The New Black Mask
A Review and Tribute by Mark Coggins
Edited by J. Kingston Pierce
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 it 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 was best known for his research on F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he had 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 2005, 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 section of my website, I'll try in my small way to rectify that situation by taking you on a guided tour.
And, as a special extra, my first published story, "There's No Such Thing as Private Eyes," which first appeared in New Black Mask No. 4, is available to read here.
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The New Black Mask Quarterly
The cover story of the 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.
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."
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The New Black Mask Quarterly
The second issue, also published in 1985, is nearly as star-studded as the first. The cover story is an excerpt from Elmore Leonard's 1983 novel, LaBrava, wherein former Secret Service agent Joe LaBrava and South Miami Beach old-timer Maurice Zola hop in Zola's old-model Mercedes and drive north to rescue a lady in distress in Delray Beach.
In commentary that follows the excerpt, Leonard says that the chapter contains the first two and half pages he wrote of the novel -- on Christmas Eve in 1982 during a lull in holiday preparations. As he explains, "The best time to begin writing a novel is when you least expect to. Otherwise you can prepare forever ... to the point that the act of beginning becomes a major event, if not a psychological hang-up."
There's also an interview in this issue, preceding the LaBrava excerpt. In it, Leonard discusses some of his other work habits. One that drew my attention is that -- in contrast to other big-name writers I know -- it seems he does read reviews and sometimes takes the feedback to heart. In particular, after an Associated Press reviewer contended that he hadn't made enough of the city of Detroit in a previous novel, he worked to draw more of his story setting -- whatever it might be -- into his books. That certainly shows in his descriptions of Miami and its environs in the LaBrava excerpt.
The next piece in this second NBM is a teleplay titled "George Smiley Goes Home," by John le Carre, featuring his MI-5 spymaster, George Smiley. This was the teleplay's first publication in the United States, and it was written to set up the character of Smiley for a 1977 BBC program about Le Carre. It succeeds admirably. We see both the domesticated (possibly henpecked) man who picks up the family laundry himself and the quick-thinking Machiavelli who deftly parries an attempt on his own life.
In the trey spot we have another novel excerpt, this time a chapter from Come Morning (1986), by Joe Gores. The excerpt (and the novel as a whole) are a bit of a change-up for Gores: a description of a well-planned and executed heist a la Mission: Impossible. I think the piece is very well written, and seems to leverage Gores' TV screenplay-writing experience. The Mystery Writers of America must have agreed, since its members nominated Come Morning for an Edgar Award in 1987. (It ultimately lost the prize, though, to A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine.)
A Dan Fortune story called "A Reason to Die," by the now late, great Dennis Lynds (aka Michael Collins), follows. I attended a tribute to Lynds at the 2007 Left Coast Crime in Seattle, which included a panel that featured his (thriller-writing) wife, Gayle Lynds, and a number of other distinguished authors. One of them mentioned that Dennis Lynds sometimes regretted his decision to hobble private eye Fortune with his distinguishing physical characteristic: a missing arm. Apparently, Lynds struggled to accurately convey physical movements that were possible for a one-armed man or, on occasion, accidentally moved Fortune's remaining arm to the wrong side.
But in "A Reason to Die" none of that matters, because Fortune's job is not a physical one and Lynds never even makes mention of the missing arm. What he does do is have a lot of fun with a college professor character who is working to make it big as a fiction writer, but is getting nowhere fast. (Can anyone relate?) However, the story really concerns the murder of a young married woman who is driven to prostitution for mysterious reasons. Fortune solves the mystery and the murder, but no one, including his client -- the dead woman's mother -- is particularly happy that he has.
Next up is the second installment of The Rip-Off, the Jim Thompson novel whose serialization began in the premiere issue of NBM. The scene of the wheelchair-bound man on a runaway ride has been played to good comedic effect in a number of movies, including The Naked Gun. (Extra points if you can name the actor who played the man in the wheelchair, Detective Nordberg, in Gun.) But Thompson's first-person description of a similar journey is pretty terrifying.
After Rip-Off, an English writer named H.R.F. Keating serves up a short story titled "And We in Dreams." This is the story of a decidedly henpecked man who "dreams up" a computer-fraud caper to pay for the retirement home in Scotland that his wife has always wanted. The characterizations are excellent and there's a nice ironic twist at the end, but being in the software business (even back in 1985), I did have to chuckle at the technical descriptions of how this fictional fraud is managed.
