The Detective Fiction Market by Lurton Blassingame

When Eve stole the apple, she set the cardinal editorial principle of today’s numerous detective magazines: Crime Does Not Pay.

Public sentiment has always followed this principle excepting those times when strong efforts were made to enforce laws distasteful to a large proportion of the country’s citizens. In Merrie England when it was unlawful for a commoner to kill a deer, Robin Hood was an admired gangster. During the days of Prohibition, detective magazines were chiefly devoted to the exploits of gangsters. Repeal, whether or not beneficial to the rest of the country, has certainly raised the moral tone of the detective magazines. The cop and the lawmaker no longer get it in the neck.

The detective story, largely popularized and created by writers in this country first made headway in 1840-45 when Poe wrote “Murders in Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” and “The Mystery of Mary Roget.” France helped this new literary genre with the work of Gaboriau. Then Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone, still a classic. In 1887 Conan Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet and Sherlock Holmes started something which the American public wants kept alive.

No one needs to be ashamed of writing detective stories. The market for them is so wide that editors are continually hunting for new writers who have the ability to puzzle and to thrill the readers. There are today thirty-one pulp magazines using crime fiction exclusively and another is being started; the smooth-paper magazines and some of the general interest pulps use detective stories: and there are nine fact detective magazines devoted to the publication of stories of actual crimes.

The detective magazines are as modern as tomorrow’s newspaper. Secret poisons and locked rooms are passe. Criminals use the automobile, the airplane, submachine and trick photography in committing their crimes. Sherlock Holmes would look at a watch and tell you the life history of its owner; but it is suspected that his evidence would not stand up in court. Today G-men examine an abandoned car, name the men who rode in it through the identification of fingerprints; tell you by the mud under the fenders that it has crossed two state lines in the past twenty-four hours; and by examining the sediment in the oil case announce definitely that the car was chiefly used in a particular section of a state a thousand miles away!

You do not have to live in a city to write detective stories. There is a market for stories in which the town constable is the hero; or you can use a state trooper, a county sheriff, a parole officer, a prison guard, or any other law officer connected with the Government, a state, or a city. And there is still a market for stories of the private detective hero.

Know your subject. Talk with the type of law officer you plan to use; if this is difficult, read factual books about crime detection. Modern Criminal Investigation is a good one. Several detectives have published autobiographies; there are good books out on modern scientific crime detection; information about firearms is available in almost any library. You should know how many times a submachine gun fires at one loading, that a silencer cannot be used on an automatic pistol, that a city detective’s work is largely limited by the city limits. And much more. Bad technical mistakes bring rejections.

There are two distinctive types of crime stories. By far the most popular is the hero pattern in which the story is told from the viewpoint of the hero out to solve the murder and capture the villain. A simple “who did it” puzzle is not enough: Detective story readers are masochistic; they like to be tortured! To sell, you must create a hero who is sympathetic, you must make your readers want terribly for him to escape the dangers which threaten him and solve the case, and you must make it seem that the villain is so dangerously clever that the hero cannot win. Then, when your readers are ready to scream with suspense, the hero must pull the solution out of his clever mind, through the proper interpretation of clues, back his proof with gun play if necessary, and emerge victorious.

The hero pattern story has mystery, menace to the hero, and interesting character work. The proportion of these elements vary from magazine to magazine.

The other general type of crime fiction is the villain viewpoint yarn. And here, too, you must torture your readers. You must make your villain such a damnable louse that the reader will hate him, want him caught. But you let us see him plan and execute his crime with such fiendish cleverness that it looks as if he is going to get away with it. Then, at the last, he is caught through some minor flaw in his perfect plan, probably by the very thing he’d counted upon to bring him success. Thus justice is fulfilled. Too late he learns that crime does not pay.

Any grouping of detective story magazines must be tentative. There are too many ways by which the magazines may be grouped. Some want only stories about law officers employed by the Federal Government, and yet the emotional tone of the stories, and the amount of action demanded differ from magazine to magazine. The following classification is largely by emotional tone, a delicate thing to capture. I cannot emphasize too strongly the necessity of reading the magazine for yourself, not only one issue but many issues of the ones for which you intend to write. (All addresses, unless otherwise given, are New York City.)

