Hunt Collins, Richard Marsten—but Evan Hunter was first among them, and he hadn’t been using it long before he went to court and made it official.

When I worked at Scott Meredith, the receptionist, an Englishwoman named Joan, still called him Sal. “It’s Sal on line one,” she’d inform Scott. And at his memorial service half a century later, a sister of Evan’s indicated that he was still Sal to her.

Everybody else called him Evan. It annoyed him that some people felt he was sailing under false colors, or ashamed of his Italian heritage. His enduring series character was Steve Carella, and Evan wrote about him with great success for 50 years. Evan’s early years were spent in Italian East Harlem, and he used that background in one of his finest novels, Streets of Gold, narrated by a blind Italian-American jazz pianist. He was open enough about who he was, but he felt that one’s name was a matter of choice. You could keep the one you were born with or pick one that better suited you, as you preferred.

When Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels outperformed Evan Hunter in the marketplace, Evan found himself addressed as Ed by fans and interviewers. He didn’t mind. But he knew who he was. He was Evan Hunter.

Before he started writing, Evan thought he’d be an artist. He was good enough at it to win an Art Students League scholarship and to be admitted to Cooper Union. He started writing stories during his World War II naval service, and was to say that as an artist he had seen everything in a frame, and later came to see everything with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

The job with Scott Meredith made him a writer, but it’s hard to believe he ever considered doing anything else. Evan loved to write, and it was something he could do rapidly and well. He turned out an extraordinary volume of work, and never lost his enthusiasm for it.

In his mid-'70s, after a couple of heart attacks, an aneurysm, and a siege of cancer that had led to the removal of his larynx, Evan did something that sums up the man. He decided that what the reading public most wanted was books about women in jeopardy, so he sat down and, as Ed McBain, wrote Alice in Jeopardy. And went to work right away on Becca in Jeopardy, with every intention of working his way through the alphabet.

hunter_thejunglekidsDon’t you love it? Here’s a man with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and he’s perfectly comfortable launching a 26-book series.

The Dean Hudson novels give further evidence of Evan’s enthusiasm for the task of stringing words together.

In the late ’50s, the genre of soft-core erotica was born, and a number of us found it to be a well-paying apprenticeship, and a very forgiving medium in which to find oneself as a writer. Along with Don Westlake and Robert Silverberg, I became a steady producer of pseudonymous books. (We called them sex novels; today’s term seems to be erotica, and I must say I like that better; I feel like Moliere’s character who is startled and rather pleased to discover that all his life he’s been speaking prose. Damn! I’ve been writing erotica!)

The foremost publisher of this erotica was Bill Hamling, whose imprints included Nightstand Books and Midnight Reader, and Scott Meredith had an exclusive deal to feed Hamling a steady supply of manuscripts. (Scott got 10 percent of what his writers were paid, of course, and we’ve since learned he also got a packaging fee of $1,000 a book. So when I wrote a book for $1,000, I received $900 and my agent pocketed $1,100. What a guy!)

By this time Evan was a bestselling author with an estate in Pound Ridge, up in Westchester County. He was writing about Carella and the guys in the Eight-Seven, and he was writing mainstream fiction as Evan Hunter, but he had time on his hands. He told Scott he could certainly spare a few days each month to knock out a book for Hamling.

And the extra dough would come in handy, because no one but Scott would know he was writing the books, and Scott would pay the money into a special account, which Evan could then use to pay the expenses of the girlfriend his then-wife didn’t know about.

Thus Dean Hudson, a pen name not too hard to decipher; Evan lived on or near the Hudson River, and was certainly entitled to see himself as the dean of Hamling’s faculty of eroticists. I don’t know how many books he wrote as Dean Hudson; somewhere along the way he tired of the sport, or perhaps broke up with the mistress, and Scott, never one to let go of a good thing, found some young hopeful to ghost Dean Hudson books, even as Don and I enlisted various up-and-comers (or down-and-outers) to write under the banners of Andrew Shaw and Alan Marshall.

Evan always refused to acknowledge that he’d written as Dean Hudson. He insisted, to interviewers and on his website, that he’d had nothing to do with the books. I don’t know what he might have said privately because the subject never came up between us.

While Evan hit the bestseller list a couple of time, it frustrated him that he didn’t sell better. Men and women who couldn’t write their names in the dirt with a stick were hitting the list all the time, and he wasn’t, and he couldn’t understand why. Once he and Don Westlake were on a plane together, lamenting the fact that neither of them was writing the sort of book that had a real shot at bestsellerdom. They agreed that each would make a special effort to come up with a genuinely commercial idea, and before the plane landed Don told Evan triumphantly that he’d done the trick.

The perfect can’t-miss idea had come to him.

The idea? The narrator’s an angel, sent to earth on a mission. Don wrote the book, called it Humans, and three or four people went out and actually bought it.

So much to say, so little space. Tune in next issue for the rest of the story...

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #118.