I read Ed McBain's "The Last Dance," published in 2000, five years before McBain's death at 78. It's a gritty novel of the 87th Precinct, a group of cops in a city very like New York. New York is where McBain was born, in 1926, as Salvatore Albert Lombino. He started writing in the early 1950s as Evan Hunter and continued publishing under both pseudonyms right up until his death.
McBain is like a handful of other American writers of his generation — John D. MacDonald, Donald Westlake, Ellery Queen (actually two men), Elmore Leonard — who learned their craft with magazine stories and pulp fiction and mastered it through decades of prolific and profitable novel-writing. McBain's agent estimated he sold more than 100 million books in his career, and he is credited as a pioneer — perhaps the pioneer — of the police procedural.
"The Last Dance" wasn't fun to read in the way Westlake's capers are; it didn't have the precious cultural commentary and thrilling action sequences of John D. MacDonald's "Travis McGee" books; it wasn't tense and atmospheric like the noirish novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but it had an authenticity those books don't — both in the depiction of the city and its characters.
McBain is a courageous writer, unafraid to present actions and dialogue in their unvarnished awkwardness and ugliness. One of the police officers in his ensemble cast is an unrepentant bigot, a man who is unappealing in thought and deed, and yet is also one of the book's most compelling characters.
McBain is also an economical writer. He packs an amazing amount of plot — one rape, two murders connected to an inheritance, another over sex and a fourth over betrayal — into one slim novel, wrapping them all up while also dipping into the lives of each one of his large cast of characters and painting a vivid portrayal of a large, dysfunctional New York-like city. It's an understated yet virtuoso performance.
McBain isn't ever going to be my favorite writer of crime novels, but after reading just one of his books, I do believe he was one of the best.