Black Mask magazine

The first significant hard-boiled authors appeared around 1923 and at the same magazine, The Black Mask. Ironically, The Black Mask was created to help pay the costs of Smart Set, which was similar to today’s New Yorker. Its founders were drama critic George Jean Nathan and iconoclast critic Henry L. Mencken. When Smart Set floundered in 1918, they set up two pulps, Parisienne and Saucy Stories, which were highly profitable. But they needed another. According to historian Ron Goulart, they “turned down the opportunity to do an all-Negro pulp … [and] finally decided they’d try a mystery magazine,” probably because of Smith and Street’s success with Detective Stories. 1  black_mask

The first issue appeared in April, 1920 and featured stories of “Detection, Mystery, Adventure, Romance and Spiritualism.” Its editors wanted to play the field. Mencken later said that “reading manuscripts for it is a fearful job” but “it has kept us alive during a very bad year.” After only eight months, he and Nathan sold out to “Pop” Warner and Eugene Crowe, publishers of Smart Set, who would own the magazine for two decades. 2 The Black Mask did well enough publishing imitations of the English School in its first two years, but in October, 1922 editor George W. Sutton and associate editor Harry North took control and decided to focus on tough detectives. Sutton stayed on for two years, replaced in 1924 by Philip C. Cody, the circulation director. North remained as writing coach extraordinaire. Sutton, North, and Cody recruited the first group of hard-boiled writers, and the magazine’s repute began to rise. Its rank as the premier detective pulp came with a subsequent editor, Joseph T. Shaw, who promptly dropped The from Black Mask‘s title. Hired in 1926, “Cap” Shaw was a descendant of blue-blooded New Englanders, a graduate of Bowdoin College, and a national saber champion.

What “Cap” Shaw created has become a legend. “The greatest change in the detective story since Poe,” wrote popular culture scholar Russell B. Nye, “came in 1926 with the emergence of the Black Mask school of fiction.” 3 Shaw had a romantic sense of his audience. The Black Mask reader, he wrote, “is vigorous-minded; hard, in a square man’s hardness; hating unfairness, trickery, injustice, cowardly underhandedness; standing for a square deal and a fair show in little or big things, and willing to fight for them; not squeamish or prudish, but clean, admiring the good in man and woman; not sentimental in a gushing sort of way, but valuing true emotion; not hysterical, but responsive to the thrill of danger, the stirring exhilaration of clean, swift, hard action – and always pulling for the right guy to come out on top.” 4

Returning to the U.S. after several years in Europe, Shaw had been shocked to find American tabloids celebrating gangsters such as Capone and Dillinger, to witness the scandals of the Harding administration and the blatant disregard of Prohibition. The republic appeared more threatened, he said, by corrupt judges, political deals and institutional sickness than by petty criminals. Shaw was an able editor, as well as a moral reformer. In his letters and memos, he articulated a clear vision of hard-boiled fiction. “We wanted simplicity for the sake of clarity, plausibility and belief,” he wrote. “We wanted action, but we held that action is meaningless unless it involves recognizable human character in three dimensional form.” Critics have called this style “objective realism,” but Shaw’s own explanation stresses the difference between exterior appearance and interior emotion. He counseled his writers that “in creating the illusion of reality” they should let their characters act and talk tough rather than make them be tough. This model of character — a crisp exterior but an amorphous interior — corresponds to Shaw’s idea of his readership. Nor did Shaw urge plots of relentless action on his writers. “To accomplish action it’s not necessary to stage a gun battle from start to finish, with a murder and a killing in every other paragraph,” he later told Raymond Chandler: “You can keep it alive through dialogue.” 5

As an editor Shaw went beyond close editorial work and a new vision; he was a superb writing coach and an enthusiastic recruiter. His coup was to convince Dashiell Hammett, an ailing ex-Pinkerton agent who had published stories under Sutton and Cody, to write for the magazine again. Hammett’s knowledge of real detective work – that it involved stake-outs as well as chases, interviews as often as fisticuffs – gave the magazine the tone of authenticity it sought. Hammett’s reputation soon drew other writers.

When he began, Shaw already had Carroll John Daly, Dalya famous pulp writer. Daly was a slight man who had worked as a theatre usher, a stock salesman, and manager of a fire-alarm company. He had first aspired to become an actor, but he was too shy; his acquaintances described him as a bumbling recluse who lived the life of a hermit in White Plains, N.Y. According to William Nolan, Daly’s only research consisted of buying a .45 automatic, since his hero carried two of them, but on his way home, he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. 6 “That was the end of Carroll’s criminal research,” said a friend. Daly was so absent-minded that after trips into New York City to meet his editors he sometimes could not find his house in White Plains.

