Review of The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Edited by Joseph T. Shaw

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 Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1952 paperback)

The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1952 paperback)

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
324 pages

Authored by Ed Lin.

Review of His Name Was Death by Fredric Brown

In the world of crime novels, it’s only a matter of time before an average Joe with an opportunity to make a few crooked bucks goes for it. After all, an engraver with a print shop can only make so many sales flyers (“Sheet blankets. Assorted cotton plaid, deep napped. Pink, blue, green. Regularly $1.49”) before he turns to counterfeiting bills.

“You’d never in a thousand years have guessed that he was a murderer and a criminal. You’d have thought him dull, plodding, honest,” Brown writes.

Emboldened by getting away with the murder of his philandering wife the year before, Darius Conn figures that printing up fake $10 bills will be a cakewalk, in Frederic Brown’s 1951 novel, His Name Was Death. And like every criminal, he figured wrong. But how straight a life can someone named “Conn” live?

Despite Conn’s careful planning, the fake bills end up in circulation prematurely, setting off a chain of murders as he hunts down and kills the unfortunate recipients of the bills.

The book, which jumps between Conn’s and his victims’ points of view, shows Brown’s mastery of internal dialog, which puts an individual face on the most mundane of lives. A man, just scraping by, envisions his upcoming marriage changing his drifting ways. A woman who gets stood up for a date is distressed that she went too early to a double feature to kill the entire afternoon. But how the criminal thinks is of prime importance, and Conn’s cockiness as he contemplates the next step for the “perfect criminal” is chilling.

Brown’s flashes of dark humor work well. When Conn mulls over murdering his assistant at the print shop, the thought of searching for someone as good a worker gives him genuine pause for thought.

His Name Was Death may not be “hard” enough for some hard-boiled fans, but its portrait of unflinching viciousness sheathed inside a mild-mannered printer will disturb any jaded readers. You may never look at Kinko’s the same way after reading it.

Authored by Ed Lin.

Review of American Pulp

You’ve got to hand it to the people at Carroll & Graf. A few years after all the jerks who wanted to read pulp just because they saw Pulp Fiction have moved on to raising kids or something, the publisher continues to chunk out hard-boiled collections.

I’ve got some of their other collections, Pure Pulp and The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, but American Pulp is the only one that fits in my coat pocket. And I read it cover to cover.

The quality here is high, and each story is distinct and memorable enough so that you won’t need a bookmark, even after laying off for a few days between reads.

There’s several name writers here: John D. MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake, Evan Hunter, Mickey Spillane and Marcia Muller.

MacDonald turns in the standout of the collection, “In a Small Hotel.” A psychotic customer on the lam takes the proprietor and some of her friends hostage. When they overpower the customer, they turn on each other when find his stash of embezzled money. The lines of trust drawn and redrawn and strong characters loom in the reader’s mind for the rest of the book (it’s the third story in on this collection of 35).

In my mind, any book with another farcical romp by Norbert Davis alone is worth the price of admission. Davis’s “Murder in Two Parts” will satisfy fans of his slap-sticky murder stories.

There’s a lot of other things to like here: a gem of a story by Donald Wandrei, “Tick Tock” (like Davis’s story, originally published in Black Mask); a sharp western-mystery, “Lynching in Mixville,” by contemporary author L.J. Washburn; a typically awkward tale of insecurity from David Goodis, “The Plunge,” and a fine ironic ditty from Fredric Brown, “Cry Silence.”

But there’s also the lousy “Doing Colfax” from modern-day writer Ed Bryant. Ed Gorman says his writing is “innovative and stunning,” but the example here only portrays two low-lifes committing a murder with no remorse, and worse, little distinction. I might be missing something here, but I doubt it. I’m pretty sharp.

The collection also ends on a bum note with Richard Matheson’s “The Frigid Flame,” a 70-page relative opus on a murderous twist that readers will see through far too early on.

Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg have done all the little things right, seamlessly integrating stories from the 70s through the 90s in with the pulp era. They even wrote short bios for all the authors. I’m a big fan of that.

At a little more than two cents a page, you can’t not buy and read this book.

American Pulp
Edited by Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg
550 pages, $12.95
Carroll & Graf, 1997

Authored by Ed Lin.