THE BLACK MASK
By Professor E. R. Hagemann
Research for this article was accomplished in Special Collections, University Research
Library, University of California, Los Angeles, which holds a fine, but lamentably
incomplete, run of Mask—about 90 percent. I wish to acknowledge
the aid of the staff. They were, have been, are, and ever will he helpful. I also acknowledge
aid, in the form of a small grant, from the Research Committee, College of Arts and
Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, for Summer 1979.
The debut of The Black Mask in April 1920 was modest and unassuming.
It was a monthly pulp, cost 20 cents, contained an even dozen stories, 128 pages, and
was subtitled: An Illustrated Magazine of Detective Mystery, Adventure, Romance,
and Spiritualism (Mask would consistently tinker with the sub).
F. M. Osborne was the editor; Pro-Distributors, 25 West 45th Street, New York, the
publisher(1). Although mystery, adventure, romance, and spiritualism were the keynotes
of Mask for years to come, occultism would have been more accurate.
The logo was a dueling pistol crossed with a dirk, surmounted by a black domino mask.
Few readers alive today would recognize one author on the title page, with the exception
of Sherlock Holmes scholar Vincent Starrett. The illustrations were black-and-white
sketches that were crude, awkward and amateurish enough to be a source of shame for
a first-year drawing student.
Dropping "detective" and "spiritualism" from the sub for the
May 1920 issue, Mask was off and running with a bragging announcement:
The plan of THE BLACK MASK is novel, and yet very simple. What we
propose to do is to publish in every issue the best stories obtainable in America....
No effort or expense will be spared... [It] will be illustrated by the best artists
we can find.... We will offer more... in one magazine than is now offered in any five.
So the editors upped the number of stories to fourteen and offered "Receipted
in Full," by Hamilton Craigie, which was the illustrated lead novelette of 15
pages. Subsequent issues held as many as seventeen tales that were often overwritten,
too mysterious, occultish, or just plain silly. The stories were set in exotic locales
- Tibet, the South Seas (Mask's favorite), the Philippines, South
Africa, the Ivory Coast, Borneo, Burma, India, and San Francisco’s Chinatown(2).
Short-shorts were inevitable, at least one per issue. They ranged from one-half page
to two and one-half. Serials began to appear early in 1922. It was not unusual for
a writer to appear twice in the same issue either under his own name plus a pseudonym,
e.g., Harold Ward (Ward Sterling) (3).
Under Osborne's editorship, quality was apparently not a strong point.
With the October 1922 issue, George W. Sutton, Jr., without fanfare or announcement,
took over as editor and H. C. North as associate editor. This was a happening in the
life of the pulp which had to have been struggling. Adopting yet another subtitle, A
Magazine of Unusual Romance and Detective Stories (back in 1921 it had been A
Magazine of Mystery, Thrills and Surprise), Sutton and North had some advice for
their readers, in whom they loved to confide:
THE EDITORS... have tried to produce the most unusual magazine in America.... Each
story is designed to leave you with a definite, powerful impression….BUT IN
ORDER to get this effect and enjoy it to the fullest you must not read these stories
the way you probably read most other fiction tales. If you skip quickly over the pages
you will miss the background and the details.... If you read the first paragraphs and
then jump to the end... you will cheat yourself.... IT IS OUR AIM to entertain you-to
lift you out of the dull routine of daily life.... THE BLACK MASK makes
no pretense of sticking to the conventional "happy ending"... its plots are
unusual. Its characters are unusual... the endings are always surprisingly out of the
ordinary, never commonplace.… You spoil your own pleasure by reading them the
wrong end first.
While inviting "the Most Candid Opinions of Our Readers," Sutton put into
print some of his new ideas and gimmicks with an eye toward quality. In the October
1922 issue Robert E. Sherwood (not yet the playwright of fame) began a movie-review
column, "Film Thrillers." Carroll John Daly made his first appearance in Mask with "Dolly," a
story about mental derangement. "A new type of story," Sutton crowed. It was for
pulps and it created a real stir. Daly quickly became a star (more on him later), incredible
as that may seem to those of us today who know him to have been one of the worst writers
who ever lived.