Group 1. The Crime Thrillers

In many of the stories the hero is out to defeat some underworld character or gang.

In some stories in this group there is a mystery as to who committed the crime, but in many the villain is known or suspected from the first and suspense is maintained by the seeming impossibility of the hero overcoming the villain and securing evidence which will convict. These magazines appeal to the juvenile minds and the action pace is extremely fast. A few of these magazines will permit a girl interest, but for most of them the girls should be left out, particularly in short stories.

The Shadow, John L. Nanovic, 79 Seventh Avenue. The heroes for this magazine should be law officers of a town, city, county or state. Avoid woman interest. Villains are usually gangsters and in about half the stories their identity is known or suspected from the beginning. Here is a plot of a typical story—“One for the Record”—by Alan Hathway, one of the favorite writers for this magazine.

Detective Bill Clancy, whose brother is Chief of Detectives, knows that his father was killed either by Nig Colimo or Killer Bogert. A small-time gangster, when arrested, tells Bill the shooting was done by Colimo, that Bogert is dead. Bill hunts Colimo. He is attacked in the dark, fights fiercely but is captured, taken on board a boat. And there he finds Killer Bogert. Bogert explains that Colimo has been killed and he, Bogert, has been carrying on crimes under Colimo’s name, letting it be believed that Bogert was dead.

Bogert is afraid that the little crook who is being held at police headquarters, if kept away from dope, will spill the news that Bogert is alive. He demands that Bill have his brother release this crook. If he doesn’t, Bill’s brother will be gunned and Bill will be dropped into a vat of acid. Bill refuses, is left in the little cabin of the boat while he is taken toward the headquarters of the gang where they have the vat of acid. Bill manages to wreck the boat. But he’s recaptured because his hands are still tied. Bill is taken to the gang hideout, left in the cellar by the vat of acid. Bill uses the acid to burn the ropes from his wrists, puts a penny back of the fuse for the electric light in the basement fuse box.

Taken upstairs, while still pretending to be tied, Bill agrees to send a message to his brother, dictates it on a victrola record which contains the fingerprints of the dead Nig Golimo and he adds a few sentences to—supposedly—make sure that his brother recognizes the message as coming from him.

When the gangsters are out of the room for a moment, Bill puts another penny back of a light bulb in a table lamp. Result—the house catches on fire from the short circuit made.

The gangsters try to put Bill into the acid vat before the firemen arrive, but he puts up a hell of a fight. And almost immediately his brother and policemen break in. Bill’s innocently worded message to his brother had given the approximate location of the house and the fact that there would be a fire! The killer of Bill’s father is thus brought to justice.

The important point to note about this story is its rapid pace, the amount of action crammed into 5,000 words, and the surprise twist at the end.

Short stories of 1,500 to 6,000 words used here.

The Whisperer, John L. Nanovic, Editor, 79 Seventh Avenue, New York. The same type of story is used here as is used in The Shadow.

The Feds, John L. Nanovic, Editor, 79 Seventh Avenue, New York. This magazine is devoted to stories of Government officers—G-men, Secret Service men, Army Intelligence, Navy Intelligence, Postal Inspectors, Customs Officers, Immigration Officers, etc. With this exception, the stories have the same pace and tone as those in The Shadow, but some woman interest is permitted, particularly in the novelettes.

Short stories, 2,000 to 6,000 words; novelettes 8,000 to 12,000 words.

Secret Agent X, Harry Widmer, Editor, 67 W. 44th Street. This magazine wants stories of all types of Government lawmen. The pace should be about as swift as it is in The Feds, but woman interest is desired and a more emotional tone is used in the writing.

The Phantom Detective, Leo Margulies, Editor, 22 W. 48th Street. This magazine uses a wide variety of short stories—both hero and crook pattern—up to 6,000 words. In all of them story excitement should begin with the first sentence and move steadily toward a smashing climax. Avoid mechanical plot construction and steer clear of super-sensational murder methods such as death rays, unknown poisons and Rube Goldbergish murder devices. In the detective story it is better to keep your criminal hidden until the end if you are using the hero pattern; and the clues by which he is finally identified should be convincing.

