Black Mask Library

Frederick Nebel's MacBride & Kennedy: An Introduction


By Evan Lewis



Preface: For much of the personal information contained herein, I am indebted to the author’s wife, Mrs. Dorothy Nebel. In letters and telephone conversations in the early 1980s, she was extremely gracious in answering my often-nosy questions. Dorothy was an avid reader of her husband’s work, and one of her favorite characters was Captain Steve 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 reprinted.

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 of Richmond City. Both authors excelled in their mastery of the hardboiled style, the depth and humor of their characters, the richness of their settings and the varied scope of their stories. But while Hammett is now a household name, Nebel has been largely relegated to the shadows.

The reason is simple. While Hammett and many of his contemporaries went on to write mystery novels, Nebel stuck to novelettes. As the pulps gave way to paperbacks in the 1950s, the novel became the dominant fictional form, rendering the novelette almost defunct. Black Mask writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, George Harmon 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 collectors.

Nebel was a skilled craftsman who put his own stamp on the hardboiled school of writing. His prose, packed with cracking dialogue and keen characterization, is as fresh today as it was in the 1930s. Over the past year, Altus Press has brought the bulk of his detective writing back into print. Now, at long last, they introduce new legions of readers to his most important body of work—the adventures of Captain Steve MacBride and his pal, reporter Kennedy of the Free Press.

 

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When this series debuted in the September 1928 Black Mask, it was called “The Crimes of Richmond City.” The title was appropriate. This is the story of MacBride and Kennedy, it’s also the story of a city. The series lasted nine years, and from first to 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 most of Richmond County, with Richmond Valley at one end, Richmond Terrace at the other, Richmond Creek in the middle, and joined by Richmond Avenue and Richmond Road. He took the harbor and residential areas of Staten Island and combined them with elements of the Bronx and Manhattan to create his own scaled-down version of New York. Richmond City seemed very real—because to Nebel, it was.

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 November 4, 1903, they were 21 and 18, respectively. The marriage quickly went sour, and two years later Mathilda sued for divorce, receiving full custody. Young Louis, who much preferred the name Fred, grew up in Staten Island without a father until he was ten, when his mother married a restaurateur. When he was twelve, they gave him a half-brother. It was also at age twelve that he recalled meeting, for the only time, his real father. In his years away from the family, the elder Nebel had become a captain on the Staten Island Ferry and a decorated hero of the harbor.

At fifteen, while still in school, Fred worked as a car checker on the wharf front. He would later tell reporters he had spent exactly one day in high school, but this was not the case. Much as he disliked school, he stuck it out until he was seventeen, though he did leave before graduating. Fred’s formal education was cut short when his mother’s uncle, who had a huge homestead near Alberta, Canada, invited him to help out on the farm. Fred’s stepfather offered to stake him to college, but he was 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 them.) In Canada Fred soaked up plenty of North Woods atmosphere, which would later serve him well in the pulps.

By 1925 he was back in New York, now writing full time. His earliest located stories appeared that year, 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 of sorts—Corporal Chet Tyson of the RCMP. For Lariat he created a gunslinger called The Driftin’ Kid. And, most importantly, he broke into Black Mask.

That first Black Mask sale, “The Breaks of the Game,” appeared in March 1926 under the pen name Lewis Nebel. The editor at that time was Phil Cody, and the magazine’s star attractions were Carroll John Daly, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett. Nebel’s story ran only six pages, but was enough to demonstrate his aptitude 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 altering his appearance, but gives himself away with an unconscious shoulder twitch. Had Daly written the story, he would have played up the action at the expense of all else. Gardner would have gone for speed, sacrificing detail. Hammett would have focused on the irony of Shrimp’s capture. Nebel handled all these elements well, but his sharp characterization stole the show.

Nebel’s third-person narration, even in this early effort, is more than tough and tight. It’s also rich, a quality sometimes missing from the work of the others. Almost every 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 issues in search of stories he liked. Impressed with “The Breaks of the Game,” he asked Nebel for more. Shaw’s first issue, in November 1926, featured the Nebel story “Grain to Grain,” about two police detectives—an ex-gangster and an ex-prizefighter—working the New York waterfront.

 In December, Nebel joined a Scandinavian tramp streamer for a three-and-a-half month trip to the Caribbean. He was strictly a passenger on the voyage, but it gave him time to soak up plenty of sea lore and formulate new characters.

In 1927 Nebel made his first “slick” sale, to Elks Magazine, and began his first Black Mask series. Again drawing on his waterfront experience, he created an adventurer named Buck Jason. Unlike Nebel, who was no more than 5’9”, Jason is a whale of a man with eyes that glint like chips of blue steel. Jason appeared in March and April, returning for the last time in August. Meanwhile, Air Stories introduced wisecracking freelance pilots Bill Gales and Mike McGill. The series was an instant hit. With two leads, Nebel was able to inject more witty dialogue and deepen the characters by exploring their friendship. This was a technique he would use to even greater effect in the MacBride and Kennedy series.

