Paul Cain: An Introduction

Coleman said: “Eight ball in the corner.”

There was soft click of ball against ball and then sharper click as the black ball dropped into the pocket Coleman had called.

— Paul Cain, “Murder Done in Blue”

Paul Cain in 1932

Paul Cain in 1932

Somebody always takes it about as far as it’ll go, and no one took the hard-boiled farther than Paul Cain. Cain’s entire contribution to the genre—a slim novel and 14 stories, some of which haven’t seen print since the 1930s—is now presented in this volume.

Raymond Chandler tagged Cain’s only novel, Fast One (1933), as “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.” They use that as a blurb; to my mind, those qualifications—“some kind,” “ultra”—reek of anxiety. Stacked pound-for-pound against Cain’s lean and war-hardened antihero Gerry Kells, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe comes off like a flabby, eccentric chatterbox—more Sydney Greenstreet than Humphrey Bogart.

The novel’s title says it all: Fast One. Some have called it A Fast One or The Fast One, but that’s not it. There’s neither need nor time for articles. Someone or something, in the singular, is fast. Fast and singular. And the chase is on:

Kells walked north on Spring. At Fifth he turned west, walked two blocks, turned into a small cigar store. He nodded to the squat bald man behind the counter and went on through the ground-glass-paneled door into a large and bare back room.

There’s so much momentum in those first lines—so little besides movement—that the reader can hardly keep up, much less take a pause. A pause might raise some questions. Just how does Kells get through that ground-glass-paneled door? Does he open it? Bust right through it? Roll through it as if it didn’t exist? But, of course, the door doesn’t exist. Cain’s language is stripped so bare it’s hardly referential. That’s the central paradox of the hard-boiled style: For all its reputed hardness, the universe it conjures is eerily immaterial—verbal, not substantive. Hard-boiled protagonists throw punches indefatigably, get blackjacked unconscious at the end of one chapter only to emerge with a slight headache at the start of the next, and keep moving to the last.

Cain’s characters aren’t people, they’re billiard balls, propelled by an initial push and colliding till they’re all sunk—“One, Two, Three,” as the title of one of his stories has it. Fast One’s first chapter, which starts with Kells rolling down Spring in downtown L.A., set to spark a gang war, ends with a kind of carom shot involving a gambler named Jake Rose and a pint-sized triggerman:

Rose came around the desk and took the automatic out of Kells’ belt, held it by the barrel and swung it swiftly back and then forward at Kells’ head. Kells moved his hand enough to take most of the butt of the automatic on his knuckles, and bent his knees and grabbed Rose’s arm. Then he fell backwards, pulled Rose down with him.

The little man came into the room quickly and kicked the side of Kells’ head very hard. Kells relaxed his grip on Rose and Rose stood up, brushed himself off and went over and kicked Kells very carefully, drawing his foot back and aiming, and then kicking very accurately and hard.

The kitten jumped off the desk and went to Kells’ bloody head and sniffed delicately. Kells could feel the kitten’s warm breath. Then everything got dark and he couldn’t feel anything any more.

That kitten is a nice touch. Sniffing, “delicately,” at a not-quite-dead piece of meat. Just another animal, drawn to a meal.

It’s hard to believe that the first installment of Fast One, which debuted in the March 1932 issue of Black Mask, is Cain’s first appearance in print. He hit the ground running. The novel sets the pace for Cain’s other stories, while Kells sets the mold for their protagonists: obdurate plug-uglies or clever machers, such as the titular narrator of “Black” (May 1932); or Red, who narrates “Parlor Trick” (July 1932) and “Trouble-Chaser” (April 1934); or “St. Nick” Green of “Pineapple” (March 1936). Black, Red, Green—beautifully rendered abstractions careening across the flat surface of Cain’s prose.

Cain got his break thanks to Captain Joseph T. Shaw. In 1926, Shaw took the helm of what was then called The Black Mask magazine, a matrix for the hard-boiled style. (One of Shaw’s first acts as editor was dropping the “The” from the magazine’s title.) Twelve of the 14 hard-boiled stories reprinted in this volume first appeared in Black Mask, along with the five stories that were eventually sutured together as Fast One. Shaw’s previous star contributor, Dashiell Hammett, left the magazine in 1931, the year Cain arrived. Shaw himself was forced out by the publisher in 1936, the year Cain’s last story appeared in the magazine. Cain wasn’t just Hammett’s successor, to Shaw’s mind: “in the matter of grim hardness,” he wrote, Cain was Hammett’s superior. “Dash paused on the threshold, [Cain] went all the way.” [1]

Whatever Shaw meant by “grim hardness,” it isn’t to everyone’s taste. An earlier edition of Cain’s stories from Centipede Press carried brief, perceptive introductions by leading names in crime writing, including Ed Gorman, Joe Gores, Edward D. Hoch, John Lutz, and Bill Pronzini. Most of the commentators were duly reverential, but some couldn’t hide their qualms. While Robert Randisi noted that Cain’s work is “[b]etter than most” of the Black Mask set, he still ranked it “a notch or two below that of Chandler and Hammett.” As Gorman put it, “[t]here is in Hammett a great sorrow and in Chandler great melancholy. Not a trace of either appears in Cain.”

What Gorman mourns is the absence of an emotional load. But that lack is only the symptom of a profounder vacancy. Hammett was an inveterate lefty, and used the Continental Op to lance capitalism’s Poisonvilles, while Chandler, who admits to having learned “American just like a foreign language,” forever remained an outraged public school boy, pinning his hopes for civilization on a medieval knight in a powder-blue suit. One red and the other reactionary, both Hammett and Chandler harbored strong convictions—convictions expressed, whether intentionally or not, through their chosen genre. Not so with Cain, who seems to have been free of any such burden. The main thing his work expresses is the genre itself, in all its inexorable but essentially meaningless logic. He’s the oracle at Black Mask, huffing the fumes of Capt. Shaw’s cigars and delivering an almost unmediated vision of the hard-boiled as such.

In “Back in the Old Black Mask” (1987), the writer and historian William Brandon, who cut his teeth at Shaw’s “rough paper,” recalled his early mentor’s thoughts on “objective writing”:

Objectivity was part of what Shaw meant by style—a clean page, a clean line, an uncluttered phrase. I remember him showing me a couple of lines in a manuscript of Raymond Chandler’s, something such as, “I looked into the fire and smoked a cigarette. Then I went to bed.” This was the key line of the story, Shaw said. In those few minutes watching the fire the protagonist thought the problem through and reached his tough decision. You weren’t told that but you knew it. The line was clean, the effect was subtle but strong. Objective writing was good hard prose as against the spongy prose of subjectivity. [2]

One senses that Shaw’s proclamation isn’t simply an older writer’s attempt to provoke or mystify a starry-eyed tyro. The line may or may not be pivotal for Chandler’s story, but it certainly provides a key to Shaw’s notion of storytelling. Rudimentary and drained of character, these two sentences report nothing but action that’s only implicitly, if at all, related to the plot. Brandon recalls another of Shaw’s edicts, more telling than the first:

A letter from Hammett, Shaw said one day, had included the line, “I can make a better wall with the same bricks now than I could make a year ago.” Shaw was much taken by the image of the wall and referred to it again and again. “It’s the wall itself that counts for the writer,” he said, “not what it closes in or out—that’s for the critics to mull over. The writer’s business is just making the best wall he can.” [3]

Although Shaw insisted in the March 1931 issue of Black Mask that the magazine’s contents reflected his readership’s distinctly modern morality, which opposed “unfairness, trickery, injustice, cowardly underhandedness” and stood “for a square deal and a fair show in little or big things,” his shoptalk with Brandon exposes him as something of a doctrinaire formalist. [4] And despite their formal mastery, neither Hammett nor Chandler could quite force themselves to build a wall without considering what lies on either side of it. Cain, on the other hand, was ideally suited to the job. His spare vocabulary, skeletal syntax, and relentless action do more than realize Shaw’s ideal—they brazenly bare the genre’s devices, leaving readers like Gorman vaguely disconcerted and hungry for substance. This isn’t to say that Cain had nothing new to offer: His protagonists—gangsters, gamblers, and addicts—are some of the first true antiheroes in the hard-boiled tradition. But this, too, only takes the device of the ambiguously or unconventionally moral detective hero to its logical conclusion, demonstrating that the genre’s animating feature is action, not character. As Irvin Faust writes in the afterword to a 1978 reprint of Fast One, “the pace takes over, is itself a major character, perhaps the major character, and it controls the book.” [5] Cain doesn’t merely stick to Black Mask’s reduced palette; his Blacks, Reds, and Greens constantly call attention to its elemental makeup. One risk of this approach, of course, is painting oneself into a corner. Cain “went all the way,” alright—and dropped into the pocket Shaw had called.

All the same, within the confines of his genre, Cain’s work is remarkably diverse. For a virtuoso, self-imposed limitations can be assistive, even liberating—and Cain was nothing if not virtuosic. He did with the hard-boiled manner what Paganini had done with a single string.

Fast One and the Black Mask tales from which it originated—“Fast One” (March 1932), “Lead Party” (April 1932), “Velvet” (June 1932), “The Heat” (August 1932), and “The Dark” (September 1932)—represent the summit of “grim hardness,” a third-person minimalism that realizes its own implosive potential. But Cain continued to experiment in this vein. “Murder Done in Blue” (June 1933), for instance, puts his ingenuity with the third-person perspective on full display. The story’s structure is cinematic, opening with close ups of three apparently unconnected murders before anchoring us to the protagonist who’ll connect the dots, ex-studio stuntman Johnny Doolin. Cain toys with our expectations, inviting us to an intimate dinner scene at Doolin’s kitchenette, but denying us true access:

A rather pretty fresh-faced girl was stirring something in a white saucepan on the little gas stove. She looked up and smiled and said: “Dinner’ll be ready in a minute,” wiped her hands on her apron and began setting the table. …

She was twenty-three or -four, a honey-blonde pink-cheeked girl with wide gray eyes, a slender well-curved figure.

Doolin went to her and kissed the back of her neck.

The girl of indeterminate age is Doolin’s wife; the “something” in the saucepan is dinner. We get no help from Cain.

On closer inspection, however, Cain’s stories feature a complexity of characterization beyond what one expects from his style. His protagonists may, at some level, be abstractions, but they could not function if they lacked depth. They individuate in subtle ways, especially in the first-person narratives. Black, who’s as tough as they come, radiates just enough warmth, by way of humor, to suggest a hint of vulnerability:

It was dark there, there wasn’t anyone on the street—I could have walked away. I started to walk away and then the sucker instinct got the best of me and I went back and bent over him.

I shook him and said: “Come on, chump—get up out of the puddle.”

A cab came around the corner and its headlights shone on me—and there I was, stooping over a drunk whom I’d never seen before, who thought my name was McCary.

And there he is, a hard man whose momentary pause, a concession to a soft instinct, sets “Black” in motion. Cain’s minimalism also creates a context for an unusually effecting depiction of shock. Consider Red’s reaction to the sight of a corpse in “Parlor Trick”: “I looked at the glass and I looked up at the man again. I think I said: ‘Christ,’ very softly.” So much hinges on that “I think,” which undermines the rigid composure of Red’s voice. It’s worth remembering that trauma and its repression are a recurrent theme. As Kells quips through a grin, “I came back from France … with a set of medals, a beautiful case of shell shock and a morphine habit you could hang your hat on.”

In other stories, Cain mastered the tone of breezy, world-weary confidence—which implies total competence. Keenan of “Dutch Treat” (December 1936) could take up any of the Continental Op’s cases midstream without missing a beat:

Our firm—the Old Man was it, Lefty and I just worked for him — handled more insurance cases than anything else and had a pretty swell reputation—as reputations of confidential investigating outfits go.

Hammett, that Lefty, would be proud. An even breezier tone whistles through the pages of “One, Two, Three” (May 1933), this time with a witty formal justification: The unidentified P.I. recounts his case during a poker game, punctuating the narrative with an occasional “I’ll take three off the top, please” and “Pass.” The cards bring their own momentum to the table.

This touches on another of Cain’s abiding themes, or rather, motifs: the gambling mentality. Be they grist for the mill of a penny-ante racket—like the black cabby Lonny in “555” (December 1935)—or high-rollers like Kells in Fast One, Shane in “Red 71” (December 1932), and Finn in “Sockdolager” (Aril 1936), Cain’s characters are always eloquent barometers for the thrills and desperations of the sporting life:

That Number Two spot was an inspiration. The Santa Anita track had just opened and all Southern California had gone nag-nutty. We got the cream in Number two; at two o’clock of any afternoon in the week you could stand in the middle of the main room and poke your finger in the eye of anywhere from ten to two dozen picture stars, wives of stars, “cousins” of producers, and just plain rich women. If you think men are natural gamblers you ought to see a lot of gals who can afford it in a bunch. A two grand parlay was chickenfeed. (“Sockdolager”)

Cain’s dominant character is the incorrigible gambler, the risk-taker who lives and dies by his hunches. Criminals and their pursuers have that trait in common, and in Cain’s fiction, it’s seldom clear which is which. Cain makes the most of this irony in “Hunch” (March 1934), where the seasoned detective Cy Brennan follows his nose down a blind alley, taking the reader right along with him:

She was staring at him with wide hard eyes: one eyebrow was arched to a thin skeptical line, her red mouth curved humorously upward at the corners. She said with broad, biting sarcasm: “The old Brennan hunches—they never miss…”

Keith Alan Deutsch addresses the thrill-seeking impulse inherent to so many of Cain’s characters in his afterword to Fast One, and shrewdly identifies its effect; Kells and his ilk confront us with a bracing, “clean” amorality. They are indeed the true forerunners of both Lee Marvin in Point Blank (1967) and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon (1987).

Cain’s virtuosity extends to his perfectly-pitched depictions of disparate social strata. His narratives move effortlessly from the Roosevelt Hotel to a dirty flophouse, and his characters react to these shifts in various ways. “St. Nick” Green circulates among “legman, Park Avenue debutantes, pickpockets, touts, bank robbers and bank presidents, wardheelers, and international confidence men,” but remains a parvenu, spending “more of his time in night courts than in nightclubs.” Whereas Druse, a mysterious retired judge in “Pigeon Blood” (November 1933), exudes an elegance and sophistication alien to most of Cain’s protagonists: “Druse leaned forward. ‘I am not a fixer,’ he said. ‘My acquaintance is wide and varied—I am fortunate in being able to wield certain influences.’” There is a great deal of reserve in Druse’s speech; it may be the reticence of a man guarding old wounds.

Only a writer freely exploring the boundaries of his genre could have produced such a variety of stories in so short a time. It is, in a sense, fitting that the man behind this protean achievement was himself so protean.

On November 2, 1986 the Los Angeles Times ran the following ad in the classifieds:

Information Sought

I am writing a biography of the hard-boiled novelist Paul Cain (a.k.a. Peter Ruric/George Sims), author of the classic Los Angeles gangster novel “Fast One” (1933). I would appreciate hearing from anyone with letters or biographical information.

DAVID A. BOWMAN

Bowman never did produce his book-length biography. He could only scrape so much together, and much of what he found couldn’t be verified. Along with essays by E.R. Hagemann and Peter Gunn, and book chapters by David E. Wilt and Woody Haut, Bowman’s introduction to the 1987 Black Lizard edition of Fast One is still one of the best sources on Cain’s life. Recent work by Lynn F. Myers Jr. and Max Allan Collins has added to Bowman’s portrait. And yet, thanks largely to his own efforts, Cain has remained a cipher.

The photo that originally appeared on Fast One’s jacket is a high-angle, ¾ portrait of Cain’s bearded face, with a diagonal white bar across his eyes. It’s the only published picture we have of him, and might as well have been taken by Man Ray. The white band is an obvious but striking feature. So is his first self-obliterating, deflective, yet spasmodically revealing autobiographical sketch, which begins:

PAUL CAIN

isn’t his real name.

is slender, blond, usually bearded.

has wasted his first thirty years as a matter of course and principle; wandered over South America, Europe, northern Africa and the Near East; been a buson’s-mate, Dada painter, gambler, and a “no”-man in Hollywood.

likes Mercedes motor-cars, peanut butter, Gstaad, and phonograph records of Leslie Hutchinson, Scotch whiskey, some of the paintings of Chirico, gardenias, vegetables and sour cream, Garbo, Richebourg 1904, and Little Pam.

dislikes parsnips, the color pink, sopranos, men who wear white silk sox, backgammon, cigars and a great many men, women, and children.

Cain’s lies—and many were to follow in subsequent autobiographical statements—form a predictable pattern: unlikely ports of call, unbelievable occupations, and preposterous literary accomplishments. He never completed “a new novel of crime and blood and thunder, tentatively titled Three in the Dark,” and no library in the world holds “a melodramatic farce” titled Young Man Sees God, or any of his other supposed titles: Hypersensualism: A Practical Philosophy for Acrobats; Syncopaen; The Naked Man; Advertisement for Death; Broad; The Cock-Eyed Angel; or Seven Men Named Caesar. Nor is it likely that anyone will ever track down the long-lost acetate reels of Cain’s “motion picture to end motion pictures entitled Grapefruit and You,” which somehow calls to mind the Gerry Kells-like Jimmy Cagney flattening a grapefruit on Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy (1931)—except you’re Mae Clarke. And of course Fast One, too, might just be a gag.

Cain was, in fact, an Iowan named George Caryl Sims, born in Des Moines on May 30, 1902, to one-time police detective and drugstore owner William Dow Sims and his wife Eva, née Freberg, the daughter of Swedish immigrants. [6] The exact date of his family’s relocation to Los Angeles remains unknown; the young Sims and his mother, who was by then divorced, probably made the move in 1921, while his father and paternal grandfather, George C. Sims, a Union veteran of the Civil War, joined them a few years later. Although Myers and Collins had found William Sims listed as a salesman in the 1924 Des Moines City Directory, the 1923 Los Angeles City Directory has William D. Sims, George C. Sims, and George C. Sims, “Jr.” residing at 1201 June St., while Mrs. Eva W. Sims is described as a stenographer at 6026-D Hollywood Blvd. [7]

One can guess at the reasons for the family’s exodus from Des Moines to “double Dubuque,” as H.L. Mencken dubbed it. Boom-time Los Angeles was a magnet for well-heeled Midwesterners like the elder George C. Sims. Louis Adamic described these “Folks” of the ‘20s—evocatively and not without sympathy—in his autobiography Laughing in the Jungle (1932):

They were pioneers back in Ioway and Nebraska. No doubt they swindled a little, but they always prayed a little, too, or maybe a great deal. And they paid taxes and raised young ones. They are old and rheumatic. They sold out their farms and businesses in the Middle West and wherever they used to live, and now they are here in California—sunny California—to rest and regain their vigor, enjoy climate, look at pretty scenery, live in little bungalows with a palm-tree or banana plant out front, and eat in cafeterias. Toil-broken and bleached out, they flock to Los Angeles, fugitives from the simple, inexorable justice of life, from hard labor and drudgery, from cold winters and blistering summers of the prairies…. [8]

Los Angeles also drew younger Midwesterners on the make. Indeed, the most revealing detail of the routine, telegraphic entry in the 1923 City Directory has nothing to do with the Sims family’s living arrangement. It’s a matter of professional ambition. George C. Sims, Jr.— twenty-one years of age—is registered as an “author.” [9] In the mid-‘20s, probably eager to shake the image of an Iowan bumpkin, Sims rechristened himself Ruric (first George, then Peter). He began cutting a figure in Hollywood, grabbing production assistant and assistant director credits on Josef von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925) and A Woman of the Sea (1926), respectively.

It was at this time that his flair for pseudonyms left a permanent mark on Myrna Williams, a young starlet searching for a screen name. In her memoir, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming (1987), she writes: “Peter Rurick [sic], a wild Russian writer of free verse, suddenly came up with ‘Myrna Loy.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ It sounded alright, but I still wasn’t convinced about changing my name.” [10] A Russian free-verse poet? Surely a ruse, but his research was passable. He probably borrowed Peter from Peter the Great, and Ruric from the ninth-century founder of the Rurikid dynasty. And Myrna Loy, for its part, sounds suspiciously similar to Mina Loy, a real free-verse poet. Cain would later claim to have published in Blast and transition. Anachronistic fabrications, but evidence of wide-ranging reading. He would have run across Mina Loy’s work in the little magazines. A couple of her “Aphorisms on Futurism” (1914) even seem to predict Cain’s distinctly modernistic aesthetic: “IN pressing the material to derive its essence, matter becomes deformed. AND form hurtling against itself is thrown beyond the synopsis of vision.”

By 1930 he was in New York. His stint there yielded a new persona—Paul Cain—and a bruising relationship with an actress named Gertrude Michael, who matched the alcoholic Sims drink for drink. In 1932 she landed an M-G-M screen test in Hollywood, and he tagged along. They took up residence at the stately Montecito Hotel & Apartments (6650 Franklin Avenue), where he crossed paths with a fellow Black Mask regular, Raoul Whitfield. It was here that Sims completed Fast One, dedicating it to Michael, who likely served as the model for Granquist, Kells’ alcoholic moll. He sold the novel’s story to Paramount, which turned it into Gambling Ship (1933), a lumbering vehicle for Cary Grant and Benita Hume. Sims and Michael split when the book was still hot off the presses; as the L.A. Times gossip columnist “Tip Poff” put it on October 23, 1933, “Peter Ruric (Paul Cain) and Gertrude Michael are going places. But not together.”  How right he was: the three of them—Ruric, Cain, and Michael—would chart their own courses.

As Ruric, Sims enjoyed a respectable if humdrum career in screenwriting, which began with work on the script to Affairs of a Gentleman (1934). His most distinguished effort was the screenplay for Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), a masterpiece of expressionistic horror. In a January 1998 interview with Tom Weaver, Shirley Ulmer described her husband’s collaborator as “brilliant, really, but cuckoo. […] He wasn’t like any ordinary person I’d ever met. But very, very brilliant—Edgar adored him, and they were very close.” [11] Edgar Ulmer’s own assessment, given to Peter Bogdanovich in 1970, is a bit more somber: “He was a young man who had come out from New York, and I met him; a very intelligent boy who should have been a great playwright but got lost.” [12] Relying on the testimony of relatives, Bowman limns the Ruric pose: he was a “blond, bearded member of the Malibu Beach crowd, taken to wearing ascot scarves.” [13] He apparently spent the next four years in Europe with his mother. The only record of his work in the European film industries is shared credit for the script to Jericho (1937), a British drama starring Paul Robeson that was released in the U.S. as Dark Sands. Sims then returned to make another splash in Tinseltown.

His accomplishments of note during this second Hollywood period are the story for Twelve Crowded Hours (1938), which he hammered out with Garrett Fort—an adherent of Meher Baba whose life would end in suicide at a Los Angeles hotel in 1945—and script work on Grand Central Murder (1942), a giddy maze of flashbacks that highlights his facility with form. He also contributed to the adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th (1941).

On August 18, 1939, he married a twenty-year-old “cigarette girl” from Nebraska named Virginia Maxine Glau, who changed her moniker, at her husband’s suggestion, to Mechel Ruric. (Although Bowman gives her name as Mushel, the L.A. Times and the 1940 Census record it as Mechel.)  As Bowman describes it, Mechel and Sims met cute at her place of work: “One night, he and the notorious Prince Romanoff wobbled into the new nightclub, the Mocambo. Romanoff wobbled because he was nipped, and Ruric wobbled because he was nipped and his leg was in a cast.” [14] The impostor Ruric palling around with the impostor Romanoff? All the makings of a royal Russian farce.

