Saturday, January 31, 2015

On Frederick Nebel, plus who was the best Black Mask-era writer after Hammett and Chandler?

Read Frederick Nebel's Black Mask stories, and you're apt to notice two things: 1) How good Nebel was, and 2) How far short he fell of Dashiell Hammett, his friend and Black Mask predecessor.

On the one hand, Nebel's prose is not always, pace an admiring introduction, "as fresh today as it was in the 1930s."  It can't be, not filled as it is with "clipped, "chided," or even "gritted"  rather than "said."  That method of jazzing up prose wears decidedly less well today than when Black Maskers routinely indulged it.

On the other, the wit, the pace, the plotting, and some of the descriptions remain fresh. This little word picture, for instance, matches a clumsily archaic job title with a sardonic observation that would not be out of place in Hammett: "District Leader Skoog, nursing a bottle of Cointreau and trying to give the impression he had a refined taste."

Photos by your humble shooter, Peter Rozovsky
That's from "Ten Men From Chicago," one of Nebel's many stories that paired Capt. Steve MacBride and Kennedy of the Free Press (though Kennedy, an alcohol-sodden sounding board, conscience, and comic foil to MacBride in some of the stories, has little to do in this one). Another bit from the same 1930 story shows that Nebel could match the era's best when it came to observational wisecracks:
"Sergeant Otto Bettdecken sat at the desk in the central room eating a frankfurter-on-roll, A clock ticked on the wall behind him. Bettdecken was a large man, with fat rosy cheeks and heavy jowls that overlapped his tight standing uniform collar. From time to time he raised a bottle of home-brew from behind the desk, cast searching eyes around the large room, and took a generous swallow. After each swallow he sighed with that profound air of a man serenely at peace with the world and thankful for the small creature comforts which it bestows upon mankind—and especially police sergeants."
That would not have been out of place in Hammett's first story about the Continental Op, "Arson Plus."  That Hammett's story appeared seven years before Nebel's makes Hammett's accomplishment all the more impressive without, however, detracting from Nebel's.

Now, here's your question: Who is the best hard-boiled crime writer of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s other than Hammett and Raymond Chandler? And why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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10 Comments:

Blogger Dan_Luft said...

Not completely sure who was a Black Mask writer or not but I would put Paul Cain as a contender. I think of him as a forerunner to the bare-bones writing of Dan Marlowe and Richard Stark.

January 31, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dan, I complement you on your knowledge and your good taste. Paul Cain did indeed write for Black Mask, and he would be right up there with Hammett and Chandler, arguably with a harder edge than anything either of those guys wrote except for parts of The Glass Key, if only he had written more. Cain is like a great baseball player who played only seven years, too few to make it into the Hall of Fame.

January 31, 2015  
Blogger Dan_Luft said...

The one I love who I definitely know was NOT a Black Mask writer was Howard Browne. His The Taste of Ashes is my favorite PI novel that was not written by Hammett or Chandler.

January 31, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Thrilling Detective Web site says that "of all of Raymond Chandler's followers, the most Chandlerish of them all might have been Howard Browne." I'm always on the lookout for Chandlerian influence, most recently in the blog post previous to this one. I may have to head out to Port Richmond Books this week and look for some Howard Browne. Thanks.

January 31, 2015  
Blogger Ray Garraty said...

Horace McCoy, probably.

February 01, 2015  
Blogger R. T. said...

And the 3rd place finisher is -- drum roll, please -- John Carroll Daly (but I might have the order of the first and second names reversed).

February 01, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I keep forgetting that McCoy was a Black Mask writer and not just a socially conscious serious author. Thanks.

February 01, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., it's Carroll John Daly, and you might find this article interesting, though at least one half its opening assertion is nonsense.

February 01, 2015  
Blogger R. T. said...

Regarding the Daly article, I would submit that much more than you suggest is nonsense. Nevertheless, Daly remains my #3 contender. But what the hell do I know!

February 01, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I say the opening was nonsense because that was all I had read when I posted the comment. Daly surely was popular, and he was published first (barely). The influence question is debatable, and the alleged question of writing skill is no question at all. (Though a speaker at Philadelphia's Noircon convention in 2008 maintained that Daly was a better writer than he is given writer, but that his best writing was not the writing for which he is known.

February 01, 2015  

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