Frederick Lewis Nebel(1903 — 1966) first appeared in Black Mask the same year (1926) as Raoul Whitfield, but his life could not have been more different. A New Yorker by birth (1903), Nebel educated himself while working on a great-uncle’s homestead in Canada. He used his north country knowledge to write for the pulp Northwest Stories in 1925. He sold a story to Phil Cody at Black Mask in 1926; his second was printed by Shaw, who mentored him for ten years. Married in 1930, Nebel settled down and produced series heroes for four or five different magazines. In Black Mask he published fiction about a two-man team, Captain Steve MacBride, of the Richmond City police, and a newspaper reporter known simply as Kennedy. “Richmond City” took Hammett’s “Poisonville” as its model, so that MacBride and Kennedy were constantly cleaning it up. When Hammett became famous and quit the pulps, Shaw needed a new series and he turned to Nebel, who created Donny Donahue and kept him investigating through fifteen stories and five years. Writing up to five thousand words a day, Nebel kept five and six serial heroes in action from week to week. His detective pair of MacBride/Kennedy lasted eight years and thirty-six stories. 1 Nebel said he felt “a keen interest in the progress of Black Mask. I like the punch in it, the true-to-life characters, the logical situations.” 2
In the 1930s, Nebel began his first novel, based on his early experience working as a brakeman on a train. Little, Brown published Sleepers East in 1933, and when screen rights sold for $5,000, Nebel got an agent, Carl Brandt. The movie finally appeared as Sleepers West. His agent also got Nebel into the slick magazines and a series of hardback novels, many of which sold to studios. Having heard Hammett’s comments on Hollywood, Nebel would have nothing to do with movie adaptations. “Hell, they always change the stuff around. But I don’t mind – just so I don’t have to make the changes.” 3 After twelve years Nebel stopped writing for the detective pulps in 1938: he had written over 230 stories, most of them novellas in length. His new focus was the booming field of contemporary romance, where he was equally prolific and successful. Feeling that his early work was “dated,” Nebel later refused to allow his Black Mask stories to be reprinted. He died in 1967 at age sixty-three from a cerebral hemorrhage. “His characters are genuinely hard-boiled,” wrote critic Will Murray; they are “insular, pragmatic men… survivors who pride themselves on their toughness and their ability to take it… in the grim world of Depression America in which survival is the guiding imperative.” 4
1 Nolan, Black Mask, 153-54. 2 Ibid. 3 Nebel in Nolan, 155. 4 Murray in Nolan, Black Mask, 157.