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ED MCBAIN Bang on the Money

Written by Mike Stotter

Ed McBain is the pen-name for Evan Hunter. His credits includeThe Blackboard Jungle and screenplay to Alfred Hitchock's The Birds. His excellent 87th Precinct mystery series has just reached its 51st novel, entitled Money, Money, Money. On his last visit to England he was the recipient of the Crime Writers' Association/ Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for A Life Time Achievement. Now he was back again, this time in the heart of Mayfair, ready to talk about his latest novel. 


They say that money is the root of all evil, a good starting point to any book but why did you use it as one of the main issues in the novel? 
I started noticing in New York City that a lot of stores were refusing one hundred dollar bills, and I wondered why. They told me that they were getting stung once too often. And I wondered what was going wrong. So I started doing some research on counterfeit money. From which I found out that there was a hell of a lot of counterfeit money out there. Then I began thinking, wouldn't it be interesting if something is behind all this counterfeiting aside the counterfeiters trying to make a profit. I started writing the book in the April of 2000, delivered it in December of 2000 - almost a year before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. I thought wouldn't be interesting if there was chicanery and international conspiracy and screw ups from intelligence agencies that would account for counterfeiting and terrorists. 

Did this suggest that it could be a perfect vehicle for the 87th to become involved with? 
I thought it would be interesting if this little police station in the asshole of creation, if you will, stumbles upon something that is way beyond their authority. Something that would be mind-boggling for them to encounter and to eventually crack. They are warned consistently throughout the book to go home. Go play in your own sandbox, don't bother us. But they refuse to do so. 

There has already been comments about the terrorist aspect of the novel, especially after the events of September 11th.Does this worry you?
I had just started on the book tour in America, and had landed in Chicago that morning of the 11th . While we were driving to the hotel the news came over the radio. I thought, my God, it's really happening, this is what my book is about. The tour was cancelled, of course. We couldn't fly anywhere. So I rented a car and drove home to New York. It was a kind of eerie feeling for me because much of the research on terrorism was done on the Internet. I thought, Jesus, if I can get information on terrorism off the Internet why can't the people who are meant to be protecting us do the same? It wasn't classified material, you know? On the money laundering side, I had a professional researcher do that for me. That was the aspect of the book that required the most research before I started writing. 

Previous to this were you concerned with FBI and CIA involvement in world-wide politics such as the Contras in Nicaragua and Afghanistan? 
Sure - but I don't believe there is a CIA. Don't forget it was Fat Ollie who, at one point in the book says, "There is no CIA, and the agency is so stupid it has to be a cover for the real agency." And over the past few decades the involvement of the CIA in international episodes that I consider inept at the best.

There is a vast array of characters in the book, more than any previous novel of yours I have read. 

I don't know why, they were just there. I once got a letter from a woman who said, "I'm not going to read anymore of your books, there are too many people in them!" What can I tell you? 

You seem to focus on the people doing the mischief over the police detectives, were they more interesting to write about? 
Let me put it this way, I think the reader knows more about what's going on than the cops who investigating the case. Which is not bad because then the reader has an edge on the cops in trying to figuring it out. Even Wiggy the Lid knows more than any of them when he cracks the computer. 

Although this is the 51st 87th Precinct book I hear you're on book 53. Do they still take you around a month to write as in the early days? 
This one I started in April 2000 and delivered in December 2000, so that's eight months. This wasn't through choice but because of the research. The next one is called Fat Ollie's Book, in which he is about to deliver his masterpiece! 

Money, Money Money isn't used as a soapbox, nor has a great deal of your previous work, or is it deeply psychological, when it could have so easily gone that route. 
True but occasionally I do. I wrote Hail to the Chief which was a thinly disguised anti-war novel about Nixon and the Vietnam War told through the street gangs. I pay a lot of attention to what my readers have to say, and once got a letter from a guy that said, "if you want to preach to the masses, get yourself a soapbox." I always remember what my first obligation to my readers when writing a mystery and that is to write a cracking good mystery that will give the readers a good ride to find out whodunit - not to deliver a message. 

You've been quoted in saying that only the police are qualified to solve murders, not by some granny with knitting needles. Was that why you stopped writing the Matthew Hope series? 
I stopped writing that series because I had a lot of trouble reconciling his occupation as lawyer with his hobby of solving crime. And that's the way it is in real life. They're working-class cops, if you will. And they will meet killers, robbers and guys like Wiggy the Lid - you'll never meet anyone like him in the whole of your life. 

If it wasn't for the terrorist attack in New York, do you think the book would be receiving so much attention? 
In America my publishers opted not to mention the World trade Center bombing in connection with the book. As they put it, "We don't want to put up a lemonade stand on the side of a disaster". I really can't say if it would attract more attention. I hope people will say it is a good book with or without that atrocity. 

I agree that it is your best book by far. But it seems that with every new title you're just getting better, and I may beimpertinent by saying that you're improving with age, just like a good bottle of malt whisky. 
Thanks. I hope so. I try. 

Is it hard to write something that still reads so fresh after almost 50 years in the business? 
Mike, I try and find something new about the characters each time out. I've known them a long time, and suddenly they'll reveal something to me that I didn't know: 
"I cheat at poker." 
"What? No you don't." 
"Yes, I do." 
"But you're only in penny-ante games." 
"I know. But I still cheat." 
So I find out something new and that keep me fresh, the readers on his toes and keeps the characters fresh. 

Does that explain why you decided to keep the characters "ageless"? I mean they must be well past retirement age by now. 
Yeah, if I hadn't they'd be arriving on the scene of the crime in a walker! I started in 1956 and the guys were about 30-ish - they'd be doddering by now and we can't have that, can we? 
In the book you slip up and called Isola New York. Your mythical city was becoming more recognisable as the Big Apple.
When I started writing the series it was supposed to be New York. Then I discovered that I was in dangerous waters because the cops' ground rules kept changing and if I was going to keep up with police procedure in New York City it was going to be a fulltime job. So I froze the police procedure. Then there were problems with locations; my cops would go to a building which I described as red bricked but actually turned out to be limestone or whatever. I couldn't do it, I'd be getting letters everyday of the week telling me I was wrong. I'm glad I changed it to a mythical city because I can invent a lot of things. 

One of your recurring themes is the weather. Is it of importance to you? 
It is important to each novel. I set it them at a certain time of the year. Money, Money, Money is set over the Christmas holidays and Fat Ollie's Book is set in the spring. The weather nails it down and gives me the mood of the characters. 

Name your favourite 87th Precinct book? And not the last one!
I'm always tempted to say the most recent. Several previous novels, actually. I liked Long Time No See a lot because it was a novel where you didn't quite know what was happening and Carrella is almost tempted to stray. I like Sadie When She Died, and I just finished a two-hour teleplay of the novel, which is going to be the pilot for a television series - I hope. The book wasn't greatly received but I liked it because it put Carrella out of his element having to go around with a smart-ass sophisticated lawyer, trying to get to the bottom of the crime. Blood Relativesis another one. 

Finally, would Money, Money, Money have been a different novel if you'd written it as Evan Hunter? 
When I first thought of doing a book about counterfeit money I thought it might make the dramatic novel that Evan Hunter would write. Where a guy would come upon a large stash of money that at first he thinks maybe fake and takes it to the Treasury Department to see if it is real. It is real, and they return it to him. And Evan Hunter would describe how it would change this guy - he'd been an unemployed actor - how it would change his life completely. I still think it would be called Money, Money, Money but the minute I thought of other ways of entangling all these schemes, it had to be McBain.
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Ed McBain



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