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Learning to Kill: Stories    by Ed McBain order for
Learning to Kill
by Ed McBain
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

When Salvatore Lombino was growing up on 120th street between First and Second Avenues in New York City's East Harlem during the '30s and '40s, no one could have really foreseen the kind of future and fame that awaited this descendent of Italian, Irish, Jewish, and German immigrants. Even when a youthful and enthusiastic Salvatore came back to the city after his wartime service in the Navy and attended Hunter College as an English major, people still barely recognized the potential in this ambitious young man.

After working for a while for the Automobile Club - answering calls from motorists in distress - Salvatore then worked as a telephone salesman for Regal Lobster - angling with chefs and managers to sell them live lobsters for NYC restaurants; however, Salvatore made what may have been his most important career move in 1951 when he answered a blind ad in the New York Times Help Wanted columns: 'EDITOR. No experience necessary. Must be familiar with book and magazine markets. Reply to box number ...'

Answering the ad, wrangling an interview, and landing the job at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency (a job that he kept only until 1953), Salvatore - a fellow who had for a long time wanted to be a writer - began his metamorphosis into one of this country's (the world's?) most prolific and well-respected writers of crime and police procedural fiction. Writing under the pseudonyms Hunt Collins (a tribute to his alma mater), Richard Marsten (a tribute to his sons), and Evan Hunter (another tribute to his alma mater, and the name he adopted legally in 1952), Salvatore Lombino eventually came to be most widely known by yet another pseudonym, Ed McBain, a pen-name which he inaugurated in 1956. McBain went on to fascinate and entertain readers with his creative fecundity for more than half a century, and even though his death in 2005 may have forever silenced the tough kid from East Harlem, readers of today and tomorrow fortunately have more than eighty of his novels and dozens of his short stories to enjoy.

Here now in one generous volume entitled Learning to Kill, Ed McBain was able to assemble a fascinating anthology of his early short stories, the work that would be the foundation - the apprentice's training ground - for all of the 87th Precinct novels; the Matthew Hope novels; other novels of crimes and passions; and (worthy of special mention) The Blackboard Jungle (the canonical Evan Hunter title).

Readers who know and love McBain's work will be particularly interested in devouring this collection and getting another look at the consummate artist's work as a young man; moreover - as a bonus - readers will enjoy McBain's personal commentary and biographical reflections, which are generously sandwiched between sections with stories about Kids, Women in Jeopardy, Private Eyes, Cops and Robbers, Innocent Bystanders, Loose Cannons, and Gangs.

From the twenty-five commendable stories in Learning to Kill, consider the following previews from seven representative tales:

Join a youthful offender who seriously underestimates the seriousness of his crimes and his punishments, and must deal with disastrous consequences. Meet a alcoholic, down-and-out former PI who relentlessly tracks down and confronts a Bowery bum's killer. Follow along as a duplicitous woman becomes a troublesome pawn in some desperate men's disputes over stolen money. Watch as an innocent man, mistakenly accused of murder, runs away from police and descends into a nightmare of fear and tragedy. Look at the ways three would-be bank robbers run into unexpected problems because of the most unlikely obstacles: the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Eavesdrop uncomfortably on two rival gang members who are forced to resolves their gangs' disputes by participating in a one-on-one deadly game of chance. Linger in a barroom while a na´ve Midwesterner insists upon buying a surly New Yorker a drink but finds out that the holiday season is suddenly not so jolly.

Frankly, for readers of crime fiction and police procedurals, it doesn't get any better than this. License to Kill is an absolute must-own book for all fans of McBain, for any fledgling writer who wants to see how it is done correctly by an expert, and for anyone who wants to watch the way an artist learns in the crucible of experimentation to perfect his craft.

And finally, as for readers unfamiliar with McBain (do such readers exist?), you would be well-advised to stop wasting time: grab a copy of Learning to Kill and find out what you've been missing!

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