The Rurics’ honeymoon period came to a screeching halt seven months later, in March 1940, with Mechel’s flight from the third-story balcony of the couple’s home at 1412 N. Kingsley Drive, after what must have been a hell of a quarrel. She survived and stuck with her husband (for the most part) until 1943. Mechel—who was by then Michele Maxine Greenhill—furnished Bowman with a bleak sketch of a man losing his grip: “On most nights Ruric drove home from the studio blind drunk, miraculously navigating the curving driveway without steering off the cliff. He then stumbled up to the porch, crashed through the front door, and passed out in the hallway.” [15]

When Mechel finally left him, Sims took a room at the Chateau Marmont (8221 Sunset Blvd.), where he befriended an unlikely fellow resident, Sinclair Lewis, who’d been brought out by M-G-M to work on a screenplay with Dore Schary. Lewis writes about Sims, who was introduced to him as Peter Ruric, in a series of letters to his mistress, Marcella Powers.  His letter of July 17, 1943, on Marmont stationary, gives us another glimmer of Sims’s mythic self, and of its power to impress:

My great pal here a new man whom you would like as much as you do Hal Smith (with less safety from propositioning, however)—Peter Ruric, to whom I was introduced by [Clifton] Kip Fadiman but who proved to be an MGM writer with a cell just a few doors from mine. He is in the Elliott [sic] Paul tradition, with a touch of Peter Godfrey (no, haven’t seen him yet) and a dash of Francois Villon. For years he has hewed out a movie script, then escaped to Paris—China—Carmel—Buenos Ayres, to write an exquisite but unsaleable story, and, casually along the way, to marry or just amiably live with and just as casually to leave some lovely girl—I have only his genteel and unpretentious word for it, however, that they were lovely.

Elliot Paul is indeed an awfully astute comparison. Born in 1891—just over a decade before Sims—Paul was an experimental novelist in the early ‘20s, an émigré in Gertrude Stein’s Parisian circle and a co-editor of transition in the middle of that decade, a “missing person” on a Spanish isle in the early ‘30s, and a Hollywood screenwriter in the ‘40s. Snatches of his biography correspond so perfectly to the facts and fictions of Sims’s own story that one is justified in asking whether the latter modeled himself on the former. Elliot Paul’s name even forms a Venn diagram with Paul Cain’s, and the titles of his first three novels—Indelible (1922), Impromptu (1923), and Imperturbe (1924)—sound like prequels to Syncopean. The situation, of course, is more complicated; Elliot Paul may not have served as a direct role model, but he did represent the society to which Sims had always wished to belong. Ironically, while Sims continued to place stock in spurious avant-garde credentials, Paul was turning to crime fiction. His The Mysterious Mickey Finn: Or, Murder at the Café du Dôme (1939) inaugurated a series of parodic detective novels starring Homer Evans, an American expatriate in Paris. In more ways than one, Sims and the smart set were ships in the night.

On July 25, Lewis describes a night in the life of Hollywood “players”: “last evening, going again to PR [Players Restaurant] with Peter Ruric and a couple of gals (each of whom was preposterously more beautiful, intelligent, and adorable than any NY girl, such as this Rosemary Povah).” But by August 10, Lewis had tired of the Ruric mystique: “Dinner last night, the only one attempted in my tiny dining-room where houseman here serves [me] breakfasts: Cedric [Hardwicke], who was charming as ever, Alex Knox (Jason) who was fair, Peter Ruric who was dreary…” It appears that many in Hollywood were beginning to feel the same way.

Cain, for his part, had a small resurgence. In 1944 Sims took a trip to New York, renting an apartment at 3 E 33rdStreet and meeting with Shaw. After his return to Hollywood, Sims’s erstwhile mentor helped resuscitate his nose-diving protégé’s career, including “Red 71” in The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946). Shaw’s correspondence with Sims, who was living in a two-bedroom home at 2372 Loma Vista Place, involved more obfuscation and outright malarkey. Meanwhile, the Shaw Press in Hollywood (a subsidiary of Saint Enterprises) reprinted Fast One in 1944, followed by Sims’s own compilation of his finest Black Mask tales, Seven Slayers (1946). Avon would keep both volumes in print into the ‘50s.

By that time, Ruric was entirely on the outs with the studios. His last screenplay had been a collaborative adaptation of two Maupassant stories, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), and in 1948 he received a credit for the appropriately named Alias a Gentleman, which was based on a story he had sold to M-G-M in 1941. As Myers and Collins disclose, 1948 also saw Ruric writing two episodes for the radio program Cavalcade of America, “Incident at Niagara” (September 27, 1948) and “Home to the Heritage” (October 11, 1948). They quote radio historian Martin Grams: “It is interesting to note that he co-wrote the scripts with Virginia Radcliffe, who herself was a free-lance writer and wrote numerous scripts for Cavalcade.” [16]  This partnership is interesting indeed, and wasn’t limited to the airwaves. Sims and Radcliffe, who was born in Chicago in 1914, were married sometime in 1945 or ‘46, and their union lasted until the end of the decade. Radcliffe, the second Virginia in Sims’s life, had previously been married to the prolific bit-player and sometime writer George M. Lynn; after divorcing Sims, she’d go on to marry William Hurst, becoming an outspoken conservationist and penning The Caribbean Heritage, an illustrated history of the islands, which was published shortly after her death in 1976.

Sometime during their marriage the couple lived in New York, and it was at this point that Sims’s old acquaintance from the Chateau Marmont, Sinclair Lewis, reappeared in his life. Lewis’s biographer Mark Schorer writes:

[Lewis] was spending as many hours as she would give him with Miss Powers, but there were empty stretches when he turned to people whom he hardly knew—the young Hollywood script-writer Peter Ruric, for example, who was now writing a novel in New York, and whom Lewis invited to his apartment with his fiancée, and to whom he said that he could not work in New York, that he was returning as soon as possible to his home ground. One afternoon he had this couple to a cocktail party with some other young people, including Miss Powers, and presently he sent the whole party out to dinner, promising to join them later. He made reservations for them at an 86th Street Brauhaus, to which they proceeded, and where they dined, danced and waited for him; but he never came. His guests spoke of him with faint scorn, a hopeless case, and Miss Powers, although defensive of him, despaired, too. [17]

Lewis himself had grown dreary. Schorer seems to have learned of this meeting partly from Miss Powers, and partly from Virginia Radcliffe herself, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments.

Records from the U.S. Copyright Office also show that Sims had written plays as Ruric that were never published, registering Memory of Man, a Play. In Three Acts in 1947, and Count Bruga, a Morality Play in Three Acts in 1949. [18] The latter was based on Ben Hecht’s 1926 novel, a satire of Greenwich Village bohemia and its archetypal poète maudit, Maxwell Bodenheim.

In 1949, Marcel Duhamel, the legendary editor of Gallimard’s “Série noire,” added a French translation of Fast One to his catalog. Inclusion in this prestigious series—a favorite among French intellectuals—encouraged Sims. By this time, it must have been clear to him that the Paul Cain stories stood the best chance of gaining him entry into the world of the European avant-garde, to which he had long claimed allegiance. After all, even Gertrude Stein had lent the hard-boiled crime novel her imprimatur in Everybody’s Autobiography (1937): “I never try to guess who has done the crime and if I did I would be sure to guess wrong but I liked somebody being dead and how it moves along and Dashiell Hammett was all that and more.” [19]  A year earlier, in her lecture “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them” (1936), Stein had mused on the detective story’s peculiar merits: “It is very curious but the detective story which is you might say the only really modern novel form that has come into existence gets rid of human nature by having the man dead to begin with.” [20]  Stein valued style and pace, and Hammett had certainly provided, but it was Cain who would have best met her needs; no one in the hard-boiled school had so fearlessly elevated style and pace over moral substance and “human nature.” Indeed, no crime novel was more modernistic in a Steinian sense than Fast One, and Duhamel had given its author recognition when he needed it most.

According to his memoir, Raconte pas ta vie (1972), Duhamel had the dubious honor of meeting Sims, whom he knew as Ruric, in France around that time. The man he encountered was a physically decrepit, unbearably needy specimen, who was “unable to take a single step by himself”—a limp “octopus,” a “vampire” that would exceed Polanski’s imagination. [21] Duhamel’s story confirms the notion that Sims had bottomed out, and was now betting on Paul Cain:

It was Hollywood that had done him in. A renowned screenwriter, a darling at “parties,” disgusted with work that was unworthy of him, he ended up seeking inspiration in alcohol. This was followed by emotional setbacks, two divorces, three detoxification cures, and a course of psychoanalysis; he came to Europe looking for some kind of salvation, after having tried everything else. “And,” he said, “you are my last hope.”  [22]

Duhamel couldn’t stand him. Using the advance for a French translation of Seven Slayers, the editor sent Sims packing for Spain. Life in Alicante and on Mallorca seems to have worked miracles for Sims’s health; it’s hard to believe that his whimsical article on Spanish cooking for Gourmet magazine, “Viva la Castañetas: A Spanish [Mostly Mallorquin] Letter” (June 1951), could have been written by the same “jellyfish” that Duhamel had seen off at the train station. Upon receiving word of Sims’s newfound joie de vivre, and another marriage, it took Duhamel “some time to recover from the shock.” [23]

Peggy, née Gregson, had recently graduated from the University of North Carolina and was taking a grand tour of Europe with her girlfriend, Jeanne Summers. She, Jeanne, and Jeanne’s mother met the man they knew as Peter Ruric at a Mallorcan restaurant in 1955.  It was Jeanne’s mother, roughly Sims’s contemporary, who struck up the conversation, but Sims had his eye on Peggy. Although he was thirty years her senior, and a year older than her own father, the bohemian writer swept the girl off her feet. She briefly returned to her family home in Varina, Virginia, but she didn’t stay away long, soon heading back to Spain.

Peggy would become Cain’s third. But in Catholic Spain, two was one too many. The couple tied the knot in Tripoli, Libya, where they spent a month in 1956 in order to established residence.

They eventually set sail for California on a freighter from Italy, travelling through the Panama Canal and points south for “forty days and forty nights,” as Peggy recalls. They settled in South Laguna and had two sons: Peter Craig in 1956 and Michael Sean in 1958. According to Peggy, Sims, now in his fifties, wasn’t hitting the bottle any more than was usual for the period. She describes a happy and charmed life, although she admits his old Hollywood friends may have wondered what he was doing “with that little girl.” He was a kind, loving man—a snazzy dresser and a wonderful cook—but simply couldn’t provide for his family. He refused to abandon his identity as a writer, even when the writing opportunities had dried up for good. Peggy sensed that his old friends weren’t as eager to see him as he was to see them. He didn’t seem to be writing much anyhow. But pumping gas wasn’t an option, nor was letting Peggy work.

When Peter Craig was ten months old, the family travelled cross-country in Sims’s Thunderbird, paying a visit to the Gregsons in Virginia. The dashing author wowed Peggy’s friends, but unnerved her parents. In December 1958, a few months after Michael Sean’s birth, the family went east again. Sims first connected with his friend Jim Lowry in Washington, D.C., and then took off for Cuba. Peggy and the kids settled with her parents in Virginia.

Sims had tried to consolidate his personae as early as the mid-‘40s, when he’d composed a bio for Shaw’s Omnibus that began, “Paul Cain is Peter Ruric, wrote his first crime novel in the early thirties on a bet.” Shaw did not to use it (although a smaller “Peter Ruric” did appear in parentheses below “Paul Cain”). Sims had also swapped “Peter Ruric” for “Paul Cain” on the tear sheets of the stories in Seven Slayers, which now sit in the Joseph Shaw papers at UCLA’s Young Research Library. The publishers kept “Paul Cain.”

On top of all his other woes—both mental and material—this diffusion of identity must have been exhausting. Nowhere is that exhaustion more evident than in the letters and postcards that Sims sent Peggy and his sons in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, care of her family and friends in Virginia. He was no longer able to control or keep up the appearances that were so important to him. Bowman secured some of these letters from Peggy in the 1980s, and copies now sit in the E.R. Hagemann papers at UCLA’s Young Research Library.

Reading them can be a painful experience. One of the longer letters is a New Year’s greeting, written aboard a German liner in Havana on the evening of December 31, 1958, and the morning of January 1, 1959—on the eve of Batista’s flight. Sims writes of his failing health, an unsuccessful attempt to place a novel called Truce, faint hope for a play called The Ecstasy Department, and his generally dwindling prospects:

“Truce” is out for the moment, honey—Doubleday is edgy about it being “uncompromisingly sexual”—they didn’t say sexy, they said sexual—and they’ll have to see more of it and for this time of unpeace it isn’t the answer. Maybe The Ecstasy Department is, but it’s in a trunk in Laguna. It probably isn’t the answer either—there are so few answers left for a man with thought shaped like mine who is fighting for so much more than his life. I thought of a cheap hotel in some small town by the sea in Florida. Is there one? So. After, conceivably, getting physically well in the sun, what would I do? I thought of S. America. I thought of Africa. (I whisper this, ever so gently—a man in even consummately concealed sorrow is not made welcome in new places. They know. He’s not made welcome in old places either. I may learn to ever more consummately conceal it during this, God grant, short empty interval, but I shall never be really welcome again anywhere until I am whole again. Stop. Unwhisper.)

In the end, his consummate disguises worn thin, Sims returned to Los Angeles: “And so, whether I like it or not, California seems to be in the cards, so I’m trying to like it. It takes a certain kind of courage to go back there looking like a tramp and face the music and the bill-collectors and our friends.”

Cracking Hollywood again proved nearly impossible. His last credit is for a contribution to the script of “The Man from Blackhawk,” an episode of the TV Western The Lady in Yellow, which aired on January 24, 1960. His letters—one sent from Mrs. Tita D’Oporto’s Studio House apartment at 6201 Fountain Avenue, several cuts below the Montecito—tell of strained circumstances. He claims that three stories he had written for a television series were abruptly shelved. Above all, he longs to reunite with his family, pleading for a response, composing nursery rhymes for his children, and crowding the letters’ margins with doodles of concentric hearts and polka-dotted elephants:

If you said, ‘They’re paying high wages in the brinzel factory at Dimpling Ky. and need men—we’ll meet you there—you can work on books and stories nightstand Sundays,’ I’d be there so fast it would make all our Ruric heads spin.

Peggy, who now lives in Richmond, Virginia, still keeps these letters, along with other mementos of their relationship. He never stopped writing to her, and she responded when she could, even after remarrying in June 1962. Suffused with charm and punctured by whispered sorrow, Sims’s letters may be his last great work. They offer us a fleeting glimpse of the man behind the fiction, who had found happiness in family life and was desperate to recapture it.

Sims died of ureter and lung cancer on June 23, 1966. His last known address was a small bungalow at 6127 Glen Holly Street; he passed away at the Toluca Lake Convalescent Hospital. His death certificate states that he had made Los Angeles his home for 48 years, and had been an author for 43 of them. Sims’s first bold autobiographical statement supports this claim, by hook or by crook. He might have been telling the truth when he listed himself as an “author” in the 1923 L.A. City Directory, although no one has yet found any of his writing from that period. And if he had been lying, then that listing was his first work of fiction, published 43 years before his death.

Bowman tracked Sims’s posthumous fate to another dead end: “His body was cremated, and the box of ashes sat in a Glendale cemetery’s storage room until 1968 when it was shipped to Hawaii to the care of a woman who was either an old lover or an old friend.” [24]

The ashes were stored at Glendale’s Grand View Memorial Park, and dispatched to Honolulu’s Nuuanu Memorial Park on May 24, 1968. At that time, Peggy and her boys were living in Honolulu, where her second husband, a neurologist, was stationed during the Vietnam War. Peggy did not claim the ashes, but Sims had known that she and the kids would be in Hawaii. She conjectures that he arranged for a friend to scatter his ashes near his family.

This friend was likely Tita D’Oporto, who appears to have been as close to the man in the final years of his life as anyone. The “Peter Ruric AKA George Sims” file at the Crippen Mortuary in La Crescenta, which bought the Eckerman-Heisman Mortuary that had handled Sims’s cremation, contains letters and notes from D’Oporto, her attorney, and Sims’s maternal aunt, Alma E. Winkler. It is D’Oporto who took the greatest interest in Sims’s affairs.  She lived next door to him on Glen Holly Street, but was abroad when he passed. Upon her return, she contacted the mortuary and informed them that his wishes were to have his cremains scattered at sea. She herself passed away in Hawaii in 1976.

In 1965, D’Oporto sent a letter to Sims’s aunt, enclosing a Western Union telegram that a young George Sims had wired to his grandmother on October 31, 1919. D’Oporto’s letter hints at the dire straits in which Sims found himself in his final years and points to the lingering mysteries of his life:

Peter is 63 years old, his birthday was May 30th, 1902. The enclosed wire is dated 1919, so he would have been 17 years then and maybe they have a record of his service in the Navy in Des Moines. Would you try to find out? I was at the navy Recruiting Office in L–A—and could not get anywhere. They told me I would have to write to Washington D.C. but have to have his service number—but if he was stationed in Des Moines, it may be easier to get it there.

Peter gets now $ 52.– Social Security and $ 75.– disability check. They said he should get about $ 100 from the Navy if he is disabled. When in the Hospital, he does not get the disability check, but a bill for over $ 40 a day, which, I believe, is a matter of form and they will not collect it unless he should be able to work again. He does not remember anything about the Navy and I did not show him the wire. He never told me that he was George Sims. There is no use to bring it up unless necessary for him, I thought. His mind is not always clear, that is, he does not remember things and people at times. I feel very sad about it all and wished I could do more for him.

I must close now—still have plenty to do, but I would like to see you again—maybe when Peter feels better and we all can meet.

The wire itself, sent collect from Detroit and telegraphic by definition, is the work of a young man commencing a life of misadventures both on and off the page:

MRS GEORGE C SIMS

PHONE BLACK 3410 EAST 33RD AND UNIVERSITY AVE DESMOINES IOWA I AM GOING ABOARD EAGLE TEN BOUND FOR PORTSMOUTH CLOTHES HAVE NOT ARRIVED FROM CHICAGO I CANNOT DRAW CLOTHES HERE PLEASE SEND MONEY ENOUGH TO BUY A FEW CLOTHES AND PURCHASE NECCESSITIES [sic] FOR THREE WEEKS TRIP HAVE NOT BEEN PAID ABSOLUTELY BROKE PROBABLY LEAVE MONDAY LOVE TO ALL

GEORGE C SIMS.

There is an equal measure of exuberance and desperation in all of Sims’s writing. His telegram confirms, perhaps, what he had claimed in a letter to Shaw in 1944—that he’d spent a part of his youth in Chicago. But it appears to have been a small part.

The U.S. Navy Reserve archives contain the record of one George Caryl Sims, who enlisted on June 7, 1917 and was to serve a stint until May 30, 1923.  Sims—described as a ruddy, 5′ 8″, 131 lb., 17-year-old, with a 3″ operation scar on his right abdomen—was discharged on January 17, 1921 for “inaptitude.”  The record includes pleas for the boy’s release from Rep. C.C. Dowell, on the grounds that his mother is ill and needs his help, and responses from the office of then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  It is a less-than-stellar record of accomplishments—featuring several incidents of losing government property, disregard of orders, and disobedience. So began one of the strangest careers in hardboiled fiction.

Giving oneself over to a genre reveals more than one intends. Things swim up. A reader is tempted to mine the stories for autobiographical traces—and traces abound. As Myers and Collins point out, the boorish police dick Freberg in “Hunch” bears Sims’s mother’s maiden name, and wears a badge, like his father. [25] Make what you will, then, of Freberg’s fate:

He caught Freberg by the throat with his right hand drew his left far back and snapped it suddenly forward; he could feel his hard fist sink into the soft pallor of Freberg’s face. Freberg crashed into the wall, sank slowly to the floor. … He glanced back at Freberg once, expressionlessly, then he went out and closed the door.

The protagonist justifies Freberg’s beating with a cryptic suggestion: “I know where he buries the bodies.” Myers and Collins report that Fast One’s Granquist shares a name with a family that resided in Des Moines. [26] But this kind of reading may take us nowhere.

What erupts in the stories, regardless of names, are fits of misogyny, which are pronounced even in a Black Mask context. Women get their lights punched out for their own good: “‘Papa knows best, baby.’ He brought one arm up stiffly, swiftly from his side; the palm down, his fist clinched. His knuckles smacked sharply against her chin” (Fast One). Women wreak havoc in men’s lives and are punished gruesomely. In the late “Death Song” (January 1936), a dipsomaniac starlet is fatally bludgeoned with an “outsize vibrator.” It’s a joke, yes, but a tendentious one—disclosing something of what Sims may have been repressing. He wrote the story when Michael’s career was in serious peril, after a well-publicized car crash in San Bernardino and ahead of a mysterious hospitalization in New York for “toxic poisoning.”

They may be playful experiments with form, but the Paul Cain stories are studded with laconic indications of buried trauma, resentment, and addiction

Then there’s “The Tasting Machine” (1949), the last piece of fiction Sims published. It appeared under the Peter Ruric byline in Gourmet magazine, which would later run his article on Mallorcan cuisine. The story is collected here, although it is expressly not one of Cain’s hard-boiled narratives. Rather, it’s something like a hypertrophied version of John Collier’s urbane fantasies. Compare its first sentence to the opening of Fast One:

In fine weather, of which there was a spate that summer, it was the whim of M. Etienne de Rocoque to emerge from his restaurant in East Sixty-first Street at exactly six-thirteen of an evening and stroll west to Fifth Avenue, south to Sixtieth, east to Park Avenue, north to Sixty-first, and so back to the restaurant and home.

The protagonist’s very name signifies a new point of departure, a Rococo tumescence that stands in direct opposition to Cain’s minimalism. But style is ultimately style, and this is another exercise.

De Rocoque is a master chef, who holds a beautiful girl named Mercedes captive above his restaurant. He had “snatched” her “from the harem of a mighty caliph at the age of three”—“after wading through veritable seas of blood”—and has “reared” her for the last fifteen years, “inviolate from the world.” Among de Rocoque’s companions is a talking myna bird named Gertrude, “whose words and usually her sentiments were most uncouth.” The chef’s ménage is invaded by a little robot dead-set on tasting everything in its path, including Mercedes. The story climaxes as Mercedes—sequestered with the tasting machine—cries out in either agony or joy, while de Rocoque strikes at her locked door with an ax. Sims’s career in fiction ends with an ironic fantasy about a hypersensual stylist whose attempts to control his inner world are born of insecurity and frustrated by mechanistic drives.

This surreal joke-work in Gourmet magazine casts an odd backward light on the Cain stories. Losing himself in the styles he’d mastered, Sims gave free rein to the things he most wished to obscure. But whatever it is that initially pushed him to the outer reaches of the hard-boiled and propelled his characters on their collision courses, the work he left behind as Cain won’t be outdone.

Paul Cain was not the only Black Mask regular to transcend the limitations of his genre, but he is unique in having transcended those limitations by exploiting them to their fullest. He achieved a refinement of the hard-boiled manner that is truly exhilarating. Unlike Hammett and Chandler, whose work reckoned with the problems of modernity, Cain embraced a modernist aesthetic, manipulating the devices available to him with radical experimental energy. Cain’s focus on aesthetics accounts for the dizzying diversity of his fiction—his use of a variety of perspectives, stylistic registers in dialogue, and narrative structures. This focus also liberated Cain from moral concerns, allowing him to craft distinctly modern antiheroes whose compulsive, uninhibited risk-taking is a fictional analog to their creator’s own approach to writing.

Cain’s work is anything but confessional, but this triumph of style, this masterful performance—this modernistic put-on, as it were—testifies to the tremendous gifts and troubles of the man behind the pose. The stories bear his indelible signature, in invisible ink.

Sims was an ironist given to elaborate fronts that revealed as much as they concealed. His tenuous grasp on his own identity allowed him to sink, for a brief time, into the role of Paul Cain, and to keep playing as long as he could. As the narrator of “Dutch Treat” says about a game of “Spit-in-the-Ocean,” “I won, or maybe I lost—I forget which.”


