My Bookshelf: The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from Black Mask Magazine

My Bookshelf

The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from Black Mask Magazine, edited  by Herbert Ruhm

Almost forgotten now, but the publication of The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from Black Mask Magazine (1977), edited  by Herbert Ruhm, must have sent pulp fans into a tizzy in the seventies. It was the first real anthology dedicated exclusively to Black Mask since Cap Shaw’s The Hard-Boiled Omnibus from 1946, over thirty years earlier. And unlike that landmark release, Ruhm’s anthology didn’t zero in on just the years that Shaw reigned as editor, but offered selections from throughout the fabled pulp’s long run.

Even better? Most of them feature private eyes of one sort or another, and perhaps more astonishing, perhaps, is that for most of the stories, it marked their first appearance since first being published decades earlier.

Heady stuff, indeed.

And to think I bought my copy back in 1977 because I just thought the cover illustration was cool. At the time, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what Black Mask was, exactly…

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Among the highlights of this absolutely stellar collection are Carroll John Daly’s “The False Burton Combs” and   “The Road Home” by Peter Collinson, both of which appeared in the same December 1922 issue of Black Mask, and both considered pivotal stories in the development of hard-boiled fiction.

There are plenty of other treasures between this tattered paperback’s covers, as well, like Hammett’s classic Continental Op tale, “The Gutting of of Couffignal,” and “Goldfish,” by Raymond Chandler, featuring Carmady, an early version of Philip Marlowe.

There’s an early story by Norbert Davis, a Kennedy of The Free Press tale by Frederick Nebel, and solid contributions from Raymond Chandler, Lester Dent, Erle Stanley Gardner, George Harmon Coxe, and Merle Constiner, all featuring private eyes of one kind or another.

There are even a few tales not featuring private eyes, all conveniently clustered at the end, like guests at a party who show up late, but are nonetheless welcomed. Ruhm, magnanimous host that he is, even explains:

“Although the last four stories in this anthology do not have a hard-boiled detective, they are included nonetheless because they retain the aura of violence and fear that so pervades the stories that chronologically precede them.”

Sadly, because the stories are chronologically arranged, those last stories–particularly the last four–are noticeably weaker, but as Steve Lewis notes, “If the quality of the stories begins to slide downward from the beginning of the book to the end, so did the magazine as a whole. I do wonder why something by John D. MacDonald wasn’t used to close the book, as JDM in particular was a strong part of the upturn in quality in the crime story in the 1950s, as the pulps died, and writers turned to paperback novels, and the previously mentioned Manhunt.”

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Herbert Ruhm (1926-95) was an American essayist, academic, German translator and tennis pro. He published essays on Hammett, Chandler and Hemingway.

Ruhm, Herbert, editor.
New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

  • Introduction by Herbert Ruhm
  • “The False Burton Combs” by Carroll John Daly (“Burton Combs”)
  • “The Road Home” by Peter Collinson (Dashiell Hammett) (Hagedorn)
  • “The Gutting Of Couffignal” by Dashiell Hammett (The Continental Op)
  • “Kansas City Flash” by Norbert Davis (Mark Hull)
  • “Take It Or Leave It” by Frederick Nebel (Kennedy of The Free Press)
  • “Goldfish” by Raymond Chandler (Carmady)
  • “Angelfish” by Lest Dent (Oscar Sail)
  • “Legman” by Erle Stanley Gardner (Pete Wennick)
  • “Once Around The Clock” by George Harmon Coxe (Flashgun Casey)
  • “The Turkey Buzzard Blues” by Merle Constiner (Luther McGavock)
  • “It’s So Peaceful In The Country” by William Brandon
  • “Killer Come Home” by Curt Hamlin
  • “Big-Time Operator” by Paul W. Fairman
  • “Five O’Clock Menace” by Bruno Fischer


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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