Just before his death last year, Ed McBain oversaw the compilation of twenty-five of his earliest stories. This collection, Learning to Kill, is a wonderful look back at (so my wife says) one of the best crime writers ever. Yes, that's right. I've never read an Ed McBain book before, so I probably didn't get as much out of this book as true fans would have, but even I can see the seeds of what became a brilliant career in these stories. All were published between 1952 and 1957, and they run the gamut from private detectives (a genre he swiftly removed himself from because he felt that only cops should be investigating murders) to "loose cannons" to the general cops-and-robbers that eventually became his bread and butter. One thing I can definitely say about this book is that it has increased my desire to read some of his 87th Precinct novels.
In a wonderful introduction, McBain details the history of his start in the writing business - responding to a blind ad in The New York Times for an editor that turned out to be from a literary agency. He almost turned it down when he discovered it was an agency, but quickly changed his mind when he found out why the person he was replacing was leaving; he was making too much money writing his own stories to make staying in that position worth it. McBain jumped at the chance, and the rest is history. Once he was established, he began submitting his own work as well as handling other clients, and many of these stories are published in this book. The book is appropriately named - McBain literally learned and honed his craft here. In the previews of the stories, he tells where the story was published (mostly in Manhunt magazine, but there are a few others) and gives some background on it. This background, written fifty years after the fact, is definitely intriguing.
The meat of the book, however, is the stories, and there are definitely some good ones here, grouped by subject: Kids, Women in Jeopardy, Private Eyes, Cops and Robbers, Innocent Bystanders, Loose Cannons, and Gangs. Most impressive are the ones dealing with cops; that seems to be where he's most comfortable (to which fifty years of 87th Precinct novels can attest). These fly with ease off the page. Interestingly, McBain says that he didn't do research because he wasn't getting paid enough for each story to do much - all of his police procedures were taken from Dragnet and other outside sources. None of the stories in this section have any real twists and turns but are straight police procedurals where the cops do the digging and eventually find the killer. While they are not complex, their simplicity is refreshing.
There are other standout stories in the collection, too. Most powerful (though unfortunately, a bit clichéd) is the last story in the book, in the "Gangs" section, called "The Last Spin." It details two kids in rival gangs who have agreed to sort out the gangs' differences by playing a game of Russian Roulette. In the process of the game, they get to know each other. The ending is inevitable, but I the power in this story is found in the relationship that develops between these two. The writing is evocative, and while the ending is a foregone conclusion, that almost adds to the tragedy in the story.
Another powerful story is the other gang entry, "On the Sidewalk, Bleeding." A young gang member lies bleeding in an alleyway, another victim in ongoing rivalry between the two gangs. At first, he doesn't believe he's dying, just in pain, and he wishes that somebody would just come to help him. As he lies there, a few people do stumble upon him, but for one reason or another, are unable (or unwilling) to help him. He just lies there reflecting, eventually coming to a revelation. The end of the story (I won't tell you if he lives or dies) makes that revelation moot, instead demonstrating that things will stay the same on the streets. The writing is gripping, and even though nothing "happens" (it's just a boy lying bleeding on the street), the tale of this kid's life, his dreams, and his desire to become more than just a "color" keeps the reader going.
I actively disliked several of the collected stories, but it is telling that it seems he never really went back to the genre. All of the stories in the "Loose Cannons" section are about seriously disturbed men who end up killing somebody because of their psychoses. The subjects (I can't really say "protagonists") are not that interesting, but they are slightly disturbing.
Otherwise, every one of the stories in Learning to Kill had at least some interest in it. Some are not as well-written as others, but all hold the reader’s attention; their combination made me almost race through the book. It is interesting to take a look back at crime writing from the 1950s, especially when McBain references "the war." In this day of CSI and its spin-offs, the way the lab is handled in these stories is in itself intriguing. That was a different age, and these stories reflect that. Learning to Kill is a fascinating look at the development of a veteran author.