COLLECTING PULPS: A MEMOIR
PART THREE — DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY
by Walker Martin


   Every now and then collectors of detective pulps mention The Big Three, which refers to the best three detective/crime magazines: Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Detective Fiction Weekly, in that order.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   Detective Fiction Weekly lasted over 900 issues during 1924-1951, mostly on a weekly basis. The first few years it was known as Flynn’s and Flynn’s Weekly and had the subtitle of “Detective Fiction with the Thrill of Truth.” William J. Flynn was credited as being the editor and blurbed as having been “25 years in the Secret Service of the U.S.”

   The early issues had some photo covers and printed many so-called factual or “true” articles. However they read like fiction to me and now strike me as sort of dated and not very readable. In fact, I cannot recall ever meeting a collector who really liked the early issues in the mid-twenties.

   Flynn’s was published by Munsey and was a companion magazine to Argosy. The best fiction was written by a sort of Golden Age group of writers: Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, J.S. Fletcher, Caroline Wells, Freeman Wills Crofts, H.C. Bailey, R. Austin Freeman, and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

   For example Agatha Christie in addition to several short stories, also had as a serial, Who Killed Ackroyd? Edgar Wallace published the J. G. Reeder stories as well as several serials. Arthur Reeve was present with his Craig Kennedy series. But these writers were outnumbered by quite a few mediocre and forgotten authors.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   However all this was to change starting with the June 2, 1928 issue when Flynn’s Weekly became Detective Fiction Weekly. Howard Bloomfield took over as editor somewhere around this period, and during his six years as editor he changed the magazine for the better.

   Gone were the bland covers, and by 1929 they had a bright yellow eye-catching background, showing a lot more action and violence. The contents page was redesigned and the magazine now looked more attractive and impressive. He started to publish such writers as Erle Stanley Gardner, H. Bedford-Jones, Fred MacIsaac, Fred Nebel, George Harmon Coxe, Frederick C. Davis, MacKinlay Kantor, all with their first stories for DFW.

   Instead of the more sedate and quiet crimes of the Flynn’s era, Bloomfield wanted a tougher story with more action and humor. He also started using the work of Carroll John Daly on a more frequent basis.

   Bloomfield was so successful at sprucing up DFW, that Popular Publications hired him to revive and reinvigorate Adventure magazine during 1934-1940.

   As an example of his success with DFW, the Jan 11, 1930 issue has an interesting letter column, known as “Flashes From Readers”, in which an announcement is made that DFW had 69 stories mentioned as notable in the O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1929. All 69 of the stories are listed with the comment that the total from all other detective magazines combined is 79. The nearest competitor had only 21 stories. This shows quite an improvement in the quality of fiction.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   Of course the competition published far fewer issues since they were on a mostly monthly schedule. Black Mask had a total of 340 issues and Dime Detective had 273. For DFW to fill over 900 issues on a weekly basis is the sort of statistic that is hard to grasp.

   Most pulps published 12 issues a year, which must of been hard to fill with quality fiction. But DFW’s 52 issues a year would drive an editor to a nervous breakdown. If enough good fiction was not available one week you just could not publish blank pages. That explains the variable quality of some of the contents.

   But there were plenty of good writers and many series characters to keep readers amused. It’s true that Dashiell Hammett appeared only once under the name of Samuel Dashiell (Oct 19, 1929) and Raymond Chandler also once in May 30, 1936.

   However readers also loved Erle Stanley Gardner who appeared dozens of times with such series characters as Lester Leith, Sidney Zoom, Patent Leather Kid, Senor Lobo, and The Man in the Silver Mask. Richard Sale was very popular and also had many witty stories starring newpaper reporter, Daffy Dill and photographer, Candid Jones.

   Norbert Davis and John K. Butler were popular as was Fred MacIsaac. Unfortunately MacIsaac either fell out of favor with the editors in the late 1930’s or developed an enormous writer’s block because he committed suicide in 1940. Judson Phillips was very popular and had a long running series about the Park Avenue Hunt Club.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   Another popular writer was Carroll John Daly with such series characters as Satan Hall, Mr Strang, and Twist Sullivan. Daly is a very controversial figure among readers and collectors. He is often credited as being the first writer to deal with the hardboiled private detective and his name on the cover often meant a 15% percent increase in circulation.