In my novel, Runoff, I faced a similar challenge in describing how the security on e-voting machines might be defeated to rig elections. The trick in writing about this sort of thing is to be accurate and convey enough information to motivate the story, without giving so much detail that it bogs the narrative down or is impossible for the lay reader to understand. I spent a lot of hours on rewrites of Runoff, trying to strike that balance.
If the "Dreams" piece was a bit cozy for a revival of Black Mask, Michael Avallone more than makes up for it in the hard-boiled story that follows, "A Bullet for Big Nick." Avallone out-SpillanesSpillane in what, in my opinion, is the weakest offering in this issue, but I'm glad the story was included because it's a great excuse to talk about Avallone. Master of the TV tie-in novel, Avallone wrote books for such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Hawaii Five-O, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and even The Partridge Family! He completed more than 1,000 works in his lifetime and was apparently possessed of a such a big ego that, when putting together a top-10 list of P.I. novels, he included two of his own. This and more stories about Avallone are collected in this posting from Lee Goldberg's blog. See also this entry from The Thrilling Detective Web Site.
The second-to-last story in this issue is "Trace of Spice," by Peter Lovesey of Sergeant Cribb fame. In it, a mystery-fiction critic is invited to a party where all the other guests are authors about whose work he's written bad reviews. It slowly dawns upon the reviewer that he may be in jeopardy. I found this story strangely satisfying, but I can't for the life of me say why. Perhaps the only thing that could possibly have made it better is if the reviewer had been given name of Mr. Kirkus ...
The final story in NBM, "Dead End for Delia," is by veteran writer William Campbell Gault, to whom Ross Macdonald dedicated The Blue Hammer (1976) with the note, "To Bill Gault, who knows that writing well is the best revenge." Gault's story is the tough, no-nonsense tale of a police sergeant who quits the force in order to investigate the murder of his estranged wife, who's found beaten to death outside a dance hall. It originally appeared in the November 1950 issue of Black Mask Detective and shows off this "old-school" writer's strengths to good effect.
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The New Black Mask
In The New Black Mask No. 3, the word "Quarterly" -- as in The New Black Mask Quarterly -- was dropped from the nameplate. Since this was the third but final issue of the magazine to be published in 1985, the editors perhaps realized they weren't on pace to make a quarterly publication and did away with the designation.
Donald E. Westlake grabs the cover with an excerpt from his 1987 novel, Good Behavior, which finds professional thief John Dortmunder cooking up a scheme with his hand-picked henchmen in the back of the O.J. Bar & Grill. Their mission: to break into a building full of jade, jewels, ivory, and other precious goods -- and, oh by the way, they must also rescue a nun who's being held captive there by her father.
To accompany the Good Behavior excerpt, Westlake gives NBM one of the few extended interviews I've seen with him. When asked for his opinion about other hard-boiled American writers, Westlake says, "Chandler is just a little too baroque for me. Every sentence has three syllables too many. Hammett, I think, is terrific. His use of language and his use of emotion -- he's sparing with both, and it's very well done. Cain, too."
On the difference between television and the film industry, Westlake remarks: "It's the Peter Principle run rampant. You're dealing with a network. The people in the offices are dumb; they're just dumb. I could do a paragraph on it, but it would wind up with dumb. In the movies, you've got lively, intelligent, hard-driving people, because they tend to be entrepreneurs. Whereas in the networks they tend to be employees, and they're interested in protecting themselves."
The next story in this third issue of the magazine is one I quite like. Titled "A Pity About the Girl," it relates the tale of two middle-aged men who fought on the side of the Allies during World War II, and then meet again in later life. By the time of their second meeting, they are engaged in professions that, well, I can only say that they're quite different. The writing in "Pity" reminded me a lot of Len Deighton, but the author is actually another Englishman, Michael Gilbert. Apart from being a prolific and underrated wordsmith -- who perhaps never achieved the reputation he should have, because he dabbled in so many genres -- Gilbert also once served as Raymond Chandler's London solicitor. Thanks to Google Book Search (about which I have very mixed feelings), we can now view a page from Tom Hiney's 1997 biography of Chandler, on which Gilbert is mentioned, and peruse a portion of a letter Chandler wrote to Gilbert.
Clark Howard bats next with a story called "Breaking Even." In it, jaded veteran reporter Dewey Taylor visits New Rome, Alabama, to cover the sensationalistic ice-pick murder of a local businessman, but finds himself in an unusual position after a jailhouse visit with the accused, Jack Strawn. Strawn confesses to a prior homicide, of which he was previously acquitted; yet he adamantly denies being involved in the current killing, and enlists Taylor's help to win release.