Black Mask quickly became one of his major markets, and the 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 experimented with a variety of cops, crooks and detectives, honing his hardboiled style.

Shaw had quickly learned that series characters sold magazines, and to be successful he had to maintain a balance of character types. The lone-wolf private eye spot belonged to Daly’s 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 in the police story.

 Cops were nothing new in Black Mask. The first major police series, from author Francis James, began in October 1922, featuring a Harvard-trained criminologist-turned-cop by the name of Prentice. By the time Shaw took over, Prentice was gone and the magazine’s leading cop was a New York police detective called “Mac,” the creation of Tom Curry. “Mac” appeared off and on for several years without achieving star status.

Nebel’s police series was something new.

 

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“The Crimes of Richmond City,” a sequence of five connected stories, introduced readers to a setting so well realized they could have drawn a map. The city has at least thirteen precincts, a large rail yard and a busy harbor. There are shoe and garment factories, woolen mills, a novelty jewelry business, a dowel factory, a racetrack and sports auditoriums. The many distinct neighborhoods include the theater district, the swank West End, Little Italy, dark and dangerous Jockey Street, and Craig Square, home to many of the speakeasies. Nebel added to the reality with details of the city’s history, even telling us 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 navigable river. Readers must have suspected it was based Richmond, Virginia, because Nebel eventually went out of his way the squelch the idea. When MacBride takes his wife on vacation, touring the “Southern States” in his new flivver, we’re 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, party chiefs, commissioners, aldermen, magistrates, comptrollers, State’s Attorneys, and even mayor are susceptible to graft. But standing above it all is the 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 no stereotype. We see him not merely as a cop, but as a husband, father, friend and lifelong citizen of the town. Just as Richmond City seems a real place, 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 office, MacBride says, “Sharp, that bird. Pulls ideas out of the air, and every idea hits you like a sock on the jaw.”

Like Richmond City, MacBride and Kennedy carry the stamp of authenticity. In developing the characters, 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 the first few years this was MacBride’s show and Kennedy was merely the most important member of the supporting cast. It wasn’t until “Wise Guy” (June 1930), that Nebel began toying with other points of view, and not until “Backwash” (May 1932), halfway into the series, that Kennedy got a scene of his own.

 

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In this opening volume, comprised of stories published between September 1928 and February 1930, we see Richmond City at its most violent. As the series begins, crooked politicians and racketeers have such a stranglehold on the city that MacBride is powerless to act. It’s only when his best detective quits the force to fight fire with fire that the grip is broken, and MacBride can start cleaning up. He does this with a vengeance. We see pitched battles in the streets, usually with MacBride himself leading the charge, and the death toll is high on both sides. The worst offenders are weeded out, but the corruption runs deep, keeping MacBride on the defensive. Things are so bad that the 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 against the high hats and the evening gowns of the city’s great white way. At forty, he’s the youngest captain on the force, and already known as “a holy terror against the criminal element.”

Kennedy sums him up nicely: “The skipper is a big bull-headed mutt. He’s got a one-track mind and he thinks that shield he wears is another kind of bible. It never occurs to him to walk around a tree, he’s got to batter his head against it. To him the law, my friend, is the law: good, bad or indifferent, it’s the law. He carries it out 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. When an acquaintance asks, “How’s every little thing?” he replies, “I let the little 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 rational approach to crimefighting also finds its way into Headquarters. His desk sergeant drinks home-brew on duty and must be warned to wipe the suds off his chin. MacBride himself keeps a bottle of liquor in his desk (often as not confiscated in a raid), and drinks five percent beer with his lunch. And though it gripes him, he puts up with detectives playing poker and craps in the office a vice squad sergeant who runs a horseracing book. The one crime MacBride will 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, “You’re overstepping the law—” MacBride snaps, “I sure am, Morio—I sure am. What this town needs.” When suspects refuse to talk, he doesn’t hesitate to send them to the sweat room, or as he once calls it, “to play kick-the-wicket.” And he’s not above promising a heroin addict a fix in return for ratting out her supplier.