The letters and drafts quoted in this introduction are housed in box 33, folder 9, of the E.R. Hagemann Papers and Collection of Detective Fiction (1672), and box 5, folder 6, of the Joseph T. Shaw Papers (2052)—both in the Department of Special Collections of UCLA’s Young Research Library—in the Sinclair Lewis Letters to Marcella Powers collection, at the St. Cloud State University Archives, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and in the “Peter Ruric AKA George Sims” file at the Crippen Mortuary, located at 2900 Honolulu Avenue, La Crescenta, CA 91214. I thank the library staffs, the staff at the Crippen Mortuary, and the Harrelson family for permission to quote this material. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and I thank them for the chance to amend, expand, and republish it. I am especially grateful to Keith Alan Deutsch, my brilliant, indefatigable editor, for soliciting this piece, for helping me at every stage of the writing process, and—most of all—for facilitating Paul Cain’s long-deserved rediscovery.

I owe my deepest gratitude to Mike and Peggy Harrelson, son and second wife of the man at the center of this essay. To say that they have been gracious would be an understatement. Their generosity and warmth were an unexpected gift. I would not have made contact with Mike were it not for a chain of remarkable coincidences, one of which placed me in the basement of UCLA’s Young Research Library on the same day that Professor William Marling of Case Western Reserve University was conducting his own research on the Hagemann collection. Bill asked me what I was up to, I told him, and he mentioned that he was in touch with the Harrelson family. I remain in his debt.

Mike’s initial letter to Bill Marling, in which he describes himself and his brother, is worth quoting: “Peter [Craig Harrelson is an] emergency room doctor who works very little and incessantly travels the planet’s backwaters. He’s a colorful cat who marches to his own drummer. I, while much less charismatic, have made part of my living with a pen.” Their father, of whom they knew very little until recently, seems to have passed on a gift for language and a thirst for adventure, as well as some other curious traits. I am told that, like his father, Peter Craig has been known to rename his girlfriends.

The Harrelsons have supplied me with a wealth of information about Paul Cain/Peter Ruric’s later years, which I am honored to pass on to his readers. Peggy’s memories and insights have added color and nuance to an unnaturally stark image—an image of Cain’s own making. Nothing represents this contribution more vividly than the three photographs of Cain/Ruric, Peggy, and their son Peter Craig, taken in the summer of 1957 at the Gregson family home in Varina, Virginia. These candid, animated family portraits are a necessary corrective to Cain’s stylized black-and-white author photo from the early ‘30s; the early portrait was intended to disguise his identity, while the later shots capture the man at his happiest, among his loved ones, off-guard.

Much of what we know about Sims’s ancestry and early childhood owes to the pioneering work of Lynn F. Myers, Jr. and Max Allan Collins, whose research has cleared up a great number of longstanding mysteries. I am grateful to Lisa Burks, a journalist and author working on the history of Glendale’s Grand View Memorial Park, who provided invaluable information about Sims/Ruric/Cain’s cremation records. I must also thank David A. Bowman, whose writing on Cain was nothing short of groundbreaking. Bowman’s work was interrupted by a terrible accident in 1989, from which he recovered. He continued to write fiction, but abandoned his biography of Cain. He passed away on February 27, 2012, at the age of 54.

 

Paul Cain / Peter Ruric, Peggy (Gregson), and their son Peter Craig. Gregson family home. Varina, Virginia. 1957


Paul Cain / Peter Ruric, Peggy (Gregson), and their son Peter Craig. Gregson family home. Varina, Virginia. 1957
Paul Cain / Peter Ruric, Peggy (Gregson), and their son Peter Craig. Gregson family home. Varina, Virginia. 1957
Paul Cain / Peter Ruric, Peggy (Gregson), and their son Peter Craig. Gregson family home. Varina, Virginia. 1957. Copyright © 2018 Peggy, Michael Sean, and Peter Craig Harrelson. Published here for the first time from the Cain/Ruric/Harrelson family records, and the Black Mask Magazine archives.

 

Notes

  1. Joseph Shaw, discarded introduction to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946), box 5, folder 6, of the Joseph T. Shaw Papers (2052), UCLA’s Young Research Library. Quoted more extensively in E.R. Hagemann, “Introducing Paul Cain and His Fast One: A Forgotten Hard-Boiled Writer, a Forgotten Gangster Novel,” Armchair Detective 12, no. 1 (January 1979): 75.
  2. William Brandon, “Back in the Old Black Mask,” The Massachusetts Review 28, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 707.
  3. Ibid., 708.
  4. Joseph Shaw, “Greed, Crime, and Politics,” Black Mask (March 1931), 9. Quoted in Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976), 46.
  5. Irvin Faust, “Afterword,” in Fast One (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), 311.
  6. See Lynn F. Myers, Jr. and Max Allan Collins, “Chasing Shadows: The Life of Paul Cain,” in The Complete Slayers (Lakewood, CO: Centipede Press, 2011), 13-17, for information on Sims’s ancestry and early childhood.
  7. Myers and Collins, 17; Los Angeles City Directory (1923), 2810.
  8. Louis Adamic, Laughing in the Jungle: The Autobiography of an Immigrant in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932), 218.
  9. Los Angeles City Directory, 2810.
  10. Myrna Loy and James Kotsilibas-Davis, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming (New York: Knopf, 1987), 42. See also Larry Carr, “Myrna Loy,” in More Fabulous Faces: The Evolution and Metamorphosis of Dolores Del Rio, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 55.
  11. Tom Weaver, “Shirley Ulmer,” in I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001), 233.
  12. Peter Bogdanovich, “Edgar G. Ulmer,” in Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors (New York: Knopf, 1997), 575.
  13. David A. Bowman, “Cold Trail: The Life of Paul Cain,” in Fast One (Berkeley, CA: Black Lizard, 1987), vii. See also Dennis Fischer, “The Black Cat,” in Boris Karloff, ed. Gary J. Svehla and Susan Svehla (Baltimore: Midnight Marquee, 1996), 94-95.
  14. Bowman, viii.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Myers and Collins, 29-30.
  17. Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 727. See also ibid., 707.
  18. Catalog of Copyright Entries. Third Series. Parts 3-4: Dramas and Works Prepared for Oral Delivery, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Library of Congress, Copyright Office, 1947), 206; Catalog of Copyright Entries. Third Series. Part 2: Periodicals, vol. 3 (Washington, D.C.: Copyright Office, Library of Congress, 1949), 76.
  19. Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1937), 4.
    20. Idem, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them,” in What are Masterpieces (Los Angeles, CA: The Conference Press, 1940), 87.
  20. Marcel Duhamel, Raconte pas ta vie (Paris: Mercure de France, 1972), 549-50.
  21. Ibid., 549.
  22. Ibid., 550.
    24. Bowman, x.
  23. Myers and Collins, 28.
  24. Ibid., 22.

Works Consulted and Further Reading

  • Adamic, Louis. Laughing in the Jungle: The Autobiography of an Immigrant in America. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932.
  • Ballard, Todhunter. “Writing for the Pulps.” In Hollywood Troubleshooter: W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox Stories, edited and introduced by James L. Traylor. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1985. Pp. 8-18.
  • Bogdanovich, Peter. “Edgar G. Ulmer.” In Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1997. Pp. 558-604.
  • Bowman, David A. “Cold Trail: The Life of Paul Cain.” In Fast One. Berkeley, CA: Black Lizard, 1987.
  • Brandon, William. “Back in the Old Black Mask.” The Massachusetts Review 28, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 706-16.
  • Carr, Larry. “Myrna Loy.” In More Fabulous Faces: The Evolution and Metamorphosis of Dolores Del Rio, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Pp. 53-108.
  • Duhamel, Marcel. Raconte pas ta vie. Paris: Mercure de France, 1972.
  • Faust, Irvin. “Afterword.” In Fast One. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978. Pp. 305-16.
  • Fischer, Dennis. “The Black Cat.” In Boris Karloff. Edited by Gary J. Svehla and Susan Svehla. Baltimore: Midnight Marquee, 1996. Pp. 91-113.
  • Gunn, Peter. “Paul Cain, 1902-1966.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 306: American Mystery and Detective Writers. Edited by George Parker Anderson. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2005. Pp. 35-43.
  • Hagemann, E. R. “Introducing Paul Cain and His Fast One: A Forgotten Hard-Boiled Writer, a Forgotten Gangster Novel.” Armchair Detective 12, no. 1 (January 1979): 72-76.
  • Haut, Woody. “The Postman Rings Twice but the Iceman Walks Right in: Paul Cain and James. M. Cain.” In Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2002. Pp. 76-101.
  • Loy, Myrna, and James Kotsilibas-Davis. Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming. New York: Knopf, 1987.
  • MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976.
  • Myers, Lynn F., Jr. and Max Allan Collins. “Chasing Shadows: The Life of Paul Cain.” In The Complete Slayers. Lakewood, CO: Centipede Press, 2011. Pp. 9-32. This volume also carries introductions to individual stories by Ed Gorman, Joe Gores, Edward D. Hoch, John Lutz, and Bill Pronzini, Robert Randisi, and others.
  • Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
  • Shaw, Joseph. “Greed, Crime, and Politics.” Black Mask (March 1931).
  • Stein, Gertrude. Everybody’s Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1937.
  • —. “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them.” In What are Masterpieces (Los Angeles, CA: The Conference Press, 1940). Pp. 83-95.
  • Weaver, Tom. “Shirley Ulmer.” In I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Pp. 227-49.
  • Wilt, David E. “Paul Cain.” In Hardboiled in Hollywood. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991. 97-120.

Authored by Boris Drayluk. Originally written for Paul Cain: The Complete Stories.

Black Mask #3 Is Available Now With a New Story by Lester Dent (Doc Savage)

Black Mask (Fall 2017)At long last, the third issue of the revived Black Mask Magazine (Fall 2017) is in stock and available. Issue #3 is once again chock-full of the best hard-boiled Detective stories from the golden age of the pulps. It’s headlined by an all-new, never-before-published Detective story by the creator & author of Doc Savage, Lester Dent. Also featuring Day Keene, Hugh B. Cave, and Wyatt Blassingame, among others. And it also includes a previously-unpublished interview with the author of Donovan’s Brain, Curt Siodmak.

$14.95 softcover | $4.99 eBook

Order it now

Review of The Snarl of the Beast

Have you ever read any of the works by Frank L. Packard? He is best known for his detective stories such as The White Moll, or his series about the gentleman thief/detective, Jimmie Dale. They were written in the early 1900s and took place in New York City. Serious students of the detective genre see Packard’s works as an important stepping stone between the very proper Victorian era detective novels of the late 1800s and the tougher, grittier detectives of the hard-boiled school of the 1930s and 1940s. Packard painted a New York that was filthy, derelict and immoral. Dope addicts, thieves and killers populated it. Packard took his readers into broken-down tenements, back alleys and evil-smelling dens of New York as his detective tried to right society’s wrongs through a little larceny. The larcenous means gallantly justified the happy ending. What does all this have to do with a Race Williams story? Everything. The Snarl of the Beast was published in Black Mask in 1927 as a serialized novel. It features Daly’s inveterate tough guy detective, Race Williams, spitting death from his guns while trying to do the right thing for his client. His means to achieve his ends are messy and violent, but in Race William’s philosophy it will be justice that triumphs in the end.

However, the writing style of The Snarl of the Beast comes through as an older writing style. If you took out Frank L. Packard’s suave Jimmie Dale and replaced him with Race Williams you would have a New York setting and writing style very comparable to each other. It is akin to reading a novel of the late 1880s with a 1930s tough guy thrown in to the mix. The action sequences are fast-paced and explosive. The rest of the story, however, reads in a rather dated style. It is not one of Daly’s best works. Yet it does have elements of the coming hard-boiled tradition that would come full force into detective fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Be it Frank L. Packard’s gentleman detective or Carrol John Daly’s hard-boiled private eye, be assured that the good guy will win in the end.

Authored by Robert D. Wheadon.

Black Mask #3 Is Around the Corner

Work is underway on the next issue of Black Mask Magazine. It’s packed with a number of classic hard-boiled stories from the archives of Popular Publications, and it’s headlined by an all-new story by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent!

We will premiere this new issue of Black Mask at the PulpAdventurecon in Borderntown, NJ, on November 4, 2017. See you there!

Steve Fisher, Black Mask, and the Noir Revolution

Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher

I Wake Up Screaming, the limited edition collection of Steve Fisher’s influential crime fiction writing, includes seven stories from Black Mask Magazine, three representative tales from minor pulps of the same period, the first publication in almost twenty years of his most famous novel, I Wake Up Screaming. It also features the first mass market publication of two important but forgotten essays by Fisher on how the noir fiction genre was developed under editor Fanny Ellsworth in Black Mask, and how the Hollywood community of the late 1930s and early 1940s developed the noir plot and style traditions, mostly through the screen plays and fiction of Black Mask writers.

Fisher is important because his work in fiction and in film helped bring a new noir sensibility and esthetic to crime thrillers. In a seminal essay from the 1970s, Pulp Literature: Subculture Revolution in the Late 1930s, which is included near the end of this collection, Fisher suggests a paradigm shift in Black Mask Magazine crime fiction away from the objective, unemotional, hard-boiled writing style Hammett and the first wave of Black Mask boys famously introduced to the magazine and to American popular culture, and for which Black Mask Magazine is primarily remembered.

What Fisher describes as a “subculture revolution” in the “pulp literature” of late 1930s is the development of a much moresubjective, emotional, psychologically driven style of crime story thriller primarily developed by himself and Cornell Woolrich in Black Mask under the direction of the magazine’s influential, new editor, Fanny Ellsworth.

It is difficult to remember more than seventy years after the revolution, but Steve Fisher, Cornell Woolrich, and a few other of the second wave Black Mask boys of the late 1930s, ushered in a dramatic change in crime fiction narration from the objective, hard-boiled writing promoted by Joseph Shaw and the earlier editors of Black Mask Magazine to the subjective, psychologically and emotionally heightened writing favored by Fanny Ellsworth who replaced Shaw in 1936.

This shift in style and focus led to the creation of the film genre we now know as noir through the writings of Steve Fisher, particularly in film scripts, and through the novels and short fiction of Cornell Woolrich, whose writings we now also call noir, although the term was originally applied only to film.

This dark new style and psychology of crime narration jumped from magazine and book publications into screenplays, and led
in the 1940s to the emergence in Hollywood of the classic age of the noir film thriller. The obsessive, dreamlike narration favored by Fisher and Woolrich in their tense crime tales was a perfect match for the dark shadows, and frightening, expressive camera angles developed primarily in German and Hollywood horror cinema. Narrative fiction style, and camera photography styles played against and enriched each other in the development of this new film genre. No writer was more influential in both fiction and in film scripts than Steve Fisher in ushering in the classic age of Hollywood film noir.

Fisher speaks about his experiences in early 1940s Hollywood writing and doctoring film scripts, particularly for noir productions starring Humphrey Bogart, in the final essay of this collection, a rare memoir.

Fisher’s two brief essays, collected for the first time in this 10volume, point to changes in the style of the crime thriller in the late 1930s through the 1940s not often noticed by commentators on Black Mask’s influence on film, and on popular American culture.

Certainly, Curt Siodmak’s fantasy horror masterpiece, Donovan’s Brain, the darkest of obsessive, subjective, first person narratives, serialized in Black Mask in 1942, years after Fanny Ellsworth had led the magazine, would not have made it into Black Mask, despite a long tradition of short horror stories, if the darker, more psychological, obsessive, emotional talents of Fisher (nine stories from August 1937 to April 1939) and of Woolrich (twenty-two original stories from January of 1937 to June of 1944) had not first been let loose on its pages.

Black Mask writers and genres influenced Hollywood in more ways than hard-boiled dialogue and tough-guy detection. The late Curt Siodmak’s work on horror films, especially at Universal scripting and creating The Wolf Man (1941), and with Val Lewton, at RKO scripting I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is also of interest, particularly with regard to the emergence of a noir crime thriller film esthetic from the shadows of the “horror” films of the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood (see my interview with Siodmak about his film experiences, particularly with Val Lewton.

In visual terms, Val Lewton is a genius of suggestion, and his influence on the production values, and the photographed style, of the film noir genre cannot be overstated.

Once the noir film emerged at the beginning of the 1940s with the production of Steve Fisher’s novel, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Fisher’s and Woolrich’s noir work flooded Hollywood.

In 1943 the great run of more than two dozen noir films based on works by Cornell Woolrich, the genius of the dark thriller, began when Val Lewton produced The Leopard Man (1943): Robert Siodmak (Curt’s brother) directed Phantom Lady (1944); The Mark of the Whistler (1944) followed; Clifford Odets scripted Deadline at Dawn (1946); then came Black Angel (1946) and The Chase (1946), followed by The Guilty (1947) and Fear in the Night (1947).

Steve Fisher scripted Cornell Woolrich’s I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948) with a telephone call assist from his pal Woolrich. When Fisher couldn’t come up with an appropriate ending for I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes, Woolrich suggested that Fisher resurrect the sexually obsessive, psychotic cop from I Wake Up Screaming, and turn him into the culprit, motivated by his lust for the framed man’s wife. Ironically, Fisher originally had based that haunting and haunted police detective, Ed Cornell, on his friend Cornell Woolrich.

More than two dozen films based on Woolrich’s work have been produced. The most famous Woolrich inspired film, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Rear Window. François Truffaut’s two films based on Woolrich tales are also well known, The Bride Wore Black (1968), and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). So powerful is his talent for noir invention, Cornell Woolrich, who died in 1968, leaves behind a body of written work that continues to attract noir filmmakers into the twenty first century. Although he never wrote a screenplay, Woolrich’s novels and short stories inspired so many film thrillers, and have become so associated with the genre, that Cornell Woolrich is spoken of as the “master of noir fiction” by no less an expert than the dean of detective and crime fiction critics, Otto Penzler.

In his Armchair Detective essay, Fisher defines the shift in sensibility in Black Mask Magazine fiction that led to the noir revolution. He speaks of his own “subjective style, mood and approach to a story.” Which was very different from Hammett “who wrote objectively, with crisp, cold precision, no emotion was described. You saw what happened from the outside but were never permitted inside a fictional character.” Despite Fisher’s apt observations about Hammett’s writing style, many critics would hold John Huston’s 1941 film version of Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart, to be a prime example of film noir.

The point is not to debate cinema and fiction styles, but to note a sea change in the esthetic of the crime thriller that startedto take place in pulp fiction (and some would argue in American cinema) in the late 1930s, and which came of age in Hollywood films in the 1940s; and to note Steve Fisher’s role in short stories, novels, and in his many screenplays that promote this change in style, and in sensibility.

The memorable title of Steve Fisher’s breakout novel, I Wake Up Screaming is the apotheosis of that new, subjective, emotional style.

I Wake Up Screaming is such a good title for a novel, communicates so directly and powerfully its intention to pull the reader into a maelstrom of emotion and tortured psychology, that Hollywood almost didn’t use it for the famous film based on its story because the new crime thriller paradigm was still so unfamiliar.

Daryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox, who paid Fisher $7,500 for the film rights, and his studio executives felt that the title was too jarring and ominous for the audience of the day. But after a short-circuited release as Hot Spot, the studio re-issued the film under the original, and great title to a hugely popular success at the box office, and with critics.

According to most commentators on film, including The New York Times, All Movie Guide, and Woody Haut’s Blog, I Wake Up Screaming is one of Hollywood’s first noir films, if not the first.

As Bruce Eder noted in All Movie Guide: I Wake Up Screaming “opened up a whole new genre of psychologically centered crime thrillers, and also became one of the most heavily studied movies of its era.”

Although Steve Fisher was a key writer in the development
of film noir as a Hollywood genre, and one of the most influential screenwriters of the 1940s, he did not write the screenplay for the movie; but the novel is such an indelible blue print for the doom and sexual perversity of the film that Fisher’s influence on noir film must be given credit even before he wrote his first script.

The New York Times opened its book review of the novel in March, 1941 with this succinct summation of the emotional and psychological elements which power Fisher’s narrative: “Essentially this is the story of the unrelenting pursuit of an innocent man by a detective who is determined to prove him guilty of murder. The scene is Hollywood, and the man who
is wanted for murder is a scriptwriter. He has no idea who committed the murder; neither does he have any way of proving his innocence.” What is left out of this review is the sexual obsession of the characters, particularly those of Ed Cornell, the corrupt and perverse police detective.

By 1941, the year the film and the novel were released as tie-ins, I Wake Up Screaming had been serialized in Photoplay-Movie Mirror, and Fisher had graduated from writing for Black Mask Magazine, and the less literary pulps like The Shadow (where Fisher’s shoeshine boy detective, Danny Garrett, was founding editor John Nanovic’s favorite series character); and certainly Fisher no longer needed to write for the almost forgotten publications like G-Men, and The Whisperer (of which we include one story each in this collection as exemplars of Fisher’s penny ante writing).

But Fisher did not give up magazine writing when he became a screenwriter, not even pulp magazine writing, and he never gave up novel writing, and in later life in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s he devoted himself to TV series scripting, an occupation not unlike writing series character stories for the pulps.

Steve Fisher: A Brief Writer’s Biography

The Early Years

According to Steve Fisher’s granddaughter, Monica Fisher, in revisionist correspondence with Woody Haut’s Blog (December 30, 2006) Steve Gould Fisher was born August 29, 1912 in Marine City, Michigan. Fisher died on March 27, 1980 in Canoga Park, California; his last scripts had been written for television only a few years before he died: Fantasy Island (1978); Starsky and Hutch (1976); and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975). Once Fisher started writing for money, he never stopped. He successfully sold stories, novels, and scripts for fiy years, from the 1930s through the 1970s, an impressive record few twentieth century writers can also claim.

Fisher grew up around Los Angeles where his mother, an actress, enrolled him in Oneonta Military Academy. He was a teen when he sold his first tale to a magazine. At sixteen he ran away from school, and joined the Navy, and served for four years (apparently on a submarine).

Fisher was in the service when he began to publish stories and articles in US Navy and Our Navy. Fisher was stationed for a time in Honolulu, and Hawaii would be a favorite locale for a number of his stories, including “No Gentleman Strangles His Wife,” (Black Mask, January 1938) included in this collection. After he was discharged from service in Los Angeles in 1932, Fisher stayed in L.A. and continued to write for US Navy at a penny a word. His earliest pulp writing was for a number of erotic pulps, of which the earliest example I can find is “Panama Passion, Zippy” (September 1933), and “Shanghai Sue” for the first issue of Spicy Mystery (July 1934), which despite the venue was actually a romance tale, a genre Fisher would perfect in just three or four years for the highest paying slick markets like Cosmopolitan, Liberty, and Esquire.

According to Walter Gibson, author of many of The Shadow novels for Street & Smith, Steve Fisher was so good at presenting love, and other more complex emotional, human relations in pulp formula plots like spy, detective, and romance tales that his pulp producing peers called him “Somerset Maugham at a penny a word.”

Black Mask

In 1934 Fisher moved to New York City (Greenwich Village for most of the 1930s) and lived in apartments never too far from the Street & Smith editorial offices in the Chelsea district. Early in his career, Street & Smith promoted Fisher as “The Navy’s Foremost Writer.”

As Frank Gruber reminds us in The Pulp Jungle (1967), Street & Smith was at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, and the house that started pulp fiction publishing, Munsey’s, was just a bit further downtown. Together with the other publishers they put out about 150 pulps in 1934 when Gruber and Fisher came to town.

According an early reminiscence called “The Starving Writer,” published in The Writer (July 1948), Gruber arrived in New York in 1934 one month after Fisher. They had been corresponding and met up in Ed Bodin’s office; Bodin was literary agent for both friends at the time. Gruber, like Fisher, arrived alone with a typewriter, a suitcase, and a few dollars. As Gruber noted in many reminiscences, “I had one thing else… the will to succeed.” Both Gruber and Fisher shared this powerful desire to succeed.

Gruber had been reading Horatio Alger books since he was a youngster, and they impressed him: not only with the power that will and determination might have over circumstance, but also with a desire to become an author and write books that would sell as well the Horatio Alger series.

