Black Mask

The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, edited and introduced by Otto Penzler and Keith Alan Deutsch (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2010)

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

This panoramic collection of stories and novels from Black Mask Magazine (1920 to 1951)is the most comprehensive presentation of the hard-boiled tradition of writing ever published from this great magazine. I believe this is a significant publishing event because Black Mask Magazine introduced the hard-boiled detective, and a new style of narration, to American literature. (Keith Deutsch, “Introduction” to The Big Book of Black Mask Stories)


Black MaskNo publication was as crucial in encouraging and marketing the hard-boiled crime story as Black Mask. Pulp magazines had been gaining in popularity since the 1880s, but the market expanded greatly from the turn of the century, and by their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s they were displayed in their hundreds on newsstands and in drugstore racks. In comparison to the more sophisticated ‘slicks’, the pulp magazines opened the way for a freer approach to popular literary forms and to engagement with contemporary urban life. Pulp magazines offered romance, fantasy and escapism, but also, especially in the pulps devoted to crime fiction, they registered the anxieties of the time.  Being rapidly and cheaply produced, they allowed space for innovatory ways of writing, most importantly for the colloquial, racy hard-boiled style. The magazine gave readers tough, realistic action, with material ranging from tales of adventure and Westerns to detective series and early noir crime stories. Keith Deutsch writes in his “Introduction”,

“In many ways, Black Mask Magazine took the nineteenth century American Western tale of outlaws and vigilante justice from its home on the range in dime novels, and transplanted that mythic tale to the crooked streets of America’s emerging twentieth century cities. It introduced a new landscape for both American adventures of justice, and also a new kind of narration told with the vernacular language of the streets, and featuring new urban villains, and urban (if not always urbane) heroes for the mystery story.”

As the circulation of Black Mask grew, other pulp crime magazines (for example, Action Detective, Dime Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly, Black Aces) entered the market.  There were over fifty other detective magazines by the late 30s, but Black Mask retained its supremacy, with a circulation of 130,000 by 1930. As Deutsch’s Introduction says, “More than any other pulp fiction magazine, Black Mask was recognized for the quality, and for the cultural significance of its writing. With the growing literary reputations of Hammett and Chandler, now generally accepted as major American writers of the twentieth century, Black Mask’s cultural significance continues to grow.”

In addition to his general Introduction, Deutsch provides an account of his own involvement with Black Mask: “Over the years since I first edited and produced the last newsstand issue of Black Mask Magazinein 1974, I have been asked many times to tell how I acquired the rights to this famous magazine. Because the history of Black Mask is intimately entangled in the history of fiction magazines in America, I thought I would tell my own personal history of Black Mask against an idiosyncratic history of American magazine publishing.” It’s a fascinating story!

The Black Lizard collection of stories has been undertaken in collaboration with Otto Penzler, who has edited over seventy anthologies of crime fiction, including The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2007), Pulp Fiction collections covering The Crimefighters, The Villains and The Dames (all from Quercus Publishing, 2007-08), and The Best American Noir of the Century (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) – an excellent collection, the whole of which was reviewed in a November 2010 series of guest reviews on the Spinetingler site.  Penzler says in interview (Tangent Online Interview), “With the help of Keith Deutsch and the librarians at UCLA (which has a great Black Mask collection) I got access to hundreds of stories and selected those that I thought were the best and most representative of the authors’ works, of the magazine, and indeed of the whole pulp era. Very few of the stories are from the 1940s, when the quality level wasn’t as high as in the 1920s and 1930s. Most of the stories have never before been reprinted. In addition to the famous authors you note, there are several stories by authors that only die-hard pulp fans will know, but many of their stories are at least as good as those by the biggest names.”

Black Mask Sept-1929The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories is 1,136 pages long, and contains over fifty stories, including the whole of the original Black Mask version of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, which was serialised from September 1929 to January 1930 and to which some 2,000 revisions were made for the hardback version published by Knopf.  It also includes Chandler’s “Try the Girl,” his last story for Black Mask(January 1937) and one of three stories cannibalized to form the basis ofFarewell, My Lovely; and six connected Jo Gar stories by Raoul Whitfield writing as Ramon Dacolta – Rainbow Diamonds, never before published in book form.   The collection reprints stories by Erle Stanley Gardner, John D. MacDonald, Frederic Brown, George Harmon Coxe, Frederick Nebel, Brett Halliday, Day Keene, Steve Fisher, Horace McCoy, Bruno Fischer, Carroll John Daly, Cornell Woolrich and over thirty more writers. Each is concisely introduced, with an overview of their lives and their work for the pulps, their series characters, novel writing, film and TV scripts.