“I’m no master mind,” MacBride says. “I don’t go in for solving riddles. I’m just a cop who tries to 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 instead. “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 the battle, inspiring them with his vigor and spirit. When he gets mad, his safety valve pops and steam roars. As one of his detectives describes it, “MacBride’s 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 with his wife and daughter in a vine-clad bungalow on an elm-shaded street in clean but modest Grove Manor. He owns a shabby Ford, though he usually rides a streetcar to work, and owes three thousand on the house. When the series begins his wife 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 rains, she 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 can make him back off. As a crusader against crime and corruption he is fearless, but an implied 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 busted his next door neighbor’s nose for cheating at marbles. At twenty-two, when he joined the 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 questions afterwards,” but command has mellowed him. A little. As a captain, he usually 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, they shed little light on his history. “My old man was Irish,” he once says, “and mother was a McNulty.” He’s seen corruption before, in San Francisco, Chicago and New Orleans, but whether close up or from afar is not clear. He was once a fairly good amateur boxer, but now gets by solely on his brains and his nerve. His first name, we learn late in the series, is John, with no middle initial. 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 of a mobster and a crooked judge, his reaction is “Oh, boy! Where, oh, where is a telephone? What a scoop!” And though he’s frequently beaten up, he takes it in stride.

He’s at his best when he’s dishing out samples of his cockeyed philosophy. “Work is the curse of the drinking classes,” he proclaims, and “Blessed is the earth, for it shall inherit the meek.” When he says, “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will come back all wet,” the ever-pragmatic MacBride responds, “I can’t stand water. 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 of putting them to door panels.” In one instance, too drunk to walk, he crawls to a house to get a story.

 

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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 is small and slim, with round shoulders and a hollow chest. He looks like “a scarecrow or the shadow of an emaciated tree,” and is so skinny he can take cover behind a lamppost.

MacBride has thick, black, wiry hair, a ruddy-brown face and eyes that could “lacerate a man to the core.” Kennedy has unruly blond hair, a sallow complexion, and “the whimsical eyes of the wicked and the wise.”

MacBride’s clothes are neat, clean and sharply pressed, and his shoes reflect light. Kennedy’s attire is always “haphazard and ill-assembled.” His suits are wrinkled and his topcoats 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, slouches or sways.

MacBride’s words are barked, clipped, bit off or ripped out. Kennedy chuckles, sighs or grins, then speak with dry humor.

Kennedy addresses MacBride as “old tomato,” “old horse,” and “skipperino.” MacBride responds with such 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 man’s sock,” he tells Kennedy. “You start dropping ideas around and me, like a fool, I go picking ‘em up and losing sleep over ‘em.” “You’re a cynical, cold-blooded, snooping, wisecracking example of modern newspaperdom. But, 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 and feared dead, MacBride goes looking, coming back with “his face drawn, dark circles under his eyes.” Seeing Kennedy standing in the station house, “wild joy” leaps to his face. As for Kennedy, while he does not always approve of MacBride’s hardheaded attitude, he genuinely likes him, admitting, “He’s probably the best friend I’ve got.”

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”)

 Sergeant Flannery blundered in, full of news. (from “Graft”)

She cursed and added something relative to his maternity. He trotted her down the stairs. (from “Graft”)

“Listen, lady, pipe down, will you? Give your ears a chance.” (from “Lay Down the Law”)

“Fingerprints don’t walk into a place without fingers.” (from “Too Young to Die”)

“If you know where your alley is—stay up it.” (from “Die-Hard”)

Nebel’s quick wit provides MacBride with a great sense of humor. In “Tough Treatment,” when he advises a hardboiled dame he’s running her into the station, we get the following exchange.

Dame: “You’re sure a pain in the neck, MacBride.”

MacBride: “Try liniment, sister.”

Dame: “Get wise that I’m only taking an overnight bag.”

MacBride: “You get wise and take a trunk.”

This one comes from “Shake-Down”:

Acquaintance: “How’s the gumshoe trade?”

MacBride: “Slow. Not a thing stirring. We’re having day-beds put in Headquarters.”

And this from “Beat the Rap”:

MacBride: “Mr. Bergman, have you ever seen the inside of a Police Headquarters?”

Bergman: “No.”

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.”

 

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In 1928, around the same time the first Richmond City stories were appearing in 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 films, one bearing the story title and the other called “Ships in the Night.” Each featured entirely different casts and characters.

Late that year, Nebel traveled to France, where he planned to share a villa with other writers and artists. This plan went by the wayside when fellow Mask writer Nels Leroy Jorgensen offered to introduce him to some nice American girls. “I can meet them at home,” Nebel replied, “How about some French ones?” But he went, and one of the girls was Dorothy Blank, daughter of a St. Louis department store manager. Nebel was entranced enough to invite her to lunch the following day. And that was that. Dorothy was visiting France with her mother, so Nebel abandoned his villa plans and found a small apartment near their Paris hotel. In the spring, the three traveled to London, where he rented a furnished flat. Fred and Dorothy spent much of the next three weeks touring the English countryside.

