Frederick Nebel's MacBride
& Kennedy: An Introduction
By Evan Lewis
For much of the personal information
contained herein, I am indebted to the author’s wife, Mrs. Dorothy
letters and telephone conversations in the early 1980s, she was
gracious in answering my often-nosy questions. Dorothy was an avid
her husband’s work, and one of her favorite characters was Captain
MacBride. She passed away in 1996.
This has been a long time coming.
Nebel fans like me have been
waiting not just years—but decades—for this series to be
In the heyday of Black
Mask, two series stood head and shoulders above the rest: Dashiell
Hammett’s adventures of the Continental Op, and Frederick Nebel’s saga
Richmond City. Both authors excelled in their mastery of the hardboiled
the depth and humor of their characters, the richness of their settings
varied scope of their stories. But while Hammett is now a household
has been largely relegated to the shadows.
The reason is simple. While
Hammett and many of his contemporaries went on to write mystery novels,
stuck to novelettes. As the pulps gave way to paperbacks in the 1950s,
novel became the dominant fictional form, rendering the novelette
defunct. Black Mask writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, George
Coxe, W.T. Ballard—and a guy named Raymond Chandler—remained in the
public consciousness thanks to their books, while Nebel was remembered only by pulp
Nebel was a skilled craftsman
who put his own stamp on the hardboiled
school of writing. His prose, packed with cracking
keen characterization, is as fresh today as it was in the 1930s. Over
year, Altus Press has brought the bulk of his detective writing back
print. Now, at long last, they introduce new legions of readers to his
important body of work—the adventures of Captain Steve MacBride and his
pal, reporter Kennedy of the Free Press.
When this series debuted in the September 1928 Black Mask, it
“The Crimes of Richmond City.” The title was appropriate. This is the
MacBride and Kennedy,
it’s also the story of a city. The series lasted nine years, and from
last, Richmond City was seen as a living, breathing and growing
metropolis—almost a character in itself.
Nebel’s secret was simple. In
writing about Richmond City, he was writing about his home
town. The borough of Staten
Island, where he was born, was then known as Richmond. It comprised
Richmond County, with Richmond Valley at one end, Richmond Terrace at
other, Richmond Creek in the middle, and joined by Richmond Avenue and
Road. He took the harbor and residential areas of Staten Island and
them with elements of the Bronx and Manhattan to create his own
version of New York. Richmond City seemed very real—because to Nebel,
Nebel’s father Louis was
Swedish (there’s a Nebel River in Sweden) and his mother Mathilda was
German-American. When their son Louis Frederick came into the world on
4, 1903, they were 21 and 18, respectively. The marriage quickly went
two years later Mathilda sued for divorce, receiving full custody.
who much preferred the name Fred, grew up in Staten Island without a
until he was ten, when his mother married a restaurateur. When he was
they gave him a half-brother. It was also at age twelve that he
meeting, for the only time, his real father. In his years away from the
the elder Nebel had become a captain on the Staten Island Ferry and a
hero of the harbor.
At fifteen, while still in school,
Fred worked as a car checker on the wharf front. He would later tell
he had spent exactly one day in high school, but this was not the case.
he disliked school, he stuck it out until he was seventeen, though he
before graduating. Fred’s formal education was cut short when his
uncle, who had a huge homestead near Alberta, Canada, invited him to
on the farm. Fred’s stepfather offered to stake him to college, but he
already educating himself on the side and had begun selling stories to
magazines. (Sadly, where these early stories appeared—and under what
name—is not known, but Nebel later told his wife his mother saved
In Canada Fred soaked up plenty of North Woods atmosphere, which would
serve him well in the pulps.
By 1925 he was back in New
York, now writing full time. His earliest located stories appeared that
three in North-West Stories and one in Action Stories.
1926 was an even better year,
with thirteen appearances in North-West, four in Action
and three in Lariat.
His first series character, introduced in North-West, was a detective
sorts—Corporal Chet Tyson of the RCMP. For Lariat he created a
gunslinger called The Driftin’ Kid. And, most importantly, he broke
That first Black Mask
sale, “The Breaks of the Game,” appeared in March 1926 under the pen
Nebel. The editor at that time was Phil Cody, and the magazine’s star
attractions were Carroll John Daly, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell
Nebel’s story ran only six pages, but was enough to demonstrate his
for the new hardboiled style and set him apart from the others.
The story’s protagonist,
small-time heist artist “Shrimp” Darcy, nearly avoids a murder rap by
his appearance, but gives himself away with an unconscious shoulder
Daly written the story, he would have played up the action at the
all else. Gardner would have gone for speed, sacrificing detail.
have focused on the irony of Shrimp’s capture. Nebel handled all these
well, but his sharp characterization stole the show.
narration, even in this early effort, is more than tough and tight.
rich, a quality sometimes missing from the work of the others. Almost
word works toward developing Shrimp Darcy’s character, and he emerges
as a real
crook interacting with real people.
Later that year, when Joseph
T. Shaw took the reins of Black Mask, he began reading back
search of stories he liked. Impressed with “The Breaks of the Game,” he
Nebel for more. Shaw’s first issue, in November 1926, featured the
“Grain to Grain,” about two police detectives—an ex-gangster and an
ex-prizefighter—working the New York waterfront.
In December, Nebel joined
Scandinavian tramp streamer for a three-and-a-half month trip to the
He was strictly a passenger on the voyage, but it gave him time to soak
plenty of sea lore and formulate new characters.
In 1927 Nebel made his first
“slick” sale, to Elks Magazine, and began his first Black
Again drawing on his waterfront experience, he created an adventurer
Jason. Unlike Nebel, who was no more than 5’9”, Jason is a whale of a
eyes that glint like chips of blue steel. Jason appeared in March and
returning for the last time in August. Meanwhile, Air Stories
wisecracking freelance pilots Bill Gales and Mike McGill. The series
instant hit. With two leads, Nebel was able to inject more witty
deepen the characters by exploring their friendship. This was a
would use to even greater effect in the MacBride and Kennedy series.