Before Black Mask: The Pulps and Street & Smith

After a few dry months, Fisher and Gruber began to sell the occasional story. The earliest pulp story I could find by Fisher that was not written for a “spicy” or a “Navy” publication is “Authorized Mutiny,” in the February 1934 issue of Top-Notch. Fisher’s sales increased steadily, and he wrote for every kind of pulp fiction market. During his career Fisher published about 500 stories in pulps like Clues, Detective Fiction, Thrilling Detective, True Gang Life, The Shadow, Phantom Detective, Saucy Romantic Adventures, Ace Detective, Doc Savage, Black Mask, Crime Busters, Detective Romances, The Whisperer, Thrilling Adventures, DareDevil Aces, Dime Sports Magazine, and Detective Story Magazine. These are just representative examples.

Most of Fisher’s work appeared under the name Steve Fisher, but he used the pen names Stephen Gould, and Grant Lane, particularly for early novels, and when more than one of his stories appeared in the same issue of a magazine.

Fisher also invented a number of series characters, including, as Stephen Gould, Sheridan Doome, a Naval intelligence officer with a grotesquely scarred face for The Shadow. And also the very popular “Kid” detective stories, starring Danny Garret, a shoeshine teen detective who appeared regularly as the second feature story in The Shadow. Sheridan Doome is of interest because he was the hero of two of Fisher’s early novels, Murder of the Admiral (The Macauley Company, 1936), and Murder of the Pigboat Skipper (Hillman-Curl, Inc., 1937). Both these pure pulp novels based on The Shadow character are in print.

The founding editor of The Shadow Magazine at Street & Smith, John Nanovic, championed Fisher’s career. Nanovic was an influential force in pulp publishing. He also helped invent the Doc Savage pulp which Fisher’s friend Lester Dent almost wrote single-handedly under the house name Kenneth Robeson.

According to correspondence with Will Murray, literary agent for Lester Dent’s estate, and a noted authority on pulp publishing, Nanovic told him that Fisher’s series character, Danny Garrett, was the best ongoing character featured in The Shadow. Garrett is a shoeshine boy detective who operates in an often dark and grotesque adult world of hard-boiled toughs, world-weary detectives, and gruesome murders.

Fisher’s teen detective deserves some commentary. Of course, the child hero in an apparently adult world is an American publishing phenomenon first associated with Horatio Alger, Jr.’s work, starting in 1900. But the Hardy Boys (starting in 1927) and Nancy Drew (starting in 1930) are probably the primary models of the child as hero detective in American popular fiction. Fisher easily adapts juvenile mystery trappings to the forbidding, hard-boiled, and dark city landscape that is the background universe of The Shadow. The Danny Garrett “Kid” character was vital enough to survive the pulp magazine format, and continue when The Shadow became a comic book. 
In considering the juvenile detective character tradition, I put the Rover Boys, and Tom Swift outside the mark in the adventure category; and rank Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Detective a work of different literary consideration.

In any case, teen detective protagonists were starting to appear in movies around the time of Fisher’s invention, and in time the two mediums influenced each other. By the 1940s both the hard-boiled detective film genre, and the Universal Studio horror film genre became formats for popular movie comedies, in part because of a younger audience.

I also note that The Shadow character first appeared on radio as a host in 1930, soon to have his own radio show, and by the following year his own pulp. Because of The Shadow character’s radio prominence, especially with teens, I imagine that the magazine starring The Shadow also drew a significant teenage audience.

Although the Danny Garret stories I read by Fisher had charm, and were entertaining, they suffer from a recurring problem Fisher has in constructing believable, formal detective puzzles. A number of his Black Mask tales could have been improved with better ratiocination plotting. Fisher is much better at suspense and thrills than at detection.

To a modern reader, Fisher’s pulp mysteries, especially his Danny Garrett stories, present such inept forensics, and poor crime scene security, that these procedural elements of the detection seem incredible. I must evaluate Fisher’s work both 
as entertainment, and as American writing. This is a different standard from that usually applied to most pulp magazine fiction. I must admit, however, that as I read Fisher’s Danny Garrett tales, I kept thinking that despite the flaws in these plots, Danny would make a good detective film character in a 1940s B mystery movie, probably featuring Jane Withers and Mickey Rooney.

Fisher’s military experience in the Navy influenced his writing from his early pulp sea stories like “Murder in the Navy,” (Thrilling Detective, November 1934), “Flaming Freighter,” (Thrilling Adventure, October 1934), “The Navy Spirit,” (True Gang Life, February 1935), and “The Tattooed Skipper” (The Shadow, May 1935).

Three of a Kind at Black Mask: Fisher, Gruber, and Woolrich

About this time, circa 1936, Fisher divorced his first wife and married Edythe (Edie) Syme, an editor at Popular Publications, Inc. Gruber and his wife oen went to dinner with Fisher and Edie.

By then, Fisher and Gruber had become close friends with Cornell Woolrich with whom they occasionally had dinner on those rare occasions when they were able to sidestep Woolrich’s restrictive, overbearing mother.

Fisher, Gruber, and Woolrich all started to sell to Black Mask when Fanny Ellsworth took over editorial reign in 1936, and their work began to appear in 1937. In The Life and Times of The Pulp Story, Brass Knuckles (1966) Gruber claims that he and Fisher managed to take the reclusive Woolrich to a party where they 
all got drunk. The next day Fanny Ellsworth called Gruber and reported that Woolrich had come tearing into the Black Mask offices threatening never to write for the magazine again because Fisher and Gruber had told him that they were getting three times the word rate for their stories than Fanny was giving Woolrich. Fisher and Gruber had been too drunk to remember the hoax!

Gruber knew Ellsworth well from selling lead rangeland novels to her during the years she ran the very successful Ranch Romances. Gruber thought Ellsworth an extremely erudite and perceptive editor who could have run The Atlantic Monthly or Harpers. In The Life and Times of The Pulp Story, Gruber claims that he introduced Fisher to Ellsworth, and helped him break into Black Mask. Both Gruber and Fisher credit Ellsworth with deliberately—and perceptively—changing the course of the magazine.

Romantic Emotion in the Highest Paying Magazines

Between 1938 and 1939 Steve Fisher achieved a kind of tipping point stability in his life and career: his fiction appeared 
in Black Mask Magazine, Liberty, Argosy, Cosmopolitan, the most prestigious pulps and the highest paying slick magazines seemingly at will.

Following the strategy he would use for all his genre fiction, Fisher jumped to high paying mass market magazines for his Navy and romance influenced stories: “Navy Girl,” (Cosmopolitan, September 1940), “Navy Man,” (Argosy, June 1941), and “My Heart Sails Tomorrow” (Liberty, June 1940). He published novels, and a number of new novels were in the works, and he had already made important sales and connections with Hollywood that would pay off for the rest of his professional life—which for Steve Fisher meant the rest of his life.

Early Hollywood Connections

Fisher’s first story sale made into a film was The Nurse from Brooklyn (1938), although Woody Haut says Fisher sold film rights to his first novel, Spend the Night (1935) for $125. But no film ever issued from that work.

With “Shore Leave” (Cosmopolitan, August 1938), Fisher had a compact love and spy story he helped the credited scriptwriter, Harvey Harris Gates, turn into a modest film for Monogram Pictures, Navy Secrets (1939). In later years, Fisher would script a number of films for Monogram.

By 1938 Fisher had Harold Ober, a prestigious agent, representing him in New York on book deals, and in Hollywood for film deals Fisher had H.N. Swanson, the legendary Hollywood agent who had started by representing F. Scott Fitzgerald and his great American novel, The Great Gatsby.

In fact, life seemed secure in 1938. Fisher and Edie boarded The Queen Elizabeth and cruised to France on a whim. The photograph of Fisher and his wife that faces his Armchair Detective essay at the end of this collection is from the Lester Dent Collection at The University of Missouri, and was probably taken in 1938 on that cruise.

We get a clear picture of Fisher’s optimistic state of mind from a letter he wrote to Dent on August 15, 1938, from this trip to France. The letter is in the Dent Collection of Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri/ State Historical Society of Missouri:

… Yes, Shore Leave sold to the screen, which proves what I said about Swanson as an agent… I’ve set so many sailing dates that I guess the people in N.Y. are going to suspect I’m like Jack London with “The Snark”… I’ve a standing Hollywood offer at Paramount for one thing, and though it is only $250. I may take it starting sometime in January. Hope by then Swanie can boost the price. It’s for a full six months deal.

…Have you read Of Mice and Men? It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in print. Objective writing, a good deal like yours…

By the time of this letter, Fisher had already published four or five novels under various names, including Spend the Night (1935), Satan’s Angel (1935), Murder of the Admiral (1936), Murder of the Pigboat Skipper (1937), The Night Before Murder (1939), and, a few months later, Homicide Johnny (1940).

1941 and Beyond: Steve Fisher Screenwriter

Finally Fisher’s first major, mainstream, novel success, Destroyer (a war novel reviewed prominently in The New York Times about predicted sea battles with the Axis fleet near Guam) was serialized in Argosy in April of 1941, and published as a book the summer of the same year.

This year, 1941, was Fisher’s breakthrough season. In one month Twentieth Century Fox purchased, for $7,500, Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming. Dodd Mead & Co had only just published it.

And almost at the same time, Fox also bought Fisher’s story, Red Cross Girl, for the very substantial 1941 price of $17,000. Swanie must have been cooking at his negotiating game. With the sale of I Wake Up Screaming, H.N. Swanson got Fisher the job of writing an original story for Fox, but Lamar Trotti wrote the script To the Shores of Tripoli (1942). Finally, that same year Fisher wrote his first film script, Berlin Correspondent (1942) for Fox. Both Fox films were war stories, a genre that appealed to Fisher. The best of Fisher’s wartime screenplays (written with Albert Maltz) was Destination Tokyo (1943), a submarine thriller starring Cary Grant for which Fisher received an Academy Award nomination.

In 1945, Fisher and his pal Frank Gruber adapted a novel,
 Mr. Angel Comes Aboard, by fellow Black Mask writer Charles G. Booth, into the screenplay for Johnny Angel, a great hit for RKO. More importantly for students of noir, Fisher signed a contract with MGM, and replaced Raymond Chandler on Chandler’s The Lady in The Lake (1947), an experimental classic film starring and directed by Robert Montgomery. For MGM Fisher also scripted the last of the Thin Man film series, Song of the Thin Man (1947), based on a novel by another Black Mask master, Dashiell Hammett. Bruce Elder in All Movie Guide considers these two film scripts the height of Fisher’s prestige in Hollywood.

But the same year Fisher also wrote the script for John Cromwell’s classic noir film, Dead Reckoning (1947) at Columbia. This stylish, disturbing, grisly, and beautiful film starred Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. In his Hollywood memoir, Play It Again, Sam Spade, included as the last piece in this collection, Fischer discusses how he came to work on this film, some of his techniques of screen writing, and his relationship with Bogart.

Through the 1950s Fisher’s film scripts continued to explore dark action and disturbed characters in work for major and minor studios. As mentioned Fisher received an assist from Cornell Woolrich on his plotting for the film adaptation of Woolrich’s I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948) at Monogram. Fisher also did Tokyo Joe (1949), another film starring Humphrey Bogart, at Columbia, which he designed with Bogart in mind; Roadblock (1951) at RKO; The Lost Hours (1952); The City That Never Sleeps (1953); and Hell’s Half Acre (1954).

Though Fisher’s screen plays moved on from dark thrillers to westerns, and other genres until his work, though steady, lost much of its classic, historical import, Fisher remained aconsummate professional workman.
Woody Haut, the author of Heartbreak & Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (Serpent’s Tail 2002) sums it all up nicely:

From 1945 to 1970, Fisher was one of the hardest working script writers in Hollywood, with over fifty film credits to his name… But, on the basis of one novel, I Wake Up Screaming, and films like Dead Reckoning and The Lady in the Lake, Fisher deserves a place on the short list of influential noirists.

Steven Gould Fisher’s Achievement

Once heightened emotion, and the interior life of the characters would be explored in Black Mask after 1936 with Fanny Ellsworth’s influence, Fisher’s writing in the best of his stories improved in the complexity of human psychology he was able to reveal.

The expression of this complexity of emotion and interior life had always been Fisher’s nascent and natural strength as a popular fiction magazine writer.

This expression of powerful interior states is the primary narrative shift that leads to the dark, shadowed dream worlds of noir that Fisher explores in full stride in his novel, I Wake Up Screaming, and his memorable film noir scripts of the 1940s. To support his claim of the emergence of a new subjective, emotional, psychology driven school which he called “tough-tender,” in his Armchair Detective essay Fisher offers two of his 1938 stories as harbingers of the new style: “Wait for Me” (Black Mask, May 1938), and “Goodbye, Hannah” (Double Detective, December 1938). Both of these tales are included in this collection.
 Fisher writes:

“One of my Black Mask stories was ‘Wait for Me,’ about a white Russian whore in Shanghai trying to escape the country, a U.S. sailor tagging along after her everywhere, calling out ‘Wait for me,’ but she didn’t, and in her devious manipulations to obtain a phony passport, was murdered in an upstairs room while the sailor waited for her below. All he wanted to say was that he would marry her, and that way she could have a legitimate passport.

“Well, that one broke all the old style and even a lot of taboos, and other stories like it followed by me Gruber, Woolrich, and others, and since Black Mask was still regarded as the beacon light of pulp fiction, other magazines began to take notice of this not so very subtle style change…. The subculture revolution had started.”

Of the enduring emotional impact of “Goodbye, Hannah,” which was collected in 1949 for the hardback story collection To The Queen’s Taste, Fisher quotes the book’s esteemed editor Ellery Queen (Fred Dannay) who wrote in his introduction to the tale more than a decade after its first appearance: “Steve Fisher packs more emotion, more heart into his yarns than most contemporary writers of the detective story. Your editors have yet to read a Steve Fisher story that fails to rise high above the level of cold, mechanical puzzle.”

By the way, in an essay I wrote for the editors of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s blog, “Black Mask Magazine, Steve Fisher, and The Noir Revolution” on Something Is Going to Happen.

I attribute this shift in Black Mask from the objective, hardboiled narrative to the emotional, noir narrative “The Ellsworth Shift.” That is how important I think Fanny Ellsworth is as a Black Mask editor, and as an unheralded contributor to the revolution of noir writing in the1930s. Steve Fisher and Frank Gruber felt the same way about Ellsworth, and wrote about her contribution to the noir shift.

My choice for Fisher’s greatest short story of psychological depth, and emotional resonance, a pulp story so rare in quality it’s first person narrative still chills us with the impact of real psychopathology, is “You’ll Always Remember Me” from Black Mask (March 1938). This story, although previously anthologized, is so good, so compelling, it had to be included in this collection of Steve Fisher’s pulp magazine writing.

This vivid short tale looks forward to William March’s 1954 novel, The Bad Seed, and also anticipates the pervasive 1950s theme of juvenile delinquency, particularly as raised to the level of social pathology in the short crime fiction of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, and in his iconic novel of 1953, The Blackboard Jungle.

Fisher, who is not a gifted stylist like Chandler, nor a precise narrator like Hammett, wrote swiftly without fuss. As Fisher’s great friend, Frank Gruber, also a versatile, success in pulps, novels, films, and in TV notes in his many memoirs, including The Pulp Jungle, he and Fisher were in the writing game to make a living. When they first arrived in Hollywood they both befriended Frederick Faust (Max Brand), one of the most prolific and successful fiction writers of the last century, and a hero to both of them. Faust, who was at the end of his fabulous career “fixing” dialogue for films, and recycling characters like Dr. Kildare, still wrote at least five to fourteen pages of fiction every day. He died on assignment during World War II, and Fisher wrote a memorable eulogy to him for Writer’s Digest.

Frederick (Max Brand) Faust was the ideal career writer to both Fisher and Gruber. Faust was a grand success in every genre and every medium he attempted. For Fisher and Gruber, every avenue for income from writing was fair game, and all honest writing, whether commercial fiction or great literature was worthy of the pride of the craftsman.

Fisher’s drive to succeed as a writer was as important as his natural talent to his great success. And he succeeded in almost every genre, and in all fields of fiction writing from the pulps to the slick magazines (an estimated 500 stories); in novels (at least 13); in film scripts (53); and television show episodes (200).

Steve Gould Fisher was an active, successful writer during a career that spanned five decades. He never stopped writing and publishing novels. He wrote for magazines, including the pulps, long after he had to for income. He remained active in film after the height of his prestige as a screenwriter in the 1940s and 1950s. He became very active in television work from the 1950s to the end of his life.

Early on, Fisher knew he had a special talent for expressing emotion, and he exploited that talent. For example, his love stories were enormously popular in pulp venues, and then in the most widely read, highest paying, prestige magazines of his day. That he was such an accomplished writer of mass-market love tales is unusual for an acclaimed crime thriller novelist, and versatile film scenarist. His greatest skill was evocation of emotion.

Although he occasionally compared himself to Jack London in conversations and in letters, Fisher considered himself a writer for hire, not especially a writer for the ages. He was very proudof his professionalism. He did not have to create art, or literature, for him to appreciate what he was writing—as long as he gave every piece he created his best effort at that time.

In a long letter to Writer’s Digest published in the December 1946 issue, Fisher wrote from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, where he was on contract creating film scripts, to “call to task” the editors for saying that many Hollywood contract writers “getting a thousand dollars a week” or more, were ashamed of what they wrote. Fisher jumped right in to defend all commercial fiction writing:

Please don’t tell me that magazine writing is ‘different’ from scenario writing because I have done a great deal of them both… and unless I can be proud of what I write, then I will not write it. I have no apologies for Lady in the Lake, the new Robert Montgomery film which will be in your town before Christmas; nor for Dead Reckoning, the new Humphrey Bogart starrer I wrote last summer, and certainly I am proud of Gallant Man… I am proud of all these things and glad I wrote them, and I want everybody in the world to know I wrote them. Is that being ashamed?

If you are a real writer, then all the things you write are written honestly, and all are one and the same thing—an expression of yourself, and whatever experience and talent that you have. I don’t believe any writer who writes should be ashamed of anything… whether it’s in Paris Nights, Christian Fiction, or one of the blood and thunder half cent a word fourth string pulps. It represents the best that he can do at the time, and you shouldn’t condemn him for it. I was never ashamed of my pulp stories…

Fisher was a keen observer of all of his contemporary writers, both his pulp and slick magazine peers, and also the writers
who were producing what Fisher recognized as art. In his many personal letters, and his letters to the editor of magazines like Writer’s Digest, Fisher observed and commented on the writing and the writers of his time.

Unlike some writers who had more literary cachet, Fisher was always a consummate professional wherever he worked. For example, while Fisher and William Saroyan were both at MGM in 1941/1942, Saroyan had a terrible tiff with the studio over his original script for The Human Comedy.

Saroyan vowed never to work in Hollywood again in a scathing humorous article in Variety that was quoted in papers across the nation. In brilliant spite, Saroyan transformed the script into his most popular novel, and published it before the film was released.

Raymond Chandler, a Black Mask narrator of genius, was deeply scarred by his Hollywood experience. Chandler criticized Hollywood in a famous magazine essay collected in his book collection of detective stories, The Simple Art of Murder.

According to Frank Gruber, who loved Chandler’s work, but admired his friend Fisher’s professionalism more, he and Chandler got in a great argument over the fact that Steve Fisher had replaced Chandler on the script for Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. Chandler believed he also deserved a credit for the script. Only Fisher received credit, and the film was both a critical and popular success.

Fisher deeply respected writing as an art, and was a perceptive observer of talent. One can only wonder at an obscure notice in The New York Times for June 12, 1943 which I discovered while reviewing Fisher’s career in newspaper notices: “Steve Fisher and William Faulkner have been assigned to the staff of writers working on Warner’s projected Battle Cry….” That film was never produced, and I could not discover if Fisher and Faulkner ever met while working in Hollywood. Of course, it is well known that Faulkner told the studio bosses he “wanted to write at home” and one day just in California, and returned to writing literature at his home in Mississippi.

Through the protagonist of I Wake Up Screaming, a Hollywood scriptwriter, Fisher comments on the talents of the industry hacks, and also on the quality writers of the day like William Saroyan and, again, John Steinbeck:

“You write don’t you?”

“Only plays,” I said.

“And you don’t care anyway; the only ones that care haven’t the talent to tell it on paper. The only ones that care are the ones that eat dog food and live out their miserable lives here, hoping to hell they get a break. And if they get a break, they don’t care any more. But some of us will always be extras and this is our lives.”

“You’re going to be late, Wanda,” Jill said.

“Some sweet day a John Steinbeck will come out and tell about it,” said Wanda. “He’ll tell about it because it’ll make him money. But he’ll tell. The way guys are beaten up because they don’t want to give their dough to racketeers. How girls have to sleep with fat slobs to get work. How girls get pregnant and climb the hills and jump off the Hollywoodland sign.”

I Wake Up Screaming presents a knowing insider’s view of film production, the glamour of Hollywood society of the late 1930s and early 1940s, and also the grim and gritty underside 
of Los Angeles, and of California. In addition to its fame as a psychological, noir crime thriller, the novel is also important as a Los Angeles, as a Hollywood, and as a California novel.

Fisher’s most famous book falls in a line of novels started in 1937 by James Cain’s Serenade, a work that is about an opera singer’s meteoric rise to film stardom. But Cain’s Hollywood experience scarred him, and his characters seem to speak for him when he has one say “…no picture is any good.”

Next in line I would place Nathanial West’s 1939 Hollywood apocalypse novel, Day of the Locusts. This metaphoric work takes Hollywood over the edge to a symbolic end of days. And in 
the line after Fisher’s novel, I would place Raymond Chandler’s Little Sister (1949), a classic private eye tale written by a stylistic genius from his own tarnished view from rough experience as a scriptwriter.

West’s, Cain’s, and Chandler’s novels have been accepted into the cannon of American literature, if not universally accepted as high art. Fisher’s novels remain on a lower rung of popular fiction.

Some critics questioned Fisher’s carelessness in his emendation of the 1941 novel in 1960 for a revised edition in which the local Hollywood culture is updated to the late 1950s.

Some of the new references seem to jar with the original spirit of the work. But that spirit shines through so strongly that in the end the revision, although a mistake in critical judgment, doesn’t undermine the power of the novel.

Steve Fisher, particularly in his film scripts, but also in I Wake up Screaming, is a master of dark, psychological thrills. His dreamlike fictional worlds deliver more powerful emotional experiences than more elegant stylists are able to arouse. As Otto Penzler noted about Fisher’s Black Mask companion, and fellow creator of noir crime suspense, Cornell Woolrich: “Woolrich is the greatest noir writer who ever lived, in spite of stylistic failings that include so much purple prose that in the hands of a lesser writer, would make one wince.” Both Fisher and Woolrich are money writers who get the job done of thrilling their readers.

In Black Mask Magazine, Fisher and Woolrich shared a talent for presenting aberrant mental states, and for casting suspenseful plots with inventive incidents. “You’ll Always Remember Me” is one of Fisher’s greatest short fiction achievements, and as chilling
a first person presentation of psychological derangement as any that ever appeared in an American magazine in the last century.

Fisher and Woolrich’s best Black Mask fiction set the stage
for the noir revolution in popular fiction, and popular film. And Fisher’s novel, I Wake Up Screaming, created the blue print, and was the inspiration, for the noir genre that has had an enduring impact and influence on film and fiction in popular American, and in world entertainment.

I would like to thank Will Murray, literary agent for Lester Dent’s estate and a meticulous pulp-publishing historian, and also Woody Haut, the noted noir film and hard-boiled literature commentator and critic, for original research and insights.

Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch.

Interview: Rafael DeSoto

Rafael DeSoto was born in 1906 in Barta Rolta, a small town in Spain on the border of Portugal. He came to the United States to study architecture at Columbia University in New York. The depression forced him to quit school and support himself by drawing. He studied anatomy under George Bridgeman at the Arts Students League and eventually went to Pratt Institute and higher degrees.

But Mr. DeSoto will tell you that he picked up his real training in his first two years as a dry brush illustrator for Street & Smith’s western, mystery and adventure pulps. By 1934 he had done his first magazine cover for one of their “less advanced” pulps, Top notch. He was soon Street & Smith’s most versatile cover illustrator, doing covers for Western Story, Doc Savage, The Shadow—in time over two hundred other titles.

