By Any Name but His Own
03/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
EVAN HUNTER'S WRITING CAREER IS like an efficient meat-packing plant. He uses every part of life's carcass in his work. After he had spent a miserable few months as an English teacher in a New York City high school where kids came at each other with baseball bats, he quit and in 1954 wrote his first book, a blistering exposé, The Blackboard Jungle. In 1958, when he soured on the suburbs and felt a tremor in his first marriage, he wrote Strangers When We Meet, a book about adultery and moral drift.
In his latest book, Kiss, which hit the best-seller lists this month, Hunter taps into contemporary social injustices, writing about a vapid yuppie blind to the poverty and urban mayhem around her. Like the other 42 novels (of the mythical 87th Precinct series) Hunter has written under the pen name Ed McBain—picked when he was writing mysteries for pulp magazines and wanted to preserve his own name for "serious" fiction—Kiss is set in the imaginary city Isola. He is about to complete the manuscript for his next McBain book, Mary, Mary. In addition, under his own and other names, Hunter has written 30 novels and four children's books, for a total of 77 volumes.
Hunter, 65, turns out books at an astonishing pace, sealing himself in the den of his home in Connecticut or his apartment in Manhattan to whack out 10 pages of polished prose by dinnertime. And he never seems to tire of his hard-boiled themes. "Real murder is ugly," he says. "But fictional murder can be interesting. You start out with a corpse, or someone about to become a corpse, and it moves on from there."
Occasionally, though, he must break this routine to restock his store of experience. When his three sons were young, he would knock off to play cops and robbers. Now, with his second wife, Mary Vann, he plays mind games, searching for plots and book titles. And he travels, charming law enforcement officials from Rome to Tokyo into dropping stories and professional secrets like pearls in his lap. "It keeps me fresh," he says of his travels and briefings.
As they ride back and forth between their pied-à-terre on the moneyed East Side of Manhattan and their expensively converted mill on the Silvermine River in New Canaan, Conn., Hunter and Vann, a former novelist who now manages her husband's career, will toss out book-title ideas, using letters of the alphabet. When he suggested the letter "I" years ago, she offered "Ice."
"A great start. Ice. I had a book that takes place in winter, maybe with diamonds," says Hunter who wrote just such a book in 1983. "I was using the alphabet to name my books long before Sue Grafton."
Hunter's life has slowed down a little since a serious heart attack four years ago. No more back-to-back cigarettes, less cholesterol and fewer pages a day. But as he has turned out less, critics have grown kinder. A New York Times reviewer praised him faintly as an "industrious novelist" in 1959; 33 years later, another Times reviewer called Kiss "masterly." In all modesty, Hunter tends to agree. "I know my work will be read long after I am gone," he says.
Born in Manhattan to a postman and his wife, Hunter says he "wanted to do something at which I was better than anyone else." He graduated from Hunter College and spent a few months of combat teaching in New York City before deciding that writing seemed a safer art. In 1952 he joined a literary agency to learn the ropes. He changed his name from Salvatore Lombino to Evan Hunter when he detected "an ethnic bias against Italian-named writers."
In 1953, with $3,000 in the bank, Hunter quit his job to write full-time. "I was down to my last $300 when I sold a chapter of The Blackboard Jungle" he says. "Nothing in my life has been as wonderful."
By then, he and his first wife. Anita (they divorced in 1973), had three sons: Ted, now 41 and a painter; Mark, 39, a journalist; and his twin brother, Richard, a computer expert. Vann, whom he married soon after his divorce, brought a daughter, Amanda, now 29 and a social worker, to the family.
These days Hunter spends much of his city time strolling the streets of Manhattan. "I don't like seeing the homeless," he says. "I pay taxes to have government take care of them, and it makes me crazy that they are neglected." Often, to the dismay of some readers, he inserts such social concerns into his books. "I get flak in the mail," he says with a shrug. "But my only obligation to the reader is to be entertaining."
Such criticism, and all other pressures, seem remote when he and Mary-are seated on the deck of their country home, gazing at the river that flows past their door. "Why do I bother putting up with the city or going to Paris when I can stay here and have all this?" Hunter wonders.
Perhaps because he knows that waiting somewhere between the slaughterhouse of reality and the safety of his word processor, there is fresh meat for another story.