Frederick Nebel Essay - Critical Essays


Frederick Nebel sold his first mystery tale to Black Mask in 1926, and during the next two years eleven other stories of his appeared in the magazine. In 1928, editor Joseph Shaw encouraged him to develop a series character to whose adventures readers could regularly look forward, and Nebel obliged by creating the team of Captain Steve MacBride and reporter Kennedy.

“Winter Kill”

Richmond City is the mythical community in which MacBride and Kennedy operate, and like Dashiell Hammett’s Poisonville or Raymond Chandler’s Bay City, it is scarred by political corruption and police graft. MacBride is an honest cop who copes as best he can with this situation, but it is the hard-drinking Kennedy whose irreverence toward authority allows him to think and act in ways that help solve MacBride’s most difficult cases.

Although the atmosphere of impending violence and general social decay that characterizes the hard-boiled idiom is an important element in the MacBride-Kennedy stories, the stories also feature a sophisticated humor rarely found in the genre. Kennedy’s shenanigans often transcend mere wisecracking and approach the surreal zaniness of the Marx Brothers’ films. Thus, in the story “Winter Kill,” Kennedy wanders into a bereaved man’s den, becomes interested in a pair of snowshoes, and astounds everyone by asking if they are for sale. At the conclusion of the narrative, after having solved the case by following a hunch, Kennedy gets drunk and is arrested for trying to snowshoe down a busy street. As MacBride listens to this latest exploit with stolid calm, the arresting officer supplies a downbeat punch line by adding that Kennedy “can’t snowshoe worth a damn.”

“Take It and Like It”

Nebel’s } clever blending of suspense, action, and comedy make the MacBride-Kennedy stories models of their kind. In “Take It and Like It,” the plot begins in medias res, as Kennedy’s drunken quest for a highly recommended “chili joint” is interrupted by an encounter with an even more intoxicated young woman. He takes her to his room, puts her to bed, resumes his search for the restaurant, and eventually returns home to find her murdered. As the prime suspect, he must avoid the police at the same time that he pursues the murderer, and the ensuing multiple-chase narrative is hilariously punctuated with such comic set pieces as this bizarre mock confession:“What,” said Flannery, “was your real reason for killing her? I mean the one thing that finally drove you to it?” Kennedy sighed. “She did not know how to make a Martini.” “Hell, he’s completely screwy!” Rube Wilson said. Kennedy cried: “I killed her because she was too beautiful for this world. This world is so crass and designing, and so full of filth and tragedy. I killed her because—well, because she was a flower, a fair flower.”

If the MacBride-Kennedy stories emphasize the humorous possibilities of hard-boiled fiction’s general irreverence toward authority and convention, Nebel’s Donny Donahue tales are squarely in the tough-guy tradition. Donahue is a law unto himself, and he pursues his prey with a relentless concentration that recognizes neither physical obstacles nor ethical constraints.

“Rough Justice”

“Rough Justice” offers a typical example of Donahue’s modus operandi. Assigned to recover a stolen ring, he treats the world of cops and criminals as a hornet’s nest that when vigorously shaken will yield up his quarry. Donahue’s attitude toward the series of murders and maimings that results is strictly pragmatic: Whatever helps him find the ring is good, and anything else—even the shooting of a police...

(The entire section is 1533 words.)