Toxic Shock

updated 04/03/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1995 01:00AM

BEFORE WRITING A WORD OF Scimitar, his 1992 thriller about a crafty assassin who plots to kill President George Bush with a deadly nerve gas called sarin, best-selling author Evan Hunter, known primarily for his mysteries under the pen name Ed McBain, worried about the potential danger of revealing in his novel the gas's lethal ingredients. "I found the real formula for sarin," says Hunter, sitting in his cluttered Norwalk, Conn., office. "What I needed for the plot, however, was a formula that seemed real but was fake, so I made one up. My concern was that some jackass reading the book would accidentally kill himself trying to make the stuff."

Last Monday, when terrorists released containers of liquid sarin on three Tokyo subway lines, Hunter was surprised to find his novel—a critical success but a commercial failure in the U.S.—in the news. Ten people died and more than 5,000 commuters were injured in the attack, and some reports raised the possibility that Scimitar had inspired a fiendish copycat.

"I doubt it," says the 68-year-old author about the novel, his first thriller and only book under the pseudonym John Abbott. "Violent people are violent without getting ideas from books. But if these people are terrorists, then they know how to do this already. They don't need info from me."

Not only can the formula for sarin, as Hunter notes, "be found in any number of books," the ingredients themselves are frighteningly easy to obtain. Researching Scimitar, he says, "I called one chemical company and ordered the components. They asked what we were going to use it for, and my secretary, who was making the call, said, 'I don't know, I'm new here. They do all sorts of experiments.' And they said, 'Fine, how do you want it? Fed Ex?' I couldn't believe it. It came in an ampule in a package with a small label that said Hazardous Material."

Concerned, Hunter called a scientist friend at Yale and asked how to dispose of the chemical. "Just flush it down the toilet?" Hunter inquired. The friend was aghast. "He yelled, 'No! It might contaminate the sewage system,' " Hunter recalls. "He brought it to a toxic waste unit, but he was very nervous driving around with that chemical in his car."

Another reason Hunter thinks Scimitar didn't inspire the Tokyo subway poisoning is that this was the second such incident in Japan. Last June, seven victims died after sarin was released, from a still unknown source, in Matsumoto, a mountain town west of the city. Hunter calls that release "probably a dress rehearsal for the subway attack."

The news of the subway attack reached Hunter at an otherwise upbeat moment. Last week the NBC movie, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct—based on his nom de plume's 87th Precinct novel Lightning—finished first in its Sunday night time slot. It was a bittersweet victory. "I'll be candid," he says. "I thought the first installment of the series was soft. These guys weren't acting like cops. The police procedure wasn't there."

Navigating between print and screen isn't new to Hunter. He followed his first big literary triumph, 1954's The Blackboard Jungle—a gritty novel about a New York City public school teacher's struggle to reach his class of street-tough kids—with a prodigious body of work, more than 100 novels in all. In 1962 he teamed with director Alfred Hitchcock to write the screenplay for The Birds. Recently Tom Cruise bought the rights to his novel Criminal Conversation, and Ed McBain's newest mystery, Romance, is now in stores.

These days, Hunter says, he writes at least a book a year (he used to regularly crank out two or three a year as a younger writer). "Evan is frightening," says his second wife, Mary Vann Hunter, 57, a novelist he married in 1973. (He has three grown sons from a first marriage which ended in divorce.) "He never agonizes or bangs his head when he's writing. He just sits there and turns out the stuff, and he writes wonderfully all the time. I think he's a bit crazy, but it's a psychosis well channeled."

No writer who makes a living describing methods of murder and mayhem can live entirely without second thoughts. Hunter, for one, has drawn a line he says he will not cross. "I've had an idea for a mystery novel for a long time that I haven't written because I know it works and I know the killer would get away with it," he says. "I'll never write it for that reason." He pauses. "I am sorry that all these people died in Japan, but I didn't kill them; terrorists did. If it did turn out that they got the idea for sarin from my book, I would be enormously regretful. I would be very, very sorry. I wouldn't know how to deal with that. It would stop me dead in my tracks."

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