Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Back to Black, Part I

Editor’s note: Join us in welcoming Mark Coggins, author of the new novel Runoff, as our latest guest blogger here at The Rap Sheet. Most generously, he’s offered to stick around these parts throughout the month of November, commenting on a little-remembered magazine, his own crime writing, his literary inspirations, and more. Coggins first posting can be found below.

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Many fans of hard-boiled fiction are aware of the importance of Black Mask, the pulp magazine that flourished in the 1920s and ’30s and launched the careers of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner. What fewer mystery readers may know is that Black Mask was revived for a brief period in the mid-1980s as a quarterly trade paperback called The New Black Mask (NBM).

The editors of The New Black Mask, Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman, were up for the assignment. Bruccoli is best known for his research on F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he has credentials nearly as strong in the field of detective fiction, having compiled Raymond Chandler: A Check List (1968) and a number of other bibliographical works on Chandler. Layman is the author of six books about Hammett--including Shadow Man, the best Hammett biography--and is editor of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett. (In 1975, he also 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.)

The resulting product reflected their expertise. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for a scant eight issues, The New Black Mask featured some of the best fiction from contemporary hard-boiled practitioners as well as intriguing “rarities” from past masters. I’ve always been a big fan of NBM and felt it never got the circulation or the recognition it deserved. So, in this and seven posts to come, I’ll try in my small way to rectify that situation by taking you on a guided tour.

First up: the premiere issue, published in 1985.

The cover story in that first edition of NBM is an excerpt from Robert B. Parker’s novel Promised Land (1976), which features the scene in which private eye Spenser’s therapist girlfriend, Susan Silverman, and his strong-arm sidekick Hawk first meet. Even more interesting is the accompanying interview with Parker. In it, when asked to identify what he brought to the hard-boiled tradition that differentiated his writing from that of Hemingway, Chandler, and Hammett, he responds with one word: love. Parker continues, “If I have changed the form, whatever that form quite is, I think it’s because of the degree to which I use it as a vehicle to write about love, which certainly not many hard-boiled private detective writers do.”

The second offering in this paperback is the initial installment of a four-part serialization of a heretofore unpublished Jim Thompson novel, The Rip-Off. As a sheltered 28-year-old reading my first Jim Thompson prose in 1985, I have a vivid memory of being very impressed that he’d somehow managed to have not one but two characters (male and female) pissing into a sink in the first chapter.

Next up is “Backfire,” an original story for a screenplay that Raymond Chandler wrote on spec in 1946 or 1947. Alas, no one hired Chandler to turn the story into a shooting script, and its only prior appearance in print was in a collector’s edition published in 1984. The tone of the piece is surprisingly casual, almost as if Chandler is sitting right next to you in a bar, telling a story. It begins, “George comes home from the wars (I’m as sick of this as you are, I’m just spitballing) to find, say, his wife has been killed in an auto accident on a dark road in a fog at night, at a bad turn.”

Following that we have “A Case of Chivas Regal,” a short story by George V. Higgins, author of the seminal, dialogue-driven novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. “A Case” shows off more of Higgins’ facility with dialogue. It finds Pandy Feeney, a court officer, relating why he cannot speak at the memorial service for a recently deceased judge.

As we move into the paperback a bit further, we find a curious story titled “Remember Mrs. Fritz!” by George Sims, a UK author in the rare book trade whom I’d never heard of before. Apparently he wrote a number of books, at least one of which was included in a list of the 100 best mystery and crime books. “Mrs. Fritz!” is essentially the story of a stalker and his prey, told in epistolary form from the perspective of the stalker. What struck me rereading it in 2007 is how well it would translate into a story about Internet stalking, something I explored in my novel Candy from Strangers (2006).

“Trouble in Paradise,” a story by one of my favorite P.I. authors from the 1980s, Arthur Lyons, falls next in the contents. Lyons’ Los Angeles gumshoe, Jacob Asch, investigates the scuba-diving death of the son of a wealthy commodities brokerage firm owner. Although he had eight novels to his credit at the time it was written, “Trouble” was the first Asch short story Lyons had written. A reference in that yarn’s introduction to Lyons living in Palm Springs and owning a restaurant called Lyons’ English Grill led me to do a little Internet research. As part of The Rap Sheet’s first-anniversary “One Book Project,” editor J. Kingston Pierce wondered aloud what has happened to Lyons. It appears the last book published under his name was Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, but he’s also the host of the annual Palm Springs Film Festival. I’m going to continue my research and hope to be able to provide more information about Lyons in a later post.

Loren D. Estleman follows with an Amos Walker story titled “Bloody July,” which incorporates elements of Detroit’s Prohibition past in what I think is the best piece in this issue of NBM. In 1985, Amos is still smoking a lot of Winstons, but it’s the slugs from a Thompson submachine gun that he really needs to watch out for.

The second-to-last story here is a short piece called “Say a Prayer for the Guy” from writer Nelson Algren of The Man with the Golden Arm fame. In it, Algren gives a character sketch of a poker player, and doesn’t provide him with a line of dialogue until the very end of the tale, but nonetheless manages to leave the reader with a very clear impression of the man.

The final story in the issue is by William F. Nolan and is called “The Pulpcon Kill.” Although Nolan is perhaps most famous for his book (and movie) Logan’s Run, he is also a student of hard-boiled fiction and Black Mask writers. In a story that features reincarnation, he manages to include Mickey Spillane, Carroll John Daly, and Dashiell Hammett as characters. Daly and Hammett were dead, so Nolan didn’t need their approval, but Spillane was still alive so would have had to have given his. However, there is mention of Spillane’s famous light beer commercials in “The Pulpcon Kill,” so maybe he was compensated by “commercial placement.”

(To be continued)

1 comment:

Gonzalo B said...

I bought all eight issues of NBM earlier this year. It's a pity that a magazine with such consistently stellar lineups didn't fare well. James Elroy's latest collection of short stories, which came out a few months ago, contained several stories that were originally published in NBM. What more evidence would anyone want regarding the magazine's quality?