Black Mask quickly became one of his major markets,
fact that it paid two cents a word—twice the usual rate—probably
had a lot to do with it. When Buck Jason didn’t catch on, Nebel
with a variety of cops, crooks and detectives, honing his hardboiled
Shaw had quickly learned that
series characters sold magazines, and to be successful he had to
balance of character types. The lone-wolf private eye spot belonged to
Race Williams. The number one agency man was Hammett’s Continental Op.
Gardner’s Ed Jenkins was the lead crook. With these role filled by the
magazine’s most popular writers, the area of greatest opportunity was
Cops were nothing new in Black
Mask. The first major police series, from author Francis James,
October 1922, featuring a Harvard-trained criminologist-turned-cop by
of Prentice. By the time Shaw took over, Prentice was gone and the
leading cop was a New York police detective called “Mac,” the creation
Curry. “Mac” appeared off and on for several years without achieving
Nebel’s police series was
“The Crimes of Richmond City,” a sequence of five connected stories,
readers to a setting so well realized they could have drawn a map. The
at least thirteen precincts, a large rail yard and a busy harbor. There
shoe and garment factories, woolen mills, a novelty jewelry business, a
factory, a racetrack and sports auditoriums. The many distinct
include the theater district, the swank West End, Little Italy, dark
dangerous Jockey Street, and Craig Square, home to many of the
Nebel added to the reality with details of the city’s history, even
who certain streets are named after.
Early in the series, we learn
that Richmond City is only a few miles from the Atlantic and on a
river. Readers must have suspected it was based Richmond, Virginia,
Nebel eventually went out of his way the squelch the idea. When
his wife on vacation, touring the “Southern States” in his new flivver,
told he drove through a red light in Richmond, Virginia.
It seems that almost no one
in a position of power in Richmond City is above corruption. Judges,
chiefs, commissioners, aldermen, magistrates, comptrollers, State’s
and even mayor are susceptible to graft. But standing above it all is
city’s toughest police captain, Steven J. MacBride.
We meet MacBride in the first
scene of the series, and while he’s “tough as a hard-boiled egg,” he’s
stereotype. We see him not merely as a cop, but as a husband, father,
and lifelong citizen of the town. Just as Richmond City seems a real
Steve MacBride emerges as a real man.
The next character we meet is
reporter Kennedy of the Free Press. He’s laconic and
world-weary, but a
keen observer of the Richmond City scene. When Kennedy leaves the
MacBride says, “Sharp, that bird. Pulls ideas out of the air, and every
hits you like a sock on the jaw.”
Like Richmond City, MacBride
and Kennedy carry the stamp of authenticity. In developing the
Nebel did his homework, spending time with two friends—one a New York
newspaperman and the other a police captain—and deluging them with
hundreds of questions.
Though Nebel eventually came
to think of this as the MacBride-Kennedy series, it’s clear that for
few years this was MacBride’s show and Kennedy was merely the most
member of the supporting cast. It wasn’t until “Wise Guy” (June 1930),
Nebel began toying with other points of view, and not until “Backwash”
1932), halfway into the series, that Kennedy got a scene of his own.
In this opening volume, comprised of stories published between
and February 1930, we see Richmond City at its most violent. As the
begins, crooked politicians and racketeers have such a stranglehold on
that MacBride is powerless to act. It’s only when his best detective
force to fight fire with fire that the grip is broken, and MacBride can
cleaning up. He does this with a vengeance. We see pitched battles in
streets, usually with MacBride himself leading the charge, and the
is high on both sides. The worst offenders are weeded out, but the
runs deep, keeping MacBride on the defensive. Things are so bad that
precinct house seems the last bastion of law and order.
When we first meet MacBride,
he’s running the city’s toughest precinct, where crookdom’s elite brush up
high hats and the evening gowns of the city’s great white way. At
the youngest captain on the force, and already known as “a holy terror
the criminal element.”
Kennedy sums him up nicely:
“The skipper is a big bull-headed mutt. He’s got a one-track mind and
that shield he wears is another kind of bible. It never occurs to him
around a tree, he’s got to batter his head against it. To him the law,
friend, is the law: good, bad or indifferent, it’s the law. He carries
as strictly on himself as on any heel he picks up.”
A minor female character puts
it more succinctly: “This gent looks as if he never goes in reverse.”
But strict as MacBride is, he
knows that sometimes the law goes too far and sometimes not far enough.
acquaintance asks, “How’s every little thing?” he replies, “I let the
things slide and get headaches over the big ones.”
Realizing that certain types
of victimless crimes must be tolerated, MacBride turns a blind eye to
speakeasies, bootleggers, and reasonably honest gambling houses. This
approach to crimefighting also finds its way into Headquarters. His
sergeant drinks home-brew on duty and must be warned to wipe the suds
chin. MacBride himself keeps a bottle of liquor in his desk (often as
confiscated in a raid), and drinks five percent beer with his lunch.
it gripes him, he puts up with detectives playing poker and craps in
a vice squad sergeant who runs a horseracing book. The one crime
not tolerate under any circumstances is murder.
MacBride is also savvy enough
to know when extra-legal methods are justified. When a crook tells him,
overstepping the law—” MacBride snaps, “I sure am, Morio—I sure am.
What this town needs.” When suspects refuse to talk, he doesn’t
send them to the sweat room, or as he once calls it, “to play
And he’s not above promising a heroin addict a fix in return for
“I’m no master mind,”
MacBride says. “I don’t go in for solving riddles. I’m just a cop who
beat crime to the tape.” And he usually wins the race. When a hood
tells him to
come back with a warrant, he comes back with a Thompson machine gun
“If it’s a fight,” he tells his men, “use everything you’ve got—guns,
rocks, clubs, feet and your brains.” Often as not he’s at the thick of
battle, inspiring them with his vigor and spirit. When he gets mad, his
valve pops and steam roars. As one of his detectives describes it,
boiling so hard that if you put a hat on his head it’d bubble off.”