Howard himself is quite the genre veteran. He's written 16 novels, two short-story collections, and more than 200 uncollected short stories. He's collected an Edgar Award, a Derringer, and many other commendations and prize nominations. He comes from some pretty hard-boiled stock, too. I read on Rara-Avis that his grandfather was a cousin of early 20th-century American criminal Kate "Ma" Barker and his father was a partner of Machine Gun Kelly!
Linda Barnes' story "Lucky Penny" follows in the line-up and represents a number of firsts. It is the first story by a woman to appear in New Black Mask; it is also the story that first introduced Barnes' 6-foot-1 redheaded Boston private eye, Carlotta Carlyle, who has since appeared in 11 novels (including Heart of the World, 2006). And, although it had been sold several times before, this was the first time "Lucky Penny" had actually made it to print; the magazines that purchased it before had all folded before Barnes' tale could be published. "Lucky Penny" would go on to be nominated for several commendations, and it won the American Mystery Award for Best Short Story -- which might explain why Barnes decided to make Carlotta her go-to gal.
In "Lucky Penny," resourceful, cab-driving Carlotta gets held up by a fare; and although she eventually recovers much of the money that was taken, she feels honor-bound to investigate the crime, because of the unusual circumstances surrounding it. As Carlotta digs further into the case, she discovers that much more than the price of a few cab rides is at stake.
"Isak Romun" is the pen name used by Gordon Bennett for his story "The Grabber," which appears next in this issue. As the title suggests, "The Grabber" is about a serial rapist, but we are told in the first paragraph that he has been dispatched by police bullets after scratching the number six three times across the wall of the room in which he was holed up. What follows from there is an investigation by another newspaperman protagonist, its resolution hinging on the interpretation of the numbers scratched on the wall and information the scribbler collects during an interview with a putative victim.
The title of the yarn in this magazine's "super hit six" position is "Death Makes a Comeback," but its author, James O'Keefe, isn't making a comeback -- this is his debut story in print. It is also the first story by a previously unpublished author to appear in the New Black Mask series. The editor's introduction mentions that Mr. O'Keefe was encouraged to submit his tale after a favorable response from his writers' group, which included Detroit detective novelist Loren D. Estleman. As O'Keefe's entry in this bibliography of short fiction shows, he went on to publish other stories. In "Death Makes a Comeback," a father/son police detective team catches a serial murderer with a little help from psychiatrist Dr. Whitney Larsen.
Jim Thompson comes up next in the lineup with NBM's third installment of his serialized novel, The Rip-Off. In this latest segment, our hero, Britt Rainstar, manages to get himself further entangled with two women while still being married to a third. As in the first part of this yarn, Thompson also manages to work in a scene where a character pisses into the sink. I'm beginning to get the idea that this Thompson fella writes about some pretty warped stuff.
The final story in NBM No. 3 is an excellent one by John Ball of Virgil Tibbs fame, called "Appointment with the Governor." It involves a clemency meeting with an unnamed governor in an unnamed state, during which details about the identity of the governor and the petitioners amp up the tension -- and challenge the reader's expectations.
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The New Black Mask
In the fourth issue of The New Black Mask, Detroit detective novelist Loren D. Estleman, who also had a story in the first NBM, makes a return appearance, this time to nab the cover with his original Amos Walker story, "Blond and Blue." That issue was published in 1986, but in correspondence years later, Estleman told me he was never very happy with the artist's portrayal of Walker (the gentlemen in the illustration with his coat pulled down around his shoulders), feeling that his protagonist came off looking more like game-show host (and The Snoop Sisters co-star) Bert Convy than a tough-guy private investigator. He could well have a point.
"Blond and Blue" tells the story of a kidnapped boy who ends up being a pawn in a battle between his estranged parents, the feds, and the mob. Walker (who by 1986 had appeared in only six novels, most recently Every Brilliant Eye) is in fine form, eschewing his Smith & Wesson for a well-aimed Oldsmobile in the final showdown scene.
In the Estleman interview accompanying this tale, he talks about submitting his first short fiction to Argosy magazine when he was just 15, and compares the art of short-story writing with making love in an elevator! Regarding the basics of fiction-writing, Estleman said: "You have to know where you're going from the beginning. You have to nail your character down in a couple of lines and move on from there." And when asked about his reading of other authors' work, he remarked: "I read a great deal, and I make it a practice not to read writers who do not themselves read. We read for the same reason a baseball player looks at a videotape of another player in action. Certainly a pitcher does it to see how his opponent works and to see if he can better it."