When Dorothy and her mother sailed for home, Nebel stayed on for another two months. It’s odd to think of him pounding out hardboiled tales of Richmond City from a London flat, but that’s how it was. He also kept up a stream of stories to other markets. In 1929 alone his work appeared in Action Stories, Air Stories, Argosy, Five Novels Monthly, Flying Stories, North-West Stories, Real Detective Tales, Sea Stories, Wings and Young’s Magazine, along with two slicks, Columbia and Elks Magazine.

Nebel returned to New York in early summer. His chief companions there were Dashiell Hammett and Raoul Whitfield, with whom he did a lot of carousing in bars. One night he and 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 drink, and Nebel slept it off on Hammett’s couch. In the morning, Hammett presented him with an inscribed copy of The Maltese Falcon, a book Nebel kept for the rest of his days. When Nebel left for St. Louis to prepare for his wedding, 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 seems a pity that this should be called a detective story . . . Truly, it is a story about a detective, but it is so much about a detective that he becomes a character, and the sheer force of Hammett’s hard, brittle writing lifts the book out of the general run of crime spasms and places it aloof and alone as a brave 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 markets, and also made his first appearance in Detective Fiction Weekly.

 

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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 new forms of corruption, hell-bent to nip them in the bud. Though he takes heat from other cops—and the commissioner himself—for overstepping his bounds, MacBride is on a crusade. And when his efforts finally earn him a spot at Headquarters, he must face the reality that some of his fellow officers are on the take.

Fred and Dorothy were married in St. Louis on May 12, 1930. St. Louis made its presence known in Nebel’s writing almost immediately. He took a break from MacBride and Kennedy to create detective “Donny” Donahue, an operative of the Interstate Detective Agency, on assignment in St. Louis. Donahue made his debut in the November 1930 Black Mask, appearing four straight issues before MacBride and Kennedy returned, after a seven month hiatus, in March 1931. With the Continental Op all but retired from service, 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 Jorgensen brought flowers, while Hammett brought a funeral wreath. Mrs. Nebel thought her husband looked “comically short” next to Hammett. (Joe Shaw once listed him among his authors who were over six feet tall, but this was meant as a joke.)         One night as Fred and Dorothy were having dinner at a speakeasy, Hammett appeared in a doorway on the far side of the dance floor. Next to him stood a tray of silverware. While the Nebels watched wide-eyed, Hammett scooped up handful after handful of forks, flinging them across the floor, until he was forcibly removed. Hammett had recently returned from Hollywood, and despite being dead broke took a room at the Waldorf, throwing parties and running up a bill. Eventually Nebel and other friends had to chip in and bail him out.

Nebel provided Black Mask with a dozen stories in 1931—a personal record. That total included four MacBride and Kennedy novelettes, four Donahues and four non-series tales. Two of the stand-alones, published in the same issues as Richmond City stories, appeared under the pen name Grimes Hill (“I was born at the foot of Grimes Hill,” he explained).  In addition to a full slate of adventure stories, he made two more appearances in Detective Fiction Weekly, and began two new mystery series.

For Detective Action Stories he created Inspector Peter Larsen—a character much like Steve MacBride. Larsen battles crime with his likeable but less bright subordinate, Sergeant Brinkhaus, in the fictional city of Portsend, a doppelganger of Richmond City.

In Dime Detective Nebel introduced Cardigan, an agency operative in the mold of Donahue. When the series begins, Cardigan is heading up the St. Louis branch of the Cosmos Detective Agency. Like Donahue, he works best alone, but sometimes teams up with a smart-mouthed female operative named Pat Seaward. Unlike Donahue, who normally works well with the police, Cardigan has more of an adversarial relationship. It would have been interesting to see him butt heads with the equally tough Steve MacBride.

In 1932 Nebel got a taste of better money, selling a story to the Saturday Evening Post for $1,700. This was big stuff, seeing that his Black Mask and Dime stories brought in between $200 and $270 each. Deciding it was time to write a novel, Nebel abandoned his adventure markets in July and cut back his detective 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 1932, in which a large and varied cast of characters are thrown together in a limited space (in Nebel’s case an eastbound train) to impact each others’ lives.

 Sleepers East is not a mystery novel, but the crime element is prominent because five of the twelve main characters are on their way to an upcoming murder trial. Among them are a lawyer defending a notorious mobster, a dirty private dick and an inept railroad detective. But there’s no whodunit here, no crime committed on the train, and very little violence. Most of the conflict revolves around personal aspirations, political problems and romantic entanglements.

 With a dozen point of view characters, it’s hard to pick a protagonist, but the guy who starts and finishes the novel is a henpecked husband trying to leave his boring life behind. He fails, but feels richer for this brief taste of freedom. Another character gets her first taste of happiness and pays for it with her 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 her life. One is forced to see the ugly truth about himself, while another faces the ugly truth about someone else.