Daly created a hero who remedied his personal defects, and he once admitted that he was “Carroll John Daly in the daytime and Race Williams at night.” 7 This hero was focussed, crude, illiterate, opinionated, and a crack shot who slept with a gun in his hand. “There is nothing soft-boiled about him,” said Daly. 8 He sold his very first story to Black Mask in 1922, the era of Sutton and North. It took him three more tries to arrive at the character of Terry Mack (“Three Gun Terry,” Black Mask, May 1923), who many scholars believe is the first authentically hard-boiled detective. Mack was the prototype for Race Williams, who first appeared in “Knights of the Open Palm” (June, 1923). 9

Race Williams recovered the larger-than-life qualities and under-world immersion that had been missing in the Nick Carter era; he harked back to the Pinkerton novels and even to Old Sleuth and Old Cap Collier. He was ruthlessly blunt: “I do a little honest shooting once in a while – just in the way of business [but] I never bumped off a guy what didn’t need it.” In The Snarl of the Beast Race Williams said that “right and wrong are not written on the statues for me, nor do I find my code of morals in the essays of long-winded professors. My ethics are my own.” A typical Race Williams story ended on this note: “I sent him crashing through the gates of hell with my bullet in his brain.” 10

Editor Harry Sutton seized on Race Williams and urged Daly to keep on writing about him; he wanted to develop his audience’s interest in serial characters. He urged his other writers to create comparable serial heroes. Daly wrote three or four Race Williams stories a year through 1924. When “Cap” Shaw became editor in 1926, he picked up the pace, publishing as many as seven in 1928. The first of his seven novels based on Black Mask publications appeared in 1927. In all there were twenty-seven Race Williams stories in the magazine. In 1934 Daly and Shaw had an argument, and the writer took Race Williams to Dime Detective and then to other magazines. The character continued to be popular through the Great Depression, but by 1940 his run was over. The last Race Williams novel (Murder from the East)was published in London in 1940. During World War II, readers seemed to lose interest in Williams, perhaps because of actual violence. Ironically, the character was almost immediately reincarnated, with the strongly sexual motives that Race lacked, in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (I, the Jury, 1947). Daly, however, was too complacent or unskilled to change. He sold a story or two a year in the 1950s and died on January 16, 1958, in California, where he had moved hoping to break into television. 11 The Thrilling Detective website has a Race Williams page here.

There were two famous authors who wrote for Black Mask. Dashiell Hammett also made his first appearance in Black Mask in late 1922. He also appeared in The Smart Set that year, and by the end of 1923 had four more short pieces published there. Ironically, the editors either told him to aim lower or he decided for himself. He published stories under the pseudonym “Peter Collinson,” some based on his seven years of intermittent employment as a Pinkerton. The third introduced his famous, nameless Continental Op, who also narrated Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest (1929). Hammett became not only the most famous writer at the magazine but an overwhelming influence on it. Erle Stanley Gardner later charged the editors with trying to make everyone imitate him. In eight years Hammett wrote over fifty stories for Black Mask, as well as stories for eight other pulps. He is treated in the section on classic authors.

Raymond Chandler, also treated in the classic authors section, made his first appearance in Black Mask in December, 1933, with “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot.” A transplanted Irishman, educated in England, Chandler had worked for a decade in the Los Angeles oil industry before being fired for drunkenness. His first two stories treated a tough detective named Mallory, his next four an extension named Carmody; both were rough drafts of Philip Marlowe. Like several other writers, Chandler left Black Mask when Shaw was fired, but he reworked the plots of these early stories for two of his finest novels, The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940).