Operator #5, Rogers Terrill, Editor, 205 E. 42nd Street, uses only short stories up to 6,000 words and the heroes should be Army or Navy Intelligence officers working to thwart some threat against the United States Government. Woman interest is desired.

Group 2. The Semi-Smooth Paper Detective Magazines

A number of the contributors to this group have written for, or hope to write for, the smooth paper magazines. While some of this group’s sales are to juvenile readers, the magazines also are read by intelligent adults. They demand, therefore, good writing and convincing character work and situations. The stories must maintain reader interest at all times; any letdown is fatal; but this interest can be maintained by good situations and interesting characters and it is not necessary for the hero to shoot his way from the beginning to the end.

Detective Fiction Weekly, William Kostka, Editor, 280 Broadway. This magazine runs a variety of crime fiction. It uses humor and an occasional—very occasional—semi-tragic story; it uses crook pattern stories and stories told from the viewpoint of the hero. It uses stories of a hero against the underworld and stories of the hero against the villain who is a respected member of society who has committed his first crime. A synopsis of a single story would give you no idea of the variety of fiction used here, but the opening paragraphs of William Edward Hayes’ “Invention for Murder” will indicate how clearly the characters are drawn and how an interesting situation is suggested at the very opening of the story without any note of physical violence:

The man’s name was Bayard and his card read, “Investments.” Drew Kiley said, “Come in,” while his mind pondered, without results, the steel cabinet drawer in the corner where he had catalogued the principals in every crooked stock deal in the country.

This Bayard was big-bodied, with bristly gray hair and a military mustache. His cheeks were a well-massaged pink; his voice deep and oily, and he was too obviously affecting a calm that he didn’t feel.

“Would the young lady come in?” Drew asked. The young lady picked at her purse nervously and glanced quickly at Bayard. Her face was a long oval, her cheek bones high, her lips finely cut. Her eyes were frightened, bewildered, and she was concealing a deep agitation.

Black Mask, F. Ellsworth, Editor, 515 Madison Avenue. Under the new editor, this magazine has a slightly broader editorial policy than it had under Joseph Shaw who publicized Erle Stanley Gardener, Dashiell Hammett, and many other top notch detective story writers; but the magazine still publishes the most realistic fiction found in the detective field. Except for the short-short, one of which is published each month, it is better to tell your story from the viewpoint of the hero. Nothing soft and sentimental and emotional is welcomed by this magazine. Woman interest is perfectly all right, but even love is treated realistically and is understood to have a basis in sex, though sex itself is not used.

One short-short is used in each issue. Short stories up to 6,000 words; novelettes 10,000 to 20,000.

Detective Story, F.E. Blackwell, Editor, 79 Seventh Avenue. No gangster fiction is used. Good writing; strong characters and interesting situations are desired in place of gunplay. Some crook pattern stories are used in short lengths. Stories up to 6,000 words; novelettes 10,000 to 20,000; novels 45,000 to 50,000.

Detective Action Stories, Ralph Perry, Editor, 205 E. 42nd Street. This magazine does not want the “cops and robbers” story. The title is something of a misnomer because constant, fighting action is not used, nor is the purely deductive story. Convincing situations are essential and the editor likes stories which involve ordinary human beings, whether they are poor, middle class or well-to-do.

At the moment the particular need is for short stories of 5,000 words or less; but it does use short stories up to 7,000 and novelettes of 10,000 to 20,000.

Pocket Detective Magazine, Robert Arthur, Editor. 79 Seventh Avenue. A new monthly, wanting shorts, 3,000 to 10,000 words. The stories must have convincing plots, strong motivation, and interesting characters. No cheap characters or sordid settings, no gangsters, vicious or petty criminals. Interesting settings, interesting people in strong mystery or detective plots are what they are looking for. No photographs. Short fillers, oddities of crime or criminals. Similar to Reader’s Digest in size and format.