What sets MacBride apart from
other Black Mask heroes is his dedication to family. His lives
wife and daughter in a vine-clad bungalow on an elm-shaded street in
modest Grove Manor. He owns a shabby Ford, though he usually rides a
to work, and owes three thousand on the house. When the series begins
is thirty-eight, still retaining much of her youthful charm.
She’s proud of him and cuts his
pictures from the newspapers, displaying them on their wall. When it
makes him wear galoshes to work.
Suspecting he’ll die young in
the line of duty, he carries twenty thousand in life insurance, double
indemnity. Consideration for his family’s welfare is the one thing that
make him back
off. As a crusader against crime and corruption he is fearless, but an
threat to his family—such as losing his job—makes him gnash his
teeth in frustration.
MacBride grew up in Richmond
City, and his hardass tendencies surfaced early. When he was kid, he
neighbor’s nose for cheating at marbles. At twenty-two, when he joined
force as a beat cop, he admits he was “a hellion.” By the time he made
detective first grade he was still inclined to “hit first and ask
afterwards,” but command has mellowed him. A little. As a captain, he
asks questions before he starts hitting—or, more often, has his
subordinates do the hitting for him.
Kennedy lives alone in one
nondescript boarding house, and while we occasionally meet old friends,
shed little light on his history. “My old man was Irish,” he once says,
mother was a McNulty.” He’s seen corruption before, in San Francisco,
and New Orleans, but whether close up or from afar is not clear. He was
fairly good amateur boxer, but now gets by solely on his brains and his
His first name, we learn late in the series, is John, with no middle
Finding himself in need of one, he chose X for xylophone.
Kennedy says he’s
“hard-boiled as hell,” and his actions bear this out. Eyeing the bodies
mobster and a crooked judge, his reaction is “Oh, boy! Where, oh, where
telephone? What a scoop!” And though he’s frequently beaten up, he
takes it in
He’s at his best when he’s
dishing out samples of his cockeyed philosophy. “Work is the curse of
drinking classes,” he proclaims, and “Blessed is the earth, for it
inherit the meek.” When he says, “Cast your bread upon the waters and
come back all wet,” the ever-pragmatic MacBride responds, “I can’t
That’s why I never go to sea. I always get seasick.”
Lackadaisical as he appears,
Kennedy never lets down on the job. “I have big ears and I have a habit
putting them to door panels.” In one instance, too drunk to walk, he
a house to get a story.
Nebel contrasts the two characters in nearly every way possible.
MacBride is tall, angular and
square-shouldered, “built of whip-cord, hard bone, tough hide.” Kennedy
small and slim, with round shoulders and a hollow chest. He looks like
scarecrow or the shadow of an emaciated tree,” and is so skinny he can
cover behind a lamppost.
MacBride has thick, black,
wiry hair, a ruddy-brown face and eyes that could “lacerate a man to
Kennedy has unruly blond hair, a sallow complexion, and “the whimsical
the wicked and the wise.”
MacBride’s clothes are neat,
clean and sharply pressed, and his shoes reflect light. Kennedy’s
always “haphazard and ill-assembled.” His suits are wrinkled and his
threadbare. His hats are faded, misshapen, and sometime on backwards.
MacBride drums his heels and
slams into a room like “a blast of wind.” Kennedy drifts, slopes,
MacBride’s words are barked,
clipped, bit off or ripped out. Kennedy chuckles, sighs or grins, then
with dry humor.
Kennedy addresses MacBride as
“old tomato,” “old horse,” and “skipperino.” MacBride responds with
endearments as “fat-head,” “pot-head” and “bozo.”
While nothing seems to faze
Kennedy, he causes MacBride plenty of grief. “You’re like a burr in a
sock,” he tells Kennedy. “You start dropping ideas around and me, like
I go picking ‘em up and losing sleep over ‘em.” “You’re a cynical,
cold-blooded, snooping, wisecracking example of modern newspaperdom.
Kennedy, you’ve got brains—and you’re on the square.” From MacBride,
there can be no higher compliment.
Different as these two are,
there’s no doubt their friendship runs deep. When Kennedy is missing
dead, MacBride goes looking, coming back with “his face drawn, dark circles
eyes.” Seeing Kennedy standing in the station house, “wild joy” leaps
face. As for Kennedy, while he does not always approve of MacBride’s
attitude, he genuinely likes him, admitting, “He’s probably the best
Though Nebel was only 23 when
he began the Richmond City series, the stories—and the setting—carry
the weight of an author with far more life experience.
His flare for understatement
produced lines Hammett would have admired:
Guns empty, the men
clashed, hand to hand, clubbing rifles. Nightsticks became popular. (from
“The Law Laughs Last”)
blundered in, full of news.
She cursed and added
something relative to his maternity. He trotted her down the stairs. (from
“Listen, lady, pipe down,
will you? Give your ears a chance.”
“Fingerprints don’t walk
into a place without fingers.” (from “Too Young to
“If you know where your
alley is—stay up it.” (from
Nebel’s quick wit provides
MacBride with a great sense of humor. In “Tough Treatment,” when he
hardboiled dame he’s running her into the station, we get the following
Dame: “You’re sure a pain
in the neck, MacBride.”
MacBride: “Try liniment,
Dame: “Get wise that I’m
only taking an overnight bag.”
MacBride: “You get wise
and take a trunk.”
This one comes from
Acquaintance: “How’s the
MacBride: “Slow. Not a
thing stirring. We’re having day-beds put
And this from “Beat the
MacBride: “Mr. Bergman,
have you ever seen the inside of a Police Headquarters?”
MacBride: “It’s kind of
worth seeing. Put your hat on.”
Kennedy gets in plenty of
great lines, too, as in “It’s a Gag”:
Kennedy’s editor: “The
repercussions of this are going to be far-reaching, or
I’m a horse’s neck.”
Kennedy: Horse’s neck? My,
you’re a champion of understatement.”
In 1928, around the same time the first Richmond City stories were
Black Mask, Nebel had his first brush with the
silver screen. His Action
Stories tale “The Isle of Lost Men” was made into two short silent
one bearing the story title and the other called “Ships in the Night.”
featured entirely different casts and characters.