By the mid-1930s Black Mask had lost momentum. William Nolan points out that “Cap” Shaw increased circulation from 66,000 in 1926 to 130,000 in 1930, but that he began to take himself too seriously, proclaiming that his magazine was read by “clergymen, bankers, lawyers, doctors” and “the heads of large businesses.” In Shaw’s romantic view, the reader knew “the song of a bullet, the soft, slithering hiss of a swift-thrown knife, the feel of hard fists, the call of courage.” 12 There was a wide gap between this idealized masculinity and the reality of the early Depression years, when readers knew unemployment, emasculation, depression and, often, illness or alcoholism. There were also hundreds of competitors in the magazine market. By 1935 the circulation of Black Mask had fallen to 63,000. The publishers told Shaw that the writers’ pay would have to be cut, but the editor refused. Just as Shaw was bringing aboard a new bread-winner — Lester Dent, author of the Doc Savage novels — the pay dispute escalated and Shaw was shown the door. The “Black Mask Boys” reacted immediately; Dent and Nebel quit and Chandler went to Dime Detective, while Cain turned to Hollywood.

Yet Black Mask had a final phase. The masthead of the first issue of 1937 listed F. Ellsworth as editor. “Fanny” Ellsworth guided the magazine through its last major period. “She was an extremely erudite woman,” wrote Frank Gruber. “She knew what she wanted.” What she wanted was “a more humanistic” detective, a “softer, more nakedly-emotional approach” to hard-boiled fiction. 13 Within a year she brought such significant writers to the magazine as Cornell Woolrich, Frank Gruber, Steve Fisher, and Frederick Faust (who wrote as “Max Brand”). These writers were less hard-edged, stressing the hero’s emotional response to the dark and threatening city, a tactic taken from the popular romance/adventure stories of Depression (see Frederick Nebel above). This tactic acknowledged a sense of powerlessness among “little man” heroes, who recognized truth or beauty or love and made an attempt to respond to them. Gone was the hard-shelled, action-oriented hero.

By 1940 circulation had dropped farther, and the owners decided to sell Black Mask to their competition, Dime Detective. A new editor tried to make the magazine tough again and brought in new writers, but the problem was no longer the magazine. The technology of entertainment was changing. Readers had taken up comic books and mass-market paperbacks during the Depression, and by 1940 radio was also taking away audience. These media were, variously, either cheaper or more durable or resellable or more immediate. Its days numbered, Black Mask staggered on, using lurid covers of sex and violence, featuring espionage stories during World War II and finally cutting back to fortnightly publication. The magazine’s size was reduced, the price raised – nothing helped. The last issue appeared in July 1951. After thirty-one years of publication, Black Mask folded: it had printed over 2,500 stories by some 640 authors and been the dominant magazine in hard-boiled fiction. 14

As many of these biographies indicate, hard-boiled writers also worked for Hollywood movie studios. Some of the best, such as W.R. Burnett, never appeared in Black Mask. It is important to understand Hollywood as the other major source of hard-boiled writing. Its appetite was fed by the success of crime movies, which became popular in the late1920s, as people grew cynical about Prohibition and curious about Bootleggers. 15 For information about this, see the section on Film Noir. Black Mask has been revived, for its historic interest, at this website.

1 Goulart quoted in William Nolan, The Black Mask Boys (New York: William Morrow and Co.), 20. 2 Mencken quoted in Nolan, Black Mask, 20. 3 Russell B. Nye, The Unembarassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America (New York: Dial Press, 1970), quoted in Nolan, 15. 4 Joseph Shaw, quoted in Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: Random House, 1976), 46; Shaw, “Greed, Crime and Politics,” Black Mask, March 1931, 9. 5 Shaw quoted in Nolan, 26-29; MacShane, Life, 50. 6 Nolan, Black Mask, 38. 7 Ibid. 8 Daley quoted in Nolan, Black Mask, 38. 9 Nolan, Black Mask, 36. 10 Carroll John Daly, in Philip Durham, “The Black Mask School,” Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, ed David Madden (Carbondale, IL.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), 55-57. 11 Nolan, Black Mask, 42. 12 Nolan and Shaw in Nolan, Black Mask, 29, 28. 13 Gruber and Ellsworth quoted in Nolan, Black Mask, 31, 30. 14 Nolan, Black Mask, 31-32. 15 The Hollywood locus of hard-boiled fiction has recently received more critical attention. David E. Wilt covers McCoy and Cain, as well as Eric Taylor, Dwight V. Babcock and John K. Butler, all of whom had associations with both Black Mask and Hollywood studios, in Hardboiled in Hollywood (Bowling Green, OH.: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991). W. T. Ballard, another Hollywood screenwriter who contributed to Black Mask, even invented a studio detective named Bill Lennox. These stories, edited by James L. Traylor, have been reprinted by Bowling Green State University’s Popular Press in Hollywood Troubleshooter: W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox Stories(1985).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s