Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ed McBain, Learning to Kill: Stories

Ed McBain, Learning to Kill: Stories
Harcourt: An Otto Penzler Book.  2006
ISBN 978-0-15-101222-0

McBain died in 2005, and this collection of 25 stories was published in 2006.  It traces his development as a writer, from very early in his career up to the point at which be broke through.  The years of publication, and the number of stories from each year, are:
1952: 1

1953: 9
1954: 6
1955: 5
1956: 2
1957: 2

The first three 87th Precinct books (Cop Hater, The Mugger, and The Pusher) were published in 1956, and he never really looked back.*

The stories in  Learning to Kill range from adequate to very good; he was obviously learning how to write, and what he was good at.  The best of them, in my opinion, are the five "cop" stories--"Small Homicide,"  "Still Life," "Accident Report" (all 1953), "Chinese Puzzle"  (1954), and  "The Big Day" (1955).  They all hold up very well as procedurals, and the breakthrough in the 87th Precinct books is the development of a group of characters who stand out as individuals (in these 5 stories, there's not a lot of characterization).  But he shows very clearly what also stands out in the 87 Precinct books, that most police work is not dramatic, that it's a matter of routine.

The range of work here, though, is pretty impressive, from PI stories (mostly not very good) to some character studies, to at least one "caper" story (with a decidedly non-caperish ending).  I found his attitude toward the PI work interesting.  As he writes:
When you start writing parodies of private eye stories, it's time to stop writing them...I had written the last of the Matt Cordell stories and was ready to give up on the subgenre.  Not only was I finding it increasingly more difficult to justify a private citizen investigating murders, but Cordell presented the added problem of an investigator who wasn't even license!
Fortunately for us (as readers), a lot of writers continued to work around that problem.

I would have to say that this collection is interesting and useful mostly as a window into McBain's development as a writer,  For that reason, I think arranging the stories in the order in which he wrote them, rather than classified by "type," would make for a more interesting, and useful, sequence for the reader.  Still, if you like McBain's work, you will like seeing where it started and how it developed.  While the book seems to be out-of-print, it is widely available from used book sellers.

*A complete list of his novels can be found here.


  1. For some reason I can't comment on this blog using my usual browser (Chrome). I have no idea why. Anyway, I was going to say that I enjoyed this book because or what you mentioned. It's fun to see where such an acclaimed crime writer started out.

  2. Sometimes I can't POST using my usual browser (Microsoft's Edge--a good reason NOT to install Windows 10) and have to shift to Firefox.