Wed 28 Mar 2012
FREDERICK NEBEL – The Complete Casebook of Cardigan. Volume 1: 1931-1932. Altus Press, hardcover/paperback, February 2012.
Matt Moring of Altus Press has just published a collection of stories by Fred Nebel that not only is an excellent collection of hardboiled fiction but also is quite historically significant. Fred Nebel (1903-1967) was one of the early Black Mask authors who started to write detective stories in the hardboiled style. He sold his first story to the magazine in 1926 and editor Joe Shaw encouraged him to join Dashiell Hammett and John Carroll Daly in the writing of hardboiled, tough, fast action stories.
Nebel had a long running series starring Captain Steve MacBride and a reporter by the name of Kennedy. This was followed by a later series about a private eye named Donahue. When Harry Steeger started Popular Publications, one of his early titles was Dime Detective and he offered Nebel and some of the other Black Mask authors a higher rate if they would also write for him.
The top writers for Black Mask were probably getting around 3 cents a word, so this meant an increase to 4 cents, which at the time was very good money. a 10,000 word novelette could bring in a $400 check. In the depression era this was like over $4,000 in today’s money.
The first issue of Dime Detective appeared with the date of November 1931, and it contained the first Nebel story for the magazine. Nebel during the period 1931-1937 would go on to write 44 of these hard driving, tough tales, all starring Jack Cardigan of the Cosmos Detective Agency. At first he was in charge of the St. Louis branch but then moved on to the main headquarters located in New York city.
I’ve been collecting Dime Detective since 1969 and have read almost all the Cardigan stories, so when I received this book, I thought I’d just read a couple stories to make sure I still felt the same way about the quality and then file the book away with my other hardboiled books written by Hammett, Chandler, James Cain, and Paul Cain.
However, I was surprised as to how well the stories held up to a second reading and before I knew it, I had read all of them in a space of a few days.
Altus Press plans to publish all 44 Cardigan stories and this first volume contains the first eleven, written in 1931-1932. There will be not only an additional three volumes, each around 400 pages, but also volumes reprinting Nebel’s series starring Kennedy and MacBride, and Donahue. The book has a nice introduction by Will Murray and each story has the original John Fleming Gould illustrations.
Now, though I’ve mentioned Nebel with such names as Hammett and Chandler, I do not by any means place him on the same level. They are at the very top. I would place these stories on the the second level along with such writers as Paul Cain, Norbert Davis, Robert Reeves, Merle Constiner, etc, most of whom wrote for both Black Mask and Dime Detective.
These writers I consider to be very good to excellent, while Hammett and Chandler are in the great class, often considered legitimate, no doubt about it, American Literature.
So this collection and the future ones which will soon be published by Altus Press, gets my highest recommendation. If you try and collect the original pulps you will run into two problems. The first being that they are now very rare and hard to find, and the second being the prices are very high. Copies of Dime Detective in the 1930′s are now over the $100 per issue level and some are selling for $200 or $300 each. The Chandler issues are even higher.
One interesting subject is discussed by Will Murray in the introduction and has also been covered before by Steve Mertz and others. This involves the reaction that Joe Shaw encountered when he was compiling the stories for The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, the first hardboiled anthology, published in 1946. He wrote Fred Nebel asking for permission to publish one of his Black Mask stories and Nebel turned him down saying that he considered his pulp work “dated” and not up to the quality of his best work.
This is another example of how blind some authors can be concerning the quality of their own fiction. In the early 1930′s Nebel broke into the slick market and he actually considered this slick work to be far better than his pulp stories. He certainly got paid a lot more and this must of blinded him to the relative quality.
The slicks had a very high percentage of women readers and the editors felt that stories should have a strong love or romance element. Nebel was willing to write this type of fiction for such high paying magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, Collier’s, and Woman’s Home Companion.
I collect the slicks also and have read some of Nebel’s slick work and it cannot even begin to compare to his best pulp work as written for Black Mask and Dime Detective. I can understand him writing the slick formula because the pay was so high compared to the pulp rates. He was receiving thousands of dollars for short slick work compared to hundreds for pulp novelettes.
He also wrote three novels and thought these would be remembered but nothing ever came of his hardcover writing career. While his slick magazine work has been completely forgotten, his pulp stories have appeared in just about every hardboiled pulp anthology. Mysterious Press even published six of the Cardigan novelets in a paper edition over 20 years ago but it failed to sell.
Copies of this collection are easy to obtain for around $30 for a high quality paper edition and for $10 extra you can get a hardcover. I recommend the hardcover because of the historical and literary significance of the book. You can order from the Altus Press website or from Mike Chomko Books. Amazon.com also carries the paper edition.
I encourage all lovers of hardboiled and pulp fiction to support this publishing project.
We do indeed live in The Golden Age of Pulp Reprints.
Contents: (All stories reprinted from Dime Detective.)
“Hell’s Pay Check” (December, 1931)
“Six Diamonds and a Dick” (January, 1932)
“And There Was Murder” (February, 1932)
“Phantom Fingers” (March, 1932)
“Murder on the Loose” (April, 1932)
“Rogues’ Ransom” (August, 1932)
“Lead Pearls” (September, 1932)
“The Dead Don’t Die” (October, 1932)
“The Candy Killer” (November, 1932)
“A Truck-Load of Diamonds” (December, 1932)