They Also Served: Joseph “Cap” Shaw

EDITOR OF BLACK MASK (1926-36)

“Shaw was the finest coachwhip I ever met in an editor’s chair. In my thirty-five years of freelance fiction, no one stands out so.”
— Lester Dent, in a letter to Philip Durham

“We wrote better for him than we could have written for anybody else.”
— Raymond Chandler, in a letter

Not the first, and arguably not the most influential (any George W. Sutton, Jr. fans out there?), but certainly the most celebrated, JOSEPH T. “CAP” SHAW (1874 – 1952) as the editor of the legendary Black Mask from 1926 to 1936, Taking over from Philip Cody.

Shaw had plans, and saw something in the hard-boiled crime and detective stories that were becoming increasingly dominant in the magazine that suggested the potential for, as he called it, “a new form of detective fiction.”  He dropped the “the” from the magazine’s title, and more importantly lured Dashiell Hammett, who had left the Mask because they refused to pay him better, back into the fold.

But it went further than bringing a popular writer back. Shaw was a hands-on type of editor, a roll-up-your-sleeves writing coach and an enthusiastic recruiter.  Shaw didn’t simply want Hammett back–he also wanted his writers to write like Hammett, and Hammett’s reputation certainly helped with recruiting new talent.

Using the former Pinkerton Op as a model, Shaw nurtured and worked closely with a coterie of hand-picked writers (including Raymond Chandler), saved the struggling pulp, and transformed the once formal and staid detective story into a living, breathing genre that vigorously depicted life as far too many Americans–coming out of a bloody world war and in the throes of Prohibition–recognized it, full of graft, corruption and violence.

Shaw also thought he knew his readers, and exactly what they wanted. His ideal reader, he wrote in an editorial, was “vigorous-minded; hard, in a square man’s hardness; hating unfairness, trickery, injustice, cowardly underhandedness; standing for a square deal and a fair show in little or big things, and willing to fight for them; not squeamish or prudish, but clean, admiring the good in man and woman; not sentimental in a gushing sort of way, but valuing true emotion; not hysterical, but responsive to the thrill of danger, the stirring exhilaration of clean, swift, hard action–and always pulling for the right guy to come out on top.”

That’s what he wanted his readers to be–imagine how he wanted the heroes in the stories he published to be! It is possibly the most overblown mission statement to ever come out of the hard-boiled genre–until Chandler’s own “The Simple Art of Murder” came along. But damn if it wasn’t also sort of inspiring. Certainly his writers were inspired.

Of course, despite Black Mask’s critical and commercial popularity under his editorialship, Shaw was eventually fired.

And just to cement his reputation, ten years after his reign as Black Mask editor ended, Shaw edited The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946), the first-ever collection of hard-boiled crime fiction from the seminal pulp, featuring stories from, among others, Hammett, ChandlerNorbert Davis, George Harmon Coxe, Paul Cain, Raoul Whitfield, Lester Dent and Roger Torrey. As  important as this collection was historically, the omission of John Carroll Daly and Erle Stanley Gardner, two of the most popular writers in the Black Mask stable, is still glaring. Some have suggested that there were rights issues or arguments about money, but both were writers who Shaw inherited from other editors, and it’s known that he didn’t think much of Daly, at least, as a writer. Daly actually stopped writing for Black Mask during Shaw’s reign, moving over to its rival, Dime Detective, and only returning after Shaw left. As for Gardner, he apparently didn’t think much of his earlier work, and didn’t want to be included.

But Shaw was more than an editor–born in New England, he lived a full life, including stints as a journalist, in the military (he served as a soldier in World War I, attaining the rank of captain), as a literary agent and as a championship fencer, even winning an Olympic medal. He loved sports and the outdoors. He also wrote seven books, including several crime novels such as Derelict (1930), Danger Ahead (1932), and Blood on the Curb (1936), and sold (often under a pen name) over forty short stories to various publications, including All-Star Detective Stories, Boy’s Life, Clues, Crimebusters, Detective Story Magazine, Dime Detective, Doc Savage, The Shadow and Black Mask (of course). He even had a series character, Cass Manning, a hard-boiled, big city police chief who appeared in eleven stories.

He was also–if the stories are true–the only man in New York City licensed to carry a sword cane. In 2019, his son Milton published Joseph T. Shaw: The Man Behind Black Mask, the first ever biography of his father, promising us us the whole scoop.