Late that year, Nebel
traveled to France, where he planned to share a villa with other
artists. This plan went by the wayside when fellow Mask writer
Leroy Jorgensen offered to introduce him to some nice American girls.
meet them at home,” Nebel replied, “How about some French ones?” But he
and one of the girls was Dorothy Blank, daughter of a St. Louis
store manager. Nebel was entranced enough to invite her to lunch the
day. And that was that. Dorothy was visiting France with her mother, so
abandoned his villa plans and found a small apartment near their Paris
In the spring, the three traveled to London, where he rented a
Fred and Dorothy spent much of the next three weeks touring the English
When Dorothy and her mother
sailed for home, Nebel stayed on for another two months. It’s odd to
him pounding out hardboiled tales of Richmond City from a London flat,
that’s how it was. He also kept up a stream of stories to other
1929 alone his work appeared in Action Stories, Air Stories,
Five Novels Monthly, Flying Stories, North-West
Detective Tales, Sea Stories, Wings and Young’s
along with two slicks, Columbia and Elks Magazine.
Nebel returned to New York in
early summer. His chief companions there were Dashiell Hammett and
Whitfield, with whom he did a lot of carousing in bars. One night he
Hammett carried an open umbrella—despite the lack of rain—just to
see if anyone would notice. No one did. Naturally they had plenty to
Nebel slept it off on Hammett’s couch. In the morning, Hammett
with an inscribed copy of The Maltese Falcon, a book Nebel kept
rest of his days. When Nebel left for St. Louis to prepare for his
Hammett wrote him a few lines of sympathy almost every day.
Nebel admired The Maltese
Falcon and reviewed it in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “It
pity that this should be called a detective story . . . Truly, it is a
about a detective, but it is so much about a detective that he becomes
character, and the sheer force of Hammett’s hard, brittle writing lifts
out of the general run of crime spasms and places it aloof and alone as
chronicle of a hard-boiled man, unscrupulous, conscienceless, unique.”
While in St. Louis, Nebel
kept busy turning out stories for Black Mask and his adventure
and also made his first appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly.
Late in its second year, the Richmond City series entered a new phase.
In the next
Altus Press volume, featuring stories published between August 1930 and
February 1933, we’ll see MacBride on the lookout for new rackets and
of corruption, hell-bent to nip them in the bud. Though he takes heat
other cops—and the commissioner himself—for overstepping his
bounds, MacBride is on a crusade. And when his efforts finally earn him
at Headquarters, he must face the reality that some of his fellow
on the take.
Fred and Dorothy were married
in St. Louis on May 12, 1930. St. Louis made its presence known in
writing almost immediately. He took a break from MacBride and Kennedy
detective “Donny” Donahue, an operative of the Interstate Detective
assignment in St. Louis. Donahue made his debut in the November 1930 Black
Mask, appearing four straight issues before MacBride and Kennedy
after a seven
hiatus, in March 1931. With the Continental Op all but retired from
Donahue was now the magazine’s number one agency dick.
The Nebels made frequent
trips back to New York. On the first after their marriage, Nels
brought flowers, while Hammett brought a funeral wreath. Mrs. Nebel
husband looked “comically short” next to Hammett. (Joe Shaw once listed
among his authors who were over six feet tall, but this was meant as a
One night as Fred and
having dinner at a speakeasy, Hammett appeared in a doorway on the far
the dance floor. Next to him stood a tray of silverware. While the
watched wide-eyed, Hammett scooped up handful after handful of forks,
them across the floor, until he was forcibly removed. Hammett had
returned from Hollywood, and despite being dead broke took a room at
throwing parties and running up a bill. Eventually Nebel and other
to chip in and bail him out.
Nebel provided Black Mask
with a dozen stories in 1931—a personal record. That total included
MacBride and Kennedy novelettes, four Donahues and four non-series
of the stand-alones, published in the same issues as Richmond City
appeared under the pen name Grimes Hill (“I was born at the foot of
Hill,” he explained). In addition to a full slate of adventure
he made two more appearances in Detective Fiction Weekly, and
new mystery series.
For Detective Action Stories
he created Inspector Peter Larsen—a character much like Steve MacBride.
battles crime with his
likeable but less bright subordinate, Sergeant Brinkhaus, in the
of Portsend, a doppelganger of Richmond City.
In Dime Detective
Nebel introduced Cardigan, an agency operative in the mold of Donahue.
series begins, Cardigan is heading up the St. Louis branch of the
Detective Agency. Like Donahue, he works best alone, but sometimes
with a smart-mouthed female operative named Pat Seaward. Unlike
normally works well with the police, Cardigan has more of an
relationship. It would have been interesting to see him butt heads with
equally tough Steve MacBride.
In 1932 Nebel got a taste of
better money, selling a story to the Saturday Evening Post for
This was big stuff, seeing that his Black Mask and Dime
brought in between $200 and $270 each. Deciding it was time to write a
Nebel abandoned his adventure markets in July and cut back his
writing to two or three novelettes a month. He completed the novel, Sleepers
East, in October.
Nebel’s inspiration for Sleepers
East was Vicki Baum’s novel Grand
Hotel, released as a hit film in
which a large and varied cast of characters are thrown together in a
(in Nebel’s case an eastbound train) to impact each others’ lives.
Sleepers East is not a mystery novel, but the crime
prominent because five of the twelve main
are on their way to an upcoming murder trial. Among them are a lawyer
a notorious mobster, a dirty private dick and an inept railroad
there’s no whodunit here, no crime committed on the train, and very
violence. Most of the conflict revolves around personal aspirations,
problems and romantic entanglements.
With a dozen
point of view characters, it’s hard to pick a protagonist, but the guy
starts and finishes the novel is a henpecked husband trying to leave
life behind. He fails, but feels richer for this brief taste of
Another character gets her first taste of happiness and pays for it
life. Other characters go through changes of their own. Some lose love
and find it
elsewhere. One gets her first taste of happiness and pays for it with
One is forced to see the ugly truth about himself, while another faces
truth about someone else.
