Learning to Kill NPR coverage of Learning to Kill: Stories by Ed McBain. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo Learning to Kill

Learning to Kill


by Ed McBain

Hardcover, 478 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $25 |


Buy Featured Book

Learning to Kill
Ed McBain

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

Selected by the author as examples of his best early works, a collection of short mystery tales, originally written under his legal name or pseudonyms, pairs each story with introductions that offer insight into his literary development.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about Learning to Kill

A Master's Police Procedural: 'Learning to Kill'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5657422/5657423" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Learning To Kill

This story first appeared in Manhunt. The editor of the magazine was someone named John McCloud. No one knew who John McCloud was. The poem parody we recited was “I wandered lonely as McCloud.” Well, John McCloud was Scott Meredith. It was very good to be working for the man who was editing the hottest detective magazine of the day; in 1953 alone, fourteen of my stories appeared in Manhunt under the Marsten, Hunter, or Collins bylines. This one was published in 1955, under the Evan Hunter byline, which by that time had been my legal name for almost three years.
First Offense
HE SAT IN THE POLICE VAN WITH THE COLLAR OF HIS leather jacket turned up, the bright silver studs sharp against the otherwise unrelieved black. He was seventeen years old, and he wore his hair in a high black crown. He carried his head high and erect because he knew he had a good profile, and he carried his mouth like a switch knife, ready to spring open at the slightest provocation. His hands were thrust deep into his jacket pockets, and his gray eyes reflected the walls of the van. There was excitement in his eyes, too, an almost holiday excitement. He tried to tell himself he was in trouble, but he couldn’t quite believe it. His gradual descent to disbelief had been a spiral that had spun dizzily through the range of his emotions. Terror when the cop’s flash had picked him out; blind panic when he’d started to run; rebellion when the cop’s firm hand had closed around the leather sleeve of his jacket; sullen resignation when the cop had thrown him into the RMP car; and then cocky stubbornness when they’d booked him at the local precinct.
The desk sergeant had looked him over curiously, with a strange aloofness in his Irish eyes.
“What’s the matter, Fatty?” he’d asked.
 The sergeant stared at him implacably. “Put him away for the night,” the sergeant said.
He’d slept overnight in the precinct cell block, and he’d awakened with this strange excitement pulsing through his narrow body, and it was the excitement that had caused his disbelief. Trouble, hell! He’d been in trouble before, but it had never felt like this. This was different. This was a ball, man. This was like being initiated into a secret society someplace. His contempt for the police had grown when they refused him the opportunity to shave after breakfast. He was only seventeen, but he had a fairly decent beard, and a man should be allowed to shave in the morning, what the hell! But even the beard had somehow lent to the unreality of the situation, made him appear—in his own eyes—somehow more desperate, more sinister-looking. He knew he was in trouble, but the trouble was glamorous, and he surrounded it with the gossamer lie of make-believe. He was living the storybook legend. He was big time now. They’d caught him and booked him, and he should have been scared but he was excited instead.
There was one other person in the van with him, a guy who’d spent the night in the cell block, too. The guy was an obvious bum, and his breath stank of cheap wine, but he was better than nobody to talk to.
 “Hey!” he said.
 The bum looked up. “You talking to me?”
 “Yeah. Where we going?”
 “The lineup, kid,” the bum said. “This your first offense?”
 “This’s the first time I got caught,” he answered cockily.
 “All felonies go to the lineup,” the bum told him. “And also some special types of misdemeanors. You commit a felony?”
 “Yeah,” he said, hoping he sounded nonchalant. What’d they have this bum in for anyway? Sleeping on a park bench?
 “Well, that’s why you’re goin’ to the lineup. They have guys from every detective squad in the city there, to look you over. So they’ll remember you next time. They put you on a stage, and they read off the offense, and the Chief of Detectives starts firing questions at you. What’s your name, kid?”
 “What’s it to you?”
 “Don’t get smart, punk, or I’ll break your arm,” the bum said.
He looked at the bum curiously. He was a pretty big guy, with a heavy growth of beard, and powerful shoulders. “My name’s Stevie,” he said.
 “I’m Jim Skinner,” the bum said. “When somebody’s trying to give you advice, don’t go hip on him . . .”
 “Yeah, well, what’s your advice?” he asked, not wanting to back down completely.
 “When they get you up there, you don’t have to answer anything. They’ll throw questions but you don’t have to answer. Did you make a statement at the scene?”
 “No,” he answered.
 “Good. Then don’t make no statement now, either. They can’t force you to. Just keep your mouth shut, and don’t tell them nothing.”
 “I ain’t afraid. They know all about it anyway,” Stevie said.
Copyright © 2006 by Hui Corp
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address:
Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.