 

THE EVIDENCE

  • “To accomplish action it’s not necessary to stage a gun battle from start to finish, with a murder and a killing in every other paragraph. You can keep it alive through dialogue.”
    — Jospeh T. “Cap” Shaw, to Raymond Chandler

BOOKS BY JOSEPH T. SHAW

  • Derelict (1930, by Joseph T. Shaw)
  • Danger Ahead (1932, by Joseph T. Shaw)
  • Out in the Rough (1934)
    A non-fiction work, particularly well-received, about golf, believe it or not.
  • Blood on the Curb (1936, by Joseph T. Shaw) Buy this book
  • It Happened at the Lake (1937)
  • The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946; edited by Joseph T. Shaw)  | Buy this book
  • Joseph T. Shaw: The Man Behind Black Mask (2019; by Milton Shaw) | Buy this book

SHORT FICTION BY JOSEPH T. SHAW

  • “Makings” (December 1926, Black Mask; a western)
  • “Derelict (Part One)” (February 1931, Black Mask)
  • “Derelict (Part Two)” (March 1931, Black Mask)
  • “Derelict (Part Three)” (April 1931, Black Mask)
  • “Derelict (Part Four)” (May 1931, Black Mask)
  • “Fugitive (Part One)” (August 1932, Black Mask)
  • “Fugitive (Part Two)” (September 1932, Black Mask)
  • “Fugitive (Part Three)” (October 1932, Black Mask)
  • “Fugitive (Part Four)” (November 1932, Black Mask)
  • “Lee Rails Awash (Part One)” (April 1935, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Lee Rails Awash (Part Two)” (May 1935, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Lee Rails Awash (Part Three)” (June 1935, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Lee Rails Awash (Part Four)” (July 1935, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Wings of an Eagle (Part One)” (September 1935, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Wings of an Eagle (Part Two)” (October 1935, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Wings of an Eagle (Part Three)” (November 1935, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Wings of an Eagle (Part Four)” (December 1935, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Wings of an Eagle (Part Five)” (January 1936, Boy’s Life; as  Washburn Thompson)
  • “Monkey Man” (September 1938, Crime Busters; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “Rough Stuff” (November 15, 1938, The Shadow)
  • “Frame for a Fall Guy” (December 1938, Dime Detective)
  • “The Spot Marked X” (January 1939, Crime Busters; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “Murder Tails a Hundred Grand” (August 1939, Crime Busters; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “Death Rides Double” (October 1939, Black Mask)
  • “Two in the Dark” (October 1939, Crime Busters; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “Knives in the Night” (November 1939, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “There Were Seven” (November 1939, Clues Detective Stories)
  • “Murder from Nowhere” (January 1940, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “The Rolling Heads” (March 1940, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “Murder Sometimes Happens” (April 1940, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “Murder Breeder” (June 1940, Clues Detective Stories)
  • “Wanted for Murder” (June 1940, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “Murder Goes Screwy” (September 1940, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “The Mystery of the One-Eyed Man” (September 1940, Clues Detective Stories)
  • “Blood Is Where You Find It” (November 1940, Detective Short Stories)
  • “Death Raises a Hand” (December 1940, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “The Terror of Martin’s Glade” (January 1941, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “Murder for the Many” (April 1941, Detective Short Stories)
  • “Murders Are Stupid” (May 1941, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “Get Paul Dwyer!” (September 1941, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “Murder on the Spot” (November 1941, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “The Chain of Death” (March 1942, Clues Detective Stories)
  • “Six Heads on a String” (March 1942, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “A Dead Hand Will Strike You” (May 1942, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “Return of the Fugitive” (May 1942, Clues Detective Stories)
  • “Whom the Fiend Hates” (May 1942, All Star Detective)
  • “Fall Guy for Murder” (July 1942, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “Murder Squeeze” (July 1942, Clues Detective Stories)
  • “The Norwegian Diamond” (September 1942, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “I Killed a Man” (November 1942, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “Murder for a Price” (January 1943, Clues Detective Stories)
  • “A Skinful of Lead” (January 1943, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine; Cass Manning; as Mark Harper)
  • “Dan Rafferty’s Kill” (May 1943, Clues Detective Stories)
  • “The Death Statue” (May 1943, Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine)

ARTICLES BY JOSPH T. SHAW

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

 

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