Black Mask

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Black Mask

One of the most important detective fiction magazines of the twentieth century, Black Mask began early in 1920 and introduced and developed the concept of the tough private eye. It also promoted, and in some cases introduced, the work of such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and John D. MacDonald. Hammett's The Dain Curse, Red Harvest, The Glass Key, and The Maltese Falcon all appeared originally as serials in the magazine and Chandler sold his first detective story to Black Mask. In its over 300 issues the pulp showcased the work of dozens of other writers. Though many are forgotten today, such contributors as Frederick Nebel, Norbert Davis, W.T. Ballard, John K. Butler, Raoul Whitfield, Carroll John Daly, Horace McCoy, Lester Dent, and William Campbell Gault all helped shape and define the hardboiled school of mystery writing.

Early in 1919, H. L. Mencken, literary man and dedicated iconoclast, wrote a letter to a friend. "I am thinking of venturing into a new cheap magazine," he explained. "The opportunity is good and I need the money." Mencken and his partner, theater critic George Jean Nathan, required funds to keep their magazine The Smart Set afloat. He considered that a quality publication, but in his view the new one that he and Nathan launched early in 1920 was "a lousy magazine" that would cause them nothing but "disagreeable work." Their new publication was christened The Black Mask and featured mystery stories. Pretty much in the vein of Street & Smith's pioneering Detective Story pulp, the early issues offered very sedate, and often British, detective yarns. Nathan and Mencken soon sold out, leaving the magazine in other hands.

Then in 1923 two beginning writers started submitting stories about a new kind of detective. Carroll John Daly, a onetime motion picture projectionist and theater manager from New Jersey, introduced a series about a tough, gun-toting private investigator named Race Williams. Written in a clumsy, slangy first person, they recounted Williams' adventures in a nightmare urban world full of gangsters, crooked cops, and dames you could not trust. Williams explained himself and his mission this way—"The papers are either roasting me for shooting down some minor criminals or praising me for gunning out the big shots. But when you're hunting the top guy, you have to kick aside—or shoot aside—the gunmen he hires. You can't make hamburger without grinding up a little meat." This tough, humorless metropolitan cowboy became extremely popular with the magazine's readers, who were obviously tired of the cozy crime stories that the early Black Mask had depended on. For all his flaws, Race Williams is acknowledged by most critics and historians to be the first hardboiled detective, and the prototype for others to follow.

Unlike Daly, Dashiell Hammett knew what he was talking about. He had been a private investigator himself, having put in several years with the Pinkerton Agency. Exactly four months after the advent of Race Williams, Hammett sold his first story about the "Continental Op(erative)" to the magazine. Titled "Arson Plus," it introduced the plump middle-aged operative who worked out of the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency. Although also in the first person, the Op stories were written in a terse and believable vernacular style that made them sound real. Hammett's private detective never had to brag about being tough and good with a gun; readers could see that he was. His nameless operative soon became Race Williams' chief rival and after he had written nearly two dozen stories and novellas about him, Hammett put him into a novel. The first installment of Red Harvest appeared in the November 1927 issue of Black Mask. In November of the next year came the second Op serial, The Dain Curse. Then in 1929 Hammett introduced a new San Francisco private eye, a pragmatic tough guy he described as resembling a blond Satan. The Maltese Falcon, told in the third person, introduced Sam Spade and the quest for the jewel-encrusted bird. The story quickly moved into hardcovers, movies, and international renown. Hammett's The Glass Key ran in the magazine in 1930 and his final Op story in the November issue of that year. With the exception of The Thin Man, written initially for Redbook in the early 1930s, everything that Hammett is remembered for was published in Black Mask over a period of less than ten years.

Joseph Shaw was usually called Cap Shaw, because of his Army rank during World War I. Not at all familiar with pulp fiction or Black Mask when he took over as editor in 1926, he soon educated himself on the field. Shaw never much liked Daly's work, but kept him in the magazine because of his appeal to readers. Hammett, however, was an exceptional writer and Shaw used him to build the magazine into an important and influential one. "Hammett was the leader in the thought that finally brought the magazine its distinctive form," Shaw explained some years later. "Without that it was and would still have been just another magazine. Hammett began to set character before situation, and led some others along that path." In addition to concentrating on character, one of the goals of the best Black Mask authors was to develop prose that sounded the way people talked and not the way writers wrote. In addition to Hammett, Cap Shaw encouraged other writers who had already been contributors when he joined as editor. Among them were Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, and Frederick Nebel. He asked Nebel to create a new hardboiled private eye and the result was, as a blurb called him, "an iron-nerved private dick" named Donahue. One of the things he got from Whitfield was a serial titled "Death in a Bowl," which introduced Ben Jardinn, the very first Hollywood private eye. In 1933, Shaw bought "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" from Raymond Chandler, a failed middle-aged business man who was hoping he could add to his income by writing pulpwood fiction. The tough and articulate private eye Chandler wrote about for Black Mask, and later for its rival Dime Detective, was called Mallory and then John Dalmas. When he finally showed up in the novel The Big Sleep in 1939, he had changed his name to Philip Marlowe. Among the many other writers Shaw introduced to Black Mask were Horace McCoy, Paul Cain, Lester Dent, and George Harmon Coxe.

After Shaw quit the magazine in 1936 over a salary dispute, it changed somewhat. Chandler moved over to Dime Detective, where Nebel had already been lured, and the stories were not quite as "hardboiled" anymore. New writers were recruited by a succession of editors. Max Brand, Steve Fisher, Cornell Woolrich, and Frank Gruber became cover names in the later 1930s. Black Mask was bought out by Popular Publications in 1940 and started looking exactly like Popular's Dime Detective. Kenneth S. White became the editor of both and put even more emphasis on series characters. Oldtime contributors such as H.H. Stinson and Norbert Davis provide recurring detectives, as did newcomers like Merle Constiner, D.L. Champion, and Robert Reeves. Later on John D. MacDonald, Richard Demming, and William Campbell Gault made frequent appearances.

The decade of the 1950s saw the decline and fall of all the pulp fiction magazines. Black Mask ceased to be after its July 1951 issue. By then, it was a smaller-sized magazine that included reprints from earlier years with few new detective tales. Attempts to revive it in the 1970s and the 1980s were unsuccessful.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Cook, Michael L., editor. Mystery, Detective, and Espionage Magazines. Westport, Greenwood Press, 1983.

Goulart, Ron. The Dime Detective. New York, Mysterious Press, 1988.

Sampson, Robert. Yesterday's Faces. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.