Two of Sutton's gimmicks appeared in November. Joe Taylor, Ex-Automobile Bandit with
fifteen years' experience, contributed his first piece (of at least eleven), “The
Life of a Hold-Up Man,” complete with mug shot. His words were as suspicious
as he was. Eustace Hale Ball, with Earl Derby, contributed the first "Daytime
Story" to Mask "Dead Men Do Tell!" "Daytimes" proved
to be popular and long-lived. Sutton cautioned that these "awesome" tales
were "not to be read at night by people with weak nerves." Nothing could
have been more ridiculous, but times change, don't y'know Markham? A similar series, "Cemetery
Tales," began early in 1923. Drayton Dunster's “The Tombstone of Babette," (March
15) was typical(4).
Sutton was fond of serials and was not above having two in the same issue. That way,
of course, he was assured that readers could not "jump to the end" except
in the final installment. He was overly fond of a true-crime series called "The
Manhunters" written by Charles Somerville ("the most celebrated reporter
and investigator of real mystery and crime in America"). The first segment, "After
Ten Thousand Miles," came out in February 1923. "Manhunters" was as
much serial as it was series(5).
The big moment in Black Mask's early days, although the editors
did not know it at the time, was the advent of Peter Collinson with "The Road
Home," a three-page adventure short-short (December 1922). Collinson was none
other than Samuel Dashiell Hammett. By the end of 1923, Collinson/Hammett had appeared
eight times, twice in one issue. The first Continental Op story, "Arson Plus," (October
1) was under Hammett's nom de plume. What began as a professional relationship
became an affaire de coeur. No other words can describe Mask's esteem and
Hammett's letters began to appear as early as October 15, 1923, when he discussed "Slippery
Fingers" and the transference of fingerprints. On November 15 Mask proudly
announced the forthcoming "Bodies Piled Up" (December 1), an Op caper: "Mr.
Hammett has suddenly become one of the most popular of Black Mask writers,
because his stories are always entertaining, full of action and very unusual situations.
This is his best to date - a real detective yarn." In the head note to "The
House on Turk Street," April 15, 1924, Mask said: “We wouldn’t
consider an issue complete without one of Mr. Hammett's stories in it." On and
on they went. When the pulp unexpectedly rejected "Women, Politics and Murder," Sutton
printed Hammett's reaction, August 1924:
The trouble is that this sleuth of mine [The Op] has degenerated into a meal-ticket.
I liked him at first and used to enjoy putting him through his tricks; but recently
I've fallen into the habit of bringing him out and running him around whenever the
landlord... shows signs of nervousness. There are men who can write like that, but
I am not one of them.
But Hammett rewrote “Women” and Mask published it the
next month. The Op wasn't abandoned until November 1930.
When "The Golden Horseshoe" appeared, the head note trumpeted:
In our recent voting contest for favorite BLACK MASK authors, Dashiell
Hammett received thousands of votes because of his series of stories of the adventures
of his San Francisco detective. He has created one of the most convincing and realistic
characters in all detective fiction (November 1924).
Hammett submitted an autobiographical sketch in the back matter. "I am long
and lean and gray-headed, and very lazy. I have no ambition at all in the usual sense
of the word." Meanwhile, to retrace our steps, Black Mask had
become a semimonthly as of February 15, 1923. "This move was dictated entirely
by our readers and by the newsdealers,” Sutton insisted. "A bond
of cordial good feeling exists between our readers and us. They guide us in everything
we do in Black Mask."