Because he could work more than twice as fast as anyone else in the business (he could knock out two to three covers a week) and because he was an innovative illustrator in demand by every publisher, Mr. DeSoto holds the record for doing covers in the ’30s and ’40s.

In time, Popular Publications, one of the great pulp publishing houses and the publishers of Black Mask in the ’40s, dominated his time. But no one owned him.

He did covers for Argosy, Adventure, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and The Saturday Evening Post. In the fifties he worked for the paperback houses. “All of ’em,” he tells us, including Dell, Ace, Signet.

Rafael DeSoto also did some notable advertising work. He did a series of illustrations for the first Frigidaire campaign. He also did White Owl and Canadian Club advertisements.

Mr. DeSoto, who now teaches anatomy and composition at Farmingdale College on Long Island, feels that the magazine illustration of the pulp era is as close as commercial work has ever come to a fine art in America.

“In the old days everything was done for impact,” he said. “Nowadays it’s all design. The old drawings that jump off the page at you, the illustrated initials, the fine line work-that is an art that is almost lost and I wish that they would revive it.”

We here at Black Mask are reviving it. This is the first interview Mr. DeSoto has granted to the press. Usually he lets his covers speak for themselves.

 

Keith Alan Deutsch: Were you reading the pulps? What made you try out for them? For westerns?

Rafael DeSoto: I used to see them on the stands. Constantly. There seemed to be hundreds of them. And naturally I used to buy them. They were fascinating. I read them. And soon enough I pursued them. It was the depression. I had never done any work. Somehow I prepared a quick western for a sample and went to good old Street & Smith. The Art Director was Mr. James. The assistant Art Director was Harry Laury.

When I was in the waiting room and looked at all the beautiful paintings hanging around I got cold feet. When my time for an interview came I left my painting outside, I wouldn’t show it be cause I knew how bad it was.

So the inevitable happens and the Art Director says, “I can’t give you any work until I see something you’ve done.” So I went back out and brought my painting in to him. He looked at it a while and said; “You know, this is the most Spanish cowboy I ever saw.”

So I went to the library and I studied about Western life. About heels and boots and chaps and ten gallon hats and six gun holsters and so forth. I will say the second drawing I made was a little better. He hired me to do dry brush Illustrations. Dry brush is when you get your brush filled up with ink, but you dry it up a little and work with it. You can get very fine lines and sometimes double lines as you go along. You get very nice effects. It’s not used too much nowadays.

So he started me on dry brush drawings and I learned more doing those things than at any point in my career. I learned about composing a story. I learned about composition. After a while they became easy. It was those two years that prepared me for my later illustration. After those first years I got so busy doing covers I had much more work than I could do.”

Deutsch: When did you start doing Black Mask covers?

DeSoto: Well I wasn’t doing them at first. That was the top magazine. First I did mostly Street & Smith titles. I did The Shadow. After I started on the important magazines, I always thought that I should do something different with Black Mask. To make it stand out. So I decided to work with very dark backgrounds. So I decided to put jet black backgrounds around the shadows right into the black. Only the light part would show.

When I brought the first one into Mr. Steeger, the publisher of Popular Publications, he hit the top. “Golly, that’s good.” he said. “That’s what I want.”

Naturally I had reduced the whole scene into a close up because it is hard to work, to get too many things into the backgrounds. I think they were very effective. Harry Steeger knew what he wanted. If he liked something, he bought it. If not you couldn’t sell it to him. nIt really brings back memories. I had a lot of fun doing those things.

Now Terrell, who was the editor of Black Mask at that time, always thought that I was a little meek about drawing the gun. He’d tell me, “The gun is very important. Make it look big. Make it look like a cannon, And give it some flesh contact between the villain and the girl. Not exactly hurting her. Maybe his hand across her mouth. Some physical contact to show that the girl is in danger. Without being hurt. She’s not screaming because she’s hurt, but because she’s scared.” And I played on those things.

Deutsch: How did you meet Mr. Steeger?

DeSoto: I just went there. He was the publisher. He either liked it or he didn’t. I approached the Art Director and he brought me to the editors and the publisher. The very first example I brought to Popular Publications they bought. Left me without a sample. Before I went to Popular I was working for Dell doing western and detective covers.

Street & Smith bought my first cover for $60. I remember I would get up early in the morning to go out and see if my cover was on the stands yet. In a short time my price was up to $150 and then $250. I could do two or more a week. Pulps were very much in demand, very much in style. With no TV you had to read then. Every month Mr. Steeger called me in and told me I shouldn’t do anybody else’s covers. Four years after Street & Smith had started me I was straight Popular, I worked for them for ten years. But he couldn’t stop me from doing whatever titles I wanted to do outside.

Deutsch: What about horror covers? I noticed among the many cover paintings you showed me one with a mummy in it. Popular Publications had quite a few horror titles. Did you work any of them?

DeSoto: Yes, of course. I have one in my studio of a man that was half metal and half flesh. And nobody could shoot him down. I still have the cover. His arm and one of his eyes and part of his face is metal.”

Deutsch: Did they tell you to use girls with most of their clothing missing for the horror titles?

DeSoto: Ah, yes. Even in detective covers they would tell me to reveal as much as possible. I don’t know how they published some of them. I used to rip them up, you know. Show half the breast. The legs. Just enough to cover what you couldn’t show. Yes, I was told.

One time I did this spicy detective cover, I was told to show a lot of leg, so I decided to show a woman sitting down and putting her stockings on. I did a rough sketch and thought I really had it. I ended up showing it to Mr. Steeger and he wouldn’t have it. “It is not what you’ve exposed,” he said to me. “You could even reveal more thigh. You’ve drawn it wrong. That’s all. Looks like she’s taking her stockings off. Can’t have that. Study someone putting ’em on. It is OK if the lady is almost naked if she’s putting her clothes on. But it’s no good, even if she’s hardly removed anything, to show a woman getting undressed on a cover.” Sure enough, I had my wife practice taking her stockings off and there was a difference. I redid the painting and Mr. Steeger loved it.

There was a lot of censorship in those days, but there were rules like that and an awful lot of pretty raw stuff went through. And when pocketbooks first started in the early ’40s, well most of that stuff was even stronger. I didn’t even read the books after I did a few. All you had to do was show a half-naked woman and a bed. That was a whole other era.

Deutsch: What about the demise of the pulps?

DeSoto: I saw the writing on the wall in the early ’40s. There was the war, a paper shortage, but most of all it was the pocketbooks. So I went into pocketbooks, I did a slew of them in the ’40s and ’50s. Until ten years ago I was still doing ’em. And I also did a lot of work for Magazine Management after the pulps died. After the war most pulp artists went to the men’s adventure books like Stag and Men’s Adventure and war stories. I used to do both the covers and the inside illustrations. Duotones, mostly blues. The men’s books never used straight line drawings.

Deutsch: This is the age of pocketbooks. The most exciting area of publishing today.

DeSoto: Yes. I agree. They try everything now.

Deutsch: You don’t see many line drawings nowadays though, do you?

DeSoto: Well pocketbooks didn’t have them to begin with.

Deutsch: Do you think that’s a mistake?

DeSoto: Yes. Very much.

Deutsch: Some pocketbooks do have illustrations, notably Ace’s science fiction and Tarzan books. But not too many or too much. The appeal of the pulps depended quite a bit on their covers and line drawings. Dramatic, vivid illustrations. Sort of a cross between comic books and fiction.

DeSoto: Yes, that’s right. That is an art that has almost died and I wish that they would revive it. You see, many readers love the stories, but they haven’t the imagination to visualize the scenes. To picture it. We learned how to approach a situation so that it was not confusing. And so it has impact. Just like the stories.

Deutsch: What procedures were used in planning a cover?

DeSoto: Well, this is what happened. As a rule they had the stories written. I used to read them to pick up a scene for the cover. Not every story was suitable so I asked the editor to give me a little leeway to change things around. So I used to give my own version of what the story was to be. Then I gave them pencil sketches; maybe one or two, and I’d do the covers from them. In time they were asking their authors to do their stories from my covers! Reversed the procedure.

Deutsch: How did you make the paintings from the sketches?

DeSoto: Well I proceeded to take photographs, I built my own studio and took my own photographs. I posed the models. These things have to be done fast. I took many many photos and then I laid ’em out on the table and chose the best for the best parts of a few and made a composite. Always had to distort something. For effect or to make room for the titles. I used to arrange for those in my sketch but they didn’t always fit. Everything was planned out from the beginning. Once the photo was drawn I used to sketch in my dark tones and from the dark tones work out to the light. I never presented color sketches or let anyone see my photos.

All my early works was oils. Then I went to casein. An awful lot of my work was casein. Later work was acrylic. Everything was done for impact.

Deutsch: Who were some other illustrators you admired?

DeSoto: Nick Eggenhoffer was a great dry brush illustrator at Street & Smith when I was just starting. His best work was westerns. I remember a great cover man. Scott. W. Scott. Also Walter Baumhofer. He did an awful lot of Doc Savage covers. Harris. R.G. Harris. Arthur Bowker, I remember he did fine work.

Deutsch: What about Virgil Finlay?

DeSoto: Ah, yes. He was a great genius in line work. We used to call him the Salvador Dali of pulp. Fantastic illustrator, but his cover work wasn’t very good. He was a poor colorist.

Deutsch: Black Mask was something special?

DeSoto: Ah yes. Of all of them it was the best. I worked very hard to make it distinctive. After a while I got the dark backgrounds and I worked all close up as I explained to you. Look at the gun on your cover. It looks like a cannon. I went to a place where they made props for the theater and I had them build me a .45, exactly authentic to the last detail, out of wood. And he painted it so you couldn’t tell the difference. Due to the shape of the handle, the grip of the hand was different from any other revolver with a .45. And I did sketches of hands holding it in all positions.

And one thing I hated to see was a gun not being held right. It looks like an amateur shooting. If an amateur is going to shoot, he’s not a gangster. He’s not a criminal. One thing you’ve got to say about my Black Mask covers. My villains can shoot!

The Black Mask: a History of Black Mask Magazine

Research for this article was accomplished in Special Collections, University Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles, which holds a fine, but lamentably incomplete, run of Mask: about 90 percent. I wish to acknowledge the aid of the staff. They were, have been, are, and ever will he helpful. I also acknowledge aid, in the form of a small grant, from the Research Committee, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, for Summer 1979.

The debut of The Black Mask in April 1920 was modest and unassuming. It was a monthly pulp, cost 20 cents, contained an even dozen stories, 128 pages, and was subtitled: An Illustrated Magazine of Detective Mystery, Adventure, Romance, and Spiritualism (Mask would consistently tinker with the sub). F.M. Osborne was the editor; Pro-Distributors, 25 West 45th Street, New York, the publisher.1 Although mystery, adventure, romance, and spiritualism were the keynotes of Mask for years to come, occultism would have been more accurate. The logo was a dueling pistol crossed with a dirk, surmounted by a black domino mask. Few readers alive today would recognize one author on the title page, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes scholar Vincent Starrett. The illustrations were black-and-white sketches that were crude, awkward and amateurish enough to be a source of shame for a first-year drawing student.

Dropping “detective” and “spiritualism” from the sub for the May 1920 issue, Mask was off and running with a bragging announcement:

The plan of THE BLACK MASK is novel, and yet very simple. What we propose to do is to publish in every issue the best stories obtainable in America…. No effort or expense will be spared…. [It] will be illustrated by the best artists we can find…. We will offer more… in one magazine than is now offered in any five.

So the editors upped the number of stories to fourteen and offered “Receipted in Full,” by Hamilton Craigie, which was the illustrated lead novelette of 15 pages. Subsequent issues held as many as seventeen tales that were often overwritten, too mysterious, occultish, or just plain silly. The stories were set in exotic locales: Tibet, the South Seas (Mask’s favorite), the Philippines, South Africa, the Ivory Coast, Borneo, Burma, India, and San Francisco’s Chinatown.2

The Black Mask Boys

Black Mask get-together, January 11, 1936.
Back row L-R: Raymond J. Moffatt, Raymond Chandler, Herbert Stinson, Dwight Babcock, Eric Taylor, Dashiell Hammett. Front: Arthur Barnes, John K. Butler, W. T. Ballard, Horace McCoy, Norbert Davis. Note: Raymond J. Moffatt was not a Black Mask author.

Short-shorts were inevitable, at least one per issue. They ranged from one-half page to two and one-half. Serials began to appear early in 1922. It was not unusual for a writer to appear twice in the same issue either under his own name plus a pseudonym, e.g., Harold Ward (Ward Sterling).3

Under Osborne’s editorship, quality was apparently not a strong point.

With the October 1922 issue, George W. Sutton, Jr., without fanfare or announcement, took over as editor and H.C. North as associate editor. This was a happening in the life of the pulp which had to have been struggling. Adopting yet another subtitle, A Magazine of Unusual Romance and Detective Stories (back in 1921 it had been A Magazine of Mystery, Thrills and Surprise), Sutton and North had some advice for their readers, in whom they loved to confide:

THE EDITORS… have tried to produce the most unusual magazine in America…. Each story is designed to leave you with a definite, powerful impression….BUT IN ORDER to get this effect and enjoy it to the fullest you must not read these stories the way you probably read most other fiction tales. If you skip quickly over the pages you will miss the background and the details…. If you read the first paragraphs and then jump to the end… you will cheat yourself…. IT IS OUR AIM to entertain you—to lift you out of the dull routine of daily life…. THE BLACK MASK makes no pretense of sticking to the conventional “happy ending”… its plots are unusual. Its characters are unusual… the endings are always surprisingly out of the ordinary, never commonplace.… You spoil your own pleasure by reading them the wrong end first.

While inviting “the Most Candid Opinions of Our Readers,” Sutton put into print some of his new ideas and gimmicks with an eye toward quality. In the October 1922 issue Robert E. Sherwood (not yet the playwright of fame) began a movie-review column, “Film Thrillers.” Carroll John Daly made his first appearance in Mask with “Dolly,” a story about mental derangement. “A new type of story,” Sutton crowed. It was for pulps and it created a real stir. Daly quickly became a star (more on him later), incredible as that may seem to those of us today who know him to have been one of the worst writers who ever lived.

Two of Sutton’s gimmicks appeared in November. Joe Taylor, Ex-Automobile Bandit with fifteen years’ experience, contributed his first piece (of at least eleven), “The Life of a Hold-Up Man,” complete with mug shot. His words were as suspicious as he was. Eustace Hale Ball, with Earl Derby, contributed the first “Daytime Story” to Mask “Dead Men Do Tell!” “Daytimes” proved to be popular and long-lived. Sutton cautioned that these “awesome” tales were “not to be read at night by people with weak nerves.” Nothing could have been more ridiculous, but times change, don’t y’know Markham? A similar series, “Cemetery Tales,” began early in 1923. Drayton Dunster’s “The Tombstone of Babette,” (March 15) was typical.4

Sutton was fond of serials and was not above having two in the same issue. That way, of course, he was assured that readers could not “jump to the end” except in the final installment. He was overly fond of a true-crime series called “The Manhunters” written by Charles Somerville (“the most celebrated reporter and investigator of real mystery and crime in America”). The first segment, “After Ten Thousand Miles,” came out in February 1923. “Manhunters” was as much serial as it was series.5

The big moment in Black Mask’s early days, although the editors did not know it at the time, was the advent of Peter Collinson with “The Road Home,” a three-page adventure short-short (December 1922). Collinson was none other than Samuel Dashiell Hammett. By the end of 1923, Collinson/Hammett had appeared eight times, twice in one issue. The first Continental Op story, “Arson Plus,” (October 1) was under Hammett’s nom de plume. What began as a professional relationship became an affaire de coeur. No other words can describe Mask’s esteem and worship.

Hammett’s letters began to appear as early as October 15, 1923, when he discussed “Slippery Fingers” and the transference of fingerprints. On November 15 Mask proudly announced the forthcoming “Bodies Piled Up” (December 1), an Op caper: “Mr. Hammett has suddenly become one of the most popular of Black Mask writers, because his stories are always entertaining, full of action and very unusual situations. This is his best to date: a real detective yarn.” In the head note to “The House on Turk Street,” April 15, 1924, Mask said: “We wouldn’t consider an issue complete without one of Mr. Hammett’s stories in it.” On and on they went. When the pulp unexpectedly rejected “Women, Politics and Murder,” Sutton printed Hammett’s reaction, August 1924:

The trouble is that this sleuth of mine [The Op] has degenerated into a meal-ticket. I liked him at first and used to enjoy putting him through his tricks; but recently I’ve fallen into the habit of bringing him out and running him around whenever the landlord… shows signs of nervousness. There are men who can write like that, but I am not one of them.

But Hammett rewrote “Women” and Mask published it the next month. The Op wasn’t abandoned until November 1930.

When “The Golden Horseshoe” appeared, the head note trumpeted:

In our recent voting contest for favorite BLACK MASK authors, Dashiell Hammett received thousands of votes because of his series of stories of the adventures of his San Francisco detective. He has created one of the most convincing and realistic characters in all detective fiction (November 1924).

Hammett submitted an autobiographical sketch in the back matter. “I am long and lean and gray-headed, and very lazy. I have no ambition at all in the usual sense of the word.” Meanwhile, to retrace our steps, Black Mask had become a semimonthly as of February 15, 1923. “This move was dictated entirely by our readers and by the newsdealers,” Sutton insisted. “A bond of cordial good feeling exists between our readers and us. They guide us in everything we do in Black Mask.

On June 1, 1923, Mask produced its supreme achievement. The Ku Klux Klan number. Disclaiming any “connection whatsoever” with the hooded ones, Mask immodestly opined that the issue might prove to be “the most interesting and sensational number of any American magazine this year.” They were “ABSOLUTELY NEUTRAL” but thought “the attempt to revive the old… Klan with new ideas and purposes was the most picturesque element that has appeared in American life since the war.” The staff even boasted of the cover by L.L. Balcom. Each story centered on the KKK. The Mask claimed, “SOME OF THESE FAVOR THE KLAN—OTHERS ARE STRONGLY AGAINST IT—WE REPEAT, WE ARE ABSOLUTELY NEUTRAL.” Reader letters (both pro and con) poured in, prompting the establishment of a KKK Forum (August 15 issue). The Forum divided the letters into two parts: For and Against. No “libelous” or “malicious” letters would be printed.

Taking a close look at the effort and the uproar that followed, one gets the distinct impression that Mask supported and upheld the Klansmen and that it favored their racism and vigilantism. No other argument seems logical.

Really, the most significant item in the issue was Carroll John Daly’s “Knights of the Open Palm,” featuring and introducing Race Williams, Private Investigator.

… That’s what the gilt letters spell across the door of my office. It don’t mean nothing, but the police have been looking me over so much lately that I really need a place to receive them…. As for my business, I’m what you might call the middleman—just a halfway house between the dicks and the crooks (p. 33).

Derived from an earlier Daly creation, “Three-Gun Terry Mack, Private Investigator” (see May 15, 1923), Williams went on in Mask to become (I believe I am safe here) the most popular character of them all, out-rivaling even The Op. Daly knew when he had a good thing going and he rarely missed. In the same issue in which Hammett talked about himself (November 1924), Daly had a few words.

About Race Williams—he is a combination of fact and fiction; it is hard to tell where the one ends and the other leaves off. To my mind he is the hero of reality-not the proud fiction hero who shoots only when first wounded by an enemy.

So be it.

Mask ceased semi-monthly publication with the April 15, 1924, issue and went back to monthly. By then, Sutton was out and P.C. Cody was editor as well as vice president and circulation manager(6). But before dismissing Sutton’s tenure, we must acknowledge his fetching one more star into his galaxy: Charles M. Green, Erle Stanley Gardner, who began with “The Shrieking Skeleton” (December 15, 1923), followed up with “The Serpent’s Coils” (January 1, 1924), which was a Daytime Story, and continued well into the 1940s. He, too, quickly established his fame among the readers and just as quickly dropped “Green.” Before long he began his Bob Larkin tales and in January 1925 had printed “Beyond the Law,” the first novelette with Ed Jenkins, The Phantom Crook, who was to do a lot of work in Frisco’s Chinatown. Jenkins was no slouch. He held his own with The Op and Race Williams. By the end of 1926 he had been in eleven stories.

The magazine thrived under Cody, for he was an editor with ideas. In the Summer of 1924, he bade his readers to be his associate editors, that is, to tell him what they wanted for the upcoming November number. In August he wrote, “We are publishing the magazine for you, to give you pleasure. We wish to make it exactly the kind of magazine you wish it to be.” Cody—or the readers—put out a good one: Race Williams was the lead followed by The Op (“The Golden Horseshoe”), and Francis James with a Prentice story; and finally, yet another debut, J. Paul Suter’s The Reverend McGregor Daunt (“one of the strangest and most fascinating characters in fiction”). Suter played the game well. On page 118 was a letter from the good Reverend himself! Daunt may not have been at the top with, say, The Op or Ed Jenkins, but he was up there.

In March 1926, Cody informed the faithful that “the rapid increase in the sale of THE BLACK MASK… has induced us to increase our print order by 50 percent—at one shot…. Will you help us out? All you need to do is to tell a friend or two about the magazine.” And he hammered at “telling” for some months. Come September, he was satisfied. He offered his “Many Thanks” and said unto all: “There isn’t a he-man who likes he-man stories who won’t be grateful to the fellow who tells him about The Black Mask.” He offered free sample copies.

The time had come for Joseph T. Shaw and in he came with the November 1926 issue. As editor he brought fame to Mask and himself. Or was it the other way around? Let’s face it. Shaw inherited from his predecessors; indeed, he was more an heir than a successor. In place in the pulp heavens were The Stars; in place was the action story he loudly professed to love; in place was the Western. A new name had been found, Raoul F. Whitfield, from whom so much was to come. “Cap” Shaw had the talent and the sense of a superb editor, but he did not do it alone. Nor did he veer more than a fraction from the policies of Osborne, Sutton, and Cody during his reign (1926-1936), precisely ten years. Only names and faces changed with passing time, not editorial policy.

“We will offer more,” promised Osborne back in 1921. He abided by it.

So did Sutton and Cody, qualitatively. Writers vied for inclusion in The Black Mask. More often than not, they or their characters appeared exclusively therein. Writers seemed, obviously so, to like writing for the magazine. As Hammett wrote when “Women, Politics and Murder” had been returned:

I want to thank… you… for jolting me into wakefulness. There’s no telling how much good this will do me. And you may be sure that whenever you get a story from me hereafter—frequently, I hope—it will be one I enjoyed writing.

That says it. Says it all.

Notes

  1. Immediately we are presented with a mystery, for the 45th Street address was also that of Smart Set, the famous magazine (also a pulp) edited by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Indeed, HLM contended that he and Nathan “started Black Mask…. It… was a success…. Nathan and I sold our interest in it to [Eltinge F.] Warner and [Eugene F.] Crowe after running it for six months” (Betty Adler, compiler, HLM: The Mencken Bibliography [Baltimore, 1961], (p. 138). Warner was publisher of and Crowe part owner of Smart Set. If in fact HLM and Nathan ran Mask there is no evidence on the masthead.
  2. Simply put, Mask was racist and used Chinese, in stories and on covers, derogatorily. Almost always they were villains. Blacks, if they appeared at all, were rendered as clowns.
  3. Pseudonyms are a real problem. Undoubtedly there was much of this practice and most will never be known unless, by chance, the Mask records are located. I have the distinct feeling that in the early days an issue might have been written by a handful of authors, maybe three or four.
  4. Gimmicks were not altogether new with Sutton. Under Osborne, a short-lived, illustrated “department” devoted to fingerprints, conducted by one William Starwood Post, F.P.E. (Finger Print Expert?) commenced in May 1922. While I’m at it, I’ll give Osborne his due for running a five-part serialization of J.S. Fletcher’s “Exterior to the Evidence,” April–August 1922, and for printing an early Murray Leinster story, “The Frankenstein Twins” (June 1922).
  5. Two other featured series contributed to the compartmentalization of Mask. “Our Dreams,” a.k.a. “Your Own Mysteries,” was under the byline of Gregory Stragnell, M.D. Sutton called the column “a practical, helpful application of one of the newest sciences: psychoanalysis.” It began on March 1, 1923, but it didn’t last long. Readers were not yet ready for a shrink, despite Sutton’s plea to send in “your dreams… tell Dr. Stragnell your worries and problems.”
  6. One of Cody’s first moves was to change the style of the cover to more like those of the classic Masks in the late 1920s and early 1930s. On page 52 of the April 1, 1924, issue, he put up the cover painting for auction to the highest bidder. “Bids of less than $10.00 will… be rejected. No printing of any kind appears on these original paintings.”

