Black Mask was a pulp magazine launched in April 1920 by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan to support the loss-making but prestigious literary magazine Smart Set. Mencken was a well-known literary journalist and sometime poet; Nathan a drama critic. They had been financially successful with another pulp money spinner of theirs called Parisienne, which itself had been followed by an erotic stablemate called Saucy Stories. Keeping Smart Set solvent was always their priority, and there had initially been plans to follow up Saucy Stories with an all-Negro pulp.
These plans were scrapped in favor of Black Mask. It was a purely commercial venture, in direct contrast to Smart Set, and its first issue was not even devoted exclusively to crime. In an open attempt to cater to as wide a readership as possible, Black Mask initially offered “Five magazines in one: the best stories available of adventure, the best mystery and detective stories, the best romances, the best love stories, and the best stories of the occult.” The few pages devoted to detective stories offered little that was special. It was all standard, English-influenced mystery.
Despite the poor quality of Black Mask’s early issues, Mencken and Nathan quickly made a return on their initial $500 investment. Eight issues after its successful launch, they sold the magazine to its publishers Eltinge Warner and Eugene Crow for $12,500. After their departure, Black Mask was colonized by a new school of tough crime writers, under the direction of an imaginative and inspired new editor, “Cap” Joseph Shaw.
Shaw was an unsuccessful adventure story writer who was appointed editor of Black Mask in 1926. Through nepotistic contacts in New York, he was placed in charge of a magazine with which he said he “had not even a bowling acquaintance.” He nevertheless approached his task with vocational verve. His editorial agenda demanded clarity and plausibility. He once said, “We always held that a good story is where you find it regardless of author fame or medium of publication. It has been said that with proper materials available, a good mouse trap can be built anywhere.”
Shaw often wrote editorials for the magazine on subjects such as the jury system and gun control. He believed strongly in the moral responsibility of crime fiction. Specifically, he believed that crime fiction could promote the ideal of justice on the increasingly lawless streets of America. It could show criminals for the spineless villains they were, and restore the tarnished image of law enforcement.
The reason so many of Black Mask’s fictional law enforcers were private detectives rather than policemen was more than partly due to a growing public distrust of the police.
Although it was Shaw who nurtured the realistic detective element of Black Mask, it had been before his 10-year tenure, in the issue of May 15, 1923, that the magazine had published what is considered to be the first ever tough private detective story: “Three Gun Terry” by Carroll John Daly.
I have a little office which says ‘Terry Mack, Private Investigator,’ on the door; which means whatever you wish to think it. I ain’t a crook, and I ain’t a dick. I play the game on the level, in my own way.”
Daly followed Terry Mack with a detective called Race Williams and it was this violent and wisecracking character who really set up the prototype for the hard boiled sleuth. The detective stories appearing in Black Mask grew more violent, the style harder, the dialogue blacker, and the wit dryer.
Under Shaw, this crude but immediately successful type of story was made a priority. He spent a week reading through Black Mask back issues. He decided that the best writers were those producing detective stories and, as a result, decided to drop most of the rest. He outlined his plans for Black Mask in a 1927 editorial. “Detective fiction as we see it has only commenced to be developed. All other fields have been worked and overworked, but detective fiction has barely been scratched.”
By December 1933, the magazine was publishing nothing but crime stories, and its national circulation had risen from 66,000, when Shaw had taken over, to 103,000. The cover price was 20 cents.
The focus of inspiration for Shaw—his writers—and the readers who backed this new-look Black Mask was Dashiell Hammett. He alone seemed to have first realized the full potential of hard boiled detective fiction beyond its gunslinging appeal. As an ex-Pinkerton detective turned self-taught writer, Hammett was uniquely qualified to give his characters the three dimensions of which other writers of the tough detective story were largely incapable.
Hammett’s first story in Black Mask was “The Road Home,” published in December 1922 under name Peter Collinson. In the December 15, 1923, issue, Erle Stanley Gardner’s first story “The Shrieking Skeleton,” appeared under the pen name Charles M. Green. “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” was Raymond Chandler’s first story, published in 1933.