During the two decades following the end of World War I, the number of pulp magazines grew exponentially as various publishers launched hundreds of specialized titles to satisfy the public’s accelerating appetite for Westerns and romances as well as adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery and detective stories. As many as seventeen hundred new writers may have contributed mystery and detective stories to pulp magazines during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Some of the magazines were monthlies containing more than two hundred pages. More common, however, were 128-page weeklies. Two publishers, Frank A. Munsey and Street & Smith, dominated the pulp field during the 1920’s, but their success inspired many competitors, from established publishing houses to hole-in-the-wall operations. Detective pulps contained both factual and fictional stories. For example, Bernard Macfadden, a health crusader, published True Detective Mysteries, which some saw as related to his “true-confessions” pulps, as both genres exploited sin.
The most famous and influential of the fictional detective pulps was Black Mask, the creation of the magazine editor and poet Henry L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan. Mencken was aware of the success of Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine magazine, and his own high-quality lifestyle magazine, Smart Set, was in financial difficulty. In 1919, Mencken got the idea of publishing a pulp magazine modeled on Argosy that would serve as what he called “boob bait” and generate the profits that would return Smart Set to fiscal health.
When the first issue of Black Mask appeared in April, 1920, editors Mencken and Nathan promised to publish the best stories in a variety of genres, including adventure, romance, and the occult, along with mystery and detective fiction. Despite the broad variety and generally low quality of most of the magazine’s stories, Black Mask was a success. In November, 1920, after publishing only eight issues of the magazine, Mencken and Nathan sold it to Eltinge (“Pop”) Warner and Eugene Crowe, a paper manufacturer. Some scholars put the sales figure at $12,500, others at $7,500. In either case, the selling price represented a substantial profit because Black Mask’s launching cost had been only $500.
Over the next five years, with the capable guidance of such editors as Phil Cody and Harry North, Black Mask began to publish more crime and detective stories with individualistic heroes whose use of violence grew out of personal codes of ethics. Early issues of Black Mask contained stories in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, that is, tales of ratiocination. However, the United States of the 1920’s was vastly different from the worlds of Poe and Doyle. Passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, a situation that led to the multiplication of gangsters willing to break the law to sate the thirsts of millions of Americans. With the rise of violence and lawlessness in American society during the 1920’s, millions of World War I veterans, cynical citizens, flappers, and others were attracted to magazines offering reasonably realistic explorations of crime and social changes.
One of the writers who helped create this new kind of detective fiction was Carroll John Daly, whose earlier career was in managing theaters in New Jersey. He began publishing stories in Black Mask in 1922, and some scholars consider his “The False Burton Combs” the first true hard-boiled story, even though its nameless hero is not a detective. Nevertheless, Daly’s unsentimental gentleman adventurer proved willing to serve as a bridge between the world of law-enforcers and law-breakers. “Three Gun Terry,” which Daly published in the May 15, 1923, issue of Black Mask, developed his tough-talking protagonist by making him a detective and even giving him a name, Terry Mack. Daly’s hero saw himself at the center of a triangle whose corners were the police, the criminals, and the victims. Novelist and critic William F. Nolan...