One of the highlights of crime fiction publishing this year has to be the re-publication of the legendary pulp fiction magazine Black Mask. Thanks to MysteriousPress.com, Black Mask is going digital, making the magazine’s original content accessible to a whole new generation of readers. Readers can now download an authentic slice of crime fiction history from the 1930s. Reading the pages of Black Mask is like stepping into a time machine, and it’s one hell of a ride.
The original magazine contained several stories in each issue, usually by different authors. MysteriousPress.com is reprinting the stories individually. The tales weigh in at an average of 30 pages, so these editions are perfect for your commute to work, and they are packed with mystery, murder and mayhem.
Black Mask magazine grew out of the tradition of dime novels and later pulp magazines, which provided Depression and Prohibition-era escapism for popular consumption, but it had pronounced literary origins. HL Menken, the American journalist, critic, and scholar of language, launched the magazine in 1920 and brought in highly regarded writers such as Paul Cain and Dashiell Hammett. Although not originally meant to be exclusively hardboiled, it soon became associated with the best of tough-guy crime fiction. Black Mask would influence later generations of detective fiction, and the genre’s deep thrall still runs through the creative veins of popular culture today. Since many of Black Mask’s writers went on to write for the screen, the magazine’s stylistic influences were fundamental to the development of film noir, a strain still evident in cinema. It’s no surprise that the working title for Quentin Tarantino’s iconic send-up of the genre, Pulp Fiction, was Black Mask.
Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter by Theodore A Tinsley
As MysteriousPress.com editor Otto Penzler points out, hard-boiled detective fiction as exemplified by Black Mask need not always be noir-ish. Case in point is the first installment of the Black Mask series, Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter, a whopping omnibus of all 25 Tracy stories penned by Theodore A Tinsley, who is otherwise known as a prolific author for The Shadow pulps.
Jerry Tracy is the polar opposite of an existential detective with ambiguous morals or dark motivations. He is a street-smart reporter perched above Times Square in the offices of the Daily Planet. He can sniff out a scandal from a block away and often finds himself in more than a few scrapes in his pursuit of a tip for a story. He is comfortable in the underbelly of the city’s dark alleys and seedy clubs, but he is cut from more wholesome cloth. He is not a cop or a detective, but when a dame is in trouble he is a white knight of justice. If he is cynical, it is for practical reasons. He has deep connections with the local coppers but also the shady criminals they pursue, which allows him to slide between both worlds of crime and justice with ease, as he doggedly pursues the latest scoop or celebrity gossip.
Tinsley will engage you as soon as your eyes land on the page with his signature brand of concise, clever, and humorous wordplay. The appeal of this brand of crime fiction, produced during the 1930s and 1940s, is its fast-paced action. But the main draw may be the genuine flavor of New York City neighborhoods in its pages and especially the colloquial, street-smart language. By that same token, the authentic prose is quite un-PC by today’s standards, and stereotypical ethnic and gender characterisations run rampant in these pages. For instance, In Jerry Tracy’s world, the sidewalks are patrolled by Mickeys while the cabs are driven by wops. And the dames and dolls are no less two-dimensional.
Although cartoonish at times, this type of pulp fiction was seen by many as an antidote to the stuffiness of British detective fiction’s dueling pistols, rare poisons and tropical fish, as Raymond Chandler noted in his seminal essay The Art of Murder. The final takeaway of the Jerry Tracy Omnibus is that it is a pure pleasure to read. Just pick a random sentence and you’ll find yourself reading on and on, grinning with guilty pleasure and marveling at the humour and momentum of these heady stories. They are real page-turners.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars purchase here
Also available in the series are three more gems of hardboiled crime fiction, sold as individual stories for Kindle:
You’ll Always Remember Me by Steve Fisher
A stunning piece of psychological fiction that demonstrates why its author is one of the godfathers of noir. A young boy named Martin Thorpe is brooding on his cot in military school, thinking about the death sentence imposed on a friend from the neighborhood, who is scheduled to be hanged the next day. The crime was the stabbing of his own father. The boy is sure his friend is innocent and is recruited by the accused’s sister’s boyfriend, who happens to be a junior detective, to solve the case. It turns out the detective and the distraught sister are an item, as are her sister and our boy Martin Thorpe. The story is told in the matter-of-fact style that reflects the teenager at its center. So it is quite shocking when a sudden shift in the plot reveals the true dark face of crime lurking behind the character. The turning point of the story is a graphic scene where a kitten is beaten to death by the detective. Confused? You won’t be as you read on. As we learn more about the boy and his connection to the family, events spiral into some truly noir territory that borders on horror. This story, originally published in 1938, is essential reading. Disturbing, creepy, and way ahead of its time.
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Red Goose by Norbert Davis
Red Goose is a humorous, action-packed tough-guy take on art theft written by a genius author whose ardent fans included Raymond Chandler and Ludwig Wittgenstein. A ham-handed detective is called upon by a delicate curator of art to deal with some ogrish thugs who’ve run off with a priceless painting. Readers familiar with Davis will not be surprised by the overt humor of his stories which are unusual for the hard-boiled genre. Another attractive quality of his prose is that it hits the ground running and the reader gets caught up in the fast-paced, odd stories and their quirky characters. The Red Goose is no exception. The detective calls in some favors to identify the goons responsible. When he finds them, a series of events is triggered which amounts to a red herring for our stolid dick, who was never into art anyway.
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Pigeon Blood by Paul Cain
Here, a retired judge brings his own brand of justice to the bad guys when he aids a woman in need. Judge Druse is a mysterious character, an erudite and somber scholar who acts as a freelance judge, living in an exotic, Eastern-inspired apartment. He contemplates his own mortality in a room that is cut in two, the edge of which ends in a precipitous drop to the streets below. He selects his clients carefully, with a view to administering his own mercenary arm of justice when the established system fails the innocent, or the guilty slip through its cracks. The story opens with a nail-biting car chase and attempted murder of a mysterious woman. Who is she, and who wants to murder her? The case, brought to Judge Druse by her distraught husband, is presented as a nasty act by a criminal group. The judge accepts the case. When he locates the wife he finds that she is equal parts alluring and drunk. But most striking is that she already has company. The dead body of her attempted murderer lies nearby. The judge soon learns she is one tough dame who is less afraid than angry that her rubies have been stolen. He also learns that things are not always what they seem, and the game that’s afoot is masking another hidden agenda. Judge Druse sorts things out with impeccable style, but not after some really remarkable action scenes. Don’t miss this one.
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