“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.
Once Nebel moved on to write such “reputable” tales as love stories for Good Housekeeping, and a few novels (one of which, 1933‘s Sleeper‘s East, was in the crime suspense style), he never looked back, giving up pulp and crime fiction for good and regarding it, until his 1966 death, with disdain. He even denied permission for one of his old stories to be included in a Black Mask anthology at the time — while now it is, of course, the noir and hardboiled work he is remembered for.
As much as Nebel came to deride his early pulp magazine career, the title “Hell’s Pay Check” could almost be taken as a commentary on the remunerative aspect of it, or lack thereof. It’s an action-gorged tale of bump-offs and blackmail from the December 1931 issue of Dime Detective that hits the reading glasses running — with no lack thereof — as Cardigan “gets mixed up in a murder before I know what all the shooting‘s for.” He’s in a new town on a new job, but he’s not exactly being met by the Welcome Wagon:
- The right front mudguard slammed against a pole. A window fell out of the car with a crash. Guns barked and lead ripped through the sedan’s body. The chauffeur screamed and heaved up and another bullet knocked him off down again. The touring car roared past.
Cardigan pushed open the door, pawed glass splinters from his face. He looked once at the chauffeur’s head. Another look was unnecessary…
The sudden interest Cardigan has attracted becomes more understandable when he next meets with his mysterious client, who turns out to be the mayor of the city — actually, the honest “reform mayor” — beset with on-cue pulp scenarios and characters from central casting waiting in the wings. The predicaments stem from the mayor's well-intentioned attempt to help his wayward son — involved with “a notorious woman” — with a $20,000 check that has inadvertently found its way into the unknown hands of any number of suspects: the daily tabloid, the boss of the old party, anyone “who hopes to reap a fortune” or ruin his reputation.
So Cardigan has his work cut out for him, but along the way he meets some interesting people (though the femme fatales are few are far between), and if you’re thinking cinematically, you can insert some Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler adaptations. Picture Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon: “‘Please don’t get pugilistic,’ the little man said in a tranquil voice.” Or an annoyed Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, as he lowers his gun: “‘It’s damned funny that I can’t get a night’s sleep without you guys prowling around here like correspondence-school detectives.’”
But mostly it’s Frederick Nebel all the way along the way to an inspired ending, being as inventive as all get-out with twists and turns that have their own twists and turns. And if that doesn’t keep you intrigued, the dialogue will captivate as Cardigan cracks wise and confounds:
- When Cardigan went downstairs fifteen minutes later, Massey, the house dick, headed him off.
'What did that reporter from the tab want, Cardigan?'
"A short autobiographical sketch, Mr. Massey. Something like ‘From Plowboy to Mastermind.’ I said mine wasn’t interesting. Referred him to you.”
I bet when it came to comparable romantic fluff, the Good Housekeeping people didn’t get mad-impetuous-sass like that!