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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Let Me Introduce You to My Old Friend, Ed

                                                                                             November, 2014

Dear Friends and Family:

Winter’s come early around these parts.  Not all bad.  Yesterday it was cold and blowing enough to motivate me to build a fire and rekindle my relationship with Ed.  That’s Ed McBain.  I never really met Ed McBain (although we exchanged emails a few times) and never will, as he’s no longer among the living.  But, I’ve read about everything he’s ever written.  He is my favorite all-time author and there isn’t even a close second. 

I was introduced to Ed in the most roundabout of ways.  Several years ago my wife, Juca, came home from her teaching gig at the Indianapolis Bureau of Jewish Education, excited to give me a book she found in that school’s library.  It was a mystery (I’m all about mysteries) written by a Northwestern University professor, Stuart M. Kominsky.  The reason Juca knew I would love it was because it was about an old Chicago detective named Abe Lieberman.  His wife was the president of a fictitious synagogue.   Most important though, Liberman lived on the North side of Chi-town in an area called Rogers Park.  That is the neighborhood where I grew up.  Kominsky knew every street in the neighborhood and so did I.  I did love the book and several “Liberman” sagas that followed. 

Then I discovered that Kominsky also wrote a series of mysteries about a Russian Chief of Detectives whose name was Rostnikov.  They were great stories.  The Jewish tie was Rostnikov’s wife.  There was always something Jewish in those two Kaminisky series.  In addition, Chief Rostnikov loved reading books by a fellow named Ed McBain.  I had no idea that McBain was a real-life person.  Imagine my surprise when I went to the mysteries section in the library and discovered a whole shelf devoted to McBain.  I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s Rostnikov’s McBain.”  Well, he became Klotz’s McBain too.

Ed McBain’s first great success was a book made into a movie, called “The Blackboard Jungle.”  He also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”  But Ed McBain’s most popular books were his Eighty-Seventh precinct series.  He wrote over fifty of them, and they are all terrific.  The 87th is a precinct of detectives in a fictitious city that closely resembles New York.  Over the years I’ve come to know these detectives very well.  These books are called police procedurals.  They really take the reader through the process of solving crimes, as seen through the detectives’ eyes. 

But here’s the thing.  Within each book McBain intersperses essays on any number of subjects, which are masterfully written.  If you want a great example, pick up the book “Kiss.”  From pages 23 through 26 we are treated to an incredible description of the title character, Steve Carella’s Italian family celebrating New Year’s Eve.  It is beautifully written, detailed, and very human.  As usual such essays are not essential to the story.  But they certainly help the reader better understand the characters and see their behind-the-scenes stories.  McBain’s detectives are very ethnic.  There’s a Jew, an Italian, an African-American, a Japanese-American, and several just Americans (but never just plain Americans); all with interesting histories and quirks.  Fat Ollie Weeks is a good example.  He is actually from a neighboring precinct but likes to drop in at the 87th.  Weeks’ unique characteristic is that he is a slob, who often has a bit of an odor about him, but isn’t a bad detective.  The cops, along with the bad people (certainly not all guys) give McBain ample material for colorful side essays.  He’s a master at painting pictures with words.  When you read Ed McBain’s words you see the scenes unfold in your mind’s eye.  That’s good storytelling.  It’s like listening to a good announcer describe a ball game on the radio. 

So I owe Juca a big thank you for bringing Abe Lieberman home; and another to Lieberman for leading me to Rostnikov.  I certainly should thank that very clever Russian Chief of Detectives for solving mysteries and loving books by Ed McBain. 

What a pleasure yesterday afternoon, to sit by the fire with an old friend, join an Italian family for New Years, and get back into the eighty-seventh precinct, as gritty and real, and human as ever.