Group 3. The Character and Action Magazines

The chief difference in the requirements of the magazines in this group and in the group just discussed, is in the pace of the story. These magazines want good writing and good characterization, but the stories contain more physical action than those discussed in Group 2, but less action than in Group 1. This group does not stress realism as strongly as does Group 2, and the editors are looking for “color” in the stories used.

Popular Detective, Leo Margulies, Editor, 22 W. 48 Street. Popular publishes a variety of stories, some of them having very little action. This magazine does not care for the gangster type story or the story motivated by revenge for an old wrong theme. There should be several suspects and the hero’s evidence at the end, when he exposes the villain, should be strong enough to carry reasonable weight before a jury. Crook pattern stories are used in short lengths if they are very clever. Hero pattern stories for this magazine must have strong motivation for the crimes, clever sleuthing, and there should be no deliberate falsity of plotting to unfairly mislead the reader.

Short stories up to 6,000, and four novelettes of 8,000 to 10,000 words each.

Detective Tales, Rogers Terrill, Editor, 205 E. 42nd Street. Human interest detective stories are wanted for this magazine. The hero should be both colorful and convincing. Woman interest is used and provides a mild emotional note. The women are not just objects to be rescued and to provide motivation; they are glamorous and brave and capable of taking part in the action themselves.

Shorts of 1,000 to 6,000; novelettes 9,000 to 15,000 words.

Federal Agent, Arthur Lawson, 149 Madison Avenue. This bimonthly uses stories of all branches of Government lawmen—the F.B.I., Postal Inspectors, Treasury Department, etc. The distinguishing point about this magazine is its insistence upon accuracy in the methods used by its heroes. All the modern scientific branches of crime detection which the Government employs are featured in its stories, but this scientific material should not slow down the pace of the story.

Ace G-Man Stories, Rogers Terrill, Editor, 205 E. 42nd Street. This magazine uses stories of F.B.I. heroes. Color is stressed, and the heroes should have an emotional interest in the cases on which they are working.

Dime Detective, Kenneth White, Editor, 205 E. 42nd Street. Your hero can be a private detective or a lawman of any kind; but he must be colorful and everything he does must be convincing. The editor will buy no story about which he thinks even one reader will write in and say that it contains an inaccuracy. Clever crook pattern stories are used in short lengths. No gangster stories. Short stories up to 6,000; novelettes of 10,000 to 15,000.

Group 4. The Emotional Story

The distinguishing quality of this group is its insistence upon strong emotion throughout the stories. In every story the hero is emotionally involved and the action grows out of these emotional situations.

Headquarters Detective, Mary Lou Butler, Editor, 67 W. 44th Street. Stories for this magazine must feature law officers working for some town, city, county, state—or for the Government. A brief quotation from “Hell’s Heroes” will let you see the emotional note demanded. Stella Logan, Paul Bourke’s sweetheart, has just been told that her father, head of the Arson Squad, was seen in a warehouse just before it was set on fire.

“In the warehouse?” she repeated the words mechanically. “But that’s ridiculous! Why would dad be there? You’re framing him!”

MacSorley shook his head patiently. “Unfortunately, no! Bourke, here, talked with the watchman just before he died. The watchman identified your father.”

Her slim body went rigid. She jerked around until her pale face was close to Bourke’s own. “Paul Bourke—you! I wouldn’t have believed you capable of such a low, despicable trick! You believe anything so fantastic against dad! Oh! It’s contemptible! After all he did for you, all—” She choked, unable to go on.

Bourke kept his face impassive, but inwardly he was seething with compassion for her. “I couldn’t do anything less than report it. That’s my duty,” he growled doggedly.

“Duty!” she cried hysterically. “You call turning on your best friend duty! You’re a Judas! I never want to see you again! Never! Never!” She flung away from him, ran to the door.

Detective Romances, Harry Widmer, Editor, 67 W. 44th Street. The title tells the story on this one. Good character and good detective work is needed in the solution of clever crimes, but the hero is in love and the crime must be instrumental in uniting the hero and heroine.

Strong emotional situations, any type of hero.

Shorts up to 5,000 words; novelettes of 10,000 words to 15,000.