 MacBride and Kennedy took a 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 take the lead in three stories. And Cardigan, now working out of New York City, topped 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 kept a journal.

 On an average day he’d rise early, fix his own breakfast and take a walk into town, which he called “the village,” visiting the post office to pick up mail. He’d begin writing around 10:30, break for lunch, and sometimes read or take a short nap. He’d then work a couple more hours before dinner. When up against a deadline he’d stay at his desk longer and sometimes return late in the evening. His output fluctuated 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 mentioned by name in the journal, the Donahue novelette “Save Your Tears,” is a good example. Work got underway slowly on January 21. On the 22nd he worked in spurts, and felt the story moved along pretty well. That evening he had a guest and “drank more than I should have,” for which he blamed a mediocre 1,000 words on the 23rd. He progressed fairly well on the 24th, and turned out 3,000 words (“a good day”) on the 25th. On the 26th he worked until 5:30, finishing, 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. He received an advance of $250 and royalties on a sliding scale, retaining all motion picture and dramatic rights. The novel was immediately sent to Twentieth Century Fox for consideration. Their lack of response nettled Nebel until April, when Paramount expressed interest and Fox finally got off the dime, buying the film rights for $5,000.

 

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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 note. Rather than combating large scale corruption, MacBride and Kennedy apply their talents to murder cases, often involving old friends. This group also includes “Bad News” (March 1934), in which MacBride is away on vacation and Kennedy takes the lead for the first time. This story, as you might expect, is the most comedic of the entire saga.

With the series in its fifth year, Steve MacBride begins to feel his age. He gets more and more frustrated with the job, particularly when men he considers friends don’t support his actions. “It just breaks my heart with gratitude,” he says. “Some fine day I’m going to start out and systematically change the shapes of a lot of schnozzles in this man’s town.” And, “The longer I work at this job, the more I think I should have taken up farming.” He’s tired of the long, irregular hours, and 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 either drunk or slightly drunk. His actions become more erratic, and he’s played for slapstick, tumbling out of taxicabs and getting caught in revolving doors. More 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. Among the many books and articles he noted reading in 1933 were A High Wind in Jamaica (which impressed him greatly), The Craft of Writing by Percy Lubbock, a Fortune article about the rolling of Cuban cigars, Sinclair Lewis’ Ann Vickers, Zola’s Nana, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, a Fortune article about the history of the banana monopoly in the Caribbean, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Cities of Sin (a record of prostitution in the Orient which he called “a fair piece of erotica, of no importance whatever”), H.E. Wortham’s Chinese Gordon, an unnamed book by Gertrude Stein (“most times she irritates me, at other times I find myself intensely interested”), W.R. Burnett’s Dark Hazard,  and Somerset Maugham’s Moon & Sixpence (Nebel had a collection of Maugham’s first editions).

While living in California, Nebel bought a Smith & Wesson .38 and sometimes went shooting with friends, many of whom were other writers. Though he refers to most by only first names or initials, one he identifies is pulp writer (and future screenwriter) Eric Taylor. During this period Nebel also paid a visit to Erle Stanley Gardner, 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 detective tales at the same time. While the slicks paid more, he was not yet ready to abandon the pulps. Shaw and Dime Detective editor Harry Steeger had become close personal friends, and he felt a certain loyalty. Equally important, those sales were a sure thing, proving a steady income while he sought a solid footing in the higher paying markets.

To free more time for the new novel (one he would eventually set aside), Nebel began churning out the pulp stories faster than ever, and the rush jobs did not go unnoticed. In March, Shaw asked him to revise the beginning of his latest novelette. This was the first time in two years Shaw had asked him for a revision, and he complied, but it cost him two and half work days. When Shaw requested another revision in April, Nebel refused, noting, “I honestly did not agree with his point of view, and told him so.” Meanwhile, because Dime had just begun a twice-monthly schedule, Steeger wanted two stories a month instead of one—more than Nebel could provide. Later that month Doubleday’s Crime Club requested a full-length mystery novel. This idea apparently fell by the wayside, because it was not mentioned again.

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, and he was pleased. “I really feel that I am getting somewhere,” he wrote. “Joe gave me a big spread on the current issue of his magazine, and continues to be one 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 did so again in 1933. In New York, Nebel had dinner and cruised the bars with Nels Jorgensen, then headed for Scarsdale, where he and Shaw played golf, both pretty badly. He attended a cocktail party at Raoul Whitfield’s place, which he termed “a menage in the upper east Eighties,” and saw Hammett, who told him Cosmopolitan and Collier’s had turned down an abridgement of his new novel, and “admitted his shorts in Collier’s were lousy.” (The novel Hammett referred to was The Thin Man, which was finally accepted by Redbook and published in hardcover the following January. After reading it, Nebel wrote, “I 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 third printing, and he was unable to get any more firsts. The book received a good review from Time, calling it better than Grand Hotel, and it was number two on the bestseller list, behind Anthony Adverse. Critics praised the crisp dialogue and fast-moving story. 

