Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Review: William F. Nolan, The Black Mask Boys: Masters of the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction (1985)

Stories included: “Three Gun Terry” (1923) by Carroll John Daly; “Bodies Piled Up” (1923) by Dashiell Hammett; “Hell’s Kettle” (1930) by Erle Stanley Gardner; “Sal the Dude” (1929) by Raoul Whitfield; “Rough Justice” (1930) by Frederick Nebel; “Frost Flies Alone” [original title: “Frost Rides Alone”] (1930) by Horace McCoy; “Gundown” [original title: “Murder Done in Blue”] (1933) by Paul Cain; and “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” (1933) by Raymond Chandler.

William F. Nolan gathers eight representative stories from Black Mask’s heavy-hitters and seasons the mix with a history of the magazine, biographical overviews of the writers, and bibliographies of their work for Black Mask. Unfortunately, by almost any critical yardstick, Black Mask fiction is pretty bad. Joseph T. Shaw, who edited the magazine during its glory years, was interested in good writing, but he was more interested in series characters who would build and keep a base of loyal readers. (Thus, the many, many appearances of Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams, whom even Shaw knew to be terrible.) On the whole, the best story here (no surprise) is Dashiell Hammett’s “Bodies Piled Up,” which manages to be brilliant even if it doesn’t add up to much as a story. And this is the perspective from which Black Mask fiction is best enjoyed: as collections of moments rather than as unified narratives. Approached in this way, even Carroll John Daly’s “Three Gun Terry”—the world’s first hard-boiled detective story—can be fun. Grade: B


  1. Perhaps a bit harsh, and a less representative selection (that is, one focusing on the magazine's best work, and less on overlooked work in some cases) would probably impress you more. I value this book as a history with examples perhaps even more than as an anthology.

  2. I agree with your final sentiment completely--this book is first and foremost a work of literary history, and as such, it's great.