Lester Dent Essay - Critical Essays


Late in his career, Lester Dent lamented the departure from Black Mask of Joseph T. Shaw, who gave up the editorship in 1936: In my thirty-five years of free lancing fiction, no one stands out so. . . . Here was an editor who thought his writers were truly great . . . and an editor who didn’t pretend his writers were crud-factories was unbelievable. . . . I have never met another like him.

Dent claimed that Shaw had put the magazine many cuts above other pulps for which he himself had written “reams of salable crap.” Over the years of his writing career, Dent produced a tremendous amount of material, publishing stories in a wide variety of periodicals. He also wrote an incredible number of novels (275 by one estimate), and he gained a loyal—if small—following for his mystery and detective fiction. Though he published only two stories in Black Mask, commentators on the genre point to his work as representative of the detective fiction the magazine published.

Dent created several fictional detectives, many of whom were patterned after Craig Kennedy, Arthur B. Reeve’s university professor and scientist. Kennedy solved many crimes using scientific devices such as gyroscopes, seismographs, and lie detectors. Dent gave his pulp audiences figures such as Click Rush, otherwise known as the Gadget Man, who unraveled mysteries and brought criminals to justice using devices he invented. The reliance on science and technology to combat evil came easily to Dent, the creator of Dr. Clark “Doc” Savage, who with his five lieutenants roamed the world in search of adventure. (Adventure tales are classified as science fiction by some, and although the Doc Savage novels of the late 1940’s do involve some elements of the mystery story, they still belong in the fantastic fiction category.)

Oscar Sail, however, was a Dent creation who had much more in common with Race Williams and the Continental Op than he had with the Gadget Man. Dent used the character in his two stories published in Black Mask. An extraordinarily tall man, Sail wears black clothing, smokes a black pipe full of black tobacco, and owns a boat named Sail, which has a black hull and black sails. Sail is a private investigator who is not too choosy about clients as long as they have the money to pay him. Like many of his Black Mask forebears, he relies principally on the use of force to achieve his ends.


Dent tended to rely on relatively simple plots, many of them built around variations on the treasure-hunt theme. In “Angelfish,” for example, Sail is hired by a young female geologist who has aerial photographs in her possession that...

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