A reasonable argument can be made that the recently deceased Salvatore Lombino was the greatest mystery novelist of all time.
Who? You might well ask.
Mr. Lombino published under a variety of pseudonyms-- and none of them were Salvatore Lombino. But in the terminology of his greatest series, you might say, Salvatore Lombino: AKA Ed McBain, AKA Evan Hunter.
And while "Ed McBain" created possibly the greatest mystery series of all time in the 87th precinct novels, hardly anyone would nominate any of his fine thrillers for the title of Greatest Mystery Novel. The closest might be 1983's "Ice," which kicked off a particularly fine decade of bigger and better books in McBain's signature series, which defined the modern police procedural.
In fact, any number of the greats could claim that a large percentage of their books are better than anything with the name Ed McBain on the cover. McBain is a contender because of the sheer volume of his work. Even if you only credit him with a conservative .750 batting average, only John D. MacDonald can compete on this score.
McBain also was as influential as any mystery writer since Dashiel Hammet defined the private-eye story. The 87th Precinct set the template for a focus on authentic investigative procedure and cop jargon.
The first thing people noted about the 87th Precinct series was its clipped cop-speak, which McBain reportedly gained by hanging around squadrooms and doing patrol car ride-alongs early in his career.
McBain was critical of mysteries with sleuths other than cops — particularly the Miss Marple type.
The recurring character of the Deaf Man who gave the cops of the 87th advance clues to his crimes was not exactly an exercise in realism — and he far outlived his entertainment value.
Whether McBain knew that "Fiddlers" was his last book or not, it is a fitting end to a great career.
It is a classic entry in the series: a short, punchy, fast-moving book that is similar in tone, style and pace to the paperbacks he once churned out at the rate of two per year beginning in 1956 with "Cop Hater," and to which he returned over the past 10 years.
"Fiddlers" serves as a pretty good curtain call for the cops of the Eight-Seven, as a series of shootings in the city of Isola (McBain's fictional New York stand-in) gets dumped on their plate because the first murder, that of a blind violinist, happened in their precinct.
As the bodies of elderly and middle-age people who are shot twice in the face with the same Glock pile up, a new team of old faces is assigned to each victim.
The reader finds out pretty early that the shooter is a man who is dying of cancer and has decided to spend his last days living it up and taking every nasty person who had a negative impact on his life with him.
There is a certain appropriateness to the last 87th Precinct novel being about a cancer patient taking shots at those he carries a grudge against on his way out.
In McBain's case, among his last few books, he hit the shallowness of the music and publishing businesses pretty hard, not to mention a marked increase in his signature shots at Republicans — and he finally killed off the Deaf Man in last year's sub-par "Hark."
No one will argue that McBain went out with his best book. "Fiddlers" is, however, a good example of what he did well for a long time.
And when you look at how many talented writers hit a wall at around the 10 book mark, the achievement of Salvatore Lombino, whether in the guise of Evan Hunter or Ed McBain, towers far above most of the crime-fiction landscape.