MacBride and Kennedy took
back seat to Donahue in 1932, with only two stories to his four. The
Larsen-Brinkhaus series jumped from Detective Action to Detective
Fiction Weekly, where Brinkhaus stepped out of Larsen’s shadow to
lead in three stories. And Cardigan, now working out of New York City,
them all with nine stories in Dime Detective.
By 1933, the Nebels had
settled in Laguna, California, and for a little more than a year he
On an average day he’d
early, fix his own breakfast and take a walk into town, which he called
village,” visiting the post office to pick up mail. He’d begin writing
10:30, break for lunch, and sometimes read or take a short nap. He’d
a couple more hours before dinner. When up against a deadline he’d stay
desk longer and sometimes return late in the evening. His output
between 1,000 and 5,000 words a day.
Nebel could usually turn out
a novelette in three to five days. The only Black Mask story
by name in the journal, the Donahue novelette “Save Your Tears,” is a
example. Work got underway slowly on January 21. On the 22nd he worked
spurts, and felt the story moved along pretty well. That evening he had
and “drank more than I should have,” for which he blamed a mediocre
on the 23rd. He progressed fairly well on the 24th, and turned out
(“a good day”) on the 25th. On the 26th he worked until 5:30,
editing, and mailing the novelette, which he deemed, a “fair
yarn—considerably more than adequate.” He received a $230 check for the
story on February 6, which Shaw praised very highly.
On January 31 his agent
advised him that Little, Brown and Company had bought Sleepers East.
received an advance of $250 and royalties on a sliding scale, retaining
motion picture and dramatic rights. The novel was immediately sent to
Century Fox for consideration. Their lack of response nettled Nebel
April, when Paramount expressed interest and Fox finally got off the
buying the film rights for $5,000.
The Richmond City stories published between March 1933 and February
1935, to be
collected in the third Altus Press volume, take on a more personal
than combating large
corruption, MacBride and Kennedy apply their talents to murder cases,
involving old friends. This group also includes “Bad News” (March
which MacBride is away on vacation and Kennedy takes the lead for the
time. This story, as you might expect, is the most comedic of the
With the series in its fifth
year, Steve MacBride begins to feel his age. He gets more and more
with the job, particularly when men he considers friends don’t support
actions. “It just breaks my heart with gratitude,” he says. “Some fine
going to start out and systematically change the shapes of a lot of
in this man’s town.” And, “The longer I work at this job, the more I
should have taken up farming.” He’s tired of the long, irregular hours,
sick of “the blood and intrigue” that goes with police work.
While MacBride ages, Kennedy
seems to grow younger. His drinking reaches the point that he is always
drunk or slightly drunk. His actions become more erratic, and he’s
slapstick, tumbling out of taxicabs and getting caught in revolving
and more, Kennedy is seen as an almost-magical sprite who
flits in and out of danger but is
never seriously hurt.
Nebel had always been a
voracious reader, and his journal reveals a wide range of interests.
many books and articles he noted reading in 1933 were A High Wind
(which impressed him greatly), The Craft of Writing by Percy
Lubbock, a Fortune
article about the rolling of Cuban cigars, Sinclair Lewis’ Ann
Zola’s Nana, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and The Death
Ilyitch, a Fortune article about the history of the banana
in the Caribbean, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Cities of
record of prostitution in the Orient which he called “a fair piece of
of no importance whatever”), H.E. Wortham’s Chinese Gordon, an
book by Gertrude Stein (“most times she irritates me, at other times I
myself intensely interested”), W.R. Burnett’s Dark Hazard,
Somerset Maugham’s Moon & Sixpence (Nebel had a collection
Maugham’s first editions).
While living in California,
Nebel bought a Smith & Wesson .38 and sometimes went shooting with
many of whom were other writers. Though he refers to most by only first
or initials, one he identifies is pulp writer (and future screenwriter)
Taylor. During this period Nebel also paid a visit to Erle Stanley
encouraging him to quit his law practice and write full time.
In his own writing, Nebel was
firing on all cylinders, working on a novel, slick stories and
at the same time. While the slicks paid more, he was not yet ready to
the pulps. Shaw and Dime Detective editor Harry Steeger had
personal friends, and he felt a certain loyalty. Equally important,
were a sure thing, proving a steady income while he sought a solid
the higher paying markets.
To free more time for the new
novel (one he would eventually set aside), Nebel began churning out the
stories faster than ever, and the rush jobs did not go unnoticed. In
Shaw asked him to revise the beginning of his latest novelette. This
first time in two years Shaw had asked him for a revision, and he
it cost him two and half work
days. When Shaw requested another revision in April,
refused, noting, “I honestly did not agree with his point of view, and
so.” Meanwhile, because Dime had just begun a twice-monthly
Steeger wanted two stories a month instead of one—more than Nebel could
provide. Later that month Doubleday’s Crime Club requested a
mystery novel. This idea apparently fell by the wayside, because it was
In June 1933 Nebel received a
check for $2,500, the first installment toward the movie rights for Sleepers
East. This was the largest check he had yet received for his work,
was pleased. “I really feel that I am getting somewhere,” he wrote.
me a big spread on the current issue of his magazine, and continues to
of my great enthusiasts. His enthusiasm and encouragement have meant
much to me
ever since we came to know each other as author and editor.”
The Nebels had developed the
habit of spending the latter half of each year on the East Coast, and
again in 1933. In New York, Nebel had dinner and cruised the bars with
Jorgensen, then headed for Scarsdale, where he and Shaw played golf,
pretty badly. He attended a cocktail party at Raoul Whitfield’s place,
termed “a menage in the upper east Eighties,” and saw Hammett, who told
and Collier’s had turned down an abridgement of his new novel,
“admitted his shorts in Collier’s were lousy.” (The novel
to was The Thin Man, which was finally accepted by Redbook
published in hardcover the following January. After reading it, Nebel
can’t see it at all, though the critics are whooping it up.”)
