Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, August 24, 2012


The Black Mask Murders by William F. Nolan (1994)

In his anthology and study of Black Mask magazine The Black Mask Boys (1985), William F. Nolan focused on eight of the magazine's most famous writers:  Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, Feederick Nebel, Paul Cain, and Raymond Chandler.  The most famous of this eight (Hammett, Gardner, and Chandler) became the protagonists of Nolan's Black Mask Boys mystery series, beginning in 1985 with the publication of this novel.

The narrator of The Black Mask Boys is Hammett.  The time is 1935 and the place is Los Angeles.  Dash Hammett is living the cushy life as a Hollywood scriptwriter, or, he would be if  he didn't blow through the money as fast as at came in.  Now Dash is hired to develop a gangster scenario for sexy star Sylvia Vane.  Sylvia (it turns out) is in the hooks to a big-time gangster for a $50,000 gambling debt.  She asks Dash to intervene, dangling the promise of a romantic evening.  Dash, a former Pinkerton, happily accepts Sylvia's offer.  What he gets out of the deal, though, is a knock on the head and a drop in the ocean.  Saved from drowning by a passing fisherman, he soons finds himself out of a job and stumbling onto Sylvia's corpse.

Soon after Sylvia's murder hit the papers, Dash got a telephone call from Joe ("Cap") Shaw, his old editor at Black Mask magazine, with a startling admission.  Before she was an actress and under a different name, Sylvia had been Shaw's lover in New York...and she had a daughter by Shaw.  Shaw asks Dash to meet him in New York because Shaw needs his help desperately.  In New York Shaw shows Dash a letter threatening the daughter's life in exchange for the "Cat's Eye," a cursed jewel that (after a nine hundred year history) that had come down to Shaw's family.

The Cat's Eye...the stuff that dreams are made of...something that has brought death and sorrow with it over many years...a jewel beyond price, imbedded in the eye socket of a skull that was looted during the crusades...sound vaguely familiar?  The Dashiell Hammett in this book had used it as the basis of the Maltese Falcon in his famous novel.  (In real life, Hammett evidently used something similar that belonged to a fellow Pinkerton agent in the 1920s.)

Dash recognizes the writing on the letter as that of Tony Richetti, the gangster who had left him to die in the ocean shortly before Sylvia's murder.  Dash agrees to carry the Cat's Eye back to Los Angeles to the drop off point.  At the drop off, however, he gets another knock on the head, waking up to find the mysterious artifact gone.  With friend and fellow writer Erle Stanley Gardner at the helm, and accompanied by Raymond Chandler, Dash motors out to Rachetti's gambling boat (which is moored just outside the three-mile limit), hoping to find and rescue Shaw's daughter.  As they approach the gaambiling boat, there is a loud explosion and a fire, presumably the work of a gangland rival.  Using the fire as a distraction, Dash and Chandler discover the bodies of Rachetti and a young girl.  They were too late.

From that point the bodies begin to pile up, and Hammett, Chandler, and Gardner are continually drawn into the deadly legacy of the Cat's Eye.  Along the way, we are introduce to a number of real-world luminaries of the time:  Carroll John Daly, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Corwin, Max Brand, and a fifteen-year-old autograph hound named Ray Bradbury, among others.  We are also treated some of the inside gossip of Hollywood at the time.  And there are some "Tuckerizations" (so named after Wilson  "Bob" Tucker, who was known for inserting some of his real-world friends into his fiction);  Among those I caught were Ernie Bulow, Jack McLay, and a L.A. police lieutenant named Etchison.

Nolan weaves together many of his interests that he has touched upon in some of his other books  (Hollywood, automobiles, the pulps -- and he has written biographies of Hammett, Bradbury, and Hemingway), all of which adds authenticity.  The Black Mask Murders is a breezy, fast-moving book that blends fact and fiction and brings back the flavor and the personality of the time.  

And, yes, I did figure out the solution, but not until close to the end -- a red herring did its early work well.  Recommended.

Nolan followed this book with The Marble Orchard (1996, with Chandler narrating) and Sharks Never Sleep (1998, featuring Gardner as the narrator).  More, following the same progression of narrators, were hinted at but never published.  Too bad.


As usual, our fearless leader Patti Abbott will have the links to all of today's Forgotten Books, as well as a few reviews, at her blog pattinase.

(SHOUT OUT DEPT.  Patti's daughter Megan Abbott's latest book Dare Me has been optioned by Karen Rosenfelt, the producer of The Devil Wears Prada.  Congratulations to Megan, one of the most talented and insightful authors working today!)


  1. Most readers would associate William F. Nolan with the SF movie and TV series LOGAN'S RUN. But he was involved in the pulps, too.

    1. Absolutely, George. Over a long and varied career Nolan has had his fingers in a lot of pies and has done well in each field.

    2. Of course, he was just a little too late on the scene to write for the pulps, so much as to be a student of them, and one of our most popular scholars thus...some of these pomo clowns with their Death Clouds could take a lesson.

      And even though it's Fox 2000 that the Megan Abbott project is detailed to rather than 20th C/Fox, one can only hope that gives everyone on the project a less suit-pressured hand to do the best job they can...and yet a little more budget and support than a Fox Searchlight release would get...