Thursday, 10 November 2016

Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine that brought us Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett

I've come across references to Black Mask since my teens, thanks to its role in the careers  of Hammett, Chandler, and (to a lesser extent, because he doesn't appeal the same literary cachet) Erle Stanley Gardner. But I'm not sure I ever knew that the magazine ...

...owed its existence to the extremely unlikely duo of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Mencken (aka The Sage of Baltimore) was an eminent American journalist, scholar, social critic and (worryingly) an admirer of Nietzsche, a hater of religion, a sceptic regarding representative democracy, an isolationist, and a loather of the ignorant middle classes (or the "Booboisie" as he called them).  I've always enjoyed reading his stuff  - most recently,  The American Credo - and, despite the fact that he died 60 years ago, I follow him on Twitter. While his writings are entertaining, his opinions (as you may have gathered) are, on the whole, repellent.
Nathan, Mencken's partner in creating Black Mask, was an equally eminent magazine editor and drama critic (apparently, he was the model for Addison DeWitt, the sardonic theatre critic played by George Sanders in All About Eve). Nathan would go on to co-found and edit The American Mercury and The American Spectator, but when they launched Black Mask in 1920, he and Mencken were the co-editors of the literary magazine, The Smart Set. 
So why did two literary types launch a bi-monthly hard-boiled pulp magazine? In order to finance The Smart Set. And their strategy worked. Launching Black Mask cost them a few hundred dollars: it was an instant hit, and they were able to sell the title for $6,000 after a mere eight issues.
The magazine, which included science fiction and wild west stories alongside hard-boiled detective fiction in its early days, flourished until the mid-1930s, by which time the vogue for pulp magazines had waned. It managed to stagger on, attracting a later generation of crime writers, including Cornell Woolrich and John D. MacDonald, before finally folding in 1951.
I lost my taste for hard-boiled crime fiction years ago. I now prefer the sort of Golden Age country house detective mysteries which Raymond Chandler despised, and to which Black Mask acted as an antidote. I doubt I'd much enjoy reading old copies of the magazine now - but that doesn't stop me appreciating its wonderfully evocative covers, which, as you'll notice, got progressively more lurid towards the end of its existence:
And this may the worst case of PMT in history:
(Sorry, dear!)

Who'da thunk that while H.L. Mencken was writing The American Credo, he was simultaneously giving birth to something as splendidly earthy as Black Mask - they both appeared in 1920.  

I've created a Pinterest board of all my favourite Black Mask covers, which you should be able to find here.

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