Following Estleman's yarn in NBM No. 4 comes "The Sins of the Fathers," by returning author George V. Higgins. Higgins once again says it all with dialogue, conveying a character sketch of a corrupt, blackmailing police lieutenant in the course of one long conversation between two of his underlings at a shooting range. Higgins bookends his opening line -- "I am telling you right now ... that you would not believe, that no sane person would believe, what I go through with this guy" -- with the perfect line at the close, and nicely motivates it with what comes in between.
Prolific veteran Edward D. Hoch spins the next yarn, "The Other Eye," which offers one of the relatively rare appearances of his California private eye, Al Darlan. I say relatively rare, because Hoch wrote more than 900 short stories, and Darlan did not show up nearly as often as do his other series characters, Nick Velvet and Captain Leopold. In "The Other Eye" Darlan lets an eager would-be investigator buy his way into his one-man firm, but soon has cause to regret it.
Not many people can say, "Goddamn [James] Ellroy ... he's always calling me up. He wants to be friends; I don't need friends," and mean it, but apparently the author who follows next in this lineup, Joseph L. Koenig, can -- and did. As Sarah Weinman once explained, Koenig is something of a cipher: he wrote true-crime articles for 15 years prior to the publication of his story "The Scoop" in NBM, then went on to write four crime novels -- scoring an Edgar Award nomination and a movie-option deal in the process -- before simply disappearing. In "The Scoop," he describes how one newsman learns that pressing his First Amendment rights to the limit can be hazardous to a person's health.
I'm going to skip over the fifth story in this issue for a moment and proceed to the sixth, instead: "Pincushion," by David Bowman. "Pincushion" was his first publication, but he's gone on to write two novels, a biography of the Talking Heads, and numerous stories in Salon.
"Pincushion" is my favorite story in this issue of The New Black Mask. It's a warped, noirish tale of private eye Foy Laneer's quest to determine whether his client's husband is "doing the thing" with an exotic dancer whose act involves impaling herself with needles. If you were to throw David Lynch's Blue Velvet, some random Twilight Zone episodes, and Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men into a blender and hit puree, you might come up with something that approximates "Pincushion."
"Psychodrama," by Mike Handley, is the next-to-last story in the magazine. Handley has other short fiction to his credit, and in "Psychodrama" he provides the fictionalized account of a real-life Oakland, California, holdup that occurred in August 1983.
Capping off this edition is the fourth and concluding installment of Jim Thompson's The Rip-Off. Our hero, Britt Rainstar, has his hands full dodging the fists, bodies, switchblades, and balustrades that are thrown at him in a climatic, penultimate scene; but in the closing act, he's back to his old tricks with the ladies.
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Now let's get back to that short story I skipped over previously, the fifth one you come to, when flipping through this particular issue. It's called "There's No Such Thing as Private Eyes," and represents my first appearance in print. The tale also introduces my series character, San Francisco private eye August Riordan.
In "Eyes," August lives in another city (Phoenix, Arizona), but he still drives the same 1968 Galaxie 500, and he is still the same "smart-ass with a foolish heart," as described in the jacket text for his fourth appearance, Runoff.
I composed "There's No Such Thing as Private Eyes" in the late '70s for a creative-writing class at Stanford University taught by Ron Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hitler's Niece). This was shortly after I'd learned about Raymond Chandler and his distinctive writing style in another class, that one taught by Tobias Wolff (This Boy's Life). I was all of 19 years old when I typed out the original draft on my Smith-Corona portable, and although the story went through a number of revisions, at the direction of both Hansen and NBM co-editor Richard Layman, it must be acknowledged -- particularly when it comes to the plot and character motivations -- that it still reads like a 19-year-old wrote it.
All that said -- and if an author may be forgiven for commenting on his own work -- in rereading "Eyes" again, I did find that it contained a few "Chandlerisms," or instances of the traditional private-eye voice that made smile. Here's a sampling:
From the story's opening: "Delbert Evans was cheap: cheap with his time, cheap with his money. Cheap with everything. It didn't do you any good to tell him, though, because he liked being that way."
Describing the love interest: "She wore a cream pantsuit over a figure that would make an accountant snap all his pencils."
August checks the back of his head after being knocked out: "[I] found a matted patch of bloody hair on a bump big enough to convince me that my head was reproducing by fission."
Calling on the maid of a suspect: "The Roman Empire rose and fell in the time it took someone to answer the door ... She smiled at me and tilted her hips at an insolent angle. She looked about as hard to get as the time of day."
Prowling a hallway to the chief suspect's apartment: "I ... stepped out into a hallway that was as quiet as a sneak thief in the duchess's bedroom."
After getting clobbered over the head yet again: "Points of light blazed like welding sparks in front of my eyes. The floor reached up to grab me."
