Over the course of an eight-part series that ran in The Rap Sheet from November of last year to earlier this month, I offered a sort of guided tour to the short run of The New Black Mask, the mid-1980s revival of the famous American Black Mask pulp magazine that flourished in the 1920s and ’30s.
I thought the perfect bookend to that tour would be an interview with New Black Mask (NBM) co-editor Richard Layman, and he was kind enough to oblige.
Layman has written six books about Dashiell Hammett, including Literary Masterpieces: The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett: A Descriptive Bibliography, and Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett. In addition, two of his editing assignments--for Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960 and Discovering The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade--have been nominated for Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of America. And in 2005, he commemorated the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon’s publication with a speech about Hammett and his best-known novel at the Library of Congress.
He is vice president of South Carolina-based Bruccoli Clark Layman Inc., which produces reference works in literary and social history, including the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Layman was born and reared in Louisville, Kentucky, where he co-owns the popular seafood restaurant Leander’s on Oak. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Louisville, and a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina. He currently lives in Columbia, South Carolina.
Mark Coggins: How did the concept for New Black Mask originate?
Richard Layman: The idea for a magazine of crime stories in paperback format originated with William Jovanovich. Bruccoli Clark, as our company was called then, had an imprint with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [HBJ]. Mr. Jovanovich approached Matthew Bruccoli with the idea, and Matt asked me to co-edit the series with him.
MC: What sort of stories were you looking to publish originally? Did you change the editorial guidelines at all during the course of the eight NBM issues? And were the guidelines for the succeeding publication, A Matter of Crime (AMOC), different?
RL: The editorial rationale was to publish quality stories about crime that were not bound by genre restrictions, and that rationale remained consistent. Thus, we published some writers not normally associated with mystery fiction.
MC: Were most submissions agented or over the transom? Did you request submissions from particular authors?
RL: Almost all of our stories came over the transom. In some cases we went after particular writers, normally for the featured story in a issue, but rarely otherwise. After the first issue, we received about 25 unsolicited stories a day.
MC: Were there any writers who you wanted to publish but weren’t able to entice into submitting work?
RL: Sure, but we were satisfied with what we got.
MC: In addition to you and Matthew J. Bruccoli, I understand Martha C. Lawrence [later the author of the Dr. Elizabeth Chase series] was also on the editorial staff. What was her role? Were there other editors involved in the publication?
RL: I don’t know anything about Martha C. Lawrence except what is posted on her Web site. She had no editorial role in either NBM or AMOC. Matt and I were the sole editors. Each of us read each story that came in and rated it “good,” “maybe,” or “reject.” Two goods meant an acceptance; two rejects, or one maybe and a reject, meant a reject. Two maybes meant the story got reread.
MC: Who was responsible for the interviews in each issue? Were the interviews conducted face-to-face? How were the interviewed authors to deal with personally?
RL: Generally, Matt and I alternated interviews. Most of the interviews were conducted by phone, and I cannot recall an interview subject who was not easy to talk to. One of the most brusque was John D. MacDonald, which I did just before he left on the long ocean cruise during which he died. I thought it was the last interview done with him, but I have been corrected by one of his fans.
MC: How did you become aware of and gain the rights to the “rarities” you published from Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson?
RL: Matt collects Chandler; I collect Hammett; and we are both Thompson fans. We went to the agents for permission to publish works we knew existed.
MC: There are some great stories from James Ellroy in the issues. Although he had been published previously, he had yet to release the groundbreaking “L.A. Quartet.” Did you have a sense when you were working with him that he was on the edge of superstardom?
RL: When we began NBM, we went to friends in the business to ask for help. Otto Penzler was publishing Ellroy then and recommended him highly. He sent us James’ first story, which we liked and published. Otto assured us that James had a bright future, and he was right.
MC: You published several stories from first-time writers. Was that intentional or did it just happen?
RL: We believed that a market was needed for quality stories about crime. It was particularly gratifying to get good work from then-unrecognized writers, such as Mark Coggins, for example.
MC: Several writers, myself included, launched series characters from the stories they first published in NBM. Did you anticipate that NBM would be the launching point for careers, in the same way the original Black Mask was?
RL: That was certainly our hope. We didn’t find this generation’s Hammett or Chandler, but we will stand by the books.
MC: One must ask: Do you have a favorite story among all that were published in NBM?
RL: James Lee Snyder’s “Shopping Cart Howard” is a story I remember after 22 years. [Robert] Sampson’s “Rain in Pinton County” won an Edgar. But “favorite” is a difficult concept to apply here. We were proud to have published a lot of those stories.
MC: What were the circumstances surrounding the decision to morph the publication into A Matter of Crime?
RL: A litigious character emerged, who claimed rights to the old Black Mask. As I understood it, that claim got reduced to his claiming rights to the name and the type design of the masthead. In any event, HBJ bowed to the threat of a restraint order, paid him off, changed the name to A Matter of Crime, and altered the format to rack-size paperback
MC: What was the most enjoyable aspect of publishing NBM? And conversely, the least enjoyable?
RL: The most enjoyable aspect, obviously, was finding good stories. That pleasure was enhanced by the contrast with the least enjoyable aspect, which was making our way through real junk. There were stories by writers without a flicker of talent, and there were stories so twisted that I, at least, wondered if we should notify the authorities.
MC: If you were to do it all over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
RL: Neither Matt nor I have the time or inclination now to read 25 stories a day in search of a gem. I would engage a pre-vetter to weed out the stories that don’t merit consideration. I think marketing would have to be reconsidered. Can a series designed to be sold in bookstores be effectively marketed? Maybe not without some subscription support. An alternate publication plan would have to be designed.
MC: Any other facets of the NBM experience that you think our readers would enjoy hearing about?
RL: One of the great pleasures of NBM was the people we met along the way. I should mention George Greenfield, the respected British literary agent and author of Scribblers for Bread. He was a friend of Matt’s, one of the people we contacted at the beginning. George allowed Matt to look through his entire file of unpublished crime stories and was instrumental in introducing a British flavor to NBM. There was the attorney at MGM who allowed me into their files, where I found the Hammett Thin Man original stories that MGM allowed us to publish. There was Otto Penzler.
That is three among many.
(To read all of Mark Coggins’ excellent series about The New Black Mask magazine, click here.)