Sleepers East was published in June and was a big
success. By June
16, when he paid a visit to Little, Brown the book was already its
printing, and he was unable to get any more firsts. The book received a
review from Time, calling it better than Grand Hotel,
and it was
number two on the bestseller list, behind Anthony Adverse.
praised the crisp dialogue and fast-moving story.
Nebel felt that his
photograph accompanying the review in the Saturday Evening Post
look “dark and forbidding.” He did look stern and serious in that
picture, but he actually had a great sense of humor. As a storyteller,
in great demand at parties, and was a talented mimic. Attending a
Years Eve party as Groucho Marx, he was nearly thrown out for his
the ladies. And he once dressed as Adolf Hitler, goosestepping and sieg
for a camera.
While in New York, having
abandoned the novel he’d been working on since February, he started a
which would eventually become But Not the End. He planned to
next month or six weeks on the novel, “unless it knots up and an idea
short appeals to me.”
In June he received a letter
from “a new writer named George H. Coxe, Jr.,” asking if he might pay a
and get his copy of Sleepers East autographed. This was the
a lifelong friendship. That fall, he spent the night with Coxe and his
Cape Cod, where Coxe was eager to talk shop. Nebel encouraged him to
work to Shaw, resulting in the addition of Flashgun Casey to the cast
In November WABC bought the rights to broadcast one of
MacBride and Kennedy stories, “Lay Down the Law.” When the show was
in December, Nebel wrote, “Joe is a little disgruntled . . . they did
credit to his magazine.”
Nebel worked on his new novel
almost exclusively between July and October, averaging a thousand words
His working title “Beginning Again” would go through several name
including “Crash and Resound” and “Bridges to Burn” before finally
Not the End. Little, Brown accepted the novel in November, though
their five readers were “luke-warm.”
Nebel was at the top of his
form while writing But Not the End, and it’s loaded with fine
because it’s set during the Great Depression, most of its characters
depressed, making it a largely depressing read.
point-of-view character, an investment broker, faces financial ruin and
helplessly as his partner and several clients commit suicide. His nymphomaniac wife is having her sixth
not-so-clandestine affair, and his daughter
to marry a daredevil flyer. A once-rich immigrant is forced to accept a
job and is ashamed to return home in disgrace. A champion prizefighter
his title, his career and half his vision. Those who deserve a second
happiness are rewarded in the end, while those who don’t are lost
But Not the End paid one unexpected bonus. In the thirteen
issues of Dime
Detective published between October 1933 and March 1934, Nebel had
three stories. Harry Steeger wanted Cardigan back so badly that he
Nebel’s rate to four cents a word, bringing complaints from other
would no doubt have offered Nebel a higher rate too, but his publishers
trying to economize.
With Cardigan bringing in
twice as much as Donahue, it would have been bad business to keep
working. Only one more story appeared, and that a year and half later.
out of loyalty to Shaw, Nebel continued to bang out four or five
novelettes a year.
Nebel must have been feeling
flush, because in December he bought a new Pierce-Arrow, “relinquishing
roadster.” He loved big cars, and this one filled the bill. He and Shaw
to the dealership to pick up the car, then headed to Joe’s place
for a round of martinis.
That same month, a check from
Fox bounced, and Nebel discovered that a Little, Brown payment was
these and other irregularities he blamed his agents, and vowed to seek
representation. He soon put his work in the hands of Carl Brandt, for
had the greatest respect. He would stay with the Brandt agency for the
Nebel was in New York before
and after the 18th Amendment repealed Prohibition and saw apprehension
speakeasy owners. “I daresay,” he wrote, “that we shall look back upon
with tender, sentimental regrets.” Folks in Richmond City were not so
sentimental, but MacBride noted that even after repeal, bootleggers
outselling the legal suppliers.
Fred and Dorothy spent
Christmas with her family in St. Louis. On New Years Day of 1934 he
“I of course celebrated in the usual manner and added nothing
especially new to
the occasion. I got quite tight and enjoyed myself...”
On January 27 he wrote, “The
James Warner Bellahs stopped by. He had been fencing and there was a
on his cheek. We convened in my bar and I think limericks were
“Joe argued me into doing a story for him and I did one and he said it
best story I had ever given him. I thought it was fair.” Meanwhile, a
reported seeing Fox’s first version of Sleepers East (which
would not be
officially released until April) and deemed it terrible. “It’s no more
your book than I’m like chalk,” the guy said.
Nebel’s journal entries were
becoming steadily less frequent, and the last were made in February.
But Not the End had been sent to movie
studios, and Nebel had high
hopes. He wrote, “I heard that Fox paid Lewis $25,000 for the picture
Work of Art; that Metro paid Hammett $22,500
for The Thin Man.”
Whether the rights to But Not the End ever sold to a studio is
but no film was produced.
In his last journal entry,
Nebel says his agent suggested doing a 17,000 word story for American
Magazine for $2,000, and he agreed to think it over. The fact that
not immediately accept such an offer is a fair indicator that his
Little, Brown published But Not the End in March, and reviews
Sales, however, were down, probably due to the Depression theme.
But Not the End established Nebel as a novelist, and he
found a warm
reception in the slicks, especially Collier’s. At the same
book’s poor sales had shown him there was more sure money in magazine
“I have no ideas for a new novel and don’t propose to look for any for
months,” he wrote. “I shall concentrate on short stories.” Now
between novels, he bore down on his novelettes. But his focus was more
on the higher-paying markets. He made only four Black Mask
in 1934, versus nine in Dime Detective.
“Sleepers East,” released by
Fox in April, starred Wynne Gibson—who made an undistinguished career
playing hardboiled blondes—as the woman pressured to clear a gunman of
murder frame. Preston Foster was Jason Everett, the henpecked man
from his dull life. Also in the cast (though uncredited) was J. Carrol
the unscrupulous private detective.