And perhaps the best (and shortest) sentence I have ever written: "Things happened," as the prelude to a description of the story's big gun battle.
I am an inveterate pack rat. So I still have the original manuscript with Hansen's comments, as well as a copy of the version I submitted to Layman, which contains his handwritten editorial remarks. I also have much of the correspondence between Layman, myself, and various representatives of the publisher. For the social historian interested in the process of writing and selling a short story to a major publisher in the mid-1980s, here is a little tour.
This is the last page of the original manuscript with Hansen's summary recommendations. He is very generous with his praise and you can see that he is encouraging me to submit the story for publication, though he's concerned that the theme of the piece -- that private eyes, as written about during the early and mid-20th century by Dashiell Hammett and Chandler, could not exist in today's world -- is not fully explored. I confess I couldn't bring myself to make August recognize that he was a complete anachronism, because I was too much in love with the Hammett-Chandler world. August does quit doing private investigations at the end of "Eyes," but reverses that decision in time to appear in his next adventure, The Immortal Game, which also began life as a short story that I submitted to The New Black Mask. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on how you view it -- NBM ceased operations before it could be published; and after letting the story languish in a drawer for a number of years, I pulled it out to expand into novel form. By then, August had become a bit less anachronistic, a bit more mature -- and a bit more self-aware.
Here is the letter I received from Layman after sending my story "over the transom" to the editors. As you might expect, I was thrilled to bits to receive the acceptance. Check out the amount I was paid for the story: $750. More than 20 years later, that is still considered a generous amount for a short story. And some wonder why short fiction is dying...
This is page 30 from the "enclosed marked typescript" mentioned in Layman's letter. I agreed with 99 percent of the changes he wanted, and when I did call him to discuss the work, it was a fairly efficient conversation. On this page, the sentence he marked as "too strained" originally read, "The gun barked in my hand and three pills found found [sic] their way into his gut." During the call, Layman told me that he didn't like the use of the word "pills" because that was too reminiscent of Hammett and 1930s detective fiction argot. He also thought "barked" was hackneyed and that it was unnecessary to say "in my hand." We agreed to replace "pills" with "slugs," and I suggested "jolted" as a substitute for "barked." I noted those changes down while we talked.
On the second page of the contract I eventually signed for the story, you'll see the representative for the publisher is none other than Peter Jovanovich of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Some time after "There's No Such Thing as Private Eyes" was accepted and the contract executed, I received another call from Richard Layman, telling me that I had been selected to have my photo on the back cover (only five of the authors in any one issue were selected). Again, I was thrilled and perhaps more than a little dumbstruck. I asked Layman what sort of photo he needed. His laconic response was straight out of the P.I. tradition, "Preferably one with your clothes on."
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The New Black Mask
The fifth issue of The New Black Mask came out in 1986, but features a previously unpublished cover story that was written more than 50 years before: Dashiell Hammett's original treatment for the 1936 movie After the Thin Man. More on this great Hammett "rarity" in a moment, but coming before "After the Thin Man" in the issue is an interview and story by William Haggard, a now-deceased British spy/thriller writer.
Haggard's interview has as much to do with what Wikipedia charitably calls his "idiosyncratic points of view" on politics, international relations, and England's place in the world as it does with his writing. Someone less generous might call those opinions jingoistic or possibly even xenophobic. Sample quotes are in order. On who's who in the world, Haggard says: "I much prefer Turks to Greeks. I don't like Greeks ... So far as the Indian martial races are concerned, I have great admiration for them ... But apart from them, the rest of India is a four-letter word ... [The Swiss and French are] infinitely bribable. The French are merely a nuisance. They've never forgiven the Anglo-Saxons for saving them. I don't like Germans, but I greatly admire them." And when asked about Britain's class system, the author remarks: "[I] uphold it strongly, but I'm not a snob. I know which class I was born to."
Haggard's story is titled "Timeo Danaos," the first part of the Latin expression timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, which translates as, "I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts." Set in Cyprus around the time of the 1974 Turkish invasion, it's the tale of a Dutch woman married to an upper-class Englishman, who gets into trouble with the Greek authorities on the island. The husband finally rides in to save her, executing an unlikely stratagem, and Haggard has the opportunity to run down the Greeks a bit more. In commentary after the story, he takes a parting shot. "At the first sign of real trouble," Haggard pronounces, "Greece will let both Britain and the United States down, as I privately fear that France will too."