Ace Detective, Mary Lou Butler, 67 W. 44th Street. The stories here are similar in emotional tone to those found in Headquarters Detective; but the heroes can be private detectives or men who are not actually law officers of any kind but who are caught up in a criminal situation and must solve it. Criminal viewpoint stories are also used here.

Group 5. Fast Action and Color

The stories desired by the magazines in this group are similar to those used in Group 3. But on the whole the characters are a little more exotic, and while convincing situations are demanded, imagination and color are stressed rather than realism.

Nothing is done in the stories in this group which is impossible and no characters are used who are implausible, but characterization is achieved by obvious rather than subtle means. Some of the stories published by the magazines in this group are just as realistic as those published in Group 3. They have been put into a separate group because these magazines also publish stories which are more colorful, exotic, swiftly paced than the stories found in Group 3. These groupings were flexible!

Thrilling Detective, Leo Margulies, Editor, 22 East 48th Street. A very good example of what I mean by “color” for heroes and situations can be found by reading the series of short stories running in this magazine about a character known as “the Human Encyclopedia.” This character has read all the best encyclopedias, has a photographic memory, and so knows just about everything which has ever been written in an encyclopedia, and he uses his knowledge in solving crimes.

Leo Margulies showed his editorial brains by going after this series by Frank Gruber when it was turned down elsewhere. Selznick studios bought movie rights and brought Gruber [a Digest subscriber, by the way] to Hollywood at a good salary.

Clues-Detective Stories, R. Orlin Tremaine, 79 Seventh Avenue. Both hero and crook pattern stories. Shorts to 5,500; novelettes 8,000 to 15,000.

Ace High Detective, Ken White, Editor, 205 E. 42nd Street. Both hero and crook pattern stories are used here, and the yarns are very similar to those found in Dime Detective.

G-Men, Leo Margulies, Editor, 22 W. 48th. This magazine uses short stories up to 6000 words about all branches of government law enforcement work. However, since the lead novel—written on order—is about an F.B.I. hero, stories of other branches or the Government law enforcement organizations will have a better chance here.

Ten Detective Aces, Harry Widmer, Editor, 67 W. 44th Street. Stories with an emotional note, both hero and crook pattern. Shorts 1,000 to 5,000; novelettes 10,000 to 18,000.

The Spider, Rogers Terrill, Editor, 205 E. 42nd Street. Only shorts up to 6,000 with a colorful character defeating some big menace.

There are nine magazines devoted exclusively to the publication of stories of true crimes. Space does not permit a discussion of these magazines in this issue. However, if interesting crimes have been committed in your neighborhood and your law enforcement officers have solved them, it will pay you to read these magazines carefully, find out if you can get a police officer who worked on the case to sign the story with you and if so, query the editors of the magazines to see if they would be interested in having you write up the case for them. For further data see the Digest for November, page 19. Here is a list of the magazines which use stories of true crimes:

Inside Detective, West F. Peterson, Editor, 149 Madison Avenue; Master Detective, John Shuttleworth, Editor, Chanin Building; Official Detective, Harry Keller, Editor, 731 Plymouth Court, Chicago; Startling Detective Adventures, Leonard Diegre, Editor, 22 W. Putnam, Greenwich, Connecticut; True Detective Mysteries, John Shuttleworth, Editor, Chanin Building; American Detective Cases, Rose Bolsen, Editor, 551 Fifth Avenue; Front Page Detective, West Peterson, Editor, 149 Madison Avenue; Daring Detective, Leonard Diegre, Editor, 22 W. Putnam, Greenwich, Connecticut; Real Detective, Arthur Medford, Editor, 44 West Madison Avenue; True Crime Stories, Martin Goodman, Editor, R.K.O. Building.

So endeth the chapter. There are thousands of dollars to be made writing detective stories if you will learn your background accurately, and learn the editorial policies of the magazines for which you wish to write by a careful reading and study of the stories they publish.

Crime pays nobody, as the grinning ghoul who dismembered Aunt Hattie in the nursery found out, except freelance writers.

Authored by Lurton Blassingame; from Writer’s Digest (January 1937).

