Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, July 12, 2013


Let's Talk by Evan Hunter, a.k.a. Ed McBain (2005)

For this week's Forgotten Book I have chosen one that is more in the "little known" than in the "forgotten" territory.  Let's Talk was one of Evan Hunter's last books, published in 2005, the year of his death, in Great Britain only, and was only one of two non-fiction books Hunter ever published.  (The other was Me and Hitch, a brief 1997 memoir on working with Alfred Hitchcock on the movies The Birds and Marnie.)

As the cover of Let's Talk explains, the book is a "Story of Cancer and Love."  In October of 1992, Hunter visited an ENT specialist about a case of swimmer's ear that had been bothering him.  After examining him, the doctor asked how long Hunter had had the sore throat.  He hadn't realized had had a sore throat until the doctor posed the question.  Thinking back, Hunter said a couple of months.  The doctor had noticed a suspicious area on his vocal cords, eventually sending Hunter for a biopsy.

The biopsy came back showing no evidence of cancer, but did show a "moderate squamous dysplasia" -- pre-cancerous cells -- which was completely excised.  Three months later, Hunter's voice changed.  Then followed a series of examinations and treatments over the next few years and, although Hunter's vocal condition continued to worsen, each time showed no cancer.

At the same time, Hunter's twenty-two year marriage (his second) was falling apart.  (The author dodges the reasons for this, but he hints in one sentence that his extra-marital affairs were one of the main reasons.)  In 1995, at a book store signing, he met Dragica (Dina) Dimitrijevic, a Serbian acting coach who was more than two decades his junior.  Hunter fell in love.  Six months later,  he separated from his wife.  Two days earlier he had agreed to  have radiation treatments on his (still non-cancerous) vocal cords in order to improve his voice.

You have to understand the importance Evan Hunter placed on his voice.  As a prolific and popular author, his book sales depended a great deal on his publicity tours -- interviews, public readings, and television and radio appearances -- all of which would be greatly curtailed if his voice condition worsened.

The book follows two threads:  first, Hunter's eventual cancer diagnosis, removal of his larynx, and the consequences of that act; second, Hunter's relationship, eventual marriage to, and life with Dina.  Tying both threads together is the turbulence involved with both.  At times humorous, and at times self-pitying, Let's Talk is an honest look at the simultaneous forces of illness and love -- least as honest a look as Hunter is willing to tell us.  A fast and interesting read, especially for those who have enjoyed either Hunter, McBain, or both.

It should be noted that Hunter's wife wrote about half the book, detailing the time from her point of view.  She refused to have her name on the cover and title page, as Hunter explained in his dedication.  Orion, the book's publisher, credited the book to "Evan Hunter, a.k.a. Ed McBain," presumably because the two names are not generally known to many readers.  (I don't know how true this is, especially in Great Britain, but I do know that McBain is much known than Hunter -- something Hunter mentions several times in the book.)  

Why this book was not published in the US remains a mystery to me.


  1. I hadn't heard about LET'S TALK. Now I want to read it! I'm a huge fan of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain. I'll be looking for this book. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  2. I can answer one of the questions posed in this review: the reason the book was not published in the US is that no publisher wanted to publish it. That's possibly because it's far from my father's best work. It's also possible that American publishers were familiar enough with my father's reputation to sense that the narrative presented in this book has a shaky foundation.
    The review on this blog is more accurate than the reviewer knows. " honest a look as Hunter is willing to tell us," he says. My father referred to his work on more than one occasion as "inspired lying," and his frequent dalliances made lying an essential part of practically every day in his adult life until his affair with his third wife became a marriage. The lies of omission alone in this book are staggering. In the first chapter he comments that he knows as an author how little readers think of a narrator who's having an affair. He then describes his unsatisfying then-current marriage; at no point does he mention that this marriage was to the woman with whom he had had an affair for the last six years of his first marriage. In fact, the first marriage, to my mother, is not even mentioned. The clear intention is to avoid notifying the reader that affairs such as the one he describes so tenderly in this book were the serial behavior of a sexual addict. Such an admission might call into question the validity of his protestations of love for The One, as she is described on the book jacket. Would the unassuming reader find the story so moving had he made it clear that she was not just The One, but The Next and (ultimately) Last One in a nearly continuous lifelong string of affairs? Not according to him, apparently.
    It's also remarkable how often he comments in this book on the disdain with which others respond to his third wife without ever wondering aloud why so many people seem to find her so difficult. As he lays in his hospital bed after a heart attack, he hears nurses describing his soon-to-be third wife and then-mistress as "the immigrant". Assuming that this is not simply another example of inspired lying, the reason why highly trained professionals with a strict code of conduct towards patients might be moved to call a patient's mistress insulting names within earshot of the patient is never discussed. We are supposed to infer, I presume, that this is simply what nurses do. Similarly, the scene in which a representative of the Social Security Administration visits his house and tells him that she doesn't think he deserves to receive benefits is hard to accept at face value, not least because it is contrary to agency policy and practice, starting with the fact that in general Social Security reps do not make house calls.

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  3. My father's work was generally of uniformly high quality, and sometimes as good as it gets, but this wretched scribble doesn't fit in either of those categories. As autobiography, it fails basic standards of honesty and candor. As literature, it fails basic standards of quality, even leaving out the utterly dull pieces contributed by his third wife, which generally describe sights, sounds, and activities without ever revealing the inner life of the writer in any way. (Why she chooses to say so little about that inner life in what is supposed to be a chronicle of the most intensely emotional days of her life is a question that I can't answer.)
    This book can only be enjoyed as autobiography by readers who are willing to take lies, inspired or otherwise, at face value. And of course, if it's not really autobiography, it's not worth reading at all.

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