If you’ve ever whiled away an evening watching 21 Jump Street or Law & Order, you owe Salvatore Lombino a debt of gratitude. He virtually created the police procedural, that durable crime-fiction subgenre of which Americans never seem to tire. Not that you’d know him by that name, though. When he began his creative career as a reader at a literary agency, Lombino learned that editors didn’t like publishing pieces from authors with "ethnic" names, so he changed his to Evan Hunter. Then when he wanted to pen crime tales, he went by Ed McBain and eventually wrote the influential 87th Precinct novels, churning out scores of them from 1956 until 2005. But in the early days, McBain cut his teeth on short stories, twenty-five of which are collected in Learning to Kill.
A number of the shorts have kept their sheen over half a century since original publication. A private investigator quickly ends up over his head while trying to discover why a "Death Flight" fell out of the sky. A pair of feuding gang members strike up a tentative friendship over a game of Russian Roulette in the poignant "The Last Spin." And McBain puts deliciously noirish twists on stories about a bystander accused of a crime he didn’t commit ("Runaway") and a north-Florida boat operator who gets more than he bargained for when he takes out a pair of clients during a week of bad weather ("Downpour").
Unfortunately, the rest have gone a bit dull with the years. The procedurals, in particular, feel tired and rote. Decades of weeknight television have stripped any surprise from storylines about bank heists gone wrong ("The Big Day"), dead infants dumped in churches ("Small Homicide") and cops killed by hit-and-run drivers ("Accident Report"). Also, one doesn’t have to be a card-carrying member of N.O.W. to feel uncomfortable with a story that centers on a woman being felt up during a subway ride ("The Molested") or a private-eye satire that has a gal getting cold-cocked multiple times ("Kiss Me, Dudley"). McBain fans will probably find lots to like, but there are better ways for the rest of us to murder our free time.
(Picture: CC 2009 by Scott Butner)