On June 1. 1923, Mask produced its supreme achievement. The Ku Klux Klan
number. Disclaiming any “connection whatsoever” with the hooded ones, Mask immodestly
opined that the issue might prove to be "the most interesting and sensational
number of any American magazine this year.” They were "ABSOLUTELY NEUTRAL" but
thought "the attempt to revive the old... Klan with new ideas and purposes was
the most picturesque element that has appeared in American life since the war." The
staff even boasted of the cover by L. L. Balcom. Each story centered on the KKK. The Mask claimed, "SOME
OF THESE FAVOR THE KLAN-OTHERS ARE STRONGLY AGAINST IT-WE REPEAT, WE ARE ABSOLUTELY
NEUTRAL." Reader letters (both pro and con) poured in, prompting the establishment
of a KKK Forum (August 15 issue). The Forum divided the letters into two parts: For
and Against. No "libelous" or "malicious" letters would be printed.
Taking a close look at the effort and the uproar that followed, one gets the distinct
impression that Mask supported and upheld the Klansmen and that it
favored their racism and vigilantism. No other argument seems logical.
Really, the most significant item in the issue was Carroll John Daly's "Knights
of the Open Palm," featuring and introducing Race Williams, Private Investigator.
... That's what the gilt letters spell across the door of my office. It don't mean
nothing, but the police have been looking me over so much lately that I really need
a place to receive them.... As for my business, I'm what you might call the middleman — just
a halfway house between the dicks and the crooks (p. 33).
Derived from an earlier Daly creation, "Three-Gun Terry Mack, Private Investigator" (see
May 15, 1923), Williams went on in Mask to become (I believe I am
safe here) the most popular character of them all, out-rivaling even The Op. Daly knew
when he had a good thing going and he rarely missed. In the same issue in which Hammett
talked about himself (November 1924), Daly had a few words.
About Race Williams-he is a combination of fact and fiction; it is hard to tell where
the one ends and the other leaves off. To my mind he is the hero of reality-not the
proud fiction hero who shoots only when first wounded by an enemy.
So be it.
Mask ceased semi-monthly publication with the April 15, 1924 issue
and went back to monthly. By then, Sutton was out and P. C. Cody was editor as well
as vice president and circulation manager(6). But before dismissing Sutton's tenure,
we must acknowledge his fetching one more star into his galaxy - Charles M. Green,
Erle Stanley Gardner, who began with "The Shrieking Skeleton" (December 15,
1923), followed up with "The Serpent's Coils" (January 1, 1924), which was
a Daytime Story, and continued well into the 1940s. He, too, quickly established his
fame among the readers and just as quickly dropped "Green." Before long he
began his Bob Larkin tales and in January 1925 had printed "Beyond the Law," the
first novelette with Ed Jenkins, The Phantom Crook, who was to do a lot of work in
Frisco's Chinatown. Jenkins was no slouch. He held his own with The Op and Race Williams.
By the end of 1926 he had been in eleven stories.
The magazine thrived under Cody, for he was an editor with ideas. In the Summer of
1924, he bade his readers to be his associate editors, that is, to tell him what they
wanted for the upcoming November number. In August he wrote, "We are publishing
the magazine for you, to give you pleasure. We wish to make it exactly
the kind of magazine you wish it to be." Cody-or the readers-put out
a good one: Race Williams was the lead followed by The Op (“The Golden Horseshoe"),
and Francis James with a Prentice story; and finally, yet another debut, J. Paul Suter's
The Reverend McGregor Daunt ("one of the strangest and most fascinating characters
in fiction"). Suter played the game well. On page 118 was a letter from the good
Reverend himself! Daunt may not have been at the top with, say, The Op or Ed Jenkins,
but he was up there.
In March 1926, Cody informed the faithful that "the rapid increase in the sale
of THE BLACK MASK…has induced us to increase our print order
by 50 percent-at one shot.... Will you help us out? All you need to do is to tell a
friend or two about the magazine." And he hammered at "telling" for
some months. Come September, he was satisfied. He offered his "Many Thanks" and
said unto all: "There isn’t a he-man who likes he-man stories who won't
be grateful to the fellow who tells him about The Black Mask." He
offered free sample copies.
