Evan Hunter, the author who as Ed McBain virtually invented the American police procedural with his gritty 87th Precinct series featuring an entire detective squad as its hero, died yesterday at his home in Weston, Conn. He was 78.
The cause was cancer of the larynx, said his agent, Jane Gelfman.
In a 50-year career, Mr. Hunter, sometimes as Ed McBain and sometimes using other names, wrote a vast number of best-selling novels, short stories, plays and film scripts. With the publication of "Cop Hater" in 1956, the first of the 87th Precinct novels, he took police fiction into a new, more realistic realm, a radical break from a form long dependent on the educated, aristocratic detective who works alone and takes his time puzzling out a case.
Set in a New York-like metropolis named Isola, "Cop Hater" laid down the formula that would define the urban police novel to this day, including the big, bad city as a character in the drama; 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.
Lending humanity to the grim stories that flood the 87th Precinct is a revolving ensemble cast that includes Detective Steve Carella, the heart and conscience of the squad room; his gentle, deaf wife, Teddy; the rocklike Detective Meyer Meyer, whose father refused to give him a first name because he didn't want to name him for "some goy"; Bert Kling, the rookie cop who plays Candide to his hard-bitten elders; and Fat Ollie Weeks, the equal-opportunity bigot.
For all the studied muscularity of his style as Ed McBain, Mr. Hunter considered himself an emotional writer rather than a hard-boiled one. "I think of myself as a softy," he once said. "I think the 87th Precinct novels are very sentimental, and the cops are idealistic guys." He was also a stern moralist, and in many of his novels, this aspect surfaced as a keening lament for the battered soul of his city.
"This was a city in decline," he wrote in "Kiss" (1992). "The cabby knew it because he drove all over this city and saw every part of it. Saw the strewn garbage and the torn mattresses and the plastic debris littering the grassy slopes of every highway, saw the bomb-crater potholes on distant streets, saw the black eyeless windows in the abandoned tenements, saw public phone booths without phones, saw public parks without benches, their slats torn up and carried away to burn, heard the homeless ranting or pleading or crying for mercy, heard the ambulance sirens and the police sirens day and night but never when you needed one, heard it all, and saw it all, and knew it all, and just rode on by."
The hard, blunt prose could not disguise a sophisticated stylist who hated to be pigeonholed as a genre writer. "Not procedurals," a character in "Romance" (1995) protests when someone slaps that label on books he writes. "Never procedurals. And not mysteries, either. They were simply novels about cops. The men and women in blue and in mufti, their wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, lovers, children, their head colds, stomachaches, menstrual cycles. Novels."
Although other practitioners adopted the conventions that continue to distinguish the realistic police procedural from the hard-boiled American private-eye novel and the genteel British detective mystery, many critics considered Mr. Hunter's command of the form to be matchless, an assessment with which he no doubt would have concurred.
"I feel that there is no other writer of police procedurals in the world from whom I can learn anything," he told John C. Carr, editor of "The Craft of Crime," "and in fact they all learn a lot from me." There wasn't any point in his reading the competition, he said. "That's like Michelangelo watching an apprentice paint in the white of an eye."
His peers shared that assessment. The Mystery Writers of America awarded Ed McBain its Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in 1986, and in 1998 he was the first American to receive a Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. Though his popularity with readers never flagged, by the early 1990's his 87th Precinct novels were particularly in vogue. And while earlier books in the series, like "Eighty Million Eyes" (1966), "Sadie When She Died" (1972) and "Fuzz" (1968), continue to be admired as vintage McBain, later, more complex works like "Widows" (1991), "Mischief" (1993) and "Money, Money, Money" (2001) racked up more robust sales in the United States and abroad. Ms. Gelfman, his agent, estimated that in 50 years of writing, he had sold more than 100 million copies of his work.
Despite his popularity, Mr. Hunter could give the impression of a literary talent who felt he had not been given his due, mainly because of the limited success of film and television adaptations of his books. Although several of his 87th Precinct novels were turned into films, and a number of the novels were adapted for television in Japan, it rankled that an American television series, "87th Precinct," was a failure in the 1960's.
Instead, the show that revolutionized prime-time crime drama was "Hill Street Blues" in the 1980's. Mr. Hunter had nothing to do with that series, but he ruefully held to the conviction that it had drawn its concept, characters and dramatic style from the McBain novels.
Despite his renown as Ed McBain, it was as Evan Hunter that the author had his first taste of literary acclaim, before he was 30. That was in 1954 for "The Blackboard Jungle," a somewhat autobiographical novel about a young teacher whose ideals are shattered when he is assigned to an urban vocational high school with a half-savage student body. The next year it was turned into a successful movie with Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. Mr. Hunter followed "The Blackboard Jungle" with other best-selling novels, including "Mothers and Daughters" (1961) and "Last Summer" (1968).
He also adapted some of his novels for the movies, including "Fuzz," a 1972 film starring Burt Reynolds, and "Strangers When We Meet" (1960), starring Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. But the most acclaimed of his 75 or so screenplays was the one for "The Birds," the classic 1963 film that he and Alfred Hitchcock adapted from a story by Daphne du Maurier.
Until illness sidelined him, Mr. Hunter had been collaborating with the composer Charles Strouse and the lyricist Susan Birkenhead on a musical stage version of the 1968 film comedy "The Night They Raided Minsky's," about burlesque theater in New York.
For many years, the Evan Hunter and Ed McBain bylines were strictly separated to avoid any confusion or shock that readers of Evan Hunter's "serious" books might feel when exposed to the "mayhem, bloodshed and violence" that were Ed McBain's meat and drink. The author later acknowledged a fusion of the literary styles he once considered distinct. "Evan Hunter and Ed McBain are truly becoming one," he said in 1992, and in 2001 the two wrote the novel "Candyland."
Neither name was his original one. He was born Salvatore Lombino on Oct. 15, 1926, in New York City, the only child of a postal employee, Charles Lombino, and his wife, the former Marie Coppola. He started writing while serving in the Navy during World War II. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College and held a teaching job that he would later draw on for "The Blackboard Jungle."
Though his Italian immigrant ancestry would inspire him to write a generational saga, "Streets of Gold" (1974), he changed his name in 1952, believing that "prejudice against writers with foreign names" led publishers to reject their work. "If you're an Italian-American, you're not supposed to be a literate person," he said in 1981.
Mr. Hunter's first two marriages, to Anita Melnick and Mary Vann Hughes, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Dragica; a son with Ms. Melnick, Ted, of San Miguel, Mexico; two sons with Ms. Hughes, Mark, of Paris, and Richard, of Monroe, Conn.; a stepdaughter, Amanda Finley of New York; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Hunter's first divorce, in 1973, led to the appearance of a new character, Matthew Hope, a Florida divorce lawyer. Hope became an Ed McBain hero in a separate series of novels, all bearing fairy-tale titles like "Goldilocks," the first, in 1978. After a dozen books, he quietly retired the series in 1998.
After a heart attack in the 1980's, Mr. Hunter modified his routine of writing 10 hours a day just about every day of the week. One result was fewer, darker, more thoughtful books and a new philosophy: "When it's no longer fun, I'll stop."
But he kept going. His current publisher, Otto Penzler/Harcourt, will bring out "Fiddlers," the 55th and last in the 87th Precinct series, in September, and "Learning to Kill," a collection of five decades of stories, next spring.