If you're getting the sense that I was surprised Haggard and his story were included in this issue, you're right. But the real treasure in NBM No. 5 is the first installment of Hammett's "After the Thin Man." It continues the adventures of the characters Nick and Nora Charles, who Hammett introduced in his 1933 novel The Thin Man. But getting Hammett to produce this film treatment was evidently not an easy undertaking. To quote from NBM's introduction to the story:
- After the success of the movie The Thin Man in 1934, a wire was sent from the Culver City office of MGM to the New York office requesting that Hammett be hired to write a sequel ... Hammett arrived in Culver City on October 29, 1934, rented a six-bedroom penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and proceeded to astonish Hollywood regulars with his profligacy ... He drank the nights away in the company of a variety of female partners and then complained about being harassed by starlets ... [A]t the end of his ten-week contract, he had only a thirty-four page plot summary to show.
For a description of what Hammett could be like on one of his benders, read this blog entry of mine, describing a Hollywood incident that recently came to light in Charis Wilson's book Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston.
Although Hammett was a slow and unreliable worker, studio executives liked what they saw in the plot summary. They hired him to flesh out the story to 115 pages of typescript, and then Hammett friends Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich translated it into screenplay format.
In the first part of the story, published in NBM No. 5, Nick and Nora return from New York City to San Francisco to find a welcome-home New Year's Eve party in progress at their house. That party is interrupted, however, when the body of the former gardener for Nora's family is found on their doorstep. The discovery of that corpse and the later disappearance of the husband of Nora's cousin, Selma, conspire to pull Nick into another investigation. The stakes are raised even higher when the husband is shot to death by a person or persons unknown and Selma is found holding a gun.
Although this isn't Hammett's traditional hard-boiled fare, I enjoyed the piece quite a bit, particularly the deadpan humor he sprinkles in. For example, when a police detective named Abrams asks Nick why he didn't tell Selma and her family about the gardener's death, Nick replies, "This is my wife's family. They'd think I did it." And when Nick and Nora leave the family home, Nick asks Harold, the chauffeur, "Where's a good place to get the stink of respectability out of our noses?" Harold reels off the names of several joints, ending with the statement, "None of them three ain't apt to be cluttered up with schoolteachers."
The tale that follows "After the Thin Man" is a highly inventive one by an author with whom I was not previously acquainted. The piece is call "Action at Vicksburg," and its author is Irvin Faust. I may not be alone in my unfamiliarity with Faust. Herb Gold, in his 1985 New York Times review of Faust's book The Year of the Hot Jock and Other Stories, poses the question, "Why are other urban wits famous and why is Irvin Faust not?" His answer is that Faust tends to go his own way, and after reading "Action" I can understand what Gold means.
The yarn's narrator is a Japanese tourist who observes a drug deal gone bad at Grant's Tomb, in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood, while he's snapping photographs and engaging in an internal narrative that makes mistaken assumptions from afar about the motivations and the conversation between buyer and seller. These assumptions stem from an incompletely digested study of American history and culture -- particularly black culture -- and tend to be hilarious. For example, this is what Mr. Ito, the tourist, says to one of the men at the end of the story to distract him from firing another bullet into the man who lies wounded by a tree: "Well, twirl my turban, man alive, can this be Mister Five by Five."
A Time magazine reviewer said of Faust's characters, "[They] are consumed by a world of mass-produced trivia and popular mythology ... They generate authentic obsessions about the inauthentic." That just about nails Mr. Ito.
The next story in this edition of The New Black Mask is a fun one called "Shopping Cart Howard," by first-time author James Lee Snyder. I can't find any references to other publications by Snyder, so this may have been his one and only. Like other NBM fiction, "Shopping Cart" features a private eye, but the story is told from the perspective of the individual that gumshoe has been hired to find: Howard, a homeless person in New Orleans. Snyder provides a great characterization of Howard and has a little fun with the conventions of P.I. tales, all at the same time.
"Rain in Pinton County," by Robert Sampson, follows and it is the first and only New Black Mask work to win an Edgar Award -- the 1987 one for short fiction, to be specific. Although he has published a number of other short stories, Sampson is perhaps best known for writing Yesterday's Faces, a five-volume study of pulp magazines. In "Rain," Sampson gives us the tale of Ed Ralston, "Special Assistant to the Sheriff" of Pinton County, and his quest to avenge the death of his sister. It's a noirish yarn with a slam-bang ending that plants a heavy, ironic thumb on the scales of justice.
British author George Sims, who also had a story in the first NBM, comes next in the line-up with a very well-written story called "Family Butcher," involving a well-respected butcher in a picture-postcard village in England's Hambleden Valley, who discovers that his younger wife is cheating on him. His solution to his predicament suggests a second, sardonic meaning to the title of the story and also proves the wisdom of the aphorism "look before you leap."
