Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Back To Black, Part III

(The first installment of author Mark Coggins’ look back at The New Black Mask magazine can be found here. Part II is available here.)

In The New Black Mask No. 3, the word “Quarterly”--as in The New Black Mask Quarterly--was dropped from the nameplate. Since this was the third but final issue of the magazine to be published in 1985, the editors perhaps realized they weren’t on pace to make a quarterly publication and did away with the designation.

Donald E. Westlake grabs the cover with an excerpt from his 1987 novel, Good Behavior, which finds professional thief John Dortmunder cooking up a scheme with his hand-picked henchmen in the back of the O.J. Bar & Grill. Their mission: to break into a building full of jade, jewels, ivory, and other precious goods--and, oh by the way, they must also rescue a nun who’s being held captive there by her father.

To accompany the Good Behavior excerpt, Westlake gives NBM one of the few extended interviews I’ve seen with him. When asked for his opinion about other hard-boiled American writers, Westlake says, “Chandler is just a little too baroque for me. Every sentence has three syllables too many … Hammett, I think, is terrific. His use of language and his use of emotion--he’s sparing with both, and it’s very well done. Cain, too.”

On the difference between television and the film industry, Westlake remarks: “It’s the Peter Principle run rampant. You’re dealing with a network. The people in the offices are dumb; they’re just dumb. I could do a paragraph on it, but it would wind up with dumb … In the movies, you’ve got lively, intelligent, hard-driving people, because they tend to be entrepreneurs. Whereas in the networks they tend to be employees, and they’re interested in protecting themselves.”

The next story in this third issue of the magazine is one I quite like. Titled “A Pity About the Girl,” it relates the tale of two middle-aged men who fought on the side of the Allies during World War II, and then meet again in later life. By the time of their second meeting, they are engaged in professions that … well, I can only say that they’re quite different. The writing in “Pity” reminded me a lot of Len Deighton, but the author is actually another Englishman, Michael Gilbert. Apart from being a prolific and underrated wordsmith--who perhaps never achieved the reputation he should have, because he dabbled in so many genres--Gilbert also once served as Raymond Chandler’s London solicitor. Thanks to Google Book Search (about which I have very mixed feelings), we can now view a page from Tom Hiney’s 1997 biography of Chandler, on which Gilbert is mentioned, and peruse a portion of a letter Chandler wrote to Gilbert.

Clark Howard bats next with a story called “Breaking Even.” In it, jaded veteran reporter Dewey Taylor visits New Rome, Alabama, to cover the sensationalistic ice-pick murder of a local businessman, but finds himself in an unusual position after a jailhouse visit with the accused, Jack Strawn. Strawn confesses to a prior homicide, of which he was previously acquitted; yet he adamantly denies being involved in the current killing, and enlists Taylor’s help to win release.

Howard himself is quite the genre veteran. He’s written 16 novels, two short-story collections, and more than 200 uncollected short stories. He’s collected an Edgar Award, a Derringer, and many other commendations and prize nominations. He comes from some pretty hard-boiled stock, too. I read on Rara-Avis that his grandfather was a cousin of early 20th-century American criminal Kate “Ma” Barker and his father was a partner of Machine Gun Kelly!

Linda Barnes’ story “Lucky Penny” follows in the line-up and represents a number of firsts. It is the first story by a woman to appear in New Black Mask; it is also the story that first introduced Barnes’ 6-foot-1 redheaded Boston private eye, Carlotta Carlyle, who has since appeared in 11 novels (including Heart of the World, 2006). And, although it had been sold several times before, this was the first time “Lucky Penny” had actually made it to print; the magazines that purchased it before had all folded before Barnes’ tale could be published. “Lucky Penny” would go on to be nominated for several commendations, and it won the American Mystery Award for Best Short Story--which might explain why Barnes decided to make Carlotta her go-to gal.

In “Lucky Penny,” resourceful, cab-driving Carlotta gets held up by a fare; and although she eventually recovers much of the money that was taken, she feels honor-bound to investigate the crime, because of the unusual circumstances surrounding it. As Carlotta digs further into the case, she discovers that much more than the price of a few cab rides is at stake.

“Isak Romun” is the pen name used by Gordon Bennett for his story “The Grabber,” which appears next in this issue. As the title suggests, “The Grabber” is about a serial rapist, but we are told in the first paragraph that he has been dispatched by police bullets after scratching the number six three times across the wall of the room in which he was holed up. What follows from there is an investigation by another newspaperman protagonist, its resolution hinging on the interpretation of the numbers scratched on the wall and information the scribbler collects during an interview with a putative victim.

The title of the yarn in this magazine’s “super hit six” position is “Death Makes a Comeback,” but its author, James O’Keefe, isn’t making a comeback--this is his debut story in print. It is also the first story by a previously unpublished author to appear in the New Black Mask series. The editor’s introduction mentions that Mr. O’Keefe was encouraged to submit his tale after a favorable response from his writers’ group, which included Detroit detective novelist Loren D. Estleman. As O’Keefe’s entry in this bibliography of short fiction shows, he went on to publish other stories, and recently submitted an entry to a short-fiction contest on author J.A. Konrath’s Web site. In “Death Makes a Comeback,” a father/son police detective team catches a serial murderer with a little help from psychiatrist Dr. Whitney Larsen.

Jim Thompson comes up next in the lineup with NBM’s third installment of his serialized novel, The Rip-Off. In this latest segment, our hero, Britt Rainstar, manages to get himself further entangled with two women while still being married to a third. As in the first part of this yarn, Thompson also manages to work in a scene where a character pisses into the sink. I’m beginning to get the idea that this Thompson fella writes about some pretty warped stuff.

The final story in NBM No. 3 is an excellent one by John Ball of Virgil Tibbs fame, called “Appointment with the Governor.” It involves a clemency meeting with an unnamed governor in an unnamed state, during which details about the identity of the governor and the petitioners amp up the tension--and challenge the reader’s expectations.

(To be continued)


steve said...

Mark, I have copies of the New Black Mask, but I confess that I've never read them. Thanks for going through the various issues like this. You make all of the stories sound interesting in several ways. Here's a question, though. How many of them, if you can say, would have been published in the original Black Mask pulp magazine? Best, Steve Lewis

Mark Coggins said...

Steve, glad you're enjoying the tour through NBM. You ask a good question. The novel excerpts (as opposed to serializations, which *were* very common) would probably not have appeared in the original magazine. And some of the stories in NBM--such as "And We in Dreams"--might have been a little too cozy, but I think much of the content would have fit right in.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Happy Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the news you dispense everyday.