The time had come for Joseph T. Shaw and in he came with the November 1926 issue.
As editor he brought fame to Mask and himself. Or was it the other
way around? Let's face it. Shaw inherited from his predecessors; indeed, he was more
an heir than a successor. In place in the pulp heavens were The Stars; in place was
the action story he loudly professed to love; in place was the Western. A new name
had been found, Raoul F. Whitfield, from whom so much was to come. "Cap" Shaw
had the talent and the sense of a superb editor, but he did not do it alone. Nor did
he veer more than a fraction from the policies of Osborne, Sutton, and Cody during
his reign (1926-1936), precisely ten years. Only names and faces changed with passing
time, not editorial policy.
"We will offer more," promised Osborne back in 1921. He abided by it.
So did Sutton and Cody, qualitatively. Writers vied for inclusion in The
Black Mask. More often than not, they or their characters appeared exclusively
therein. Writers seemed, obviously so, to like writing for the magazine. As Hammett
wrote when "Women, Politics and Murder" had been returned:
I want to thank... you... for jolting me into wakefulness. There's no telling how
much good this will do me. And you may be sure that whenever you get a story from me
hereafter - frequently, I hope – it will be one I enjoyed writing.
That says it. Says it all.
1. Immediately we are presented with a mystery, for the 45th Street address was also
that of Smart Set, the famous magazine (also a pulp) edited by H.
L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Indeed, HLM contended that he and Nathan "started Black
Mask.... It... was a success.... Nathan and I sold our interest in it to [Eltinge
F.] Warner and [Eugene F.] Crowe after running it for six months" (Betty Adler,
compiler, HLM: The Mencken Bibliography [Baltimore, 1961], (p. 138). Warner
was publisher of and Crowe part owner of Smart Set. If in fact HLM
and Nathan ran Mask there is no evidence on the masthead.
2. Simply put, Mask was racist and used Chinese, in stories and
on covers, derogatorily. Almost always they were villains. Blacks, if they appeared
at all, were rendered as clowns.
3. Pseudonyms are a real problem. Undoubtedly there was much of this practice and
most will never be known unless, by chance, the Mask records are located.
I have the distinct feeling that in the early days an issue might have been written
by a handful of authors, maybe three or four.
4. Gimmicks were not altogether new with Sutton. Under Osborne, a short-lived, illustrated "department" devoted
to fingerprints, conducted by one William Starwood Post, F.P.E. (Finger Print Expert?)
commenced in May 1922. While I'm at it, I'll give Osborne his due for running a five-part
serialization of J. S. Fletcher's ‘Exterior to the Evidence’, April—August
1922, and for printing an early Murray Leinster story, "The Frankenstein Twins" (June
5. Two other featured series contributed to the compartmentalization of Mask. "Our
Dreams," a.k.a. "Your Own Mysteries," was under the byline of Gregory
Stragnell, M.D. Sutton called the column "a practical, helpful application of
one of the newest sciences—psychoanalysis." It began on March 1, 1923, but
it didn't last long. Readers were not yet ready for a shrink, despite Sutton's plea
to send in "your dreams... tell Dr. Stragnell your worries and problems."
6. One of Cody's first moves was to change the style of the cover to more like those
of the classic Masks in the late 1920s and early 1930s. On page 52
of the April 1, 1924 issue, he put up the cover painting for auction to the highest
bidder. "Bids of less than $10.00 will... be rejected. No printing of any kind
appears on these original paintings."
This article was originally published in Mystery Jan. 1981,
Vol. 2 No. 1., subtitled
"The Magazine Dedicated to Readers of Mystery, Suspense, Thrillers, and
Copyright 1981 by Professor E. R. Hagemann. Reprinted by permission
of Dr. Hagemann’s estate.