The penultimate tale in this issue is one from a heavy hitter -- James Ellroy -- featuring a character he made famous in a book that was still "in progress" in 1986: The Black Dahlia. The character is Lee Blanchard, the "fire" half of the "fire and ice" Black Dahlia detective team of Blanchard and Bleichert. The story is set in Los Angeles in 1945, right after World War II ends, and is titled "High Darktown," which is a reference to an upper-middle-class black neighborhood in L.A. In "Darktown," Blanchard has to track down a paroled convict named Wallace Simpkins, who had earlier "voodoo-hexed" Blanchard, after he (Blanchard) sent him to prison for "clouting markets and juke joints on West Adams." The chase takes Blanchard into the aforementioned neighborhood, where he's in for an appointment with fists, .45s, a tommy-gun, and a shiv.
Chet Williamson contributes the final story in NBM No. 5, "Some Jobs Are Simple." I think he actually should have titled it "Inside Job," but you'll have to read the story to understand why. It's the shifty, hard-hitting tale of a young wife who cooks up a scheme to get a little extra money by staging a jewelry robbery in her own house. However, things don't end exactly the way she sketches them out to the "Joe" she hires to do the job.
* * * * *
The New Black Mask
In the sixth issue of The New Black Mask,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 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 here. 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 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 a 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 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.
* * * * *
The New Black Mask
In 1986, Ed McBain celebrated the 30th anniversary of the publication of his first 87th Precinct novel, was elected a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and captured the cover spot in the seventh issue of The New Black Mask with an excerpt from his 39th 87th Precinct book, Poison. The excerpt is a chapter titled "Honesty," and it describes an interview that police detective Hal Willis has with Marilyn Hollis, an attractive, flirty murder suspect who offers him a drink and ends up getting more information from him than he from her.
In the interview that accompanies this excerpt, McBain (aka Evan Hunter, aka Salvatore Lombino) talks about how he got started with the famous police-procedural series: "Erle Stanley Gardner ... was getting old, and Pocket Books was looking for a replacement, to be blunt about it, and [the editor] asked me if I had any ideas for a series character." The interview ends on a somewhat bitter note, especially in light of McBain's death in 2005. When asked about any involvement in the (then popular) Hill Street Blues TV program, he responds, "No, they did not come to me. It continues to amaze me that anyone developing a police series, a series with a conglomerate hero in a mythical city, had never heard of the 87th Precinct. My only consolation is that Hill Street Blues will be off the air one day, and I'll still be here writing my novels."
The next story in NBM No. 7, "Busman's Holiday," by Josh Pachter, is quite a treat -- as much for the story as for the back story behind it. Pachter is primarily known as a short-story writer and "Busman" is a story that sneaks up on you. It head-fakes you into thinking it is a rather mundane recounting of a businessman's two-week vacation, and then ends up being something quite different. The back story is also a surprise. Apparently, the piece Pachter originally sold to the editors was a parody of McBain's 87th Precinct novels, but the publisher decided at the last minute that parodies were not appropriate for NBM. The editors bought "Busman" instead, and as Pachter exalts, "I somehow got billed above Joyce Carol Oates and Tony Hillerman on the back cover of this book. Eat your heart out, Oatesy! And bite me, Hillermeister!"
Speaking of "Oatesy," what follows "Busman" is a Joyce Carol Oates piece with the ponderous title of "Little Moses/The Society for the Reclamation and Restoration of E. Auguste Napoleon Bonaparte.'" Excerpted from her 1998 novel, My Heart Laid Bare, which the introduction says is "planned for publication in 1988 or 1980," "Little Moses" gives us two well-written episodes in the scam-ridden career of con man Abraham Licht and his adopted black son, Elisha. In the first, Licht travels the rural backroads of early 20th-century America selling and reselling Elisha into slavery for $600 cash. In the second, Licht concocts a scheme to peddle shares in a legal defense fund for the recovery of the inheritance of Emanuel Auguste Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon I's last-born (illegitimate) child. After raising more than $1 million dollars by convincing American "heirs" of Emanuel Auguste that they will receive a slice of the nearly $200-million inheritance that is moldering in the vaults of the Bank of Paris, Licht deems it wise to shut down the scheme before anyone tumbles to his fraud, with a clever stunt that plays upon the "heirs'" racism and fears of mixed blood in their own ancestry.
