Evan Hunter Biography

Born Salvatore Albert Lombino, October 15, 1926, in New York, NY; died of cancer, July 6, 2005, in Weston, CT. Author. Evan Hunter wrote more than 50 crime-fiction novels under the pen name Ed McBain, scoring numerous bestsellers as well as a place in American letters as the creator of a new literary form. "WithoutMcBain, there would probably be no Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, or Law & Order, " asserted Adam B. Vary in Entertainment Weekly, who also claimed that in the mid-1950s the writer "essentially invented the American police procedural with a single pulp paperback."

Hunter was born Salvatore Lombino in 1926 in the New York City kitchen of his Italian-immigrant parents. The metropolis would later serve as the model for his fictional city of Isola that featured so prominently in his detective stories. He began writing while serving in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946. "I was on a destroyer in the peacetime Pacific, and there wasn't much else to do," the Washington Post 's Adam Bernstein quoted him as saying. Those early efforts all met with rejection from publishers, but Hunter did score some success writing science-fiction tales for pulp magazines after he earned a degree from Hunter College in 1950. Believing that mainstream publishers dismissed his work because of his Italian-heritage name, he changed it to Evan Hunter in 1952.

Newly married and with a growing family, Hunter struggled to make ends meet while writing on the side. He worked as a pianist, vocational-education teacher, lobster salesperson, and for a literary agency. The last job opened some doors in the book business for him, but his stint as a teacher served as the basis for his first genuine success, a 1954 novel called The Blackboard Jungle. The story of an idealistic educator and a classroom full of streetwise urban teens, the book sold five million copies and was made into an equally successful movie starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier.

Hunter's foray into crime fiction came not long afterward, when he was recruited by an editor looking for an author to write a series in the style of Erle Stanley Gardner's profitable "Perry Mason" mysteries. The first Ed McBain book was Cop Hater, published in 1956, and Hunter gave the story not just one but several heroes in the form of an entire police precinct in a city called Isola. New York Times crime-fiction reviewer Marilyn Stasio called the novel "a radical break from a form long dependent on the educated, aristocratic detective who works alone and takes his time puzzling out a case."

Cop Hater became the first title in Hunter's long-running "87th Precinct" series, which featured recurring characters such as Detective Steve Carella and his deaf-mute wife, Teddy. As the landscape of urban America changed, so did Hunter's McBain stories, reflecting an increasingly grim and violent Isola. Other trademarks of the series were, noted Stasio, "multiple story lines; swift, cinematic exposition; brutal action scenes and searing images of ghetto violence; methodical teamwork; authentic forensic procedures; and tough, cynical yet sympathetic police officers speaking dialogue so real that it could have been soaked up in a Queens diner between squad shifts."

The McBain stories were adapted for television in a short-lived NBC series, 87th Precinct, that ran in the early 1960s, but the formula of making an entire squad of cops the central focus was more successfully deployed in later small-screen dramas, beginning with Hill Street Blues in the 1980s. Hunter also worked as a screenwriter, most notably for Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 shocker The Birds, while other works of his inspired filmmakers such as esteemed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who translated his 1959 novel King's Ransom into the film High and Low. One of the novels he wrote outside the crime-fiction genre, a 1958 suburban melodrama titled Strangers When We Meet, was made into the 1960 film of the same title, which starred Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak.

Hunter regularly put in ten hours a day at his desk, seven days a week, until he was slowed by a heart attack in the 1980s. Later titles of his included the 1997 memoir Hitch and Me, recounting his collaboration with Hitchcock, and Let's Talk, which chronicled his bout with cancer of the larynx. The 87th Precinct stories as Ed McBain, however, remained a publishing tour de force, with the final one, Fiddlers, published two months after his death. Over the course of a five-decade career, Hunter sold an estimated 100 million books, and earned several honors, including the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement from the Mystery Writers of America. He died of cancer at age 78 at his Weston, Connecticut, home on July 6, 2005. Hunter is survived by his third wife, Dragica Dimitrijevic-Hunter; sons Mark, Richard, and Ted, from his first marriage to Anita Melnick; and stepdaughter Amanda Finley. Sources: Entertainment Weekly , July 22, 2005, p. 13; Independent (London, England), July 8, 2005, p. 66; New York Times, July 7, 2005, p. B10; Washington Post, July 7, 2005, p. B6.

Carol Brennan

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