Nebel felt that his photograph accompanying the review in the Saturday Evening Post made him look “dark and forbidding.” He did look stern and serious in that often-used picture, but he actually had a great sense of humor. As a storyteller, he was in great demand at parties, and was a talented mimic. Attending a Laguna New Years Eve party as Groucho Marx, he was nearly thrown out for his antics with the ladies. And he once dressed as Adolf Hitler, goosestepping and sieg heiling for a camera.

 While in New York, having abandoned the novel he’d been working on since February, he started a new one, which would eventually become But Not the End. He planned to spend the next month or six weeks on the novel, “unless it knots up and an idea for a 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 visit and get his copy of Sleepers East autographed. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. That fall, he spent the night with Coxe and his wife on Cape Cod, where Coxe was eager to talk shop. Nebel encouraged him to submit his work to Shaw, resulting in the addition of Flashgun Casey to the cast of Black Mask.

In November WABC bought the rights to broadcast one of the MacBride and Kennedy stories, “Lay Down the Law.” When the show was broadcast in December, Nebel wrote, “Joe is a little disgruntled . . . they did not give credit to his magazine.”

Nebel worked on his new novel almost exclusively between July and October, averaging a thousand words a day. His working title “Beginning Again” would go through several name changes, including “Crash and Resound” and “Bridges to Burn” before finally becoming But Not the End. Little, Brown accepted the novel in November, though two of 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 prose. But because it’s set during the Great Depression, most of its characters are depressed, making it a largely depressing read.

The primary point-of-view character, an investment broker, faces financial ruin and watches helplessly as his partner and several clients commit suicide. His nymphomaniac wife is having her sixth not-so-clandestine affair, and his daughter is about to marry a daredevil flyer. A once-rich immigrant is forced to accept a menial job and is ashamed to return home in disgrace. A champion prizefighter loses his title, his career and half his vision. Those who deserve a second chance at happiness are rewarded in the end, while those who don’t are lost beyond redemption.

But Not the End paid one unexpected bonus. In the thirteen issues of Dime Detective published between October 1933 and March 1934, Nebel had only three stories. Harry Steeger wanted Cardigan back so badly that he bumped Nebel’s rate to four cents a word, bringing complaints from other writers. Shaw would no doubt have offered Nebel a higher rate too, but his publishers were trying to economize.

With Cardigan bringing in twice as much as Donahue, it would have been bad business to keep Donahue working. Only one more story appeared, and that a year and half later. Still, out of loyalty to Shaw, Nebel continued to bang out four or five Richmond City novelettes a year.

Nebel must have been feeling flush, because in December he bought a new Pierce-Arrow, “relinquishing the old roadster.” He loved big cars, and this one filled the bill. He and Shaw taxied 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 overdue. For these and other irregularities he blamed his agents, and vowed to seek new representation. He soon put his work in the hands of Carl Brandt, for whom he had the greatest respect. He would stay with the Brandt agency for the rest of his career.

Nebel was in New York before and after the 18th Amendment repealed Prohibition and saw apprehension among speakeasy owners. “I daresay,” he wrote, “that we shall look back upon speakies with tender, sentimental regrets.” Folks in Richmond City were not so sentimental, but MacBride noted that even after repeal, bootleggers were far outselling the legal suppliers.

Fred and Dorothy spent Christmas with her family in St. Louis. On New Years Day of 1934 he reported, “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 small cut on his cheek. We convened in my bar and I think limericks were popular.” And, “Joe argued me into doing a story for him and I did one and he said it was the best story I had ever given him. I thought it was fair.” Meanwhile, a friend 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 like 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. Galleys of 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 rights to 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 unknown, 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 he would not immediately accept such an offer is a fair indicator that his spirits were flying high.

 

Black Mask


Little, Brown published But Not the End in March, and reviews were good. 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 time, the book’s poor sales had shown him there was more sure money in magazine stories. “I have no ideas for a new novel and don’t propose to look for any for several months,” he wrote. “I shall concentrate on short stories.” Now officially between novels, he bore down on his novelettes. But his focus was more and more on the higher-paying markets. He made only four Black Mask appearances in 1934, versus nine in Dime Detective.

