“The streets were dark with something more than night.” - Raymond Chandler
Pulp Mag Master or Pip-Squeak for the Slicks?
Born in 1903, Frederick Nebel hit an early writing stride by the mid-1920s, not only contributing to the pulp magazines, but making his debut in the March 1926 issue of Black Mask, where he would write, over the course of ten years (in addition to other stories for such periodicals as western and aviation pulps), a total of 67 crime and detective stories, second only to Erle Stanley Gardner.
Most of Nebel’s work for Black Mask, and for Dime Detective — the latter a subsequent outlet for his judiciously-used hardboiled style, wit-prone prose and streamlined storylines — belonged to one of several series, and seemed to fit the bill for the it-ain’t-broke, hands-off approach for each magazine’s editor. At least for a while.
Black Mask’s Joseph Shaw sought — and got from Nebel’s tales — grace under pressure and sentiment squeezed dry, much to a practical end: “It keeps me in butts and I see the country and I don’t have to slave over a desk.” As he continues to wax pragmatic, “It’s not a pretty game and no guy ever wrote a poem about it. But it’s the only hole I fit in.” (p. 197, Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers by Lee Server)
Perhaps even more warily realistic is the insight of the editor of Dime Detective, Ken White, who showed a disinclination to meet his writers. “I get a picture of a writer from his stories,” he says, “and think he’s a big tough guy and then he comes in and he’s a pip-squeak who wouldn’t talk back to a schoolteacher. You’re better off with me if you don’t ruin my illusions." (p. 14, Danger is My Business by Lee Server)
Frederick Nebel may have been disposed to shatter an illusion or two, however, displaying enough talent and itchy ambition to want to stretch beyond his popular Dime Detective series featuring Cardigan, his single-named Philip Marlowe-like private eye working for the St. Louis branch of the Cosmos Detective Agency. Even though Nebel was making top penny (to coin a coin), the four cents a word he was making for these stories — 44 in all, published between the November 1931 first issue and May 1937 — the money paled in comparison to what he could, and eventually did, make with the “slick” and, as perceived, more prestigious magazines like Collier’s and Cosmopolitan.