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Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, Edited by Otto Penzler

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The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories finds editor Otto Penzler following up his 2007 anthology The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps with “a sequel of sorts” as he describes it in the foreword, which focuses solely on the work from the famed pulp magazine. Black Mask started in 1920 and published works by such noted writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner. This isn’t the first collection of Black Mask stories but Penzler claims it to be the most comprehensive. Keith Allen Deutsch, current owner of the brand, provides a richly detailed history of the magazine, which now has an online presence.

The magazine’s original illustrations and notes from the editor accompany the stories, which aren’t presented in chronological order. The first story is Gardner’s “Come and Get It” (Apr. 1927), featuring his popular con man character Ed Jenkins in his 15th appearance in the magazine. Gardner gets a second entry in the book under the pseudonym Charles M. Green with “The Shrieking Skeleton” (Dec. 1923).

When writers found success with a character, they frequently revisited them and many recurring characters populate this book. Frederick Nebel’s Capt. Steve MacBride and his sidekick Kennedy, a wiseguy reporter and alcoholic appear in “Doors in the Dark” (Feb. 1933). Nebel’s MacBride stories became a film series and a radio show, as did those of George Harmon Coxe’s newspaper photographer/detective Jack “Flashgun” Casey, who appears in “Fall Guy” (June 1936). Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne was very popular in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, and the detective is featured in “A Taste for Cognac” (Nov. 1944).

Penzler selected stories that featured a number of first appearances that should thrill pulp fans. There is Merle Constiner’s private detective Luther McGavok in “Let the Dead Alone” (July 1942), and W. T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox, a motion picture troubleshooter, in “A Little Different” (Sept. 1933). Peter Collinson’s “Arson Plus” (Oct. 1923) is particularly notable because Collinson is actually Dashiell Hammett, and this is the first Continental Op story.

Credited as the inventor of the hard-boiled private eye story, Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams first appears in “Knights of the Open Palm” (June 1923). Race tells the story about a case involving the Klan in a brisk, clipped, straightforward style that became a signature element of the genre. Considered one of the genre’s greatest writers, Raymond Chandler’s entry is his last “Black Mask” story, “Try the Girl” (Jan. 1937).

Katherine Brocklebank is notable as the only identified female author in Black Mask’s entire run. “Bracelets” (Dec. 1928) is the first about Tex of the Border Patrol. Penzler reveals in the notes that magazine readers of the time, and this wasn’t limited to Black Mask, made known in letters that they didn’t like female main characters or authors. This is utterly ridiculous because one of the better stories is William Cole’s clever “Waiting for Rusty” (Oct. 1939) about a gal named Dotty. She waits holed up in a tavern for her fella until the news of his capture on the radio reveals a detail that he was never going to come even if he hadn’t got pinched.

This book also features some rare material. Creator of Doc Savage, Lester Dent also created boatman Oscar Sail. “Luck” is a never before published, early draft of “Sail,” which Dent preferred over the published version because of the rewrites he had to do. Ramon Decolta’s Jo Gar was a Filipino detective created respectively as opposed to some of the Asian caricatures of the era. “Rainbow Diamonds” (Feb-Aug 1931) is six connected stories that are being published in book form for the first time.

The Maltese Falcon fans will be thrilled to discover the original serialized version of Hammett’s story, which ran from Sept 1929 to January 1930. Penzler’s notes reveal “more than two thousand textural differences” occurred when it moved from the magazine to novel. Published in its original form for the first time in over 80 years, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.

No matter the reader’s level of interest, from serious aficionado to curious novice, Penzler strikes gold again, overseeing this latest collection of entertaining pulp stories. He deserves great thanks for helping to preserve and drawing attention to these stories.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
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