   However many readers find that his novels have not held up well and that he is almost unreadable. Stephen Mertz wrote a defense of Daly in The MYSTERY FANcier dated May 1978. In the article he states that Daly is as good or better as Hammett, a very strong opinion not shared by many.

   Over the years I have leaned more toward the view that Daly was not a good writer simply because I found his stories to be dated and not too believable. Race Williams often annoyed me by stopping the story dead, and speaking directly to the reader.

   However, I do have to admit that on occasion I have liked Race Williams. Since Daly is not a big favorite of mine, it has been a long time since I tried one of the stories. Because I was writing this column about DFW, I recently read “Parole” in the April 6, 1935 issue.

   This is the first of three novelettes introducing Mr. Strang, a vigilante and bitter foe of the corrupt parole system. I actually enjoyed the story and found it to be more subdued and not as unbelievable as much of Daly’s work. The theme of a corrupt parole system is not dated and is still a problem today.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   In fact the editors followed Daly’s novelette with an article titled, “The Ghastly Folly of Parole”, which goes into the abuses of the parole system. One abuse that still occurs is when a murderer is sentenced to life and gets out on parole after seven years.

   Since Daly was popular in all three of The Big Three, there must be some validity to those that find his work to be enjoyable as action crime fiction.

   Another writer who did not write about series characters but was one of the top authors was Cornell Woolrich. Starting in 1934 he wrote dozens of suspenseful mysteries for DFW.

   To give you an idea of the tremendous number of series running in the magazine, here is a listing of the series I noticed in the span of a half year or 26 issues. Most of these are not by well known writers but will show the emphasis on series:

H.H. Matteson — Hoh-Hoh Stevens
Donald Barr Chidsey — Morton & McGarvey
H. Bedford-Jones — Riley Dillon
J. Allan Dunn — The Griffon
Milo Ray Phelps — Fluffy McGoff
Edward Parrish Ware — Ranger Calhoun
       — Battle Mckim
Victor Maxwell — Sgt Riordan
Eugene Thomas — The Lady From Hell
Franklin Martin– Felix Luke
T. T. Flynn — Mike & Trixie
Sidney Herschel Small — Richard Wentworth (not The Spider)
J.Lane Linklater — Paul Pitt

   Serials were a regular feature with at least one and sometimes two per issue.

   While thinking about this article, I looked through all 900 issues and noticed that I had obtained almost all the issues in the early 1970’s at only $1 or $2 each. I know this beyond a doubt because I penciled in the price paid on the corner of the contents page.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   I know it’s hard to believe, but I even paid as low as 15 or 25 cents per issue. Which brings up the question of why, even 40 years later, DFW is still one of the most inexpensive pulps to collect. You can still find copies for sale at the $20 or less price, even while issues of Black Mask and Dime Detective often are priced at over $100 for copies in the 1930’s.

   Because DFW was a weekly, it must have had a high circulation and therefore issues appear to be more numerous than the monthly pulps. Also the magazine did not have a lot of Hammett and Chandler, so we don’t see issues for sale at hundreds of dollars each.

   Since they were filling 52 issues a year, the quality of the magazine appears to be lower than Black Mask and Dime Detective, who only had to find good fiction for 12 issues. At any rate, DFW is a bargain nowadays and issues are a lot more numerous than some other titles.

   I’ve talked before about the influence of Ron Goulart’s book The Hardboiled Dicks. I started to hunt down copies of DFW and found my first large amount at a fellow collector’s home.

   He had stacks of most of the issues when it was known as Flynn’s Weekly. He was willing to accept less than $1 each because of condition. It seems a coal miner had read the magazines in a coal mine and stored them there, perhaps because his wife would not let him keep them in the house, a common problem with non-collecting spouses.

   The issues were covered with coal dust and no matter how you scrubbed or wiped the copies the dust would remain. After reading one these magazines, your hands would be black and your lungs clogged with the dust. I still have these copies and 40 years later the dust is still there.

   There also must have been rats in the mine because some of the issues have big chunks chewed out of the corners. Since the type is ok, the stories can still be read even though the pulp chips are falling heavily and the coal dust leaves a black mark.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   Some collectors have asked me why I accepted less than good copies like the magazines described above or reading copies lacking the front cover, etc. I was simply buying so many different titles, not to mention books and vintage paperbacks, that I could not afford to hold out for only the best.