“Sleepers East,” released by Fox in April, starred Wynne Gibson—who made an undistinguished career of playing hardboiled blondes—as the woman pressured to clear a gunman of a murder frame. Preston Foster was Jason Everett, the henpecked man running away from his dull life. Also in the cast (though uncredited) was J. Carrol Naish as the unscrupulous private detective.

After several years of coast-hopping, the Nebels found and renovated a huge 200-year-old farmhouse on four acres of land in Ridgefield, Connecticut. This was just where they wanted to be, fifty miles from New York, and they would live there for the next twenty-five years.

After the move to Connecticut, Nebel and George Harmon Coxe got together several weekends a year, and Nebel helped convince him to write his first novel. Some of those weekends included writer and former journalist Thomas Walsh, who also became a close friend.

Nebel had not given up on his aspirations as a novelist. By 1935, the extra money from Dime and Collier’s 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 fell short. 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 End it has no crime content.

Two of the major players are Edwin Henry, a henpecked salesman of fire protection equipment and assorted sundries, and Peter Nostrand, a man on the run from an aggrieved husband. Nostrand’s hideout is a secluded cabin the Maine woods, and Henry blunders in, hoping to make a sale. When a storm hits, the two are snowbound together. Most of the action takes place either in the cabin or in an ancient hotel called the Outpost House, where we find the rest of the characters. These include the county attorney heading the search for Henry, the wronged and sexually repressed husband, a fun-loving but tenth-rate torch singer, and Henry’s harpy of a wife.

When Henry’s disappearance goes public, reporters descend upon the Outpost House and the search turns into a circus. The governor gets involved, a famous aviator flies circles over the landscape, and a champion sled-dog driver arrives with his team, merely to get drunk.

Compared to Nebel’s first two novels, Fifty Roads is a fun read, laced with humor and satire, and it’s obvious Nebel had fun writing it.

 

Black Mask


In the fourth and final volume of the Richmond City stories, featuring stories published between May 1935 and August 1936, we’ll see secondary characters assume larger roles, and the introduction of two new regulars. By this time Nebel had come to think of himself as a novelist and wanted to delve deeper into his characters. This results in longer scenes, and sometimes longer stories.

MacBride’s two best detectives, Ike Cohen and “Mory” Moriarity, were introduced early in the series, but in the final years their personalities grew stronger, providing more comic relief. They’re often found sneaking drinks in the station or matching quarters in the back of the police car, and both spend a lot of time in speakeasies. The medical examiner calls them MacBride’s cowboys. Kennedy calls them his stooges. MacBride calls them apes or tramps, but trusts them implicitly. “I’ve got two palookas working for me,” he sums them up, “who think of me first and then the department.”

The new regulars also add to the comedy. Kennedy’s wacky bartender pal, Paderooski, is always ready to lend 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 slightest notice to safety or traffic laws, but has an uncanny ability to get places in a hurry.

At this point in the series, the humor is welcome, because MacBride’s moods have grown increasingly dark. He reaches the lowpoint of his career in “Fan Dance” (January 1936), when he finds himself suspended. “I ought to have been kicked in the head,” he says, “the first day I ever put on a uniform.” Kennedy’s scenes are darker, too. Both the author and his characters seem to realize Kennedy’s drinking is out of control, 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 saw him featured in a CBS Radio program called “Meet McBride” (apparently a one-shot 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 as Torchy and Barton McLane as McBride. Jane Wyman and Allen Jenkins took the roles in one film, Lola Lane and Paul Kelly in another. Nebel received "based upon" screen credit for the sequels, but none utilized his stories.    

Nebel’s chief project in 1936 was a novel-length work called “Nothing to Lose.” This one had more of his pulp-style crackle and speed, and point of view stayed with one character, an adventurer not unlike Nebel’s pulp heroes. No records survive to show whether it was offered to Little, Brown or other publishers, but it did find a home, in abridged form, in the January 1937 Cosmopolitan.

Nebel devoted himself more and more to the slicks, and found success in new markets like Liberty, Maclean’s and Redbook. When Joe Shaw was replaced in late 1936 Nebel took the opportunity to drop out of Black Mask, closing the saga of Richmond City after nine years and thirty-seven stories. In mid-1937, after a total of 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 trouble with his lungs and nervous system, but there was nothing wrong with his mind. He quickly learned to read, and particularly enjoyed his father’s copies of Fortune and The Encyclopedia Britannica. At ten, teachers judged him to be reading at the level of a sixteen year old. 

In June 1936 Fox released their version of Fifty Roads to Town, transformed into a romantic comedy. Don Ameche starred as Nebel’s character Peter Nostrand, but rather than an adulterer hiding from a murderous husband, he’s a good guy trying to avoid testifying in a friend’s divorce. Ann Sothern, playing a character not in the book, is his romantic interest. Nebel thought the movie was fairly well done, 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, now called “Sleepers West,” came out in March, an entry in the Michael Shayne franchise. Lloyd Nolan starred as Shayne—a character who had no parallel in the book, and instead of running from Chicago to New York, the train went from Chicago to Denver. Nebel found it amusing that they made his book into a ‘B’ picture both times.

