They Also Served: George Sutton


Although editor Joseph T. “Cap” Shaw gets most of the attention for making Black Mask magazine what it was, it was actually  GEORGE W. SUTTON, JR., the pulp’s second editor, succeeding F.M. Osborne, who turned the boat around.

And just in time, too, because in the pulp’s first few years, the emphasis was on quantity, not quality. Some issues were loaded with as many as fifteen, sixteen or even seventeen stories. Granted, some of them were short-shorts, but still… An abundance of them were romance or “adventure” stories, often set in “exotic” locales, but despite all the globetrotting, they couldn’t hide the fact that they were often horrible: overwritten, stilted, confusing, or just plain dumb.

I’ve actually read some of those issues (thank you, UCLA) and believe me, they were often long, drawn-out, artery-clogging turds. When some Kindle Unlimited superstar starting boasting of himself as a pulp writer, these are the stories I think of.

Enter Sutton.

Right from the get-go, he had ideas. Like serialized stories, regular columns, and something that would really set the pulp industry back on its ass: quality.

He and associate editor H.C. North regularly solicited letters from readers and began a movie review column (written by budding young playwright Robert E. Sherwood). He also started to establish a stable of regular writers. He published Carroll John Daly’s first story, “Dolly,” (Daly’s hard-boiled style would start to develop a few stories later, and he would become one of the magazine’s most popular writers); a series of “true crime” stories by Joe Taylor, a former car thief; Ray Cummings’ McGuirk series, and numerous “Daytime Stories” by Eustace Hale Ball.

Besides first publishing Daly, it was Sutton who first published the detective stories of Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett, and the first appearances of Daly’s Three Gun Terry and Race Williams, and Hammett’s Continental Op. Although Sutton was no fan of Daly, his stories–particularly those featuring Williams–proved so popular with readers that he had little choice but to accept them. But he liked Hammett, and eventually learned to like Gardner. Daly? Not so much.

But hey, if it sold copies…

So perhaps it’s no surprise that it was also Sutton who oversaw the notorious Ku Klux Klan issue of June 1923, wherein several stories–and the cover– were devoted to the Invisible Empire, which was experiencing something of a rebirth. Claiming the magazine was completely and totally neutral (fine people on both sides?), the magazine stated in its ads for the issue that “the Ku Klux Klan–with its vital and far-reaching possibilities– has become an almost household word throughout the length and breadth of our country” would simply make “an excellent background for fiction stories.” I’m happy to report that Daly’s story, “Knights of the Open Palm” (which, coincidentally introduced Race Williams) and several of the other, at least, were not overtly pro-Klan. In fact, in a letter to Herman Petersen, another contributor, Sutton allowed that if the story “must take sides it might lean a little toward the Klan rather than against it.”

Sutton wanted controversy and attention, and he got it. The subsequent three issues included a “Ku Klux Klan Forum” letters column to allow their readers to argue over it (this is how it was done before Twitter, kids). Sadly, readers were mostly pro-Klan.

Still, it was a great if cynical gimmick, and for a while, it looked like the Mask was on its way. But eventually sales started to slip once more, and Sutton was gone. His stint as editor, like Osborne’s, was brief, lasting less than two years (in fact, October 1922 until March 1924), and he was eventually succeeded by former circulation editor Philip C. Cody.


  • In Ron Goulart’s The Dime Detectives, offers an interesting anecdote about how Carroll John Daly’s first two stories in The Black Mask got by editor George Sutton because he was on vacation.


Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. |

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