After several years of coast-hopping, the
Nebels found and renovated a huge 200-year-old farmhouse on four acres
in Ridgefield, Connecticut. This was just where they wanted to be,
from New York, and they would live there for the next twenty-five
After the move to
Connecticut, Nebel and George Harmon Coxe got together several weekends
and Nebel helped convince him to write his first novel. Some of those
included writer and former journalist Thomas Walsh, who also became a
Nebel had not given up on his
aspirations as a novelist. By 1935, the extra money from Dime
had given him enough cushion to support another
lengthy project, and he
tried again to repeat the success of Sleepers East.
Fifty Roads to Town, published 1936, came closer but still
Once again, reviews were good but sales were not. Like Sleepers East,
the novel features a large cast of characters, and like But Not the
it has no crime content.
Two of the major players are
Edwin Henry, a henpecked salesman of fire protection equipment and
sundries, and Peter Nostrand, a man on the run from an aggrieved
Nostrand’s hideout is a secluded cabin the Maine woods, and Henry
hoping to make a sale. When a storm hits, the two are snowbound
of the action takes place either in the cabin or in an ancient hotel
Outpost House, where we find the rest of the characters. These include
county attorney heading the search for Henry, the wronged and sexually
repressed husband, a fun-loving but tenth-rate torch singer, and
of a wife.
When Henry’s disappearance
goes public, reporters descend upon the Outpost House and the search
a circus. The governor gets involved, a famous aviator flies circles
landscape, and a champion sled-dog driver arrives with his team, merely
Compared to Nebel’s first two
novels, Fifty Roads is a fun read, laced with humor and
satire, and it’s
had fun writing it.
In the fourth and final volume of the Richmond City stories, featuring
published between May 1935 and August 1936, we’ll see secondary
assume larger roles, and the introduction of two new regulars. By this
Nebel had come to think of himself as a novelist and wanted to delve
into his characters. This results in longer scenes, and sometimes longer
MacBride’s two best
detectives, Ike Cohen and “Mory” Moriarity, were introduced early in
series, but in the final years their personalities grew stronger,
more comic relief. They’re often found sneaking drinks in the station
matching quarters in the back of the police car, and both spend a lot
in speakeasies. The medical examiner calls them MacBride’s cowboys.
calls them his stooges. MacBride calls them apes or tramps, but trusts
implicitly. “I’ve got two palookas working for me,” he sums them up,
of me first and then the department.”
The new regulars also add to
the comedy. Kennedy’s wacky bartender pal, Paderooski, is always ready
Kennedy an ear, and sometimes other essentials like money or a gun. And
MacBride’s driver, Gahagan, is an all-around dimwit who pays not the
notice to safety or traffic laws, but has an uncanny ability to get
places in a
At this point in the series,
the humor is welcome, because MacBride’s moods have grown increasingly
reaches the lowpoint of his career in “Fan Dance” (January 1936), when
himself suspended. “I ought to have been kicked in the head,” he says,
first day I ever put on a uniform.” Kennedy’s scenes are darker, too.
author and his characters seem to realize Kennedy’s drinking is out of
posing a threat to his health and life.
As the Richmond City series
was nearing its end, Steve MacBride was popping up in other media. 1936
featured in a CBS Radio program called “Meet McBride” (apparently a
deal) and his first movie, Warner Brothers’ “Smart Blonde” The film,
based on the
Black Mask story “No Hard Feelings,” gave
“McBride” a backseat to a
Hollywood-created femme fatale, torch singer Torchy Blane. But it was
successful enough to spark eight sequels, most featuring Glenda Farrell
Torchy and Barton McLane as McBride. Jane Wyman and Allen Jenkins took
roles in one film, Lola Lane and Paul Kelly in another. Nebel received
"based upon" screen credit for the sequels, but none utilized his
Nebel’s chief project in 1936
was a novel-length work called “Nothing to Lose.” This one had more of
pulp-style crackle and speed, and point of view stayed with one
adventurer not unlike Nebel’s pulp heroes. No records survive to show
it was offered to Little, Brown or other publishers, but it did find a
abridged form, in the January 1937 Cosmopolitan.
Nebel devoted himself more
and more to the slicks, and found success in new markets like Liberty,
and Redbook. When Joe Shaw was replaced in late 1936 Nebel took
opportunity to drop out of Black Mask, closing the saga of
after nine years and thirty-seven stories. In mid-1937, after a total
forty-four Cardigan adventures, he left Dime Detective as well.
In April 1937 Dorothy Nebel
gave birth to their first and only child. The boy, Christopher, had
with his lungs and nervous system, but there was nothing wrong with his
He quickly learned to read, and particularly enjoyed his father’s
copies of Fortune
and The Encyclopedia Britannica. At ten, teachers judged him to
reading at the level of a sixteen year old.
In June 1936 Fox released
their version of Fifty Roads to Town, transformed into a
comedy. Don Ameche starred as Nebel’s character Peter Nostrand, but
an adulterer hiding from a murderous husband, he’s a good guy trying to
testifying in a friend’s divorce. Ann Sothern, playing a character not
book, is his romantic interest. Nebel thought the movie was fairly well
though it had little to do to with his novel.
Two more Nebel-based films
were released in 1941. The second adaptation of Sleepers East,
called “Sleepers West,” came out in March, an entry in the Michael
franchise. Lloyd Nolan starred as Shayne—a character who had no
in the book, and instead of running from Chicago to New York, the train
from Chicago to Denver. Nebel found it amusing that they made his book
‘B’ picture both times.
In April, Fox released “A
Shot in the Dark,” a second version of the MacBride and Kennedy story
Feelings.” This one starred William Lundigan as reporter “Pete”
Nan Wynn as torch singer Dixie Wynne and Ricardo Cortez (the screen’s
Spade) as nightclub owner Phil Richards. Fourth billing went to Regis
(in the MacBride role) as Detective Lt. Bill Ryder.
On this and other occasions,
the studios tried to lure Nebel to Hollywood, but he resisted all
had seen too many friends come back broke.
Nebel’s best magazine markets
at this time were Collier’s, Liberty, Good Housekeeping and
Some stories were marginally mysteries, and a few
featured cops or
detectives, but most plots revolved around romance rather than crime.