In April, Fox released “A Shot in the Dark,” a second version of the MacBride and Kennedy story “No Hard Feelings.” This one starred William Lundigan as reporter “Pete” Kennedy, with Nan Wynn as torch singer Dixie Wynne and Ricardo Cortez (the screen’s first Sam Spade) as nightclub owner Phil Richards. Fourth billing went to Regis Toomey (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 offers. He had seen too many friends come back broke.

Nebel’s best magazine markets at this time were Collier’s, Liberty, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan. 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 wife said, “running it no doubt like Steve MacBride would have—fairly but equitably.” When a New York steamship magnate wanted his Ridgefield home heated 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 or you might ruin it.”

 

Black Mask


Nebel did not like looking back at his pulp work. In 1945, he found the Black 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 wrote his agent. “They were published over a dozen years ago and I think we ought to forget about them.”   He also refused, much to Shaw’s chagrin, to be included in The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, published in 1946. He did, however, suggest that a 50,000 word 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 Pentacost’s “Secret Corridors.” Nebel received a $500 advance and a royalty agreement.

“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 murder is mainly an excuse to create conflict among the characters. There are faint echoes of the Richmond City series. The narrator is a reporter, his pal an ex-cop, and there’s talk about a crusading editor striving to expose a corrupt political regime. But the characters are creampuffs compared to Kennedy and 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 Bribe,” a story from Cosmopolitan. MGM released the film in 1949, featuring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Vincent Price and Charles Laughton. Nebel’s neighbors were surprised he didn’t travel the fifty miles to the New York premiere, but he 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 deep-sea fishing scene. Nebel’s response was “What deep-sea fishing scene?”

When the reprint question arose again in 1949, Nebel had changed his tune. His high blood pressure had made it difficult to produce more than a few stories a year, and revenue was welcome from any source. Robert Mills, managing editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, requested a collection of Donahue stories for consideration as a Mercury Mystery digest, and possible inclusion in EQMM. Nebel was 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, including the first, “Raw Law.” He marked up tear sheets from the magazine to make minor revisions. One change would have increased Richmond City’s population from “almost a hundred-thousand” to “almost 500 hundred-thousand.” What had seemed a 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 dated for either EQMM or the digest line. The collection went next to Avon, where it sold. The publisher initially planned to call the book The Black Mask Murders, but Popular Publications objected. Avon settled on Six Deadly Dames, a title Nebel didn’t like, for which he received a $500 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 Donahue 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 got more MacBride-Kennedy, enough for four books. If Avon doesn’t want ‘em, then we can go elsewhere and throw the second Donahue at Avon.” But by the time the stories were submitted, Avon had decided to cut back on story collections, following the trend toward hardboiled novels. They also declined to reprint Sleepers East and Fifty Roads to Town, which were by no means hardboiled. Popular Library and Mercury Mysteries also passed on both books. Around the same time, Gold Medal wrote requesting an original mystery novel, but Nebel’s 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 television rights. In 1956, after EQMM and The Saint reprinted some of his old stories, he wrote several new ones for EQMM. His agent helped squeeze every dime of income out of each story. For “Try It My Way,” from the June 1956 EQMM, he got $300 from the magazine, $200 for an Ellery Queen anthology, $1,000 for television rights from CBS, $100 from Japanese TV, and $75 for Danish newspaper rights. The Japanese sale gave him a laugh. He told 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 thirty-three storm windows, and every one of them had to go up and down each year. When Fred’s blood pressure would no longer permit this they returned to California, where they still had friends. Their son Christopher, then in his twenties, lived in 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 Black Mask 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 had recently published Ron Goulart’s The Hardboiled Dicks and Frank Gruber’s 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 the book, to be called Too Young to Die. Along with the title story, they were “Be Your Age,” “He Was a Swell Guy,” “It’s a Gag,” “Crack Down,” and “Deep Red.” Avon considered the idea until September, when they pass on both projects. The MacBride-Kennedy collection was then submitted to Sherbourne Press, but for some reason never materialized.

Nebel never stopped writing. At the time of his death, from a cerebral hemorrhage on May 3, 1967, he had an outline for new novel, and his typewriter held the first page of a new mystery.

Though Nebel had a long and varied career, his greatest legacy was the saga of Richmond City. To you who are about to enter the city limits and fight crime with MacBride and Kennedy, I offer a word of advice.

Hold onto your seat. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Black Mask