   I was not rich and had the usual responsibilities such as wife, children, home mortgage, car payments, etc. If I was going to build up complete sets before the prices rose up above what I could afford, then I could not be too fussy about condition.

   I’ve noticed most condition collectors who look for so called “fine” condition, do not really read the books and magazines. Or if they do read them, then except for SF, it is just about impossible to put together a complete set of the different titles.

   There are a few exceptions but I’m always surprised at collectors who do not read the books or magazines that they collect. I like nice condition just like everybody else but I’m basically interested in reading, not just looking at the book in a shrink wrap.

   As usual with these memoirs, there always is a woman involved. With the exception of a half dozen or so women collectors, most ladies do not care about old magazines and see them as so much clutter and a waste of time and money. Women and pulps do not mix.

   Here is another tale of woe in the battle between pulps and females. The first DFW I ever found was in an enormous second hand bookstore in Trenton, NJ called Acres of Books. In 1970 I had a job in an office building near the store and just about every lunch hour I would walk over and spend the hour, not eating and talking about nothing like my non-collecting co-workers, but happily digging through boxes of old books.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   Since the job required that I wear a suit and a tie, I often arrived back from lunch in less than presentable shape. It took me a long time to gain the confidence of the old lady who managed Acres of Books but after seeing me at lunch for several months, she finally let me into the “Pulp Section.” This was a roped off forbidden section containing the valuable “collector’s items.”

   She let me pick out one DFW from 1930 and as we arrived at the cash register, I had visions of the price being more than I could pay. She said “that will be 25 cents.” To her, asking a quarter for a dime magazine, was a big mark up. She still remembered the 1930’s and the depression as being not that long ago.

   Needless to say, I soon talked her into letting me buy a lot more than one pulp at a time. At the time I was dating a receptionist and as I passed her desk she noticed my dusty condition and wondered what on earth happened to me during lunch.

   I used this as an opportunity to introduce her to the world of pulp magazine collecting and I took the DFW out of the dirty bag to show her. I gave my usual speech about what a pulp was and handed her the magazine. She held it as far as possible from her and with a puzzled expression said only, “It smells.”

   As my friends know, I love the smell of the different pulps; each title has its own special scent and aroma. So this reaction from a girl I was interested in was not a promising sign at all.

   DFW eventually came to a bad end, as did all the pulps, slowly fading away. In the early 1940’s they must have been having circulation problems and the magazine went from weekly, to every other week, to monthly.

   They tried covers with just the story titles and no illustrations and they tried the larger size of 8 1/2 by 11. They even tried covers showing Nazis whipping girls in their underwear. Nothing worked and they finally sold the title to Popular Publications.

DETECTIVE FICTION WEEKLY

   They put out 20 monthly issues in 1943 and 1944 before the paper shortage killed off the title. It was revived for 6 issues in 1951 but by then the pulps were dying and on their way out. Coming around the corner were the digest mystery magazines like Manhunt, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The Saint, Mike Shayne, and so on, but that’s another story.

   The days of the great pulp titles were over and by 1955 nothing much remained except SF Quarterly and Ranch Romances.

   Because pulp reprints are so popular, I’m sure there will soon be collections of the series characters. Battered Silicon Dispatch Box Press already has published a collection of the Bedford-Jones Riley Dillon stories and there is an enormous two volume Park Avenue Hunt Club collection by Judson Phillips.

   But the original pulp magazines are so inexpensive, you can easily find affordable copies of DFW on eBay or at the two pulp conventions: Windy City Pulp Convention in Chicago and Pulpfest in Columbus, Ohio. One thing is for sure. There is a lot of good mystery and detective reading in 900 issues!

Previously on Mystery*File:   Part Two — Collecting Dime Detective.
Coming next:   Part Four — Collecting Detective Story Magazine.

Editorial Comment:   A fine companion piece to this chapter of Walker’s memoirs is “Those Detective Fiction Weekly Mugs,” by Terry Sanford, in which he discusses some the series characters which populated the pages of the magazine. You can find it here on the main Mystery*File website.