by Evan Hunter
Reviewed by Martin Kich
Evan Hunter is the pseudonym of the author who has written the renowned 87th-precinct police procedurals under the pseudonym Ed McBain. As Evan Hunter, he has written a wide variety of novels--ranging from works of gritty urban realism to sweeping historical sagas, from noir novels to multi-generational family sagas, and from crime and espionage thrillers to jet-set melodramas.
At first glance, Criminal Conversation might seem to fit with the crime and espionage thrillers. It focuses on the seemingly undistinguished son of a mafia godfather, who very inconspicuously but forcefully assumes control of the crime family after his father's imprisonment. His major preoccupation is establishing a new and more profitable network to smuggle drugs into the U.S. A womanizer, he unknowingly becomes involved with the wife of a district attorney, who happens to be investigating this very mob family and eventually secures a court order to wiretap the new godfather's hideaway apartment. Ultimately, the affair reaches its emotional crisis at the very point that the drug operation is most vulnerable, both legally and criminally.
Still, Criminal Conversation does not fit stylistically with Hunter's other crime and espionage thrillers. Every Little Crook and Nanny is something of a predecessor to the wryly, even farcically brutal Prizzi novels of Richard Condon, while Nobody Knew They Were There is a psychedelic thriller that might be viewed as a successor to the Cold-War paranoia of Condon's The Manchurian Candidate. In its characters, settings, and style, Criminal Conversation has more in common with the jet-set melodramas of Harold Robbins--or, more respectably, much of the work of Vance Bourjaily and R.V. Cassill. It belongs more with Hunter's own Far from the Sea, A Matter of Conviction, and Second Ending.
In all of these novels, characters from the gritty underside become involved with "respectable" society as both indulge in the "high life." Each group fantasizes about the other while pretending to disdain it. Underlying the risky behavior is a certain fatalism, thinly disguised self-disdain, and elements of the romantic desperation for personal fulfillment. On an individual level, the connections between these characters are accidental, but, on a broader level, they are inevitable. And once events are set in motion, they move toward their climax with all the air of predetermination of Greek tragedy--that is, if Oedipus and Antigone had sprung from the head of Jackie Collins.
In Criminal Conversation, the two major characters--the star-crossed, double-crossed, and double-crossing lovers--are more interesting as types than as individuals. If their relationship seems "real" in some respects, it is only because behavior patterned on television kitsch has become very commonplace. Even their sex is, paradoxically, uninhibited in a rather formulaic way, as if its tone were borrowed from the Playboy Advisor columns that have always been somewhat quaint for all of their frankness. The rule of thumb for this sort of thing seems to be that the harder adulterers try to be imaginative and spontaneous, the more silly and scripted their behavior seems.
Because of its plotting, this novel will hold its readers' attention, but it is not among Evan Hunter's better works--in which he has unself-consciously brought a certain literary depth and luster to works that fall in the "popular" fictional genres.