English cartoonist and author Colin Cotterill discusses his ‘friendship’ with Ed McBain
I love my dogs, my wife and my mother, although not necessarily in that order. On visits to the States I’m always astounded that people can love toothpaste, cars and pop stars they’ve never met. Although I am fond of my bed and my computer, the strongest emotion I can summon up for them is ‘like’. The same applies to books. I was brought up in a non-bookish environment and gravitated to sport. In a London comprehensive school, that meant making an early decision as to which ‘types’ you hung out with. Bill and Charlie and Chopper would no sooner be seen with a copy of Black Beauty open on their desks than Mr. Heatly, the R.E. teacher be seen browsing through his Penthouse collection, (Although he was later dismissed for doing just that.)
So it is with trepidation that I begin this short essay in honour of a marvelous lady who truly loved the books she reviewed. Maxine had many a kind word about my little mysteries and her enthusiasm went a good way towards encouraging me to continue writing when all hope of super-literary-stardom had passed me by. I wanted so much to join this parade of book lovers but I had no banner to carry, no flag to wave, no float to appear half-naked upon covered in glitter. I didn’t have a champion to hold up to the crowds and say, ‘This is the tome that made me what I am today’. I didn’t have a book to love.
But do not feel sad for me, gentle readers. I have had a long and passionate affair with the cinema and the silver screen has taught me much about extreme plotting, rapid character development and how to reach a climax in a hurry. But I began to wonder whether movies alone could be credited with turning me into the tepid crime writer I am today. Surely books had influenced me somewhere along the line. One does not become a competent tuba player by practicing on the violin. While I wracked my brain searching for an armoured auteur in the dusty corridors of my history, I did stumble over one gem that might have sparkled upon my career.
I was in Laos in a distant rural teachers college setting up a library. Upon hearing of my search for books in Thai language (There were no books in Lao) some expatriates decided to clear out their libraries and send me packing cases full of English discards. There was not much to entertain a boy in the Lao bush so I began to read the type of books in which I had erstwhile shown no interest. Many of these were crime novels. With a ho and a hum I opened the first Ed McBain. Surely television could do such dramas more efficiently. When I regained consciousness I had reached the denouement of book fifteen and lusted for more.
I had developed a relationship with detectives that no television had ever afforded me. And it was because television and film had done the thinking for me. They had made me a voyeur. But there is something far more satisfying about imagining what your neighbour’s wife looks like in the bath, than putting up a step ladder and seeing for yourself. She could never be more beautiful than in your imagination. And that’s what Ed had done for me. He had hinted at the nose and hair of the femme fatale and allowed me to fill in the rest of her in my mind. He had walked a potential victim down a dark lane and given me permission to paint the sounds and smells, to hear the footsteps, to sample the tension without background music. In a book, you are an active participant. You may choose to skip a description of a thick-piled Persian carpet or re-read beautiful prose that touches you. In a cinema you are outside looking in. In a book you are a participant.
Before Ed, I’d read in bytes, picking up a book only when there was absolutely nothing better to do. Then I read fifteen books in quick succession and had the time of my life. I don’t know what it was that sucked me in. There are better writers. There are more thrills to be had in thicker books. But Ed McBain had taught me how to read. As reviewers and educators, that’s what we should be focused on; teaching young folk how to read. We can do that through our enthusiasm, the type of passion that came through in the Petrona reviews.
And where does that leave me and Ed? Well, I still don’t love him but we have become very good friends.
author: Ed McBain is the most well-known pseudonym of author and screenwriter Evan Hunter which, in turn, is the legally adopted name of Salvatore Lombino. His best known work is the 55-book 87th precinct series which began with 1956’s COP HATER and ended with FIDDLERS published in 2005! This series is generally thought to have launched the sub genre known as the police procedural (and strongly influenced the authors discussed in last week’s essay). There are 15 standalone novels, numerous short story collections and another series featuring a lawyer which all bear McBain’s name and we haven’t touched upon the output under Hunter’s own name and his other pseudonyms.
Colin Cotterill is a cartoonist, illustrator and crime writer who has published nine novels set in 1970’s Laos featuring a reluctant septuagenarian coroner as the hero and recently started a new series set in present-day Thailand.