“To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free,” according to Miller, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. “It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature.”
I think Miller unintentionally described the psychological and existential underpinnings of pulp fiction, as displayed in such classic magazines as Black Mask. Pulp writing, or the hard-boiled American style, was created by writers who were largely self-taught. Some attended college, but most got their training as writers working as newspaper reporters and graduating from the School of Mean Streets.
These writers created a new, distinctly American style that transformed not just pop storytelling, but American serious literature, as well as the substance and grammar of movie screenwriting. This style, often poorly imitated, still resonates in American culture.
There are 53 examples of these classic stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard), edited by Otto Penzler, the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. This 1,116-page paperback is big enough to prop open a fire door. The Big Book contains classic tales by Dashiell Hammett (creator of Sam Spade and The Continental Op), Raymond Chandler (who later created the immortal Los Angeles detective Philip Marlowe), Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason) and mega successful mystery novelist John D. MacDonald. You’ll also find work from Brett Halliday, Horace McCoy, Cornell Woolrich and many others. Each writer is given a short bio that describes his life and work, including film and TV scripts. The collection, according to Penzler, is a sort of sequel to The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2007), which he also edited. The introduction to the Big Book is written by Keith Alan Deutsch, who owns the Black Mask brand name.
Many of the original issues of Black Mask are impossible to find. In his foreword to the Big Book, Penzler thanks the Special Collections Department at UCLA for helping him locate rare issues and stories that might otherwise have been lost to general readers.
Black Mask was launched in 1920 by journalist H. L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan. It is believed that their intent in launching Black Mask was to make enough money to support their literary magazine The Smart Set, which—like many such publications—was a money pit.
The importance of Black Mask, and other such publications in the commercial heyday of pulps in the 1920 and 1930s, was the way they propagated a uniquely American form of writing that transformed the mystery genre. According to critic John Desjarlais, “American Edgar A. Poe may have ‘invented’ the detective story with ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and its sequels, but it was mainly a British form into the 1930s. With the hard-boiled story, the drive and innovation of the detective genre moved from Britain to America.”
The American crime or mystery story typically possessed a propulsive rhythm that made the English drawing-room mystery seem hopelessly Victorian. According to Glen Weldon of The Dallas Morning News, “Not only could Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, who made his first appearance in Black Mask’s pages, take a beating better than Miss Marple, he might not hesitate to push the old bat down a set of stairs if she got between him and his per diem.”
The Big Book includes the original Black Mask version of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, which underwent about 2,000 revisions before Knopf published the hardback. It includes Chandler’s “Try the Girl,” his last story for Black Mask.
The collection also includes “Knight of the Open Palm,” a mystery story involving the Ku Klux Klan written by hard-boiled pioneer Carroll John Daly. The story introduces Daly’s popular detective Race Williams.
According to critic Rex Burns, “Daly, and the wide popularity of … Race Williams, rang a new and harsher note in American crime fiction.” According to Burns, Daly portrayed a “grimly unromantic urban milieu and [emphasized] fast action, violence, interesting and interested ladies, mean streets, and meaner villains. The narrative style broke with genteel prose as it tended to be terse, wisecracking, gritty, and to make unapologetic use of current slang and underworld jargon.”
Joseph Thompson “Cap” Shaw, the editor of Black Mask beginning in 1926, made the characteristics of hard-boiled style part of the magazine’s editorial code, according to Burns. “Among the goals [Shaw] urged on his contributors were simplicity in language and plausibility in plot,” Burns says. “He also insisted that action—violent or otherwise—must grow out of character. In these fiats, Shaw was expressing some of the truisms of American realism as it had developed under the leadership of William Dean Howells around the turn of the century and as those truisms were being interpreted and explored by such contemporary writers as Ernest Hemingway and Frank O’Hara.”
According to academic Lee Horsley, “The hard-boiled style, which soon crossed over into more mainstream fiction, became one of the most recognizable of the twentieth century.” Horsley argues that the very cheapness of the publications in which these stories appeared may have opened up creative possibilities for the scribes who cranked them out like sausages. “Being rapidly and cheaply produced, [the pulps] allowed space for innovatory ways of writing, most importantly for the colloquial, racy hard-boiled style.”
In his introduction to the Big Book, Deutsch makes a case for Black Mask as a writers’ magazine, noting that lit-stars like philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein were subscribers. Stein enjoyed the pacing of the stories and called the Hammett-style detective story “the only really modern novel form,” according to Deutsch.
Of course, you can’t have hard-boiled writing, in most cases, without the classic hard-boiled hero—almost invariably male, often put upon by the stereotypical femme fatale, and usually facing (at least in the better stories) some sort of moral dilemma. Desjarlais offers one of the better summations of the hard-boiled anti-hero’s existential situation: “While there is some variety in their professions—reporters, photographers, cops, sailors and so on—they are all working-class men who work for a living and take lousy, dangerous jobs to make ends meet or to right a wrong. The noir hero, in the words of character Race Williams, is ‘a middleman, just a halfway house between the cops and the crooks.’
According to Deutsch, the pulps took the less complicated heroes of the late 19th century and put them in a new setting and new moral context. “In many ways, Black Mask took the nineteenthcentury American Western tale of outlaws and vigilante justice from its home on the range in dime novels and transplanted that mythic tale to the crooked streets of America’s emerging twentieth-century cities.”
I am fascinated by the fact that the writers who created this new American form were largely autodidacts who often worked at a variety of jobs before turning to writing to make a buck. I studied English in graduate school in the 1980s and watched lots of young writers waste their time with MFA programs before publishing novels with no discernible plot—and even less relationship to the lives most people lead—that usually ended up on the remainder tables at Barnes & Noble. I can’t help but think that the writers of the pulp stories, even if a lot of their output is far from timeless literature, have something to teach young writers today. Get out in that open street, kids. You might learn something.