"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Other Hunter, and John Creasey

I am grateful to Jay Homnick for mentioning Evan Hunter, the bestselling mystery writer who died this past Wednesday at the age of 78.

Pace Jay, I don't think Hunter was Jewish—his birth name was Salvatore Lombino. And like so many prominent writers who started in the '40s and '50s, he appears to have had no more religion than a lump of coal. (Think Bradbury, Asimov, Highsmith, etc.)

Hunter was certainly a talented writer, however, and his books sold in the tens of millions, especially the mysteries he wrote under the name of Ed McBain. His 87th Precinct series, set in the fictional city of Isola, was his most notable achievement. He wrote some non-genre novels under the name of Evan Hunter, including The Blackboard Jungle, and about 75 screenplays, the best of which was probably the script for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, freely adapted from a story by Daphne du Maurier.

The ideas Hunter held were far from original or deep, and I would add that his story lines were likewise. In addition, he was not the creator of the police procecural genre (which Jay did not claim for him but others have done).

That distinction goes to John Creasey, the English author of over 500 novels in a variety of series, most of them in the mystery and suspense field. Creasey's books are well worth reading. How he wrote so much so well, is a mystery in itself, even if the use of formulas did help a good deal. Creasey's Gideon series, written under the pseudonyn of J. J. Marric, established the police procedural novel as a form, and they are excellent (within the limitations of the genre, of course; we're comparing him to Hunter/McBain, Dell Shannon, Joseph Wambaugh, K. C. Constantine, and the like, not to Dostoyevsky).

Creasey's Baron series and his Toff books approached the genre from the rogue/adventurer side, with Saint-like characters at the center. Great fun, and some very good insights into human character along the way. I highly recommend that readers seek out some of Creasey's books. His tales are also free of politics (the ones I've read, anyway), at least on the surface. The stories have serious implications, but Creasey is content to let the readers find them for themselves if they wish to do so.

Over on this side of the pond, Evan Hunter was a first-rate writer of mystery genre fiction, with two huge, overriding gifts. One was that he worked very hard. Those of us who write much, know that the courage to forge ahead is a more important and valuable characteristic than most people can imagine. Hunter was blessed with great self-confidence, and he wrote for ten hours a day nearly every day. That is truly impressive dedication to a craft. In fact, it would surely be classified as pathological had it not been for Hunter's other great advantage as a writer.

That is that he was a born storyteller. Hunter knew just how much to tell the reader and when, and could intuitively push a story forward at just the right pace and the appropriate depth of scene-setting and characterization to keep a reader enthralled. Again, this is a rare talent.

In addition, Hunter had good taste in how far to push his subject matter into various areas of human behavior, was a fairly thoughtful person (though by no means deep, as noted earlier), and truly cared about people. He clearly wanted to be more than he was, which was a talented genre writer, and I do not think that there is much reason for many of his books to remain in print for very long after his recent death, but he was a highly talented, caring, and dedicated storyteller who wrote a lot of books that sold well for the right reasons.

People will continue to read Cop Hater and one or two others, and Hunter will have a legacy as the author who brought the police procedural to the U.S. audience. That is rather less than what he sought for, but it is a worthy achievement nonetheless.


Hunter Baker said...

Karnacek, I love these bits you roll out on various writers. Really great stuff. You should issue a page-a-day calendar on mystery/hard-boiled/pulp-fiction writers and books. I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks, dude.