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LITERARY TYPE IS HAPPY IN CRIME GENRE TOO

LITERARY TYPE IS HAPPY IN CRIME GENRE TOO

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Evan Hunter and Ed McBain share the same office, the same computer, the same body and the same wife. But that's where the similarities end.

Evan Hunter is a literary type, author of ``The Blackboard Jungle,' ``Last Summer' and 13 other mainstream works.Ed McBain, creator of the ``87th Precinct' cop novels, is as hard-boiled as a 12-minute egg. His latest novel, ``Vespers' (Morrow, $18.95), begins with the savage murder of a priest in his rectory garden and escalates into a dark tale of Satanism and revenge.

Somehow, the two writers have co-existed for 34 years without getting schizophrenic, said Hunter, who began using the McBain pseudonym when he launched the ``87th Precinct' series in 1956 with ``Cop Hater.'

``I chose a pseudonym because I didn't want to mislead people into believing they were buying a mainstream novel, and then opening the book to find a man with an ax sticking out of his head,' Hunter said in an interview from his Connecticut home.

Since then, he has written 42 of the police novels and earned the Grand Master title from the Mystery Writers of America. In 1985, Newsweek named his book ``Ice' (1983), one of the 10 best mystery novels of the 20th century.

``I feel as if the two authors are getting closer together now,' Hunter said. ``I think for a long time, Evan Hunter was afraid to laugh in his books. It was if he said, 'This is a serious one, so let's make it serious, serious, serious.' There's always humor in the McBain novels. Sometimes it's dark humor, sometimes it's slapstick.'

The new Hunter novel, ``Hello, I Must Be Going,' which he hopes to get published this fall - and describes only as an 800-page book beginning with Neanderthal man and continuing to the present - has more humor than any of the others.

``It's the best writing I've done,' he said.

It is also his first Hunter effort since the ill-fated ``Lizzie' in 1984, a novel based on Lizzie Borden that combined serious writing with a mystery. The book sold worse than any of his others.

``It almost put me off writing another Evan Hunter novel,' he said. After that, he decided to let McBain stick to crime and let Hunter handle the other themes.

Although critics still pigeonhole McBain novels in the hard-boiled crime genre, the 64-year-old Manhattan native insists there is no difference between a first-class mystery and a mainstream novel.

``Every good novel is a mystery,' he said. ``There is someone who is coping with a problem, and he's going to solve that problem by the end of the book. What makes us keep reading is to find out if he's going to solve it and how he's going to solve it. That's good fiction.'

Before he became a writer in the early 1950s, Hunter taught English in two New York vocational high schools, sold Maine lobsters by telephone and worked as an editor at a New York literary agency.

Writing after work on weekends to supplement his income, he published a paperback mystery, a science-fiction novel for boys and 60 short stories for magazines ranging from Ladies' Home Journal to Argosy before striking pay dirt with ``The Blackboard Jungle' in 1954.

He followed that best seller with two others, ``Second Ending' (1956) and ``Strangers When We Meet' (1958), before heading for Hollywood to write screenplays for films such as Alfred Hitchcock's ``The Birds' (1962).

Now married to North Carolina native Mary Vann Finley, Hunter has an apartment in New York and a home in rural Connecticut. He makes a daily trek between his house and an artist's studio, where he works eight hours a day - ``just like an honest job,' he says, joking.

He admits the ``87th Precinct' novels have taken on a darker tone in recent years - a trend reflected in his own grim view of a society riddled with drugs and violent crime.

But on the brighter side, rising crime usually means more readers for mysteries and escapist novels.

``I have a theory that when things get bad out there, when there's more crime in the streets than we can deal with sanely, we need some kind of reassurance that things are going to be all right again,' he said.

``If you read about violent crime in a novel, or a murder, you know that by the end of it, it's going to be solved. It's not always that way in real life.'

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