Friday, November 11, 2011

Black Mask 1: Doors in the Dark (4/5)

Black Mask 1: Doors in the Dark is an audio rendition of selected stories from the Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, a collection of short stories and novellas from the famous pulp magazine. Black Mask 1 touts itself as being "the best of the best" as far as the Black Mask short stories go, but the fact that there is a big fat 1 on the spine seems to contradict that. “Volume 1” implies that there will be at least a “Volume 2,” and I find it hard to believe that any editor worth his salt would shoot his entire wad on the first installment. He’d have to hold something back in order to carry the next volume, right?. So is this really the best of the best from the original anthology? I haven't read the original myself, but I doubt it. But is it still I fine offering of hard-boiled goodness? You can bet your bottom dollar on that. As with all anthologies, though, some stories are better than others.

The first story, "Come and Get It" by Erle Stanley Gardner, is an Ed Jenkins tale, one of the many that graced the pages of Black Mask at one time or another. Jenkins, serial crook with a heart of gold, takes on the boss of a crime syndicate who happens to be holding some compromising papers that could embarrass the family of a young lady Jenkins happens to be fond of. Evidently this plot hook was stretched as far as it would go back in the day with Jenkins performing all manner of capers in the name of protecting his lady love's good name. It might have gotten stale if I'd read any Jenkins stories before this, but I hadn’t, so it didn't. This tale was the pulpiest of all the anthology's offerings, and therefore it features impossible acts of derring-do, corny one-liners and epithets, and a plot exposition that sounds more manufactured than "processed cheese food." In other words, yumminess on a stick. The writing isn't as good as some of the other stories, and the characters were fairly interchangeable, but Gardner's tale is a wonderful example of the genre.

Next up was "Arson Plus" by Dashiell Hammett. This was my favorite of the bunch, but Hammett is considered a master for a reason, isn't he? In the story the Continental Op investigates an arson fire in which a man perished along with his home. He doesn’t have much family, and there is a narrow field of suspects the Op quickly finds out are connected with each other one way or another. The plot thickens from there. The dialogue and the imagery are as crisp as a new twenty dollar bill, and they still retain the power they had the day they were first published. It's a wonderful story, and the only flaw might be that the ending seems to come upon you in a hurry like an NFL middle linebacker. But then again, just how Hammett rolls. This same story has been anthologized elsewhere, so it could be seen as being a little bit superfluous for inclusion in this anthology as well. I hadn't read it before this, so of course I didn't mind.

Third we had "Fall Guy" by George Harmon Coxe. The main character in this one is Flashgun Casey, another recurring pulp character. He's a hardheaded newspaper photographer who has a habit of injecting himself into murder cases and taking it upon himself to do the police's job for them. In this instance he's contacted by an old (female) acquaintance who tells him she's being blackmailed and asks him to play bag man to her blackmailer. Casey agrees and goes off to do her bidding only to find the blackmailer dead. Things get progressively worse as more bodies show up, the blackmail money is stolen, and the police get in on the act. Casey swears to get to the bottom of it in order to make up for losing the money, and it's off to the races. Coxe's tale was about middle of the road as far this anthology is concerned. I enjoyed it immensely, but it failed to achieve the style and punch of Hammett. But then again, few do.

Fourth was "Doors in the Dark" by Frederick Nebel. Police Captain Steve MacBride learns that a longtime friend committed suicide and, not believing the man had it in him to end his own life, embarks upon a quest to prove his friend was murdered and catch the perpetrator. Not counting "Arson Plus," "Doors in the Dark was my favorite story of the anthology. It was a quintessential crime story of the era, but the skill with which Nebel writes set his story apart from the rest of the pack. The plot and the puzzle come together in a believable way, and the characters are all believable, if somewhat archetypal. If you’re new to the genre, this is the type of story that will get you hooked for life.

Lastly there was "Luck" by Lester Dent. Evidently "Luck" is simply an earlier draft of the story "Sail," which was published in Black Mask at a later date. Dent rewrote the story multiple times before it was published, so much so that by the end of it he no longer liked the final product. I can see why the editors made him rewrite it, though. The story is presented in simple descriptions and actions. There is very little explanation of the characters' thoughts or feelings or backstory, and until you're two thirds of the way through the story you really have no idea what the hell is going on. Only then is the lead character, a tubby boat bum called "Sail", revealed to be an insurance investigator trying to find a set of jewelry lost in a recent shipwreck. He's not the only one, though, and he runs afoul of a batch of infighting crooks and overzealous policemen in the process. I enjoyed the story, mostly because I like narratives that make the reader figure out the details through action and dialogue rather than author info-dump, but I'm afraid this one might not appeal to most modern readers.

Overall I have to say that Black Mask 1 was an outstanding production. Many of the stories have been anthologized before, but this is the first time (that I know of, at least) in which they've found their way to audio format. It also helped that I'd never had the privilege of reading them before, so the stories were all new to me. The introductions before each story were also helpful. They enhanced the enjoyment by giving the reader a little more background information about the author, the history of Black Mask, and other salient information about any recurring characters. On the other hand, I found the introduction penned by Alan Deutsch to be superfluous at best and mind-numbingly boring at worst. It provided a plethora of interesting information, but that was part of the problem. In the end it seemed like a long succession of dates and magazines and name-dropping, none of which I could keep straight or even retain after the listening. Though, that might be due to the medium more than anything. Anyone who's ever sat in a two hour class listening to a professor drone on about some esoteric subject or another can testify to that. Plus, it was recited with a dry, almost robotic tone, which by itself seemed to make every sentence just the same as the last. I listened to the entire introduction, but in the end I wished I hadn't. It didn't add to my enjoyment of the rest of the stories, which indicates to me that Black Mask 1 would have been better suited leaving it out.

My recommendation? Skip the introduction and go directly on to the stories. They're what you got the thing for in the first place, aren't they? And boy, are they worth it. Just about any fan of the hardboiled/pulp genre will love this edition of Black Mask stories. I know I certainly did.