During the war, he was in
charge of the Ridgefield rationing board. “He was a tough baby,” his
“running it no doubt like Steve MacBride would have—fairly but
equitably.” When a New York steamship magnate wanted his Ridgefield
to protect his antique paneling, she recalled this exchange:
Nebel: “I understand that
paneling of yours dates back to the 1600s.”
Magnate: “That’s right.”
Nebel: “Well, they didn’t
have central heating back then. You’d better not heat that house
might ruin it.”
Nebel did not like looking back at his pulp work. In 1945, he found the
Mask material too dated and rejected Joe Shaw’s suggestion to
submit a paperback
collection to Avon. “I’ve looked over some of those novelettes,” he
agent. “They were published over a dozen years ago and I think we ought
forget about them.” He also refused, much to Shaw’s chagrin, to
included in The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, published in 1946. He did,
suggest that a 50,000
story from McCall’s might interest one of the paperback
outfits. He was
right, and “Weekend to Kill,”
appeared in a Century Mystery digest that same year, combined with Hugh
“Secret Corridors.” Nebel received a $500 advance and a royalty
“Weekend to Kill” does qualify as
a mystery, because one of the main characters is an ex-cop working to
solve a murder.
But it’s really more a play of manners and romantic foibles, using the
is mainly an excuse to create conflict among the characters. There are
echoes of the Richmond City series. The narrator is a reporter, his pal
ex-cop, and there’s talk about a crusading editor striving to expose a
political regime. But the characters are creampuffs compared to Kennedy
MacBride, and the corrupt politicians remain offstage.
In 1948 Nebel had his
best-ever payday. He received $15,000 for the movie rights to “The
story from Cosmopolitan. MGM released the film in 1949,
Taylor, Ava Gardner, Vincent Price and Charles Laughton. Nebel’s
surprised he didn’t travel the fifty miles to the New York premiere,
resolved to wait until it came to their local theater. His mother did
attend the premiere, and phoned to say she enjoyed it, especially the
fishing scene. Nebel’s response was “What deep-sea fishing
When the reprint question arose
again in 1949, Nebel had changed his tune. His high blood pressure had
difficult to produce more than a few stories a year, and revenue was
from any source. Robert Mills, managing editor of Ellery Queen’s
Magazine, requested a collection of Donahue stories for
consideration as a
Mercury Mystery digest, and possible inclusion in EQMM. Nebel
enthusiastic, selecting six Donahue stories for his agent to submit.
At the same time, he put
together a possible collection of MacBride and Kennedy stories,
first, “Raw Law.” He marked up tear sheets from the magazine to make
revisions. One change would have increased Richmond City’s population
“almost a hundred-thousand” to “almost 500 hundred-thousand.” What had
good-sized city in 1928 was much smaller by 1949 standards.
After several months, the
Donahue stories were returned. Frederic Dannay had found them a bit too
for either EQMM or the digest line. The collection went next to
where it sold. The publisher initially planned to call the book The
Mask Murders, but Popular Publications objected. Avon settled on Six
Deadly Dames, a title Nebel didn’t like, for which he received a
advance. The book appeared as a wonderfully lurid paperback in 1950.
With Six Deadly Dames a
reality, Nebel was faced with a decision. He could submit another
collection or switch to Richmond City. “I think we’d better offer the
MacBride-Kennedy series next,” he
told his agent, “and hold back on a second Donahue group. Reason: I’ve
MacBride-Kennedy, enough for four books. If Avon doesn’t want ‘em, then
go elsewhere and throw the second Donahue at Avon.” But by the time the
were submitted, Avon had decided to cut back on story collections,
the trend toward hardboiled novels. They also declined to reprint Sleepers
East and Fifty Roads to Town, which were by no means
Popular Library and Mercury Mysteries also passed on both books. Around
same time, Gold Medal wrote requesting an original mystery novel, but
health would no longer permit such a sustained effort.
Over the next few years
Nebel’s income was augmented by occasional sales of movie and
rights. In 1956, after EQMM and The Saint reprinted
some of his
old stories, he wrote several new ones for EQMM. His agent
squeeze every dime of income out of each story. For “Try It My Way,”
June 1956 EQMM, he got $300 from the magazine, $200 for an
anthology, $1,000 for television rights from CBS, $100 from Japanese
$75 for Danish newspaper rights. The Japanese sale gave him a laugh. He
his wife he’d give “anything” to see their version on TV.
In November 1958 the Nebels
were forced to sell the house in Connecticut. The place had
windows, and every one of them had to go up and down each year. When
blood pressure would no longer permit this they returned to California,
they still had friends. Their son Christopher, then in his twenties,
San Pedro, where he worked at the local branch of the L.A. Library.
Nebel sold his last stories
to EQMM in 1961 and 1962, the magazine that said “Including
Magazine” on its masthead. Though he continued working, his health grew
steadily worse, and he found stories difficult to complete.
The possibility of a
MacBride-Kennedy collection surfaced again in 1966. Sherbourne Press
recently published Ron Goulart’s The Hardboiled Dicks and Frank
Brass Knuckles, reviving interest in detective
pulps. Nebel’s agents
approached Avon about the possibility of reprinting Six Deadly Dames,
and proposed a Richmond City collection. Nebel selected six stories for
book, to be called Too Young to Die. Along with the title
were “Be Your Age,” “He Was a Swell Guy,” “It’s a Gag,” “Crack Down,”
Red.” Avon considered the idea until September, when they
pass on both projects. The
MacBride-Kennedy collection was then submitted to Sherbourne Press, but
some reason never materialized.
Nebel never stopped writing.
At the time of his death, from a cerebral hemorrhage on May 3, 1967, he
outline for new novel, and his typewriter held the first page of a new
Though Nebel had a long and
varied career, his greatest legacy was the saga of Richmond City. To
are about to enter the city limits and fight crime with MacBride and
offer a word of advice.
Hold onto your seat. It’s
going to be a wild ride.