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Onyx reviews: Candyland by Evan Hunter and Ed McBain

The cover lists two authors and the dust jacket photo portrays two men of a certain age, one dapper and distinguished in suit and tie, the other in casual attire: jeans, sunglasses, denim cap pulled low. Close scrutiny reveals what many readers already know: Evan Hunter and Ed McBain are one and the same person.

Candyland is an experiment in literary voice, akin to the duel publication of Desperation and The Regulators by Stephen King and his alter ego Richard Bachman several years ago. The concept is that authors write in different styles when they slip on their different creative names. Evan Hunter, author of The Blackboard Jungle, is the more literary author. Ed McBain is a genre writer, who has tossed off over fifty of his 87th precinct police novels.

Hunter takes the first half of the book, describing an evening of depravity by Benjamin Thorpe, an architect visiting New York on business. Thorpe is sexually obsessed. He has infidelity down to a science, with a little black book filled with the encoded names and phone numbers of his liaisons across the country. Nights away from his wife are never spent alone. He must either hook up with one of his past amours in person or by phone, try to pick up someone new in a bar, or make use of the services listed in tawdry ads in the back of magazines.

On the night depicted in Hunter's half of Candyland, Thorpe engages in all of these activities. When he is unable to convince a normally reliable lover to meet with him, he picks up a young woman in the hotel bar. When that encounter goes bad, he resorts to his black book, but ultimately finds himself at the XS Salon, a seedy massage parlor in a grim neighborhood. Even here Thorpe finds little satisfaction and is ultimately turned out onto the street, beaten and robbed, bleeding in a gutter.

McBain picks up the story and the focus switches from Thorpe to a team of police officers investigating the death of a prostitute from the XS Salon found raped and strangled near the massage parlor. The style switches to the police procedural McBain is famous for, following the detectives as they unravel leads and clues to the brutal murder. Thorpe's misadventures of the previous night are revealed to Detective Emma Boyle and he becomes one of several suspects in the crime.

While the publicists would have readers believe there is a dramatic difference in the two halves of this book, the contrast is more in content than in style. The writing is not markedly different, only the focus is. Hunter concentrates on the person of Benjamin Thorpe, exploring his compulsive personality and how his obsessions control his life. McBain is more aloof, looking dispassionately at Thorpe as a suspect through the eyes of jaded police officers who have investigated more murders and rapes than they would care to admit.

While the story is engaging and the experiment interesting, the dual focus of the "authors" ultimately leads to a book where too much is left unresolved. While all the loose ends of the murder are tidied up, Thorpe is left dangling. It would have been more gratifying if Hunter had picked the story up again after McBain wrapped up the murder for a brief epilog showing Thorpe's fate. The early part of the novel focused on how Thorpe's depravity led to his involvement in the crime investigation. The jacket copy hints at Thorpe's self-discovery, but this is not explored significantly. He is never seen first-hand again after McBain takes over, which may leave readers unsatisfied.

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