“A Magazine of Mystery, Romance and Adventure.”
— The Black Mask‘s first slogan
The Black Mask (the “the” was dropped in 1926), founded in 1920, was aimed squarely at the cheap seats, printed on paper so rough the pages sometimes sported splinters. It was intended as a quick, money-making side project by journalist H. L. Mencken and the drama critic George Jean Nathan, to subsidize their prestigious but floundering literary magazine The Smart Set.
The young pulp initially promised “Mystery, Romance and Adventure” right there on the cover; the intended goal being to publish “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 magazine’s first editor was Florence Osborne, who pretty much followed that original editorial mandate, but after only eight issues, Mencken and Nathan bailed, selling the magazine to its publishers, Eltinge Warner and Eugene Crow, for $12,500 — not a bad return on their initial investment of 800 bucks.
And with new ownership, came a new, more focussed editorial slant, with the magazine’s slogan (at least on its covers) changed to “A Magazine of Mystery, Thrills and Surprise” by early 1921, and simply “A Magazine of Mystery and Detective Stories” by the April 1922 issue.
Eventually Florence (credited as F. M. Osborne on the masthead) was out, and George W. Sutton was in. Just in time, apparently, because in the early years, despite the magazine’s relative success, the stories were often horribly overwritten, confusing, or just plain dumb.
It was under Sutton’s editorship that the early detective stories of Carroll John Daly, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett were first published, including the first appearances of Daly’s Three Gun Terry and Race Williams, and the debut of Hammett’s Continental Op, and so played a major part in the development of the genre. 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.
Sutton’s stint as editor, like Osborne’s, only lasted a couple of years, and he was succeeded by Philip C. Cody, who’d been working at Black Mask as a circulation editor. An experienced hand at magazine publishing (he would go on to serve as Vice President of Warner Publications), Cody had a keen eye for the market, and more than a few tricks up his sleeve. With circulation starting to slip, Cody pushed Black Mask‘s content in a even more action-packed and vivid direction, promising his readers in a January 1926 editorial “more honest-to Jasper, he-man stuff… than any other magazine.”
But he didn’t just make promises to his readership–he actively solicited their opinions. In one editorial 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.” The tactic seemed to work. In another editorial, he noted 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 thus he built the readership.
The stories became longer and more complex, the sex and violence were pumped up, and sales rose steadily. But then Hammett, now a regular contributor, decided he wanted more money, and Cody balked — he didn’t think it would be fair to the other regulars, and besides, the magazine couldn’t afford to give everyone a raise. So Hammett quit writing for The Black Mask, and took a job in advertising.
And then, in 1926, Joseph T. “Cap” Shaw took over. He wasn’t the pulp’s first editor, but he was the one most often credited for the magazine’s distinct flavor. He knew, almost from the start, what he wanted: a “new type of detective fiction,” one that better depicted life as far too of its readers, in the throes of Prohibition and a World War, knew it—full of graft, corruption, greed and violence. The protagonists in these stories were identifiably working class; people struggling to cut off a piece of the pie for themselves. They spoke with a rude wit, and viewed the world with a cynical eye. Like the readers themselves, they may not have always known the proper fork to use, but they were tough and resilient. They had to be.
Shaw’s first steps were to shorten the magazine’s title to simply Black Mask, and to lure Hammett back, promising him more money and greater creative freedom. Shaw also knew what he wanted his other writers to do: write more like Hammett, encouraging them to aim for the harder, tighter, more economical style of Hammett’s, and to not shy away from the liberal use of slang and street talk (real or sometimes imagined) that gave Black Mask its distinctive style.
And so, under Shaw’s editorship, twenty-four Hammett stories were published between 1927 and 1930, including serializations of what would become his first four novels (or five, if you count Blood Money, which I don’t).
Not that Black Mask had become a one-trick pony. A sampling of Black Mask’s eventual contributors reads like a Who’s Who of the Tough Stuff: Hammett, Chandler and Gardner were the ringers, but for serious mystery readers, the fiction of George Harmon Coxe, Raoul Whitfield, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Paul Cain, Roger Torrey, Norbert Davis, Carroll John Daly, Frederick Nebel, Frederick C. Davis, Raoul F. Whitfield, W.T. Ballard, Dwight V. Babcock, Horace McCoy, Stewart Stirling, and Dorothy Dunn are all worth investigating.
- Florence Osborne (credited as F. M. Osborne) (April 1920-September 1922)
- George W. Sutton (October 1922–March 1924)
- Philip C. Cody (April 1924-October 1926)
- Joseph T. “Cap” Shaw (November 1926-November 1936)
- Fanny Ellsworth (December 1936-April 40)
- Kenneth S. White (June 1940–November 1948)
- Henry Steeger (anonymously) (January 1948-July 1951)
SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTORS & OTHER WRITERS OF INTEREST
- What’s surprising about this list is not only who’s on it (Louis L’Amour?), but who isn’t, or how few times some of the writers whom we instantly associate with Black Mask actually made the cut.
- Cleve F. Adams (6 stories)
- Dwight V. Babcock (21 stories)
- W. T. Ballard (43 stories)
- Max Brand (9 stories)
- Katherine Brocklebank (7 stories)
- John K. Butler (11 stories)
- Paul Cain (17 stories)
- Hugh B. Cave (9 stories)
- D.L. Champion (30 stories)
- Raymond Chandler (11 stories)
- Merle Constiner (12 stories)
- George Harmon Coxe (27 stories)
- Carroll John Daly (60 stories)
- Frederick C. Davis
- Norbert Davis (13 stories)
- Ramon DeColta (24 stories)
- Lester Dent (2 stories)
- Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1 4-part story)
- Dorothy Dunn (1 story)
- Bruno Fischer (5 stories)
- Steve Fisher (9 stories)
- Erle Stanley Gardner (103 stories)
- William Campbell Gault (7 stories)
- Frank Gruber (14 stories)
- Brett Haliday (2 stories)
- Dashiell Hammett (49 stories)
- Baynard H. Kendrick (14 stories)
- Louis L’Amour (1 story)
- John Lawrence (14 stories)
- John D. MacDonald (6 stories)
- Horace McCoy (17 stories)
- Robert Martin (8 stories)
- Frederick Nebel (67 stories)
- Robert Reeves (10 stories)
- Stewart Sterling (12 stories)
- Herbert Stinson (27 stories)
- Eric Taylor (7 stories)
- Roger Torrey (50 stories)
- Donald Wandrei (6 stories)
- Raoul Whitfield (66 stories)
- Cornell Woolrich (24 stories)
- The Real Black Mask Boys
Captured on Film!
- A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Erle Stanley Gardner’s “The Shrieking Skeleton”
Bob Byrnes relates an editorial dust-up between Erle Stanley Gardner & then-circulation editor Phil Cody. (September 2018, Black Gate)
- They Also Served
Joseph T. “Cap” Shaw