Friday, January 11, 2008

Back to Black, Part VIII

(Editor’s note: This is the final installment of author Mark Coggins’ appreciative look back at The New Black Mask magazine; previous entries can be found here. Although Mark is finished with this series, we’re not finished with him. He’s agreed to join The Rap Sheet’s “Usual Suspects” stable of contributors. We look forward to more astute entries from him in the near future.)

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1987 was the year the eighth and final issue of The New Black Mask (NBM) made its appearance in print. It is a strong close, including as it does a number of stories from both well-established and rising stars of the mystery genre.

From the well-established category, Travis McGee creator John. D. MacDonald grabs the cover with his story “Night Ride.” It’s the tale of a middle-aged salesman who leaves a late-night poker game drunk and a thousand bucks down, and manages to dig himself even deeper on the ride home when he hits a homeless man. He gambles further when he attempts to cover up that accident.

I once took a creative-writing class during which the instructor passed out two Xeroxed excerpts from published novels, with the authors’ names and the titles obscured. I happened to be able to identify both: one was a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) and the other was a chapter from a Travis McGee novel. The instructor had us read the selections and then led us in a discussion their individual merits, revealing at the end that he considered the first to be one of the best examples of published fiction (McCarthy’s Meridian) and the second to be one of the worst (MacDonald’s McGee novel).

I like MacDonald and think the instructor did him an injustice. Certainly MacDonald acquits himself well with “Ride.” It provides the story’s protagonist with a strong characterization, making his actions in the final third of this tale feel entirely consistent with what we learn about him in the preceding two thirds. There’s one curious failure of “continuity,” however, in the NBM cover illustration associated with MacDonald’s story. The plot of “Ride” turns on the fact that one headlight of the salesman’s car is busted during the accident, yet both are shown blazing on the front of this issue.

James Ellroy, who in 1987 can be said to have been on the verge of superstardom, provides the second story in this edition, and his second piece for NBM overall, a barn-burner called “Dial Axminster 6-400.” As with the yarn he provided for the fifth issue, it features a character from The Black Dahlia: Lee Blanchard, the “fire” half of the “fire and ice” Black Dahlia detective team of Blanchard and Bucky Bleichert. In “Axminster 6-400,” Blanchard and his hot-rod-loving partner find that an assignment to transport an Okie prisoner from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department turns from a chance to misappropriate the prisoner’s 1936 Auburn Speedster into a series of deadly high-speed chases and gun battles involving the prisoner’s accomplices, Ventura County deputies, and the feds. The highlight here is the thrill-ride on a Rube Goldberg hot-rod that Blanchard’s partner calls “Li’l Assdragger.”

Veteran writer John Lutz bats next with his story “Flotsam and Jetsam.” In it, private eye Alo “Nudge” Nudger helps the owner of the Dunker Delite doughnut shop, located below his office, determine why former crewman from his old U.S. Navy ship keep winding up in the gutter with their heads bashed in. Nudge has to get past ingestible doughnuts, fumigating cigars, and flying ashtrays, but he ultimately gets his man.

The fourth story here is contributed by first-time author Martin J. Miller Jr. Miller has experience in private investigations and he puts it to good use in “Telex,” a sort of “P.I. procedural” yarn about bank fraud, featuring a four-person private eye firm called Quad Investigations. The fraud in question involves the theft by computer of nearly $6 million from a large Los Angeles bank. Quad discovers the identity of the person responsible--the former head of “data processing” (now, there’s a 1980s term for you)--but determines that he’s covered his tracks too well to bring charges. Instead, they contrive to get the money back from his Cayman Islands account in the same way that he stole it. The story concludes as more of an Ocean’s Eleven-type caper.

One thing I’ve always admired about Chicago writer Sara Paretsky is how she has her female P.I., V.I. Warshawski, hang tough in realistic hard-boiled plots. Unfortunately, V.I.’s role in “Skin Deep”--the next story in NBM No. 8--is a bit more soft-boiled and Agatha Christie-ish than what we’ve come to expect from Paretsky (who by 1987 had only four novels under her belt, all of them Warshawski books). This tale involves the poisoning of a spa client through a toxic agent mixed into the skin cream applied to his face, and the resolution of the mystery has V.I. drawing (upon) her Italian language skills rather than the gat in her purse.

Another master--make that Grand Master--of P.I. fiction holds the “super hit six” position: Bill Pronzini. Although Pronzini is best known for his Nameless Detective series, “Stacked Deck,” his story in this edition of NBM, reminded me more of a Parker yarn by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). It features a Parker-like character named Deighan, who pulls off the strong-arm heist of a high-stakes poker game in Tahoe. The wrinkle in this well-written yarn is that Deighan’s true motives are not obvious and very unlikely to be shared by Parker.

William Doxey, a University of West Georgia English professor who retired after 35 years in the saddle, is up next with his story “Family Business.” In “Business,” all P.I. Jack Bleekman wants to do is get his house painted before the next rainstorm, but Kimberly, an attractive 19-year-old with $500, convinces him that he has enough time to tell her parents to stop looking for her. It seems she’s found a well-paying job as a dancer and is happy to be living in Atlanta and not a small town in Tennessee. Funny thing--when Bleekman visits the parents at a nearby Travelodge, it turns out that the girl who gave him the money wasn’t their daughter after all. He teams up with the bruiser of a father, finds the real Kimberly, and gets his house painted to boot.