The Hillermeister, as Josh Pachter calls him, is next. (But note that he declined to use that sobriquet when he signed my copy of NBM No. 7, preferring a simple Tony Hillerman.) His story, "Chee's Witch," involves the younger of his two series characters, Navajo Tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. In "Witch," Chee butts heads with a Caucasian FBI agent sent to pick up a witness under protection for a car-theft investigation. Chee decides that what the agent doesn't know may hurt that agent as well as the federal government's case, but won't bother Chee or the people on the reservation who've been reporting incidents of witchcraft.
The fifth story in this edition is "The Blue Book of Crime," by Jerome Charyn, author of 37 books, including three memoirs about growing up in New York City and several detective novels. In a way, this story combines elements of both the memoirs and the detective novels, concerning as it does the friendship of two boys growing up in New York who are caught with goods stolen from a department store -- even though they've made a point to study the "Blue Book" (a primer put out by the FBI) in order to allude capture. It's a clever coming-of-age tale about betrayal, karma, and frustrated dreams -- with a generous bit of nostalgia for the golden age of Hollywood thrown in.
Peter Heyrman follows with a noirish yarn called "One for the Money." Written in an no-nonsense style, "Money" features tantalizing femme fatale Deborah Usher, who hires Key West, Florida, charter boat skipper Mark Kane for a trip that involves more than fishing for marlin. (Can you say "cocaine," children?) Kane finds out what it's like to have his hands full when his first mate comes down with an appendicitis, the boat runs into a squall line with 30-knot winds and high seas, and Ms. Usher's "representative" on the trip breaks free from the chair he's been tied down in and goes after Kane with a sap.
"The Death of the Tenth Man" comes next in this issue's lineup, and it is Steve Oren's first publication. The title refers to the minyan (a quorum of 10 Jewish males over the age of 13) that must be present to perform a Kaddish -- a public prayer that is often used as a memorial for the dead. In "Tenth Man," the Kaddish is being performed for the father of Mike, the narrator, and getting a minyan together proves especially difficult when one of the chosen males is found dead in the basement of the synagogue with a knife through his heart. Because of the advanced age of the other people present, and the fact that Mike is a Vietnam veteran, suspicion quickly falls on him in this creative variant of a traditional locked-room mystery.
Irish writer Maurade Glennon serves up "Murder, though it has no tongue" in the following story, which reminded me a bit of the Stephen King novel Misery. The protagonist, Jay Simpson, wakes up in a Mexican hospital, paralyzed and mute from a stroke with his wife whispering in his ear, "I'm going to kill you." She's as good as her word, feeding Simpson doctored blood-pressure medicine to induce a second stroke. Simpson's only hope is to find a way to alert his doctor before her fiendish plan succeeds.
Isak Romun (aka Gordon Bennett), who also had a story in issue three, bats ninth with "Capriccio." Told once again from the point of view of newspaperman Oscar Monahan, this yarn deals with the hurt feelings and murderous impulses that can surface when the work of a temperamental artist is changed by another -- in this case the work of a composer as altered by a conductor. Although Romun says that the "story resulted from the author's thoughts, while attending a concert, about the different performances of the same composition," you can't help but wonder if Romun was really inspired by the actions of an editor.
Clark Dimond, who seems to have contributed perhaps evenr more to the field of music as to mystery, provides the penultimate story in the issue, "You Can't Fire Me for Doing My Job." While "extremism in the defense of liberty" may not be a vice, "You Can't Fire Me" proves that extremism in the defense of copper tubing on a construction site may just qualify.
The final author in this issue, Ron Goulart, has a background as a historian of pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective characters. He puts that knowledge to good use with a tongue-in-check send-up of a quintessential pulp plot, wherein the main character suffers amnesia and his unremembered past comes back to haunt him. In "Hollywood Detective," the main character in question is a writer who wakes up with no memory and a copy of an obscure detective novel in his pocket. Because of his admiration for the author, he is inspired to try his hand at writing private-eye fiction himself. He succeeds in grand style, but is always haunted by the desire to find and meet the person responsible for the book in his pocket. It's a fun story, and in a weird way, it reminded me of William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel, due to the narrator's lack of self-knowledge.
* * * * *
The New Black Mask
1987 was the year the eighth and final issue of The New Black Mask 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 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 series, "Stacked Deck," his story in this edition, 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 issue, returns with "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.
Although second-time offender Peter Lovesey has the 11th story here, 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 number five. 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."
NBM 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.
Report respectfully submitted by Mark Coggins, creator of the August Riordan P.I. series. This essay was first serialized in the Rap Sheet and edited by J. Kingston Pierce, and later updated by the author and published on his own site, where the whole she-basng can also be viewed, with even more links. Used with permission.
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