Interview with Lurton Blassingame

1977—We visited the offices of Mr. Lurton Blassingame recently at 60 E. 4294 St. in the old Lincoln Building near Grand Central Station. Mr. Blassingame has been a literary agent and confidante to authors since the ’20s. During the early ’30s when the pulp magazine was as vital an entertainment medium as radio or the movies—if not more influential—he wrote articles for Writer’s Digest giving advice on the various fiction markets. Eventually his advertisements for his literary agency appeared more frequently than his articles and he has remained influential in publishing for almost half a century.

Mr. Blassingame, distinguished looking and articulate, remembers all the popular writers of the ’30s and ’40s. In fact, he wrote his master’s thesis at Columbia on the history of pulp fiction.

“Back in those old pulp days,” he recalled, “what counted was telling a well constructed story and telling as many of them as possible. You had to be prolific to survive.” He told me anecdotes about various pulp authors and editors. Because I edited, in 1974, the last issue of Black Mask, the great pulp magazine that introduced the hardboiled detective to American literature through the earliest work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner and their followers, I was particularly interested to hear stories about Captain Shaw, that magazine’s greatest editor. Famous for Perry Mason, Gardner wrote more books that sold more than two million copies than any other writer. Captain Shaw prided himself and the magazine for presenting stories told in the real language of real men who had worked and traveled in America. He wrote many an editorial congratulating his authors (and particularly Gardner) for the authenticity of their language.

Mr. Blassingame was charmed by the Captain but found him a naive fellow who let a lot of risqué dialogue slip through because he didn’t know the meaning of the lingo. Mr. Blassingame relates that Ted Tinsley, a regular contributor, delighted in slipping whorehouse argot past the good Captain and that many a trick got turned without Shaw being the wiser.

I asked Mr. Blassingame why the pulps died. “The 25-cent novel had a lot to do with it,” he told me. “It was generally thicker than a pulp. And it seemed to offer better writing. In general there were better authors represented in the 25-cent novel. Originally the size of these novels was only a bit smaller in height and width than the pulps and then they came out as ‘pocket books’ for their own racks. At first it was genre fiction, mostly detective, that dominated the 25-cent novel, and suddenly the paperback industry of the early ’50s was born.”

But the 25-cent novel was only the first competition. “The advent of television gave the pulps the final blow,” Mr. Blassingame commented. “You had to exert a certain effort to read. You could just sit back and watch television. I had friends who would always ask me to bring them some western pulps cause they knew I could get them for free through my business. By the early ’50s none of those friends were asking for Western pulps any more. They were watching the ‘Lone Ranger’ on television.”

I asked him how he explained the popularity of the paperback book in the face of the terrible power of the TV tube.

“Well, you’re right,” he said, they’re selling more paperbacks than ever in history. Of course our population has grown considerably in the last twenty to thirty years and there is less illiteracy too.”

I recalled a story I had heard of how literary agent Scott Meredith had called all his major magazine fiction authors in the late ’40s or early ’50s to tell them that the 10,000 to 25,000 word short story was now a dead market and that they should extend all their stories to at least 100,000 words or give up writing. The age of the fast paperback novel was about to dawn. Why did paperback become entrenched so fast? For one thing, he said, there was the blending of books with TV so that both mediums sold each other. “And you get to read stories about things you can’t get or can’t get enough of on television, like science fiction.

“One of my clients, Frank Herbert, has a book, Children of Dune (Berkley, $1.95) on three bestseller lists including the New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly. Over one million copies of that book are in print and two million copies of the Dune trilogy have been sold since 1965.”

Now that’s what I call mass marketing. I was surprised and delighted. I had come to interview Mr. Blassingame about pulp writing and he had proven to me that the old pulp tradition was as vital a part of popular culture as I have always felt. Interestingly, Mr. Blassingame is also the agent for Robert Heinlein, the classic science fiction author whose Stranger in a Strange Land was a national sensation in the ’60s and the first pure science fiction novel to make the bestseller lists.

Authored by Keith Alan Deutsch. Reprinted by permission of the author. Reprinted from Cover One #0, 1977.