This article was originally published in Mystery (January 1981, Vol. 2, No. 1), subtitled The Magazine Dedicated to Readers of Mystery, Suspense, Thrillers, and Adventure.

Written by Professor E.R. Hagemann. Copyright © 1981 by E.R. Hagemann. Reprinted by permission of the estate of E.R. Hagemann’s.

Raoul Whitfield: Black Mask’s Forgotten Man

Authors’ Note: More than fifty-seven years have passed since Raoul Whitfield’s death, and still very little is known about his life. No archived letters have turned up to shed light on this mystery man. During these years only three substantial articles have been written about him.

Raoul Whitfield

Raoul Whitfield

The foundational essay by Prof. E.R. Hagemann, “Raoul F. Whitfield, A Star with the Mask,” published in The Armchair Detective (13:3, Summer 1980), contained more conjecture than fact, Hagemann himself admitted. William F. Nolan’s article in his anthology, The Black Mask Boys (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1985), broke new ground, but some of it has dubious value.

More recently, Douglas Ivison’s “Raoul Whitfield,” was published in American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers, edited by George Parker Anderson and Julie B. Anderson (Detroit: The Gale Group, 2000; vol. 226 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography). Unfortunately, Mr. Ivison’s essay offers nothing in the way of original research. It is simply a lame rehashing of what Messrs. Hagemann and Nolan have written, and therefore perpetuates the misinformation of his predecessors.

The following essay not only breaks new ground through extensive research, but provides supporting documentation and citations from newspapers, the U.S. Census and vital statistics on birth, death and marriage certificates, as well a documents from various government sources. In addition, the authors present the first Raoul Whitfield bibliography, listing 371 stories and serials, more than double the number of stories Hagemann and Nolan believed Whitfield had written. Except for those titles that appeared in Black Mask, most other citations are published here for the first time, and have been verified by examining either magazine issues or microfilms from the Library of Congress.

Coming to the Black Mask

It has become popular for critics to refer to Raoul Whitfield as Black Mask’s forgotten man, and that his writing career, like that of his friend and colleague Dashiell Hammett, lasted exactly eight years. They tend to view Whitfield only from his Black Mask period, 1926–1934, when, in fact, he began selling short fiction to the pulp story magazines in 1924, and had more than 40 stories published before his first one appeared in Black Mask.

During his writing career, Whitfield published over 300 short stories and serials, and 9 books. Only two of his books were original novels. Two others were based on serials and connecting stories that appeared in Black Mask; and the remaining five were story collections for young readers culled from the pages of Boy’s Life, Battle Stories and other pulp magazines between 1926 and the early 1930s.

The legendary Black Mask, which was launched by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1920, is remembered today for having taken the detective story out of genteel drawing rooms and putting it on the streets. Tough dialogue and lean narrative replaced the long-winded, florid prose popular with Victorian- and Edwardian-era scriveners. Even mainstream magazines were beginning to publish tougher stories with an edge from writers like Ernest Hemingway.

Literature, after World War I, was becoming more realistic, reflecting the changing patterns of the times and of society. It wasn’t a conscious effort on the part of Black Mask’s founding editors to create a new literary form now called the “hard-boiled school of American detective fiction”; Mencken and Nathan used the magazine to publish the overflow of fiction that was being submitted to The Smart Set. When they tired of reading mysteries and westerns, they sold the magazine to another publisher, and the new editors evolved Black Mask in that direction after readers responded favorably to tough stories delivered by a handful of writers who became synonymous with the magazine.

Editor Philip C. Cody, who piloted Black Mask from the April 1, 1924 through the October 1926 issues, praised Dashiell Hammett’s compact narrative style and hard-hitting dialogue, and made it known to his growing stable of contributing writers that he expected better-written stories, to set the magazine apart from competitors. Cody had only begun to succeed with his plans by bringing aboard new writers like Erle Stanley Gardner and Raoul Whitfield, when internal politics removed him from the editorial chair.

Joseph T. Shaw took over the magazine’s reins with the November 1926 issue. He saw no reason to tamper with Cody’s vision and set out to refine the Black Mask style over the next decade.

Yet, on another level, literature was changing, and not just in the pulp fiction magazines. In cities like New York and Chicago, where clusters of writers got together, literary revolutions had been occurring since the mid-1910s. Critics call them a “renaissance,” and books have been written documenting how they started and evolved. It was a phenomenon that occurred every generation or two in the first half of the 20th century, and perhaps a little earlier.

At Black Mask, a small group of writers arrived unexpectedly on its doorstep approximately around the same time, and submitted stories about the seamier side of life—political corruption, gangsters, private detectives with fists bigger than brains, and the dark side of criminal behavior that rose up from the gutters and flourished when the Volstead Act enacted by Congress in October 1919 launched Prohibition. This social climate provided unlimited fodder for the vivid imaginations of Carroll John Daly, a New York-based hack writer, Dashiell Hammett, an ex-Pinkerton Detective Agency operative, and Erle Stanley Gardner, one of California’s most feared trial attorneys at the time. And then came Raoul Whitfield.

Whitfield’s first contribution to Black Mask (“Scotty Troubles Trouble,” March 1926) fit perfectly into the emerging “hard-boiled” mold of tough-talking heroes and non-stop action. The “Scotty” stories also ushered in a new genre in pulp fiction. During their several meetings in 1973–74, Prudence Whitfield told Keith Alan Deutsch of Black Mask Magazine, Inc., that Raoul considered himself to be the inventor of the Flying Ace stories. Within a few years numerous pulp magazines were launched to cater to readers who craved flying adventures and battle stories. Even magazines like Boy’s Life printed them regularly, especially those contributed by Whitfield.

They certainly appealed to Black Mask readers, and Whitfield rapidly became one of that magazine’s most popular and frequently published writers. Over the next eight years he sold the magazine 90 stories and serials. His productivity was eclipsed only by Erle Stanley Gardner, who appeared 103 times, but over a longer span of eighteen years. Had Whitfield continued to write at relatively the same pace as he did during his early years, his cumulative book and story credits would have been huge.

Of the magazine’s original “hard-boiled” quartet (Hammett, Whitfield, Gardner and Carroll John Daly), only Hammett and Gardner achieved wider popularity, but in different ways. Hammett became a literary cult figure and the subject of a new biography every ten years or so. Gardner became one of the most successful and highest-paid mystery novelists of the century.

Like most Black Mask contributors, however, Whitfield was a writer of the second rank; he craved the literary limelight, according to one historian, but never achieved lasting success. His stories represented everything that was good and bad in hard-boiled detective fiction: He could tell a blood-splattered, action-filled story with the best of his contemporaries, but his staccato writing style—an obvious imitation of Dashiell Hammett’s lean, crafted prose—could rarely be called distinguished.

By the time Whitfield should have been producing more polished work and maturing as a writer, he got out of the game. “He was bored with writing; plotting came too easily,” Prudence Whitfield explained to Deutsch. But there were other reasons over which he had no control.

Fragments of Biography

Raoul Falconia Whitfield was born in New York City on November 22, 1896, into a family that was socially prominent and financially comfortable. Messrs. Hagemann and Nolan have variously given his birth year as 1897 and 1898. However, an examination of his New York City birth certificate (NYC #50974) proves that he was born in 1896, as well as the interesting fact that his real middle name was “Falconia”—not the artistic invention of “Fauconnier,” which he tacked onto his byline to make his name sound exotic or unique.

His father, William H. Whitfield, was in the U.S. Civil Service and was moved about at the government’s discretion. Sometime before 1900, perhaps when Raoul was two or three, William Whitfield moved his family to Manila, where he had been assigned to an unknown position with the Territorial Government. We know this happened before 1900 because the elder Whitfield was not listed in the New York City Directory for that year, nor did his name turn up in the U.S. Census for 1900.

City directories were distinct from telephone directories. They began to be published in the U.S. in the mid-1700s, and can be of inestimable value in finding out where a person lived during certain periods of his life. Not only did city directories list a person’s home address, but their professions and in many instances whom they worked for, as will be shown later.

During his years in the Philippines, young Whitfield accompanied his father on frequent trips to Japan and China. These broadened his knowledge of that region, and later provided background for his endless stream of pulp stories. One senses that Raoul Whitfield was more at ease writing stories with a Philippine or South Pacific setting, particularly in and around Manila, where his family had lived. There he set such pulse-pounding action tales as “The Sky Jinx,” “Kiwi,” and “Hell’s Angel” (all from Adventure) and the more than two dozen mystery stories featuring “Island Detective” Jo Gar.

But like other prolific pulp writers of his day, Whitfield easily transferred his stories to diverse locales. South of the Mexican border proved fertile ground for air adventures such as “South of Tia Juana,” “Rio Red,” and “El Jaguar’s Claws,” and for a number of crime stories in Everybody’s. He also turned out innumerable yarns featuring aerial combat and the hazards of flying over enemy territory during World War I. Tales such as “Sky Eggs,” “Traffic Trouble,” “Flaming Flight,” “The Suicide Air Patrol” and “The Sky Trap” are typical examples.

The aircraft Whitfield flew during the War were extremely primitive compared to today’s high-tech military hardware. But he professed to know first-hand what it felt like to engage enemy planes at short range and stare into the barrel of a machine gun five-thousand feet above the ground. He realistically conveyed the terror pilots experienced when bullets ripped through the flimsy fabric covering of an aircraft’s fuselage and wings, or when they knocked out the engines, before the planes spiraled toward earth and certain death. Whatever stylistic limitations Whitfield had, he could spin yarns of breathless adventure.

In 1916, Raoul Whitfield became ill and was sent to New York for treatment. One wonders whether that illness was a variant of the tubercular bacillus that triggered his attack of tuberculosis two decades later. It took years of treatment to put Hammett’s tuberculosis into remission. After Whitfield’s health improved, he drifted to California and he began a short-lived career as a bit-part actor in the silent movies. He was well suited for this profession: handsome, muscular, a six-footer, who looked and dressed like a “Dapper Dan.” Writing about him in Hammett: A Life at the Edge, William F. Nolan said: “Photos show [Whitfield] with cane, elegant leather gloves and a silk scarf around his neck, looking aloof and imperious. His mustache is carefully trimmed, his dark hair slicked back and parted in the middle. Every inch the gentleman.”

But acting didn’t appeal to Whitfield. The Great War, as it was then called, was going full tilt in Europe and he saw this as an opportunity to get involved in some real action. Although Whitfield claimed to have served in the ambulance corps (the American Field Service), his name does not appear on any of the records, according to the National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri. The enlistment date of his joining the ambulance corps was recorded by William F. Nolan as having taken place on May 22, 1917 (Los Angeles, California), but that he soon realized he’d have a better chance of joining the war if he became a flyer. Nolan states that Whitfield transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps and received his pilot training at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, and that he was in France by the summer of that year. We suspect Nolan obtained this information sixty years later from first wife Prudence. Whether she remembered those details correctly or embellished upon them is an open question. Whitfield also claimed that he was a second lieutenant, but the National Personnel Records Center states Whitfield was discharged on April 2, 1918 as a Private First Class in the Flying Cadets, United States Army, hardly the rank of a fighter pilot. His service number was 1163772.

His assignments, Whitfield said, were frustrating. First he shuttled cargo in unarmed De Havillands to the front lines; then he was given the job of towing targets for aerial gun practice at St. Jean de Monts. Eventually, Whitfield became a fighter pilot and his combat record and enemy kills were sufficiently distinguished to earn him the “Croix de Guerre.” We’re willing to accept his having shuttled cargo and towing practice target, but not being a fighter pilot. And it may well be that the “Croix de Guerre” was given to his group as recognition of service to France, but not to him personally. Then there’s the fact that he was in the service barely eleven months. So whatever air combat flights he may have had appear to be mainly flights of his imagination.

When Raoul Whitfield returned home early in 1918, it has been alleged that he “drifted” around the Orient for several years in search of adventure, before his father encouraged him to learn the steel business from the ground up. We suspect that journey to the Orient is apocryphal. He worked briefly as a laborer in a Pennsylvania steel mill, a job he might have obtained through his father’s political and business connections. He claimed in an autobiographical profile in the March 7, 1931 Argosy that he performed “experimental engineering work.” This is also hard to believe because he had no academic credits to qualify him. Even his statement about having been educated at Lehigh University (Pennsylvania) was a fabrication. The university confirmed that he had never been a student.

But he didn’t see this work as a career any more than acting. “The truth is,” he admitted later, “I was born to be a writer,” which may be closer to the truth than anything he wrote about himself.

Working in a steel mill was just one of several transient jobs Whitfield held before he launched his full-time writing career. Other jobs, according to the dust jacket caption for Death in a Bowl (1931), were fire fighter in the Sierra Madre range, a bond salesman and a newspaper reporter. We have been able to verify (through the 1922 Pittsburgh City Directory) that Whitfield did work as a bond salesman for Redmond & Co., Investment Securities, 498 Union Arcade, Pittsburgh, Penna., and lived in the suburb of Lake McKeesport.

When and for how long Whitfield was a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post is also an open question. This information is not listed in subsequent issues of the Pittsburgh City Directory.

William F. Nolan states Whitfield worked at the Pittsburgh Post in the mid-1920s (perhaps after his stint as a bond salesman?), and that it was there that he met and married co-worker “Prudence Van Tine,” his first wife. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t possible. A Pittsburgh contact located and photocopied for us the Whitfields’ marriage license application and their marriage certificate, which reveal that Raoul and Prudence were married on April 28, 1923. The marriage license application shows a number of curious and contradictory pieces of information.

First, Raoul Whitfield gives 27 West 84th Street, New York City, as his place of residence, his occupation as writer, and his middle name as “Fauconnier.” The bride-to-be gives her name as Prudence Ann Smith, residence as East McKeesport, Penna., and that she was “unemployed.” This casts doubt on Mr. Nolan’s information that the two met at the Pittsburgh Post, which we believe he also obtained from a conversation or exchange of letters with Prudence Whitfield sometime in the late 1970s. This raises the question: Where did the Van Tine name come from, which Prudence used on several future documents? That’s one of several oddities about Prudence Ann Smith Whitfield we will discuss later.

Whitfield stating he was a writer could mean that he was working as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post, but we can’t confirm that. However, it is certain that he was in the early stages of developing his writing career, for he was to make his published debut with “The Sky Climbers” in the May 22, 1924 issue of Street & Smith’s Sport Stories. By August and September of that year Whitfield became a regular contributor to Breezy Stories and Droll Stories. The best that one could say about these stories is that they are the early work of someone learning to become a professional writer.

Averaging 2,200 words in length, these were general fiction experiments—sometimes with a slight mystery—not the action tales he would grind out later. But it was a productive period for a beginning writer. Breezy Stories published 29 Whitfield stories between the August 15, 1924 and April 1, 1926 issues. Droll Stories published seven, and Telling Tales two.

Nineteen Twenty-Six can be considered his breakout year. He cracked Black Mask with eight of his 35 sales in 1926. Twenty of these appeared in Street & Smith’s Sports Story Magazine, which rapidly became a very active market for him. He had sold 20 stories to the magazine in 1925 and 11 in 1924. Other first-time sales were made to Blue Book, Boy’s Life, Open Road for Boys and Edwin Baird’s Real Detective Tales & Mystery Stories. Whitfield sold 50 stories in 1927. Eight again went to Black Mask, and he added Adventure, Battle Stories, Everybody’s, Sunset, and Top-Notch to his growing list of markets.

Sometime in 1926 or 1927, it has been said, Prudence Whitfield encouraged their move to Florida’s west coast, so Raoul could settle in and earn a living as a full-time writer for the story-hungry pulps.

He was twenty-nine when the first of his many air adventures appeared in Black Mask; but it wasn’t long before his interests turned to writing crime stories.

Frederic Dannay, late founder and editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, once described Whitfield at work: “[He] always wrote easily and quickly, with a minimum of correction. He had a particular talent for starting with a title and writing [a story] around it… He would place neat stacks of chocolate bars to the right of his typewriter, and a picket fence of cigarettes to his left. He wrote and chain-smoked and ate, all in one unified operation.”

This picture of Raoul Whitfield’s writing habits was undoubtedly provided to Dannay by Prudence Whitfield. She lived in New York from the mid-1940s on, and met with Dannay when the latter tried to jump-start renewed interest in Whitfield’s fiction by reprinting several stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It was a futile effort because nothing came of it in terms of book reprints or anthologies of his uncollected stories.

Prudence Whitfield also had in her possession several of Raoul’s unpublished manuscripts, which she lent to Keith Alan Deutsch on the promise that he would not copy them, which he didn’t. Of these, he remarked, “I recall very few typos or cross outs. It appeared that he could just knock them out—of course I do not know how many drafts came before—but Prudence said he didn’t favor fiddling.”

According to other reports, Whitfield rarely touched up his stories with more than a few penciled corrections. That lack of rewriting and polishing is very evident in much of his fiction; whereas Hammett was known to rework his stories over and over, to achieve a certain level of perfection, Whitfield either lacked the patience or the interest. But unlike Hammett, who became completely impotent of story ideas, and left behind nearly two dozen unfinished manuscripts, including a novel, Whitfield conjured up plots effortlessly, easily drawing on his familiarity with the South Pacific and his wartime experiences for much of his writing career.

So prolific was his early output in magazines like Air Trails, War Stories, Everybody’s Magazine, Triple-X, Boy’s Life and Battle Stories that he sometimes appeared in the same issue under his own name and under the pseudonym of Temple Field. Still later, when he created his “Island Detective” Jo Gar for Black Mask, he used the byline of Ramon Decolta. Perhaps he chose a Spanish name to lend a dash of authenticity to the tales. It was a strict editorial policy among pulp fiction magazines never to feature more than one story under the same byline in a single issue, which forced prolific writers to invent pseudonyms. Unless an author later revealed his or her pseudonyms, or a researcher had access to a magazine’s surviving card files, it becomes difficult today to identify the writers behind pseudonyms or “house names” decades after their stories were published.

Reader interest in Whitfield’s air-action stories, especially those about World War I, continued for more than a decade after the war ended. Some were collected into popular books for boys as late as 1930–33.

Singling out his flying Scotty stories, Keith Alan Deutsch says, “[they] are idealized versions of his image as a flying ace the same way Hammett said [Sam] Spade was an idealized image of the detective all the Pinkertons wanted to be.”

Whitfield’s writing career essentially came to an end in the February 1934 Black Mask with “Death On Fifth Avenue.” It was his 90th story for that magazine. He wrote only a handful of stories over the next few years—”The Mystery of the Fan Backed Chair” and “The Great Black”—the only Jo Gar stories to appear under his own name. These were also his only appearances in a national slick-paper magazine. He seemed disinclined to write anywhere near his earlier pace.

It’s curious to note that in many ways Whitfield’s life mirrored Hammett’s—the flash of a potentially brilliant writing career on the horizon, followed by years of heavy drinking and a decline in story output. Whitfield developed tuberculosis in 1933, but was unable to shake its debilitating effects as Hammett did. Mounting evidence at this late date suggests that heavy drinking ruined his writing career and that TB did not set in until the early 1940s.

The Hammett Connection

According to Prudence Whitfield, Raoul Whitfield and Dashiell Hammett had a very close friendship that Hammett’s many biographers have only touched upon in passing—possibly because the letters they exchanged no longer exist. Whitfield was known to have been an avid reader of pulp fiction magazines. He greatly admired Hammett’s early stories in Black Mask and sent editor Philip C. Cody several letters encouraging him to publish Hammett yarns more often. Those letters, apparently considered fan mail, were forwarded to the author, and launched a lengthy friendship between the two men.

They corresponded for several years before meeting in San Francisco for the first time. By then, Whitfield’s own career was well under way and Hammett admired his colleague’s ability to sit before his typewriter and crank out stories in a single session—whereas Hammett agonized over his plots. Prudence Whitfield told Keith Alan Deutsch that Raoul wrote fast, and plots came very easily to him. “She remembers Dash always worrying over his stories while Raoul came to his rescue. She made it clear that writing was more important to Hammett than to Raoul,” Deutsch added.

Hammett and Whitfield met as often as their schedules allowed—usually in San Francisco and New York bars where they held endless discussions about writing detective fiction and the appropriate number of bodies that needed to be served up to satisfy bloodthirsty readers. Needless to say, the volume of spirits they consumed flowed as freely as the talk.

Prudence Whitfield was a frequent participant at these drinking sessions. “She liked to go to bars and drink while I listened and wrote,” Deutsch said. “Perhaps the drinking explains something about both Hammett’s and Raoul’s later abandonment of fiction writing.”

Rumors have also persisted for years that Prudence became one of Hammett’s lovers, along with Peggy O’Toole and Lillian Hellman—a suspicion that now bears fruit in Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921–1960, edited by Richard Layman (Counterpoint Press, 2001).

Deutsch says, “In re a Hammett affair, obviously she did not tell me about it… but I find it believable based on her memories of ‘Dash.’ Although she made it clear that Raoul had been Hammett’s closest California friend and his writing mentor, and that in those early years Hammett looked up to Raoul, she always spoke of Hammett as if Raoul was very much taken (‘in love’) with Dash—this may have been part of her projection about her own feelings toward Hammett. In any case she made it clear that they were all very close.”

In 1929, perhaps as a gesture to repay his colleague for years of plot development assistance, Hammett introduced Whitfield to Blanche Knopf, his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and helped launch his brief but crowded book career. Green Ice was published in 1930 to mixed reviews. Hammett, who had earlier that year agreed to write a bi-weekly book column for the New York Evening Post, praised the book’s style, even though he had reservations about the story.

“The plot does not matter,” Hammett wrote. “… What matters is that here are 280 pages of naked action pounded into tough compactness by staccato, hammerlike writing.” Conventional mystery stories didn’t appeal to Hammett and he routinely trounced those he reviewed.

Will Cuppy, in the Herald Tribune, said Green Ice was superior to Hammett, and rated the book “by several miles the slickest detective job of the season.” But not all reviewers were kind to Whitfield. A critic in Judge attacked him as a blatant Hammett imitator: “Mr. Whitfield has evidently dosed himself thoroughly in the best detective writer of the times… and has helped himself to the master’s style, tricks, and ideas—right down to the commas. Furthermore, he has gotten Knopf to publish Green Ice and they even used Hammett’s type on the thing.”

The critic was obviously unaware that Hammett had pushed both book and author on Knopf. Knopf had been doing extremely well with the sale of Hammett’s books, and saw an opportunity to cash in on more hard-boiled authors it hoped to groom for its stable. The publisher’s faith in Whitfield’s future potential was slightly misplaced, however. The Knopfs could no more anticipate that his writing career would fizzle out in three years, anymore than they could predict Hammett’s tailspin.

Despite Hammett’s glowing review, Green Ice is not a very good novel. It wasn’t planned as a novel; Whitfield had hastily cobbled together five Black Mask stories featuring private-eye Mal Ourney, which ran consecutively from December 1929 to April 1930—”Outside,” “Red Smoke,” “Green Ice,” “Oval Face” and “Killer’s Show”—and packed it off to Knopf, who then immediately put the book into production without the editorial refinement Blanche Knopf contributed to Hammett’s novels.

