According to the Library of Congress’ cataloging data, Evan Hunter’s taut new novel, Criminal Conversation, is cross-referenced under the following headings: Public Prosecutors, Man-Woman Relationships, Organized Crime, Marriage, and Mafia. If that list of ingredients suggests a crime story with higher aspirations, so does the fact that Hunter, a novelist of Asimovian prolificity who, as Ed McBain, has written 50-odd mysteries in the last 40 years, has chosen to use his real name for this one. In that context, Criminal Conversation is something of a special occasion; Hunter even tips his hat to his very first novel, 1954’s terror-in-the-schools classic The Blackboard Jungle, by making the first scene of this novel a classroom exchange between a white teacher and a black student.
The joke of Criminal Conversation, delivered with Hunter’s typical understatement, is that the classroom may be the only safe place in his novel, a cleverly structured antiromantic triangle-cum-thriller that should also be cataloged under Gimmicks. The points of the three-some are (A) Sarah Welles, a dedicated schoolteacher, wife, and mother; (B) Michael Welles, a decent, driven New York City prosecutor bent on bringing down a rising Mob boss; and (C) Andrew Farrell (a.k.a. Andrew Faviola), the charismatic young capo whose every conversation, command, and come-on are audiotaped by Michael’s team of investigators. The twist is that (A) has the profound misfortune to fall in love with (C) and begin an affair with him, never guessing his real identity.
Hunter wants to divide your loyalties, and up to a point, he succeeds: Criminal Conversation is neither a simple moral tale about a heroic prosecutor whose wife betrays him with his worst enemy, nor a melodrama about a woman who seeks relief from a stale marriage with exactly the wrong man, nor a gangster fable about a criminal whose undoing is his taste for a woman who can destroy him. Instead, it’s all of those things, sometimes compellingly, and sometimes in ways that tax the story’s credibility and the reader’s patience.
Hunter is a crime writer of such quiet, effortless style that he can almost conceal the plot backflips through which he keeps the identity of Andrew’s mysterious lover from Michael—who, realists may want to note, spends most of the novel electronically eavesdropping on Andrew without ever catching on! Michael, the novel’s weakest contrivance, is something of a cipher, a ticking bomb in the corner whose function is simply to fail to figure things out. By contrast, Hunter keeps Sarah steeped in rich and touching conflict about her own infidelity, and makes Andrew an effectively charismatic shark; it’s no surprise that Tom Cruise (see sidebar below), whose production company has already bought the rights to this book, wants to play the bad guy. He’s smarter and cooler, and he gets all the love scenes.
The shrewd trick that gives Hunter’s story its engine is also a burdensome device; Criminal Conversation keeps its readers several revelations ahead of the characters. Is it worth waiting 300 pages for the plot to hit the fan for the pleasure of the novel’s last quarter? Sure. Hunter’s ear for the ways in which criminals put words together and take them apart more than makes up for a plot that occasionally detours from credibility. Whether the book should be filed under Man-Woman Relationships or Organized Crime may finally be beside the point; in Hunter’s world, they’re pretty much the same thing.