FREDERICK NEBEL – Tough As Nails: The Complete Cases of Donahue from the Pages of Black Mask. Altus Press, softcover, May 2012. [A limited edition hardcover may still be available.]


   This is rapidly turning out to be the year that Frederick Nebel was rediscovered. First we had The Complete Casebook of Cardigan, Volume One, which I reviewed here. Then just recently Black Dog Books published Empire of the Devil, a collection of Nebel’s adventure tales.

   Coming up later in the year will be additional volumes in the Cardigan series from Altus Press plus the complete stories from the Black Mask series starring Kennedy and MacBride. And now just published we have this latest book from Altus Press collecting all the Donahue stories from Black Mask.

   Like The Complete Casebook of Cardigan, this book is a must buy for any lover of hardboiled fiction. The Donahue stories are also historically significant because in 1930 it was very obvious to Joe Shaw, the editor of Black Mask, that he was about to lose his best writer. Dashiell Hammett would be following the money to Hollywood, and no pulp magazine could compete with the enormous paychecks available from the movie industry.

   Shaw asked his second best writer (Chandler did not appear until 1933) to develop a series similar to the Continental Op made famous by Hammett. I stress the word “similar” because in 1930 no one could compare to the quality of Hammett. The result was Donahue of the Interstate Detective Agency. There were 15 novelettes published between November 1930 and March 1935.


   The first question readers will be asking is how do these stories stand in comparison to the Cardigan stories? The answer is simple: if you liked Cardigan, then you will like Donahue. I really do not see much of a difference between the two characters.

   Like Cardigan, Donahue is tough, hardboiled, no nonsense, and a private operative working for a detective agency. We learn very little about the private lives of either character and the stories are fast moving examples of crime fiction which stand up very well even though 80 years have passed since the Cardigan and Donahue stories appeared.

   The Donahue stories were written according to the above standards set by Shaw during his time as editor for Black Mask, 1926-1936. Frankly, I consider this collection another bargain from Altus Press. The quality paperback, which is almost 600 pages is available for $29.95 from Altus Press, Mike Chomko Books, and

   The limited edition hardcover, which I had to have because of the importance of this collection, is priced at $39.95 and can be ordered through the Altus Press website. These books are print on demand and hold up to the usual high qualities of Matt Moring, the publisher.


   In addition to the 15 long novelettes, all 30 some pages long except for the last one which clocks in at 56 pages, the stories all have the original illustrations by the Black Mask artist Arthur Rodman Bowker. Bowker had a very distinctive style and I’ve always liked his work. He seems to fit in with the no nonsense, hard as diamonds Black Mask style. The cover is a stunner from Black Mask also, and I believe it shows Donahue(or a character very much like him), in action, gun in hand.

   The introduction is by pulp historian, Will Murray, and the book is edited and compiled by Rob Preston. Rob has also compiled a bibliography of the works of Frederick Lewis Nebel. This is an important feature of the collection and runs 14 pages grouped by magazine title chronologically.

   It shows that Nebel had around a hundred or so stories in the slick magazines and in addition to the fiction in Black Mask and Dime Detective, he also had over a hundred stories in other pulp magazines such as Northwest Stories, Action Stories, Air Stories, Wings, and so on. The bibliography also lists the books written by Nebel as well as the anthologies he appeared in. The screenplays based on his work are also listed.

   Earlier, I mentioned that we don’t learn much of Donahue’s private life. But here are a few items of note. Donahue’s philosophy can be summed up in the passage from the first story in the series, “Rough Justice.” On page 18 Donahue says:

    “I know I’m in a rotten game… I’m not defending it. I don’t know why I’m in — but I’m in it. It keeps me in butts and I see the country and I don’t have to slave over a desk. I get places. It’s not a pretty game, and no guy ever wrote a poem about it. But it’s the only hole I fit in.”


   Donahue lives in a hotel apartment, made up of a small living room and bedroom. It has a bath and a small pantry. He smokes a pipe, cigarettes and cigars. He’s in his thirties, tall, lean and good looking. He eats well, attends boxing and hockey sports and says that he never gambles. He drinks brandy, scotch, martinis, wine, and beer.

   Through the first 14 stories he has no girl friends, in fact he seems to mistrust the women he meets and this is understandable since they mostly turn out to be nothing but trouble. However in the last story he does meet a girl that he likes and trusts and the story ends with Donahue making a date.

   Speaking of drinking, when this series commenced prohibition was still in effect across the country. I have read books about the widespread popularity of speakeasies and this series certainly shows the speakeasy as a very popular illegal hangout. They may have been illegal but everyone in NYC seemed to be drinking in these establishments including the local police.

   This series shows just how impossible it was to make the general public stop drinking. It was an impossible task and prohibition just encouraged crime and corruption. None of this ever bothered Donahue and his police contacts.

   I’ll repeat what I said again. This book is a must buy for all readers of the hardboiled and quality pulp fiction. Altus Press is doing excellent work reprinting such fiction and I urge everyone to support their efforts. They have some excellent books scheduled for future publication.



“Rough Justice” (November, 1930)
“The Red-Hots” (December, 1930)
“Gun Thunder” (January, 1931)
“Get A Load of This” (February, 1931)
“Spare the Rod” (August, 1931)
“Pearls Are Tears” (September, 1931)
“Death’s Not Enough” (October, 1931)
“Shake-Up” (August, 1932)
“He Could Take It” (September, 1932)
“The Red Web” (October, 1932)
“Red Pavement” (December, 1932)
“Save Your Tears” (June, 1933)
“Song and Dance” (July, 1933)
“Champions Also Die” (August, 1933)
“Ghost of a Chance” (March, 1935)

Acknowledgment:   The magazine covers you see above were obtained from the Galactic Central website, thanks to Phil Stephensen-Payne.