Black Mask was a pulp
magazine launched in April 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan
to support the loss-making but prestigious literary magazine Smart Set.
Mencken was a well-known literary journalist and sometime poet; Nathan
a drama critic. They had been financially successful with another pulp
money spinner of theirs called Parisienne, which itself had been
followed by an erotic stablemate called Saucy Stories. Keeping Smart
Set solvent was always their priority, and there had initially been
plans to follow up Saucy Stories with an all-Negro pulp.
These plans were scrapped in favor
of Black Mask. It was a purely commercial venture, in direct
contrast to Smart Set, and its first issue was not even devoted
exclusively to crime. In an open attempt to cater to as wide a
readership as possible, Black Mask initially offered "Five
magazines in one: the best stories available of adventure, the best
mystery and detective stories, the best romances, the best love
stories, and the best stories of the occult." The few pages devoted to
detective stories offered little that was special. It was all standard,
Despite the poor quality of Black
Mask's early issues, Mencken and Nathan quickly made a return on
their initial $500 investment. Eight issues after its successful
launch, they sold the magazine to its publishers Eltinge Warner and
Eugene Crow for $12,500. After their departure, Black Mask was
colonized by a new school of tough crime writers, under the direction
of an imaginative and inspired new editor, "Cap" Joseph Shaw.
Shaw was an unsuccessful adventure
story writer who was appointed editor of Black Mask in 1926.
Through nepotistic contacts in New York, he was placed in charge of a
magazine with which he said he "had not even a bowling acquaintance."
He nevertheless approached his task with vocational verve. His
editorial agenda demanded clarity and plausibility. He once said, "We
always held that a good story is where you find it regardless of author
fame or medium of publication. It has been said that with proper
materials available, a good mouse trap can be built anywhere."
Shaw often wrote editorials for the
magazine on subjects such as the jury system and gun control. He
believed strongly in the moral responsibility of crime fiction.
Specifically, he believed that crime fiction could promote the ideal of
justice on the increasingly lawless streets of America. It could show
criminals for the spineless villains they were, and restore the
tarnished image of law enforcement.
The reason so many of Black Mask's
fictional law enforcers were private detectives rather than policemen
was more than partly due to a growing public distrust of the police.
Although it was Shaw who nurtured
the realistic detective element of Black Mask, it had been
before his 10-year tenure, in the issue of May 15, 1923, that the
magazine had published what is considered to be the first ever tough
private detective story - Three Gun Terry by Carroll John Daly.
"I have a little office which says
'Terry Mack, Private Investigator,' on the door; which means whatever
you wish to think it. I ain't a crook, and I ain't a dick. I play the
game on the level, in my own way."
Daly followed Terry Mack with a
detective called Race Williams and it was this violent and wisecracking
character who really set up the prototype for the hard boiled sleuth.
The detective stories appearing in Black Mask grew more
violent, the style harder, the dialogue blacker, and the wit dryer.
Under Shaw, this crude but
immediately successful type of story was made a priority. He spent a
week reading through Black Mask back issues. He decided that
the best writers were those producing detective stories and, as a
result, decided to drop most of the rest. He outlined his plans for
Black Mask in a 1927 editorial. "Detective fiction as we see it has
only commenced to be developed. All other fields have been worked and
overworked, but detective fiction has barely been scratched."
By December 1933, the magazine was
publishing nothing but crime stories, and its national circulation had
risen from 66,000, when Shaw had taken over, to 103,000. The cover
price was 20 cents.
The focus of inspiration for Shaw,
his writers, and the readers who backed this new-look Black Mask
was Dashiell Hammett. He alone seemed to have first realized the full
potential of hard boiled detective fiction beyond its gunslinging
appeal. As an ex-Pinkerton detective turned self-taught writer, Hammett
was uniquely qualified to give his characters the three dimensions of
which other writers of the tough detective story were largely incapable.
Hammett's first story in Black
Mask was "The Road Home", published in December 1922 under
name Peter Collinson. In the December 15, 1923, issue, Erle Stanley
Gardner's first story "The Shrieking Skeleton," appeared under
the pen name Charles M. Green. "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" was
Raymond Chandler's first story, published in 1933.