There’s no doubt that The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, published by Simon and Schuster in hardcover in 1946, is a landmark anthology. After all, the collection of 15 stories originally published by Black Mask was put together by the Old Man himself, Joseph T. Shaw.
But there’s two different editions of this book; when the softcover came out in 1952, it knocked out stories and juggled the running order of the survivors. Does this hurt or enhance the reading experience?
It depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re the type who reads through straight, the softcover version has a better running order, but it’s missing two good stories that were in the hardcover.
The cover of the Pocket Book edition (25 cents!) promises “12 of the toughest murder stories ever written,” but two of these stories don’t include any killings. There’s also another inaccuracy. The book claims to have “every word contained in the original, higher-priced edition,” but three pieces from the original edition were deep-sixed: “The Devil Suit,” by J.J. Des Ormeaux (Forrest Rosaire); “Murder Mixup,” by George Harmon Coxe; and “Sister Act,” by Charles G. Booth.
“The Devil Suit” was the leadoff story in the hardcover edition. Although it drags a bit, it shouldn’t have been dropped altogether. The plot was interesting enough to hold a reader for the 50-odd pages it ran, but maybe not for the very first story. “Sister Act” was also a good story featuring two pairs of sisters and breaks away from the typical blazing-guns formula.
I agree with the cut of “Murder Mixup,” a story featuring Coxe’s series character Flash Casey. The exaggerated tough-guy antics of Casey haven’t aged well.
The softcover leads off with Lester Dent’s mighty fine “Sail,” featuring the vertically-unchallenged detective Oscar Sail. Deftly written, there’s an atmosphere of corruption and menace sure to hook readers in right from the start. This story had been in the middle of the book and it plays better being up front.
Next is Reuben Jennings Shay’s “Taking His Time,” an amusing short-short (five pages) about a flim-flam in a small town. It fits in fine as the second story, where it was in the original. There’s a complete absence of violence in this piece, and yet there’s no mistaking that it is hard-boiled. It’ll crack up any Black Mask fan.
Batting third is the first of two stories by Shaw favorite Raoul Whitfield, “Death in the Pasig,” a Joe Gar short written under his Ramon Decolta pen name. Readers can feel the hot and humid Manila air as Gar slowly but surely makes his way to fingering the killer.
Then there’s Raymond Chandler’s “The Man Who Liked Dogs.” Supposedly the story appeared in the collection without Chandler’s consent, but the book notes the story was reprinted “by permission of the author,” as the original did. Whatever the circumstances, this is great writing and great reading.
Ditto for Dashiell Hammett’s “Fly Paper,” which follows Chandler like the second half of a one-two punch.
Whitfield’s second story, “Inside Job,” is a letdown, and not only because it follows Hammett and Chandler. The killer and the method are just too obvious, even before the murder is committed. This story should have been cut instead of “Sister Act,” which would have fit well here.
Norbert Davis’s “Red Goose” rights the ship again with a well-mixed assortment of personalities in an art-world theft. It’s funny in a way that only Davis could have done, along with his killer ear for dialog.
Another story from the immortal Paul Cain, “Red 71,” raises the bar higher. This story of double-crossing, savage brutality and a tender marriage proposal is already well-known by readers of Cain’s Seven Slayers collection.
The last four stories in the collection remain unchanged in order from the original. Three of them in a row zip by: “Best Man,” by Thomas Walsh; “Kick-Back,” by Ed Lybeck; and “Clean Sweep,” by Roger Torrey. There’s nothing too distinctive here, but they’re not lousy. Time hasn’t been kind to stories that stuck too close to “run and gun” formulas, which these three slip into at their worst.
The last story shows the sentimental side of Shaw. “South Wind,” by Theodore Tinsley, doesn’t get more violent than a broken arm. What drives the story is the interplay between the two leading columnists for the newspaper, not unlike Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. In fact, the man’s name is Tracy.
“Hey hardboiled,” calls the woman before a train whisks her away, “any time you get sick of this crooked game, come on down to Thunder Run. I’d be awful glad to see you.”
“South Wind” is a wistful ending to a great anthology, in either version.
The Hard-Boiled Omnibus
Edited by Joseph T. Shaw
Review edition published by Pocket Books, 1952
Authored by Ed Lin.