Without Evan Hunter, a.k.a. Ed McBain, there would probably be no Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, or Law & Order. The prolific novelist, who died of cancer July 6 at 78, essentially invented the American police procedural with a single pulp paperback.
The book was 1956’s Cop Hater, and it marked a decisive turn in a varied career. Hunter, born Salvatore Lombino in New York City (he changed his name to avoid discrimination), had staked his first literary claim two years earlier with his semiautobiographical The Blackboard Jungle, a look at the life of an inner-city high school teacher. It was made into a popular 1955 film starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier.
When he penned Cop Hater, Hunter invented the McBain pseudonym to protect his reputation as a serious novelist. But it turned out to be the book that established his legacy in pop storytelling. Set in a fictitious big city, the crime story eschewed the lone PI hero that had long defined the genre and instead meticulously chronicled an entire precinct’s pursuit of a murder case. The book was a big enough success to yield 54 follow-ups over the next 50 years, the best of which were crafted with unpretentious, unflinching authority. (The final installment, Fiddlers, is due in September.) And the author amusingly nodded to his alter ego’s fame by having the two ”coauthor” the 2001 novel Candyland.
For all his influence on other crime novelists and his movie legacy (which included the screenplay for The Birds), Hunter may have made his most lasting impact on TV. ”He established so many conventions that came to be gospel,” says NYPD Blue cocreator David Milch. ”If someone came to me and asked how to write a police procedural and they hadn’t already read Ed McBain, I’d tell them to take a hike.”