Learning to Kill: Stories
Long before Quentin Tarantino popularized the term, there once was
a real world of "pulp fiction." For the first half of the 20th
century, magazines printed on cheap "pulp" paper with names like
Black Mask, Manhunt and Argosy thrilled readers with lurid covers
and often equally lurid tales of crime and violence, among other
illicit subjects. The pulps were what businessmen read to relax on
trips and teenage boys read with flashlights late at night in their
The pulps didn't pay much to writers, only pennies per word ---
some things never change --- and most highbrow literary types
considered these writers "hacks." Some were. But the best pulp
writers created the modern American mystery novel, hard-boiled
crime fiction and film noir. They became literary greats like
Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and Ed
McBain, best known as the author of the 87th Precinct police
procedurals, died in July 2005. But one of his last works was to
put together LEARNING TO KILL, an anthology of 25 short stories he
wrote between 1952 and 1957. These stories give not only a glimpse
into the long-lost world of the pulps, but also show the emergence
of a great writer learning his craft.
For anyone who has ever enjoyed an 87th Precinct novel, this
is essential reading. The stories were carefully selected by McBain
and organized into seven mystery genres. As an added bonus, McBain
wrote an introduction to each story that, unfortunately for his
millions of fans, will have to serve as a memoir. The stories and
commentary make this book an enjoyable, entertaining read.
Like in a great noir film, things were never quite what they seemed
in the world of the pulps. For instance, when the stories in
LEARNING TO KILL were originally published, Ed McBain was not
credited as the author of any of them. They were written under two
pen names and the name Evan Hunter, which in 1952 became the legal
name of the fellow who grew up as Salvatore Lombino in East Harlem,
Indeed, we learn here that nom de plum McBain was not even
created until 1956. About a decade ago, I interviewed McBain and
asked him why he had so many names. He told me, "When I was writing
for the pulps, I used a lot of different names because I wanted to
sell as much as I could."
From 1952 to 1953, he was making $40 a week working at the Scott
Meredith Literary Agency. If a pulp wanted a 2,000-word western or
mystery or science fiction story, and the agency didn't have
anything like that written by a client, McBain would go home that
night, write the story himself and put another name on it.
For pennies a word, a writer had to be creative. In those days,
before television killed the pulps and short stories in general, a
writer could learn his craft in these magazines. And we see many
examples of this in LEARNING TO KILL. McBain tells us early on that
the collection "is about learning to write crime fiction."
Twenty of these stories were printed in Manhunt, which McBain
described as the "hottest detective magazine of the day." And one
thing that Manhunt did was not just go in for the titillation and
plot twists common to the genre; they also emphasized the
development of character in stories.
And this is evident in McBain's early work, a clear precursor to
what will follow in the 87th Precinct series. There are
stories about Kids and Women in Trouble. We find stories about
Innocent Bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time along with
chilling tales of Loose Cannon psychopaths. There is a story
featuring a deaf mute girl who eventually will be reincarnated in
the 87th series as the beloved Teddy Carella, wife of lead
cop Steve Carella.
All the elements are present in these stories. "The Big Day" is a
perfectly planned heist-gone-wrong story, which will be repeated
and expanded upon in the five deaf man novels of the 87th
series. There are three fascinating Private Eye stories included
here, as we see McBain struggling with that genre before reaching
the conclusion that "cops were the only people who have any right
to be sticking their noses in murder investigations."
In "Kiss Me, Dudley" McBain imitates an over-the-top Mickey
Spillane story. As McBain wisely notes, "When you start writing
parodies of private eye stories, it's time to stop writing them."
And he did, fortunately for us.
This collection also contains three of his first cop stories. He
acknowledges "that I knew nothing about cops or police routine
except what I had learned from "Dragnet" on radio and television."
That would change soon enough. He started work on the first 87th
Precinct in 1955 and published the last one, FIDDLERS, in
McBain was always an excellent recorder of the times he wrote
about, and that is evident here as well. We meet 1950s gang bangers
with their studded leather jackets and slicked back hair, using
words like "dig" and "dad."
But there is something else here. Hunter/McBain was not just a
"pulp" writer; he was a serious "literary" author as well. While
writing these "pulp" stories, Hunter published a novel in 1953
called THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. He had left the literary agency by
then. I was amazed when he told me in 1996 that he had just $300
left in his bank account when he sold 90 pages of that book.
Even in the 1950s, the life of a writer could be a precarious one,
economically, especially when Manhunt was paying, he tells us in
Learning, "two or three cents a word."
But somehow, great writing prevails. There are two stories that
close this collection --- "On the Sidewalk, Bleeding" and "The Last
Spin --- that transcend the world of the pulps altogether and
become examples of great American writing. When McBain writes from
the point of view of a 16-year-old gang member bleeding to death
alone in the pouring rain in an alley, the writing is as powerful
and eloquent and beautiful as any short story ever written in
American literature. These last two stories are
"I told myself, I am going to write these well," he said during our
interview about those early days. "That's going to be the first
thing." This collection proves that he certainly did that and
In the afterword to LEARNING TO KILL, written in December 2004,
McBain says a simple goodbye: "From the first offense to the last
spin, it was a remarkable journey. Thank you for sharing it with me
The world of the pulps might be gone and so is Ed McBain. But his
work, as demonstrated in LEARNING TO KILL, will live on and be read
for generations. For that, we should be thanking him.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on December 30, 2010