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A READING LIFE

The poet of the procedural

You may not know, may not have taken notice, but cracks have opened in the earth beneath you. A great void has entered the world.

Evan Hunter is dead.

With him go Richard Marsten, Curt Cannon, Hunt Collins, Ezra Hannon, and Ed McBain.

So I will put aside the column I had intended to write in order to pay my respects to one whose like we will not see again. When a great individual leaves us, we are all the lesser for it.

You can find the facts easily enough elsewhere. Born Salvatore Lombino in East Harlem, N.Y., 1926. Changed his name legally in 1952. Following four earlier books, published ''The Blackboard Jungle" in 1954 to great acclaim, published as Ed McBain the first 87th Precinct novel, ''Cop Hater," two years later, a year after the movie version of ''Jungle" came out. Tapped to work with Hitchcock, wrote the screenplay for 1963's ''The Birds." All in all, published 55 Precinct novels (the final entry will come out this fall) and, in addition to screenplays and story collections, close to the same number of literary, pseudonymous and other series novels. Died of throat cancer, age 78.

But the facts have little purchase here. This is a personal memoir, a declaration of how important Hunter has been to me as reader and as writer. A statement of my loss.

Let me say right away that ''Streets of Gold" is a novel I return to again and again, a great novel of America's immigrants and a great novel about music all in one, and one of my all-time favorites. So I am not giving short shrift to Hunter's literary novels. But for me personally, and especially as a writer, the 87th Precinct novels proved most important. Each year students hear from me how, when I began writing crime fiction, I'd order Ed McBain novels by mail, six at a time, directly from Signet. There is no way I can overstate how much I learned from him, or how much pleasure his work has given me over the years.

Musicologist Frederic V. Grunfeld wrote of Charlie Christian that there is jazz guitar before him, and jazz guitar after, and they sound like two different instruments. So it is with Ed McBain and the crime novel.

He didn't ''invent" the police procedural. Lawrence Treat and Hillary Waugh among others had written prior procedurals. What Hunter/McBain did -- as fellow crime writer and great Times reviewer Anthony Boucher noted -- was nail it in place: ''McBain's performance was something possibly even more valuable than invention: at exactly the right historical moment he managed to write, with more striking effect than anyone before him, what readers were hungering for with already whetted appetites."

He'd struck much the same chord before, in another avatar, with ''The Blackboard Jungle."

Save in the quality of their writing, the early Precinct novels are in fact not all that distinct from other genre work of the time. But as they progress, Hunter, like his jazz pianist in ''Streets of Gold," insists upon finding out ''what's in there." He divines fresh possibilities, new approaches, different tacks -- and the novels begin to unfold, to become so much more than the 160 or 300 pages they occupy. Reading the run of the Precinct novels, we watch a writer mature before our eyes, see him come into complete control of his voice and materials.

I learned of Hunter's death scant weeks after reading proof for my new novel, the dedication of which reads ''To Ed McBain, Donald Westlake and Larry Block -- three great American writers." Neither the dedication nor its wording was lightly chosen.

I met him only once, three years ago, when we were both guests of a French-sponsored literary conference in the Bahamas. Gathering courage and waiting until he was momentarily away from the throng of other admirers, I introduced myself, stuttered over how much I loved ''Streets of Gold," and went on mumbling things that I'm sure embarrassed us both. There are not many who can turn a veteran writer like myself into a blithering fan, or render all but speechless a man who for 40-odd years has made his living with words. Evan Hunter did.

This, then, is my moment of silence for the man whose last book, a memoir of his fight against throat cancer, was ''Let's Talk." We will be listening to him for a very long time.

James Sallis's novel ''Drive" will be published in September by Poisoned Pen Press.

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