The hard-boiled protagonist is represented here in many of his varied incarnations.  The collection includes “Knights of the Open Palm” (June 1923), which first presented the most popular detective hero of the 1920s, Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams – the first hard-boiled series detective, whose all-conquering two-fisted action carried him through over fifty Black Mask stories and eight novels between 1923 and 1934: “Oh, there ain’t no doubt that both the cops and the crooks take me for a gun, but I ain’t – not rightly speaking. I do a little honest shooting once in awhile – just in the way of business. But my conscience is clear; I never bumped off a guy what didn’t need it.”  A quarter of a century later, an altogether more literate but equally tough hard-boiled hero, in John D. MacDonald’s “Murder in One Syllable” (May 1949), has been on the receiving end of violence: “In childhood there had been a sentence, a trick sentence, to punctuate. That that is is that that is not is not that that is. ‘That that is, is.’ The sodden handkerchief, growing crusty furthest from the wound, was an actuality. It was wedged under his belt…Nor could the existence of a small bit of lead be denied…”

The stories also, of course, give a lot of space to the women who helped to define both hard-boiled and noir narratives – temptresses, tough women, manipulative women.  And, of course, dead women, as in two strong stories written by a couple of less well-known but very prolific pulp writers, Talmadge Powell and Hank Searls. The opening sentences of Searls’ “Drop Dead Twice” (March 1950) are: “It was a very nice job – definitely professional.  And final.  The blonds lay across the hotel bed lengthwise, a gleam of golden flesh showing above her stocking, but otherwise perfectly presentable… She had been mugged – strangled – throttled.  Whatever you want to call it, the killer had quite thoroughly known his business.” Powell’s “Her Dagger Before Me” (July 1949) ends with, “Somehow I got out of the room. I walked down the corridor outside, not seeing its walls, not feeling its floor under my feet. Only remembering. That longing that was almost pain. That terrible pitiful hunger. Even death hadn’t erased it from her face, and I knew at last why Allene Buford had never been quite beautiful…” And, while I’m thinking of examples of female death, there are the memorable first paragraphs of a much better-known writer, Steve Fisher, whose classic novel I Wake Up Screaming (1940) was the basis for one of the earliest films noirs.  “Wait for Me” (May 1938) opens by introducing us to the beautiful Anna: “Anna leaned down and kissed the bleeding girl, kissed her cooling cheeks, and said softly, ‘We will have no more sailors together, eh, Olga?’ She smiled faintly, and shrugged, for Olga was gone, like yesterday’s breath.  Gone, Anna thought, quite fortunately and painlessly…But Anna, living, must go on.”

Arson PlusAt first looked down on as “publishing’s poor, ill-bred stepchild”, the pulps, as Lee Server says in Danger Is My Business, “had to make do with imagination and the power of the written word.  This, as it happened, was their glory.”  The hard-boiled style, which soon crossed over into more mainstream fiction, became one of the most recognizable of the twentieth century.  The writers who exemplified it most powerfully became some of the most widely read authors of the time. But most of the crime stories of those decades are now impossible to find, and the reputations of the great majority of pulp writers are only revived when someone puts together an anthology of their work.  This wonderfully wide-ranging selection of pulp stories publishes some of the most famous pulp writing of the period alongside dozens of other tough, vital, colloquial, fast-paced stories, and in doing so demonstrates unequivocally that Black Mask was, as Penzler says in interview, “the greatest of all the pulp magazines for crime fiction.”



AUTUMN 2013:  NEW FROM BLACK MASK MAGAZINE – A new book line of fiction from Black Mask Magazine, THE BLACK MASK LIBRARY, is emerging this Autumn. Forthcoming publications include important new collections of the work of Theodore A Tinsley and Paul Cain:  Theodore A. Tinsley, Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter (Black Mask)Introduction by Boris Dralyuk, Road, 29 October 2013 – available on Amazon;  and Paul Cain: The Complete Stories (Black Mask), Introduction by Boris Dralyuk, Road, 17 December 2013 – available on Amazon.

Copyright © 2011 by Lee Horsley

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