Death in a Bowl, one of the first detective novels dealing with the seamier side of Hollywood, followed in 1931. It wasn’t much better than Green Ice, and certainly not near the league of Hammett’s longer work. The action is labored, the dialogue between characters is stilted, and it almost takes super-human determination to read beyond page 100.

“I think Whitfield knew he was a born short storyteller,” said Deutsch, “not a novelist of great merit. And that he enjoyed good living much more than good writing.”

While Whitfield was working with Knopf on several future books, he was dusting off earlier material from Black Mask and Boy’s Life and selling collections to rival publisher Farrar & Rinehart, under his Temple Field pseudonym. Farrar published Five in 1931, and Killer’s Carnival in 1932. Meanwhile Knopf published a second Whitfield book late in 1930 called Silver Wings, a collection of air adventures, which was touted as a “collection of thrilling aviation stories for boys… based on personal experience.” How much personal experience was combined with Whitfield’s flamboyant imagination is left for readers to discern. Also, in 1930, Penn Publishing Co., Philadelphia, a firm that published quite a few boys’ adventure series, brought out a collection of Whitfield’s air stories as Wings of Gold.

Whitfield hit the jackpot with Death in a Bowl, which Knopf brought out in 1931. It had appeared the previous fall as a 3-part serial in Black Mask for September through November, and was reprinted several times.

As Death in a Bowl was finishing its magazine run, Raoul and Prudence Whitfield were sailing for the French Riviera, their home for the next two years. From there, while they made journeys into Italy, Sicily and Tunisia, Whitfield continued sending stories to Black Mask and working on his novel, The Virgin Kills.

At home, Whitfield’s Death in a Bowl was harvesting a fair amount of critical acclaim. The Detroit News called Whitfield “one of the few American authors who knows what a detective is and what makes his wheels go round…. He has… proved himself a master of his subject.”

Knopf then released Danger Zone, and Farrar & Rinehart published Five, his sixth book in less than two years, and he was having a banner year in Black Mask with 18 stories in 1931. All indications were that Whitfield’s literary career was in high gear. His books were going into multiple printings; several were being reprinted by Grosset & Dunlap in cheaper editions; London publishers were taking notice, and the money was rolling in.

By the time he returned to the U.S., in 1932, two more books were scheduled for publication—The Virgin Kills at Knopf, and Killer’s Carnival (a patching together of six connecting Black Mask stories) at Farrar & Rinehart, under the Temple Field byline.

Then, unexpectedly, Raoul and Prudence separated and were divorced the following year. Reasons for the separation aren’t immediately clear. However, the recent publication of Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921–1960 suggests a relationship between Hammett and Prudence Whitfield that went beyond mere friendship—that she was in fact one of Hammett’s longtime lovers, as stated earlier.

While Hammett and Hellman freely had relationships with other partners, without sparking jealous tantrums, Raoul Whitfield may have been less tolerant of his wife’s continuing liaisons with his friend and literary colleague. Possibly they grew apart because he, too, had a roving eye. None of the Hammett-to-Prudence Whitfield letters (whom he always addressed as “Prue”) provides voyeuristic details, but they are obviously affectionate in nature. Those included in Selected Letters were written during the early 1940s, and are only a small selection of the more than 120 letters Hammett is known to have sent Prudence over the years.

(Sometime in 1980, when Prudence Whitfield was in her 85th year, she retained Sotheby’s to auction off all her letters from Hammett. Purchased in lots by several well-known booksellers, the letters soon disappeared into the hands of private collectors. A few have since shown up on the Internet in full-text form by other antiquarian booksellers at individual prices ranging as high as $3,500.)

Not long after Raoul and Prudence separated, William F. Nolan writes in Hammett: A Life on the Edge (New York: Congdon & Weed, 1983), “Raoul Whitfield had received an offer from Hollywood on his novel Death in a Bowl and had gone to work for Warner Brothers. He earned a screen credit in 1933 for Private Detective 62, the William Powell crime drama that Hammett had created in 1931. Although Whitfield reworked the plot and added new material from a Black Mask story of his own, he retained Hammett’s premise—the corruption of a private detective. The fact that Whitfield received the story credit on this film did not disturb Hammett; he had often worked on screen projects without recognition, and would again. It was the money the job brought him that counted, not the final credit. With books, he felt, it was different. They were important; films were not.”

We have a number of problems with Nolan’s ambiguous statement, and wonder about his sources of information. We have not found any supporting evidence to link Death in a Bowl to any movie sale. Nor evidence to support the contention that Private Detective 62 was based on a movie scenario or script once penned by Hammett.

This movie was based strictly on a Whitfield novelette called “Man-Killer,” which appeared in the April 1932 Black Mask. Whitfield was hired by Warner Brothers to work with screenwriter Rian James to expand the story into a full-blown feature-length movie. The plot of “Man-Killer” mirrors the Private Detective 62 storyline, according to the movie’s synopsis which appeared in The American Film Institute Catalog (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993, page 1701–02) and the New York Times review (July 7, 1933, page 20). It was interesting to note that the Times stated the film was “based on a story by Raoul Whitfield,” but does not credit Rian James, a well-known film writer, for having written the screenplay.

The New York Times critic wrote:

“Raoul Whitfield, one of the most expert practitioners of the school of hard-boiled detective fiction, studies the fine old American institution of the double-cross in this new film at the Radio City Music Hall… Mr. Whitfield contemplates the shady activities of private detectives, and presents their adventures in homicide, blackmail and perjury amid a wealth of entertaining detail.”

Vanity Fair (on July 11, 1933, page 15), though praising William Powell’s ability to rise above the mediocre story, called the film “episodic and disconnected,” adding the “dialog in general is all right.” The magazine did credit Rian James’ screenplay.

For the curious: According to the film’s production records, the alternate working titles were Private Detective and Man Killer, and that the film was shot over twenty-one days at a cost of $260,000.

Following his stint at Warner Brothers, it has been said that Whitfield found a contract writer’s job at Paramount Studios, but no information is available to verify whether Whitfield ever wrote any original screenplays or adaptations for the studio. Possibly on that occasion then, and again in 1935, he was occupied as a script doctor.

We did find that prior to working on Private Detective 62, Whitfield was hired in August 1932 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. to work on Sax Rohmer’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff, which was experiencing script and directorial problems as the cameras started rolling. The American Film Institute Catalog on page 1337 says:

“According to various news items…the film began production under the direction of Charles Vidor in early Aug 1932, with a script by Courtenay Terrett. On the third day of production, filming stopped for several days, then resumed on 11 Aug, when it was reported that Raoul Whitfield was to write the screenplay. On 13 Aug, a news item reported that M-G-M had decided to bring in Charles Brabin to work on the picture along with Vidor; however, on 17 Aug HR [Hollywood Reporter] reported that Vidor had been fired and that Brabin would be sole director commencing the next day. At that time, Bayard Veiller was announced as Terrett’s replacement. As Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf and John Willard are the only writers credited on screen and in reviews, it has not been determined what contributions of Terrett, Veiller and Whitfield were retained in the released film.”

During this year-long separation from Prudence, before the divorce decree became final, Whitfield lived at the Montecito Hotel Apartments, located at 6650 Franklin Avenue, Los Angeles. By a curious coincidence, his neighbor at that address was Paul Cain (a pseudonym of George Sims), whose stories were just beginning to appear in the pages of Black Mask. One wonders, if Cain’s serial novel Fast One may not have been written on a bet with Whitfield. Cain, who wrote screenplays under the name of Peter Ruric, was certainly aware of Whitfield’s presence in the pulp fiction magazines, and a contest of this sort between two writers would have been a welcome challenge, and certainly not unusual.

Almost immediately after their divorce became final, and barely a week after the release of Private Detective 62, Whitfield surprised friends by marrying socialite Emily Davies Vanderbilt Thayer on July 19, 1933. The New York Times reported that the wedding was “extremely quiet and took place at the home of the bride.” The paper also noted that the new Mrs. Whitfield was the former wife of William H. Vanderbilt and Sigourney Thayer,” and is “one of the leaders of New York’s social intelligentsia.”

Playwright Lillian Hellman observed that Emily Whitfield was “a handsome, boyish-looking woman [seen] at every society-literary cocktail party.”

The newlyweds honeymooned throughout the Southwest and purchased the Dead Horse Ranch near Las Vegas, New Mexico. “The ranch was large enough,” William F. Nolan commented, “to accommodate its own polo field and golf course, and Whitfield settled here to live ‘the good life.'”

Knopf published Danger Circus that year, his last book; and according to bibliographic records, he published only 8 stories that year, all in Black Mask. Those which appeared in the early months of 1933 are presumed to have been written in the Fall of 1932. Late in 1933, Whitfield delivered his 89th and 90th stories to Black Mask and disappeared from the publishing scene. He would write only three more stories over the next four years.

Whether he succumbed too completely to the “good life” on his wife’s money or if his creativity was drained from years of heavy drinking is not known; but it’s definitely suspected that alcohol had affected his interest in writing. Hammett stopped writing pulp fiction in 1930, after the publication of The Maltese Falcon, and overindulged his whims writing occasional screenplays in Hollywood (in between bouts of heavy drinking), letting his reputation support him.

A Tale of Three Wives

Whitfield’s second marriage wasn’t destined to last either. Emily filed for a divorce in February 1935. He moved out of the sprawling ranch and returned to Hollywood. During a house-check late on the night of May 24, a ranch employee discovered Emily’s body draped across her bed, her left hand clutching the .38 caliber revolver she been accustomed to carrying in recent months. Based on medical evidence, interviews with the ranch staff, and friends who had seen her that day, a coroner’s jury ruled that the bullet wound was self-inflicted.

According to a lengthy New York Times front page feature article on May 25, 1935, and another in the Santa Fe New Mexican, friends said Emily had become increasingly despondent—not just over her pending divorce action—but over her failing eyesight and a desire to see her 9-year-old daughter, who was then vacationing in Cannes, France, with her father, William H. Vanderbilt, the son of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt who lost his life on the Lusitania. Emily lost custody of the child when she divorced Vanderbilt in 1928. She then married theatrical producer Sigourney Thayer and divorced him in 1929.

A meeting with her lawyers that afternoon in Santa Fe discussing the divorce proceedings had left her highly agitated. The Times article’s subhead said that she was divorcing Raoul Whitfield because he “depressed her.” No further details were given as to why her husband affected her in that manner, but it was pointed out by several of her friends that Emily had a history of emotional instability which could have been the cause of her three failed marriages.

Authorities told the newspapers that Raoul Whitfield was in Hollywood at the time his wife shot herself and was flying home. Her brother and sister were coming from New York to claim the body. Whitfield became the sole heir to her considerable estate and the Dead Horse Ranch, which newspapers described as being on a large tract of land, with cedar-strewn hills, where blooded cattle were being raised.

Mystery novelist Walter Satterthwait, who lives near the old Dead Horse Ranch, has been tracking the events of Raoul and Emily, and will soon publish an interesting and controversial article about their marriage and her supposed suicide. We’re inclined to support Satterthwait’s theories because of his extensive supporting research.

Raoul Whitfield’s health continued to decline sharply in the years following Emily’s death, and ultimately, in 1942, Whitfield was hospitalized. Hammett, in no great financial shape himself, and stationed in the Aleutian Islands during that stage of World War II, persuaded Lillian Hellman to send Whitfield a $500 check to help him with his mounting bills. Whitfield had gone through his inheritance and was broke. He never left the hospital and died on January 24, 1945.

Recalling his later conversation with Prudence Whitfield, Keith Alan Deutsch passed along some startling information. “Prudence told me that she was Raoul’s “second wife and heir to his literary estate.” Not being aware at the time that Prudence was really Whitfield’s “first” wife, and that the real second wife committed suicide in 1935, Deutsch accepted her statement at face value.

“If this is not true,” Deutsch wrote us, “then she and he either stayed in close contact over the years (perhaps seeing one another) or he was so important to her, she ‘invented’ the ongoing relationship. But in 1973-1974 she was still very devoted to his memory and it was clear that he and their relationship had been a major event in her life.”

We don’t doubt that Raoul and Prudence saw one another again after Emily’s death. But we are left wondering why Prudence considered it necessary to publicly assert that she was Raoul’s second wife? Was it to lay claim to any residual income from her ex-husband’s literary estate? Perhaps. As it turned out, the fragmented details of Raoul Whitfield’s second marriage were not generally known until 1985, when William F. Nolan’s essay on Whitfield appeared in The Black Mask Boys. Based on what he said about Emily we know he dug up at least one newspaper report of her suicide.

Prudence Whitfield also withheld information about Raoul’s third wife, Lois Bell, even though she knew of her existence. That has been confirmed based on this quote from an August 29, 1943, Hammett letter to Lillian Hellman, which was reproduced in Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett 1921–60: “Prue Whitfield wrote me that Raoul is dying of T.B. in a San Fernando hospital and that Lois, his third wife ‘fell’ (the quotes are Prue’s) out of a San Francisco window recently and is pretty badly banged up.”

And again, this quote from an October 27, 1943, letter to Hellman: “Raoul has been for fourteen months, in a lung-hospital in San Fernando. His second wife, you too will remember, committed suicide in Las Vegas [New Mexico]. His third wife recently jumped out of a hotel window in San Francisco, and has just died. This news comes to me from his first wife, who is in a hospital in Pittsburgh, having fallen down cellar steps one night while selling War Bonds.”

There were no reports of Lois Bell’s suicide plunge. War news dominated the San Francisco newspapers. Through other archives, however, we learned that she was born on September 9, 1915, in New Mexico, and perhaps lived near Raoul Whitfield’s Dead Horse Ranch. Lois Bell was nearly twenty years younger than her husband, and was barely twenty-eight when she died on September 27, 1943, according to a death notice in the San Francisco Chronicle. Hammett wrote Hellman that Whitfield was distressed over his third wife’s suicide, and that Whitfield had written, “These things are never easy.”

Prudence Whitfield outlived her husband by forty-five years. She was born in Buena Vista, Penna., on August 19, 1895, and died in New York City on August 16, 1990, just three days before her 95th birthday.

A number of curious things came to light during our research. Raoul Whitfield’s mother’s maiden name was Mabelle Whitfield, according to his birth records and marriage license. Could Raoul Whitfield’s parents have been cousins? Oddly enough Prudence stated on their “Application for Marriage License” that her father was John Grant Smith and that her mother’s maiden name was Mary Ervin Smith. Checking further into the 1900 U.S. Census, her parents’ families had different national origins.

Also, according to the 1900 census, Prudence was the youngest of 5 children. She had a brother named Harry, and 3 sisters named Olive, Elizabeth and Elma. Her father’s occupation was listed as steel mill worker. Due to a clerical error, the census listed her as a male and having the name “Prudent.” This was corrected on the 1910 census, at which time her father’s occupation had changed to that of “agriculturalist,” owner of a home farm in McKeesport, Penna. Her father was still in that profession in 1923, when Raoul and Prudence married.

On her marriage license application filed with the Clerk of the Orphans Court of Allegheny County, Penna. (of which we have a copy), she gave her full name as Prudence Ann Smith; yet in subsequent documents she gave her name as Prudence Van Tine Whitfield, not Prudence Ann Whitfield. Newspaper accounts of Emily Whitfield’s death also refer to Raoul’s first wife by that name. Where did the “Van Tine” come from?

She filed her application for a Social Security Account Number (091-22-8731) on January 30, 1945, six days after Raoul’s death, stating that she was “unemployed” and living at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York, N.Y. There are two odd facts on the application: She gave her name as “Prudence Van Tine Whitfield” and claimed her birthdate was August 19, 1901, not 1895, as it was recorded in the U.S. Census, making herself 43, not 49. She gave her “nearly” correct age on her marriage license application, saying that she was “26,” the same age as her intended, though she was really “27.”

Was there a sudden urgency to acquire a Social Security card so soon after Raoul died? Was she hoping to become beneficiary of any government death benefits that would accrue to the “widow” of a husband who had seen action in World War I? (Social Security cards were optional in those days.) Or was it also a calculated effort to lay claim to any, perhaps all of Raoul’s literary copyrights? She did have correspondence with an Alfred A. Knopf editor relating to copyright renewals for Green Ice and Death in a Bowl. Her right to do this was not challenged. These letters are now archived in the Knopf papers at the University of Texas Library, Austin.

The Mystery Continues

Although our research has cleared up many of the previously published inaccuracies about Raoul Whitfield’s life and literary career, unanswered questions linger on.

Why did Whitfield adopt “Fauconnier” as his middle name instead of using “Falconia,” the one he was given at birth?

When did he really work at the Pittsburgh Post and for how long? Did Prudence really work there as well?

At what address did he live in McKeesport, Penna., when he worked as a bond salesman in Pittsburgh? Did he rent a room from Prudence Smith’s parents on De Soto Street? Or did he live in a nearby rooming house?

What causes/reasons really led up to their separation and divorce? Walter Satterthwait’s article mentioned earlier provides interesting clues.

Why did Prudence adopt the middle names of “Van Tine” in the mid 1930s? Did she remarry and divorce during that decade?

And why did she give William F. Nolan and Keith Alan Deutsch distorted information about Raoul?

The list goes on….

Missing also is information about Raoul Whitfield’s life growing up in Manila, his temporary career as a silent-film actor, his life in the Air Force during the first world war. What kind of a person was he? Aggressive, passive, intense, relaxed, giving, selfish, callous? How did he interact with writers other than Dashiell Hammett?

Did Prudence Whitfield acquire a major hoard of his papers and letters, aside from the several unpublished story manuscripts she showed Keith Alan Deutsch?

Her New York Times death notice said she was the inheritor of her ex-husband’s literary estate. But was she? The notice said she left behind several nieces and nephews—one presumes them to be the children of her brother and sisters. Who and where are they? Did they acquire any or all the surviving Raoul Whitfield papers Prudence Whitfield possessed when she died? Or did they throw them out?

While Raoul Fauconnier Whitfield is well known among historians of detective fiction and collectors of pulp fiction magazines, most readers of today’s mystery and detective fiction evoke puzzled looks when his name is mentioned.

That is mainly the result that very few of his short stories have been included in anthologies over the past fifty years—certainly not enough to make an impact on the reading public. That goes for his early short story collections and novels. His three novels were reprinted by specialty publisher Gregg Press in limited editions in the 1980s, but only Green Ice attracted critical attention.

A January 17, 1989, review in the Pittsburgh Press had this to say under the headline of “Whitfield hammers city life into book”:

“Among the late Raoul Whitfield’s credentials were silent-movie actor, World War I flying ace, famous crime novelist and—last but not least—chronicler of Pittsburgh during the Prohibition era.

“Whitfield’s masterpiece, a book titled Green Ice, is set in Pittsburgh in 1930 and depicts a city that most people either don’t remember or have chosen to forget.

“In Green Ice, Whitfield describes what is now regarded as one of the nation’s most livable cities, as ‘the dirty burg.’

“‘Red flames streaked up into the sky from the plant stacks. Red smoke hung low. The air was heavy, thick with grime.’

“… Crime and violence apparently were rampant in the Pittsburgh in 1930, and corpses abounded in the book.

“An editor in the Gregg Press edition of Green Ice notes that Whitfield was ‘one of the most popular and highly paid writers of his time,’ although ‘less remembered’ than the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

“In the introduction… author Pete Hamill rates Whitfield’s talent higher than that of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

“The Nobel Prize-winner’s novel (A Farewell to Arms) seems like a pretty watercolor that has faded from too many summers in a shop window. Green Ice is as hard and fresh as a morning newspaper.

“Not unexpectedly, Whitfield’s novel is replete with the cliches of its genre, including the classic, ‘You dirty double-crosser.’

“A great deal of the dialogue in the book comes from a hard-boiled, gun-toting newspaper editor who at one point threatens a New York City detective in Pittsburgh on a case.

“‘Listen, bull. In this town, I can knock a New York copper cold—and the local force will cheer,’ the editor said.”

Well, saying that Whitfield is better than Hemingway is stretching it by more than a bit; but Mr. Hamill is entitled to his opinions like everybody else. Green Ice has its moments, and is a better novel than Death in a Bowl, though by a very narrow margin.

Like others who wrote for the pulps, Whitfield created a number of series characters, in both his detective and air adventure stories. Only Jo Gar is worthy of standing alongside other great literary detectives. The 26 Jo Gar tales, which include two short serial novels, rank among Whitfield’s best work, and the little half-breed Philippino detective, who stalks the danger-filled back alleys of Manila with a .45 Army colt revolver in his hip pocket, is a man worth reading about and remembering.

Whether that will be enough to resurrect Whitfield or select stories from the hundreds he churned out for the magazines is not guaranteed. Hopefully, the nearly complete bibliography published on this Web site will provide the stimulus for a future Raoul Whitfield revival.

 

Authored by Peter Ruber & Victor A. Berch. Copyright © 2002 by Peter Ruber and Victor A. Berch. Reprinted with permission of http://pulprack.com.

Deep Black and White: 3-D Film Noir of the 1950s

The screening of brand new black-and-white prints at the World 3-D Film Expo in September 2003 in Hollywood provided an opportunity to reevaluate three films noir of the 1950s and to consider their effectiveness as stereoscopic narratives within the genre. The shimmering new prints were given optimum presentation and it’s quite possible these 3-D films didn’t even look this good on their first presentation in the 1950s.

The term “film noir,” literally “black film,” was first coined by French film critic Nino Frank when an exhibition of post-World War II American movies was held in Paris in August 1946 which included The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and Double Indemnity (1944). Films noir were dark, visually and thematically, and featured characters such as con men, crooked cops, bookies and very deadly femmes fatal. The overriding mood of film noir was one of paranoia, cynicism and fatalism with stories largely set in night time urban environments. Sex and violence were also inextricably linked in film noir, twin threads entangling the protagonist in his inevitable downfall.

Edmond O’Brien was a recurring Everyman in films noir. In the 1950 (2-D) release D.O.A., directed by Rudolph Mate, O’Brien portrayed Frank Bigelow, a small-town certified accountant who, on a vacation to San Francisco, is accidentally poisoned and finds that he has less than 48 hours to live. The story is told in flashback and the film opens with narration by Bigelow who is dead as the story begins.

After the success of Bwana Devil (which had opened November 26, 1952), Columbia Studios hurriedly put together their first 3-D motion picture, Man in the Dark, which opened April 8,1953 as the second 3-D feature film to be released, one day before House of Wax. Edmond O’Brien was the perfect choice to portray Steve Rawley, a gangster who undergoes brain surgery to eliminate his criminal tendencies. When the film opens, Rawley is an amnesiac in a hospital who can’t remember his former life.

The effect of the stereoscopic imaging in the opening scenes gives the narrative an immediacy in which the audience can readily identify with the baffled Rawley. This same spatial and temporal presence pulls the viewer into the story as Rawley’s former gangster associates kidnap him to find the $130,000 he had hidden away before the operation.

When Rawley meets up with Peg Benedict (Audrey Totter), his former girlfriend, memory starts to return. He escapes and, with Benedict’s assistance, finds the hidden money. Periodically, an insurance investigator shows up, on the trail of the sequestered cash. Stereoscopic images of Rawley experiencing a dream on an amusement pier, in which his memory fully returns, are highly effective.

Man in the Dark still

Amnesiac patient (Edmond O’Brien) after brain surgery in Man in the Dark.

Flat rear-screen projection is combined with stereoscopic foreground imagery for a climax on a roller coaster in which Rawley exchanges gunfire with the gangsters. Man in the Dark was shot in just 11 days using a twin camera rig assembled by Columbia Studios engineer Gerald Rackett and camera department head Emil Oster. The 3-D unit used two Mitchell cameras shooting straight on without any prisms or mirrors and produced pairs of stereo negatives that did not require subsequent reversal or optical treatment. The two Mitchell cameras were mounted side-by-side with one inverted to bring the lenses closer together. The film magazines for both cameras were mounted on top.

“In designing this camera, the importance of good 3-D close-ups was considered of paramount importance,” stated Racket in a May 1953 article in American Cinematographer magazine. “As a result we can make individual head closeups—chin to forehead—with ease and without any distortion.”

