Sunday, December 09, 2007

Back to Black, Part VI

(Previous installments of author Mark Coggins’ look back at The New Black Mask magazine can be found here.)

In the sixth issue of The New Black Mask (NBM), published in 1986, Dashiell Hammett takes the cover again with the second installment of his original treatment for the 1936 movie After the Thin Man. But before Hammett steps onto center stage, Belgian writer Georges Simenon has a short interview and a story titled “The Man Behind the Looking Glass.” Best known for his Inspector Jules Maigret books, Simenon wrote in French and says in the interview that he aims for as simple a style as possible with “a minimum of adjectives and adverbs, a minimum of abstract words which have a different resonance for each reader.” Likewise, he asks that his translators “safeguard his simplicity,” but adds that sometimes that’s difficult, “as for instance in Italian.”

“The Man Behind the Looking Glass” was written in 1943, but was published in English for the first time in NBM No. 6. The title refers to a character named Emile, who is the actual brains behind the well-regarded Agency O, putatively run by the much more famous detective Joseph Torrence, former inspector of Paris’ Criminal Division. From his post “behind the looking glass,” Emile pulls all the strings in investigations, while the stodgy, phlegmatic Torrence provides a respectable public face to the world. Like Sherlock Holmes in the short story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Emile matches wits here with a female adversary possessed of skills equal to or better than his own, and achieves only a partial victory.

Following “Looking Glass” is the second half of “After the Thin Man.” Hammett continues to put Nick and Nora Charles through their paces, once more employing the wry humor he used to good effect in the first part of this tale. When Nora complains that a police detective failed to chase after a suspect whom she had pointed out, the detective says to Nick, “[I]t sounded kind of screwy to me at first ... I didn’t know she was your wife then.” Deadpans Nick, “You can never tell where you’re going to find one of my wives.”

Later, Nick and Nora visit a crime scene, only to find police Lieutenant Abrams’ men killing time doing a crossword puzzle at the kitchen table. As they make their way through the apartment house, Hammett’s wedded snoops discover a rug upstairs that Nick wants rolled up for mysterious, not-yet-explained reasons. Abrams calls down to his men to do the heavy lifting:
“Hey, Francis--you and that other cutie who was trying to find a three-letter word for ape, come up here.”

Nora, in a hoarse whisper, asks, “What is it, Nick?”

Nick. “Do I know? Men are dying all around and you ask me riddles.”
In a famous essay on the mystery story, Raymond Chandler wrote that Hammett “gave murder back to the kind of people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse.” My only complaint about “After the Thin Man” is that the author cedes this yarn to the people who commit it “with handwrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish” for improbable reasons. In fact, Hammett’s ending was changed in the movie version of the story to make it more plausible, although the guilty party remained the same: a character played by (a then young) Jimmy Stewart.

Jeffry Scott--a pseudonym employed by (white) British writer Shaun Usher--does an impressive job of putting across an adventure told from the point of view of an urban African American in the story that follows Hammett’s, “A Friend to the Limit.” Norm, the narrator, is the “friend to the limit” who pulls a white father and son’s chestnuts out of the fire when they blunder into the inner-city murder of a prostitute.

The next author in this issue’s line-up is R.D. Brown, who in addition to teaching English for 25 years at Western Washington University--where there is a memorial scholarship named after him--also wrote mystery stories. One of his novels, Hazzard, was nominated for a Best Paperback Original Edgar in 1987. His New Black Mask story, “Frisbee in the Middle,” gives us a private eye named Frisbee and his gal Friday, Glendora (“prettier than a red pickup”), who match wits with a mobster and a bodyguard capable of removing knobs from the office doors of private eyes. Frisbee does most of the legwork, while Glendora contributes the brain work and thus the day is saved.

The next tale here is a short, edgy one by Austin, Texas, writer Carolyn Banks called “Mean to My Father.” Told from the perspective of a young girl, it explains why, after the girl’s best friend is stabbed 13 times, she is no longer quite so nice to her sire.

Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins), who also had a story in the second NBM, gets the “super hit six” spot with his yarn “Killer’s Mind.” “Mind” is an interesting mix of the traditional puzzle story with a noirish spiral of deceit and betrayal à la Double Indemnity. The person at the center of it all? A young, attractive, success-hungry femme fatale, natch. Two successful architects vie for her affections, but neither she nor her suitors get quite the just desserts the reader expects at the outset of this escapade.

The final story in this (relatively slim) issue of NBM is by mystery man Harold Walls. We are told in the introduction to “It Was a Hard Fall” that Walls is a pseudonym for a writer who describes himself as a “dyspeptic misanthrope with no real desire to reveal my identity or my motive in writing fiction to the world at large.” I’ve not been able to find any other references to Walls, so apparently he wasn’t merely paying lip service to his misanthropic inclinations.

“Hard Fall” is the story of Marblehead Dexter Simpkins, an inner-city black man who was “six-feet-four of prime fullbacking scholarship meat” before he got caught one night, after he left high school, in the company of the under-aged daughter of a prominent white businessman. By the third page of this yarn, Marblehead gets his ass put “in the can for two to ten on a charge of rape statutorily”--and that is only the beginning of problems that multiply fact-ta-torially.

(To be continued)

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