As you might guess from its title, the following tale by Sol Newman, “’Ead All About It,” employs (more than) a bit of patois. Although Mark Twain pulled it off nicely in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I’ve never been a big fan of patois, and it made “’Ead All About It” a bit hard for me to parse. Set in New York in the early 1900s, “’Ead” tells the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers, Julius and Rosala, and Julius’ older brother Finkie, who “could fix anything: ballgames, prizefights, horse races, tennis even.” When Finkie tries to involve the lovers in one of his scams as a way to fund their honeymoon, physician Julius slips his harness, Rosala proves less than faithful, and newspaper headlines result.

Edward D. Hoch, who also had a story in the fourth NBM, delivers “Spy for Sale” as the ninth story in this last issue. “Spy” seems to be a rather atypical tale for Hoch, featuring as it does non-series characters and dealing with high technology, specifically picture-taking satellite technology. When civilian photo analyst Frasier gets an offer he can’t refuse to pass on photos of the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf regions to his firm’s “outside sales” guy, Jack Sergeant, and he finds that Miss Raymond, the office administrative assistant, is more than willing to hop into the sack with him, it seems like he’s got it made. But then the U.S. Defense Department starts making inquiries about inappropriate use of the technology, Sergeant gets greedy, and Miss Raymond shows she has a surprise or two up the sleeve of her negligee.

“Looking for Lauren,” by Joseph Lisowski, is next in the line-up. The guy who’s doing the looking here is a bookkeeper and wanna-be P.I. by the name of Wilcox. Pushing 60, Wilcox is overweight and he lives only for eating and his daily trip to the post office, where he hopes someday someone will respond to his classified ad for discreet inquiries. He just about has a heart attack when someone does: Sarah Wright, who is missing her sister Lauren with whom she lives. Wilcox swings into action, eating cheeseburgers at the local college snack bar, ribs at the Blue River Rib Company, steak and eggs at a Waffle House, cream puffs at the Dunkin’ Donuts, and spaghetti at Joe’s Inn--all while breaking wind and occasionally throwing up into the tank (not the bowl) of the toilet at the morgue. When Lauren ends up dead and Wilcox actually discovers who killed her (perhaps because he boned up on investigative techniques by reading Ross Macdonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse at the library), he’s as surprised as anyone. The only problem is dealing with the consequences. It’s an amusing ride with a quirky parody of the prototypical P.I. Lisowski went on to publish Looking for Lauren as a novel in 1998. (It’s apparently being reissued by Eternal Press later this year.)

Although second-time offender Peter Lovesey has the 11th story in NBM No. 8, I was surprised to realize that his name isn’t on the front or the back cover. The story is “Murder in Store” and it has to do with the death of a department store Santa, which is reported to the store clerk protagonist by one of his young customers with the following line of dialogue: “I think Santa’s snuffed it, miss.” The “miss” in question is Pauline Fothergill, and with the help of the young customer, she fingers the murderer in relatively short order.

The penultimate tale here is penned by another repeat performer, Carolyn Banks, whose previous New Black Mask story appeared in Issue 6. Titled, “Shhh, Shhh, It’s Christmas,” Ms. Banks explains in the introduction that she intends the story as an “experiment in voice.” When the female narrator learns that the couple next door is getting a divorce and that her husband has been having an affair with the other man’s wife, will the reader be fooled by the homey and matter-of-fact voice? As Ms. Banks asks, “Is it really true that it ain’t what you say; it’s how you say it?”

Credit for the last story in this issue, and the last story ever to be published under The New Black Mask banner, goes to Robert Sampson, who also had an (Edgar Award-winning) story in NBM No. 5. This one is titled “To Florida” and it involves a character, Jerry Teller, who only Jim Thompson could love. Teller decides it’s time to visit the Sunshine State after a run-in with his landlord, who comes calling for the rent. All the landlord gets is dead, and Teller takes off with his wallet, his car, and the apartment’s window-mounted air conditioner, hauling his vapid girlfriend along for the ride. When he drops the air conditioner in the lap of a used-appliance dealer who refuses to buy it, it becomes clear that Teller is more likely going to hell than Florida.

Thus ends my guided tour of The New Black Mask. A close reading of the copyright page in the eighth issue gives a hint of the reason for this magazine’s imminent discontinuance. A notice, missing from the seven prior issues, appears near the bottom of that page: “The title and design ‘Black Mask’ is used in accordance with an arrangement with Keith Deutsch.”

co-editor Richard Layman told me later that copyright issues and the fact that the larger trade paperback format was not popular with bookstores were the two primary reasons the editors stopped producing The New Black Mask. But they weren’t quite finished. They morphed the publication into A Matter of Crime and switched to mass-market paperback format. The transition also seemed to signal a shift from hard-boiled to more traditional mysteries, but the publication only survived for four issues.

Farewell, New Black Mask. We hardly knew ye.

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