Director Lew Landers, working with cameraman Floyd Crosby, shot exteriors for Man in the Dark right on the Columbia lot using gangplanks and stairways to good 3-D effect. In thematically working through a mood of paranoia and fatalism to one of moral self-control, Man in the Dark is the narrative inverse of D.O.A. Rawley is redeemed, not doomed, at the end and the stereoscopic imagery underscores both the darkness and nature of this narrative progression.

Jack Arnold was the 3-D director of choice at Universal-International and when Kathleen Hughes was cast in a very brief part in his It Came From Outer Space, released May 26, 1953, her few minutes of onscreen time were so torrid that she was subsequently cast as Paula Ranier in the 3-D noir mystery The Glass Web which the studio released on October 6, 1953 in a 2:1 cropped format they called “Wide-Vision.”

“Paula was bad, beautiful and bold as sin,” intoned the studio publicity, “and born to be murdered.” Paula is a starlet involved with three different men who work on a true crime reality TV show. Scenes taking place on the TV sound stage provide a nice picture of television production circa 1953. Good use of the stereoscopic effects was made in these scenes with a few well-placed microphones and camera movement through the TV sound stage. It’s paradoxical to see a 3-D movie about television, which by 1953 had decidedly diminished the motion picture audience and was the most compelling reason why the studios had decided to make 3-D films in the first place.

When Paula turns up dead, her amorous involvement with the three men, Don Newell (John Forsythe), Dave Markson (Richard Denning) and Henry Hayes (Edward G. Robinson) becomes apparent. Newell, after a brief fling with Paula, is pulled into an ominous situation and attempts to hide his involvement with Paula from his wife Louise (Marcia Henderson). In a clever reflexive twist, the show does a segment on Paula’s unsolved murder. The real antagonist, with his obsession for detail on the TV program, slips up and reveals himself.

More a straight forward murder mystery than a noir, The Glass Web uses 3-D that does not call attention to itself except for one long segment in which Newell walks the city streets, narrowly missing getting hit by a truck, or struck by falling and sliding objects that protrude dramatically off the screen. It’s almost as if Jack Arnold attempted to dispense with all the 3-D gimmicks in this one extended passage to be able to concentrate on the exposition of the third act denouement in his mystery drama.

The Universal-International 3-D camera rig, like that of Columbia studios, used two Mitchell cameras mounted side-by-side with one camera inverted to provide appropriate interocular distance. A selsyn motor drove linked focus controls with no mirrors or prisms. Two different rigs were used on the set, one for medium and long shots, and the other for close-ups.

Clifford Stine, who had filmed It Came From Outer Space, David Horsley, Fred Campbell and Eugene Polito assisted director of photography Maury Gertsman in producing fine stereoscopic cinematography.

I, the Jury still

Mike Hammer (Biff Eliott) and Charlotte Manning (Peggy Castle) in I, the Jury.

I, the Jury, released by United Artists July 24, 1953, fits neatly into the film noir canon. It was based on the hard-boiled novel by Mickey Spillane which, in its Signet paperback edition (with a sexy cover), sold something like 20 million copies. Spillane’s hard-hitting private investigator Mike Hammer, portrayed in the film by Biff Elliott, was a loose cannon in a trench coat, and a somewhat caricatural throwback to the protagonists of the original hard-boiled writers of Black Mask magazine which included Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich, all of whose works formed the basis for the original films noir.

What really makes I, the Jury a significant work of film noir is its 3- D cinematography by John Alton, the undisputed master of light and shadow who, with films such as T-Men (1948) and The Big Combo (1955), forever defined the chiaroscuro look of film noir. In his pioneering 1949 book Painting with Light, a poetic textbook on motion picture lighting, Alton wrote about creating photographic depth using light.

“The illusion of three dimensions—photographic depth—is created by a geometric design of placing people and props, breaking up the set into several planes, and the proper distribution of lights and shadows,” wrote Alton. Later in the book, with a chapter titled “Visual Music,” Alton again addresses the third dimension. “In real life, the pleasure of visual music is enhanced by the third dimension. Fortunes have been and still are being spent to put third dimension in professional motion picture photography: but to my knowledge, the closest we have come to it is an illusion of depth accomplished by the proper distribution of densities.”

Four years later, with I, the Jury, Alton had an opportunity to render space stereoscopically and with light and shadow at the same time. From the opening scenes, in which we see a killing take place in the shadows from the point of view of the murderer, to the final scene, in which we witness Hammer’s revenge slaying of one of the most complicated femmes fatale in all of film noir, Alton made the most of it. Pitch black on the screen is latent with the malign. A two-fisted assailant may suddenly leap out of it. Throughout the film, Hammer moves through a stereoscopic visual space that is dynamically joined to light and shadow, a mirror of moral progression or decay.

I, the Jury was filmed with a side-by-side dual-camera unit built by Producer’s Service of Burbank which used variable interaxial from 1.9 inches to a maximum of 4.5 inches. Built by Jack Kiel and Gordon Pollock, 3-D consultant on I, the Jury, the twin camera unit allowed for convergence settings and featured interlocked f-stops and focus so that follow focus shots during filming were very precise.

3-D fans could take special delight with one scene in I, the Jury where Hammer is made to look through a hand-held stereo viewer by a winsome blonde. The audience then views the pastoral scene in stereo at the same time as the private investigator.

In another scene Hammer walks past a newsstand where copies of Spillane’s Signet paperback, Kiss Me Deadly, is prominently displayed. Director Robert Aldrich subsequently adapted this book into one of the greatest of all black-and-white films noir in 1955 with Ralph Meeker as the tough detective. Mickey Spillane himself was never happy with the casting of his hero so he essayed the role himself in 1963 in The Girl Hunters.

As John Alton has shown us, film noir can be eminently suitable for stereoscopic storytelling. Shadow recedes. Light projects. And there is a gray scale universe of moral ambiguity in between.

Authored by Ray Zone.

The Great Wrong Place: Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles at 70

They seemed to fit together right from the very beginning. The right town and the right words.

“The lights of the city were an endlessly glittering sheet. Neon signs glowed and flashed. The languid ray of a searchlight prodded about among high faint clouds…. The car went past the oil well that stands in the middle of La Cienega Boulevard, then turned off onto a quiet street fringed with palm trees….” —from “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”

It was the very first piece of detective fiction written by one of the greatest of all mystery writers, Raymond Chandler. “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” published in 1933, appeared in the rough-edged pulp pages of Black Mask magazine.

In the 70 years since he penned that first tale of crime and corruption, Chandler has come to occupy a singular place in the cultural history of his adopted town. Called by S.J. Perleman “the major social historian of Los Angeles,” Chandler used his tough, bourbon-soaked poetry to re-create the city as a character, as real and intense as Chandler’s private eye hero, Philip Marlowe.

With his distinct descriptions of all that was unique about L.A. (“The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel, but I didn’t move.”), Chandler introduced our beautiful and brutal city to more readers than any other author, despite once declaring Los Angeles had “the personality of a paper cup.”

In post-World War II America, Los Angeles was a frontier town, ruled by a crime syndicate that was under the control of a cabal of shady politicians, lawyers and police officials. Chandler turned the greed, cruelty and despair of his crime-infested metropolis into the stuff of fiction. For millions of people around the world, he defined not only a city, but the genre of the hard-boiled detective story and even the style of movie-making that came to be known as film noir. His influence on mystery novelists from Ross Macdonald to Robert B. Parker, and on movies and television shows from Chinatown to The Rockford Files to L.A. Confidential have been well-documented by scholars and critics. Chandler’s path in creating that legacy is in evidence at the Special Collections Division of the UCLA Research Library, which contains the most extensive collection of Chandler’s work in the world.

Manhunt for an Identity

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888. His alcoholic father frequently abandoned his family for extended periods, a habit that ultimately caused the divorce of Chandler’s parents. Eventually, young Raymond’s father vanished for good.

Chandler’s mother filed for divorce. She saved enough money for a move to England, where she and Raymond lived with relatives. Beginning at age 7, he received a proper British education at a school in London. He won awards for mathematics and was an avid reader of the classics. At 17, he attended London’s Dulwich College and later studied in France and Germany.

After a time, Chandler returned to London and became a naturalized British subject in order to take a civil service exam. He passed and soon acquired a government clerking position. But Chandler grew bored working as a civil servant and left the British government to work as a journalist and essayist for London’s Daily Express and Bristol’s Western Gazette, for whom he wrote articles on European affairs, along with poetry, reviews and literary essays.

Chandler found his way back to the United States in 1912. Searching for his niche, he worked on an apricot ranch, made tennis rackets in a sporting goods firm and, after studying bookkeeping, became a junior accountant. Chandler’s restlessness during this period was at least in part due to a problem with alcohol. It was a problem that would plague him for the rest of his life. “I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year,” he once said, “just on principle, so he won’t let himself get snotty about it.”

In 1917, Chandler began a year of service with the Gordon Highlanders of the Canadian Army, just after the start of World War I. As a member of the Royal Air Force he saw action in France. Chandler’s first real brushes with violence and death changed him. As a 30-year-old sergeant, he was ordered into trench warfare, leading his platoon into direct machine-gun fire. After that, he said later, “Nothing is ever the same again.” He was discharged in 1918 after sustaining a concussion in combat.

After the war, Chandler returned to America, this time to California (“The department store state,” he would later write. “The most of everything and the best of nothing.”) He worked as a banker in San Francisco and a reporter for Los Angeles’ Daily Express (he was fired after six weeks for being “lousy”) before finally joining L.A.’s Dabney-Johnson Oil Corporation as a bookkeeper.

By 1924, Chandler married Pearl “Cissy” Pascal and was promoted to auditor for the oil company. Soon, he rose to the rank of vice-president, but over the next several years, his battle with alcohol took its toll. After several self-destructive displays of excessive drinking and erratic behavior, he was fired in 1932 for absenteeism, womanizing and drunkenness.

Raymond Chandler was 44 years old.

The Pulp Jungle

The firing was a wake-up call for Chandler. The Great Depression was on and work was scarce. Chandler stopped his excessive drinking (temporarily), picked up a copy of Black Mask and vowed to dedicate his life to writing. The man who would soon turn Los Angeles into a film noir landscape never looked back.

For a novice writer during the Depression, there was no better place to start than the pulps, those thick, cheaply produced magazines filled with dark and bloody tales of mystery, murder and action, all written in the most purple of prose.

A fan of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, Chandler registered himself as a writer in the Los Angeles City Directory and began his apprenticeship in detective fiction.

Chandler decided to tackle the mystery pulps because he believed that some of them, in spite of their preoccupation with cheap-thrills melodrama, actually possessed an honesty and moral code that appealed to him. Also, he believed that the literary bar was low enough in the pulp fiction trade that he might actually have a good shot of earning even as he learned.

For a full year after his ignoble exit from Dabney Oil, Chandler worked daily at learning the craft of writing detective fiction. At first, he leaned heavily on the styles of Hammett, Gardner and even Ernest Hemingway as models for plot, character, pace and style. It didn’t come easy. That first short story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” running just under 18,000 words, took him five long months to finish. He submitted the story to tough-minded Joseph Shaw, the editor of Black Mask, the leading hard-boiled detective pulp of the day.

Shaw accepted the story and published it in the December 1933 issue. Chandler’s career as a mystery writer had officially begun. For his months of labor, the author received $180, at the standard pulp rate of a penny a word.

For the next six years, Chandler continued his apprenticeship in the pulp magazines, perfecting his craft and building, story by story, the character of his many-named private detective hero (known in various stories as Mallory, Dalmas, Carmady, Gage and Delaguerra, among others).

Though the detective story was a popular form, it did not pay very well. Never a prolific writer, Chandler struggled to earn even a modest living from his short-story sales. In 1938, his three published novelettes earned him a total of $1,275. Often short of cash, Chandler and his wife moved from furnished apartment to furnished apartment throughout Southern California—sometimes two or three times a year. He later recalled: “I never slept in the park but I came damn close to it. I went five days without anything to eat but soup once.”

Marlowe, P.I.

As the Depression wore on, Chandler continued his education in the pulps. Over the next six years, he sold 10 stories to Black Mask, seven stories to Dime Detective, and one to Detective Fiction Weekly. Chandler learned much from toiling in the pulp jungle, but by 1938 he was ready to move on. In the spring of that year he began writing The Big Sleep, his first novel featuring Philip Marlowe, the romantic and chivalrous private eye with the thoughtful, introspective approach to investigation that would mesmerize audiences in a total of eight novels, all set in steamy and seamy Southern California.

When The Big Sleep was published by Alfred A. Knopf in February 1939, the novel sold 10,000 copies in the United States and paid Chandler $2,000 in royalties. Those figures didn’t make him a best-selling author, but they were remarkably high for a mystery story, particularly for one by a first-time novelist.

Chandler wrote for the pulp magazine market for only a few more years, publishing three stories in 1939, none at all in 1940 and a final one in 1941. For the rest of the decade, Chandler devoted himself to the novel, often cannibalizing plot points, action set-pieces and whole characters from his own short stories. The years during which Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942) and The Lady in the Lake (1943) were published also saw the slow death of the pulp and the rapid rise of the paperback. These small, cheap reprints of hardcover novels were not only in bookstores but in drugstores, newsstands and even railroad stations.

For Chandler, the paperback revolution and the reprinting of his novels resulted in more income and something new: fame. By the beginning of 1945, 750,000 copies of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely had been sold. Just four years later, a Newsweek report on the crime-fiction business noted that there were more than 3 million copies of Chandler’s mysteries in the hands of readers.

As a writer who saw himself following the path of Dumas, Dickens and Conrad, Chandler devoted his life to the principle that genre writing is writing first and generic second. “My theory,” he once wrote, “was that readers just thought that they cared about nothing but the action; that really although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The thing they really cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description.”

Chandler’s L.A.

Those descriptions included colorful portraits of Los Angeles landmarks and landscapes, like that of downtown’s Angel’s Flight cable car in The High Window: “I parked at the end of the street, where the funicular railway comes struggling up the yellow clay bank from Hill Street, and walked along Court Street to the Florence Apartments.”

The Santa Monica Pier, the San Bernardino Freeway, The Dancer’s Nightclub at La Cienega and Sunset, Beverly Hills (“the best-policed four square miles in California”), The Bradbury Building (renamed The Belfont Building by Chandler and later used as the site of Marlowe’s office in the 1969 James Garner film, Marlowe) all fell under the eyes of Chandler and his private detective. Marlowe’s Hollywood office, Chandler told us, was on the sixth floor (number 615) of “The Cahuenga Building” (in reality, The Security Trust and Savings Bank at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga). Once the tallest building on the Boulevard, the six-story structure erected by John and Donald Parkinson, designers of Bullock’s Wilshire and Santa Monica City Hall, became a high-profile home for Hollywood’s best-known private detective.

“If, as is often said, every city has at least one writer it can claim for a muse,” author and critic David L. Ulin once noted, “Raymond Chandler must be Los Angeles’.” Chandler’s background as both a journalist and a poet made him, said Ulin, “the one Los Angeles writer whose books have as a consistent center—the idea of the city as a living, breathing character–capturing the sights, the smells, the bleak glare of the sunlight, the deceptive smoothness of the surface beneath which nothing is as it seems.”

Ross Macdonald may have put it even better: “Chandler wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”

Yet Chandler’s Los Angeles is no City of Angels. It’s an urban swamp filled with darkened back alleys, endless expressways and oppressive architecture. It’s a city of decay and corruption, right down to the foliage. When Chandler, as he does in Farewell, My Lovely, describes “a tough looking palm tree,” it is a tree that could only grow in Los Angeles. When, in the same book, an afternoon breeze makes “the unpruned shoots of last year’s poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall,” lovers of Los Angeles—even those who have never lived here–recognize it as home. And when private eye Philip Marlowe makes his lonely drive from The Hobart Arms on Franklin Avenue to Arthur Gwynn Geiger’s House on Laurel Canyon Drive, as he does in The Big Sleep, we travel with him on atmospheric “mean streets” of a town without pity.

Making a Case for Mystery

Despite the income all those paperbacks generated, their lurid covers advertised Chandler’s stories as nothing more than collections of sex and violence. This kind of image angered and depressed Chandler, who considered the mystery story a valid form of literature. He dove deeper than ever into his drinking, coming up only often enough to produce some of the English language’s greatest crime fiction. In a letter to Lucky Luciano in preparation for an interview (at the suggestion of James Bond creator Ian Fleming), Chandler told the gangster: “I suppose we are both sinners in the sight of the Lord.”

In defiance of the sensational images screaming from the paperback racks that did little to promote Chandler as an important or even talented writer, a small number of Chandler supporters were beginning to argue for his literary value, as was Chandler himself. Writing to his overseas literary agent, Helga Green, Chandler said, “To accept a mediocre form and make literature out of it is something of an accomplishment… We are not always nice people, but essentially we have an ideal that transcends ourselves.”

Chandler was lucky enough to start writing novels at a time when Hollywood, based on the success of John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, was turning to the hard-boiled detective genre for stories. In 1941, RKO Pictures bought the rights to Farewell, My Lovely for $2,000, using the novel as source material for The Falcon Takes Over. A year later Twentieth Century Fox paid Chandler $3,500 for The High Window. Chandler wasn’t seduced by the attention, however, claiming, “If my books had been any worse I should not have been invited to Hollywood and if they had been any better I should not have come.”

Like many novelists during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Chandler turned to screenwriting to earn the money his books could not. In 1943, he signed on with Paramount Pictures to collaborate with Billy Wilder on a film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. He was paid $10,500, more than his entire earnings to date for any single novel. Chandler continued working for the studios for the next four years, earning increasingly higher salaries.

Seldom had a novelist’s work been so successfully or so frequently translated to the big screen. Chandler’s career as a screenwriter peaked in 1946 and 1947 with the release of director Howard Hawks’ film version of The Big Sleep (“The Violence—The Screen’s All-Time Rocker-Shocker!!” screamed the studio advertising), adaptations of The High Window (as The Brasher Doubloon) and The Lady in the Lake, plus Chandler’s Academy Award nomination for The Blue Dahlia (the screenplay for which Chandler crafted under an agreement with Paramount that he be allowed to write at home while drunk). In 1947, he was signed by Universal to create an original screenplay called Playback, but the film was never produced. Chandler tried screenwriting one final time in 1950, adapting the Patricia Highsmith mystery Strangers on a Train for Alfred Hitchcock (“He threw out nearly everything I wrote and brought in another writer.”).

Farewell to Filmland

After that film (the 16th written by or adapted from him), Chandler quit what he called the “Roman Circus” of Hollywood screenwriting to devote his energies to his remaining novels, The Little Sister (1949), The Long Goodbye (1953) and Playback (1958). Hollywood returned his ambivalence. Aside from a truncated television version of The Long Goodbye for the CBS series Climax in 1954, it was nearly 20 years before audiences saw another adaptation of one of Chandler’s books on screen.

Chandler saw no reason to cry: “The motion picture is like a picture of a lady in a half-piece bathing suit. If she wore a few more clothes, you might be intrigued. If she wore no clothes at all, you might be shocked. But the way it is, you are occupied with noticing that her knees are too bony and that her toenails are too large.”

If Hollywood had grown indifferent to Chandler’s work, the same could not be said for his growing legion of readers. As the genre of detective fiction increased in popularity, Chandler was hailed as its most accomplished practitioner. The growth of his reputation in literary circles was based primarily on his first two novels, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely and on his sixth, The Long Goodbye, but the demand of mystery fans, hungry for the work of a man who had not produced much of it, kept all of his fiction continuously in print.

Chandler once said, “The actual writing is what you live for.” And, indeed, his tight, clean prose, with its rapid rhythm, flawless precision and inspired similes (“He looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”) seemed the perfect conveyance for the detective story that he, more than anyone else, had elevated from its pulpy roots. The power of Chandler’s language and the emotion of his characters resulted in stories driven by mood and soaked in atmosphere, revealing and perhaps even explaining the darker side of human nature. Said poet W.H. Auden: “Mr. Chandler is interested in writing not detective stories but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful, but extremely depressing books should be read and judged not as escape literature, but as works of art.”

The end of Chandler’s own story reveals a personal life filled with difficulties, disappointments and disasters. His epic bouts of heavy drinking cost him his health, his lifestyle, his professional and personal relationships—and even his talent. Eventually, he wrote virtually nothing but letters.

Chandler suffered from depression, once saying that he could no longer look out at the Pacific Ocean because it had too much water and too many men had drowned in it. And he was a victim of self-loathing. Although he agreed to become the president of the Mystery Writers of America, he threw his ballot out because he could not face the prospect of voting for himself.

When his wife Cissy died of fibrosis of the lungs in December 1954, Chandler’s sense of loss turned from devastation to desperation. One boozy night, he loaded a .38 revolver, walked into his bathroom and fired twice. He missed both times. When the police arrived, they found him on the shower floor in the midst of a third attempt. He was taken to a sanitarium. When the news of his botched suicide made headlines, letters of support poured in from all over the country. Chandler dismissed the sentiments as silly.

Finally, in 1959, Chandler was hospitalized for pneumonia, his system weakened by years of alcohol abuse. He died alone at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla on March 26, just three days before the premiere of Philip Marlowe, a new ABC television series based on his most famous character.

Chandler’s funeral was attended by only 17 people. They included local acquaintances who hadn’t known him well enough to be called friends, representatives of the local Mystery Writers chapter and a devoted collector of first-edition mysteries.

Chandlertown

Yet 70 years after penning his first Los Angeles crime tale, Raymond Chandler lives on. His seven novels and 25 short stories are still in print and readily available, as are the movies and television shows made from those works. And Chandler lives as well at the very place where Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe once hung his hat, coat and gun.

On August 5, 1994, in honor of the first writer to chronicle Los Angeles and all its vivid eccentricities, the city of Los Angeles designated a familiar Hollywood street corner as a Historic Cultural Monument. Raymond Chandler Square now occupies the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga boulevards, the site of Marlowe’s office. Journalist Jess Bravin, who first approached the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission with the idea of the tribute, said then: “Of all the artists of the 20th century, perhaps no one shaped the image of Los Angeles more than did Raymond Chandler. His novels, which featured private detective Philip Marlowe, portrayed this city and its people with a depth and texture that both inspires and chills each generation of readers. His style, terse and metaphoric, gritty yet romantic, bridged the worlds of rich and poor, of losers and dreamers, of ‘popular novels’ and literary art.”

To stand at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga is to stand in the middle of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. With a little concentration, The City That Is gives way to The City That Was. Soon, words from the author’s essay on detective fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder,” come to mind. It is Chandler’s view of Marlowe, and maybe—finally—of himself:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”


Bibliography

by Raymond Chandler

Novels

  • The Big Sleep. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939.
  • Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.
  • The High Window. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942.
  • The Lady in the Lake. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943.
  • The Little Sister. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.
  • The Long Goodbye. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.
  • Playback. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.

Short Stories & Anthologies

  • “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot.” Black Mask. December, 1933.
  • The Simple Art of Murder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
  • Trouble Is My Business. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
  • Raymond Chandler Speaking. Ed. Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
  • Collected Stories (Everyman’s Library). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

on Raymond Chandler

Books

  • Baker, Robert A. and Niestzel, Michael T. Private Eyes: 101 Knights. Bowling Green: Popular, 1985.
  • Clark, Al. Raymond Chandler in Hollywood. New York: Proteus, 1982.
  • Geherin, David. The American Private Eye. New York: Ungar, 1985.
  • Goulart, Ron. The Dime Detectives. New York: Mysterious, 1988.
  • Luhr, William. Raymond Chandler and Film. New York: Ungar, 1982.
  • Nolan, William F. The Black Mask Boys. New York: Mysterious, 1985.
  • O’Brien, Geoffrey. Hardboiled America. New York: Van Nostrand Renhold, 1981.
  • Ward, Elizabeth and Silver, Alain. Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Woodstock: Overlook, 1987.
  • Wolfe, Peter. Something More Than Night. Bowling Green: Popular, 1985.

Authored by Mike Valerio.