Black Mask (magazine)

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For other uses, see Black Mask (disambiguation).
Black Mask
Cover of September 1929 issue, featuring part 1 of Black Mask's serialization of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Illustration of private eye Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy, Jr.
Editor H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan; later Joseph Shaw
Categories Hardboiled
Frequency Started monthly, then twice a month after August 1922, then monthly in 1926
Publisher Popular Publications
Year founded 1920
Final issue 1987
Country United States
Language English

Black Mask was a pulp magazine launched in April 1920 by journalist H. L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan. The magazine was one of a number of money-making publishing ventures to support the prestigious literary magazine The Smart Set, which Mencken edited, and which had operated at a loss since at least 1917. Under their editorial hand, the magazine was not exclusively a publisher of crime fiction, offering, according to the magazine, "the best stories available of adventure, the best mystery and detective stories, the best romances, the best love stories, and the best stories of the occult." The magazine's first editor was Florence Osborne (credited as F. M. Osborne).[1]

Editorial control[edit]

After eight issues, Mencken and Nathan considered their initial $600 investment to have been sufficiently profitable, and they sold the magazine to its publishers, Eltinge Warner and Eugene Crow, for $12,500. The magazine was then edited by George W. Sutton (1922–24), followed by Philip C. Cody.[2] In 1926, Joseph Shaw took over the editorship.

Contributing authors[edit]

Early Black Mask contributors of note included J. S. Fletcher, Vincent Starrett, and Herman Petersen.[3] Shaw, following up on a promising lead from one of the early issues, promptly turned the magazine into an outlet for the growing school of naturalistic crime writers led by Carroll John Daly. Daly's private detective Race Williams was a rough and ready character with a sharp tongue, and established the model for many later acerbic private eyes.

Black Mask later published the profoundly influential Dashiell Hammett, creator of Sam Spade and The Continental Op, and other hardboiled writers who came in his wake, such as Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Paul Cain, Frederick Nebel, Frederick C. Davis, Raoul F. Whitfield,[3] Theodore Tinsley, W.T. Ballard, Dwight V. Babcock, and Roger Torrey.[4] Author George Harmon Coxe created "Casey, Crime Photographer", for the magazine, which became a media franchise with novels, films, radio, comic book tie-ins, television, and legitimate theatre.[5] Black Mask's covers were usually painted by artists Fred Craft or J. W. Schlaikjer,[6] while Shaw gave the artist Arthur Rodman Bowker a monopoly over all Black Mask interior illustrations.[7] Although primarily known for male contributors, Black Mask also published a number of women crime writers, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Katherine Brocklebank, Sally Dixon Wright, Florence M. Pettee, Marion O'Hearn, Kay Krausse, Frances Beck, Tiah Devitt and Dorothy Dunn. [8] The magazine was hugely successful, and many of the writers, such as Hugh B. Cave, who appeared in its pages went onto greater commercial and critical success.

Although crime fiction made up most of the magazine's content, Black Mask also published some Western and general adventure fiction.[1]

Decline and revival[edit]

Black Mask reached a sales peak in the early 1930s, but then interest began to wane under increasing pressure from radio, the cinema, and rival pulp magazines. In 1936, refusing to cut writers' already meager pay, Shaw resigned, and many of the high-profile authors abandoned the magazine with him. Shaw's successor Fanny Ellsworth, (1936–40) managed to attract new writers to Black Mask, including Cornell Woolrich, Frank Gruber, Max Brand and Steve Fisher. [9] However, from the 1940s on, Black Mask was in decline, despite the efforts of new editor Kenneth S. White (1940–48). The magazine in this period carried the work of John D. MacDonald.[1] Henry Steeger then edited Black Mask anonymously until it eventually ceased publication in 1951. [2]

In 1985, the magazine was revived as The New Black Mask, and featured noted crime writers James Ellroy, Michael Collins, Sara Paretsky and Bill Pronzini, as well as Chandler and Hammett reprints. Edward D. Hoch praised the revived Black Mask, stating in the book Encyclopedia Mysteriosa that "it came close to reviving the excitement and storytelling pleasure of the great old pulp magazines". Due to a legal dispute over the rights to Black Mask name, the magazine ceased publication in 1987. It was revived as a short-lived magazine titled A Matter of Crime.[10]

Original copies of the Black Mask are highly valued among pulp magazine collectors. Issues with Chandler and Hammett stories are especially rare and command high prices.[1]


  • The Hard-Boiled Omnibus: Early Stories from Black Mask edited by Joseph T. Shaw, (1946).
  • The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from Black Mask magazine, 1920-1951 edited by Herbert Ruhm, (1977).
  • The Black Mask Boys: masters in the hard-boiled school of detective fiction edited by William F. Nolan, (1985).

Includes a short history of the magazine.

  • The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories edited by Otto Penzler, (2007).


  1. ^ a b c d Bleiler, Richard, "Black Mask", in Rosemary Herbert, The Oxford companion to crime and mystery writing. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-19-507239-1 (pp. 38-9).
  2. ^ a b Hagemann,Edward R. A Comprehensive Index to Black Mask, 1920-1951. Popular Press, 1982. ISBN 0-87972-202-9.
  3. ^ a b DeAndrea, William L. (editor).Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, MacMillan, 1994, ISBN 0-02-861678-2 (p.287-9).
  4. ^ Smith, Erin Ann. Hard-boiled:working-class readers and pulp magazines, Temple University Press, 2000. ISBN 1-56639-769-3 (p.95).
  5. ^ Cox, J. Randolph (2005). Flashgun Casey, Crime Photographer: From the Pulps to Radio And Beyond. David S. Siegel, William F Nolan. Yorktown Heights, NY: Book Hunter Press. ISBN 1-891379-05-4. 
  6. ^ Robinson, Frank M., and Davidson, Lawrence. Pulp Culture - The Art of Fiction Magazines. Collectors Press, 2007. ISBN 1-933112-30-1 (p. 59)
  7. ^ Layman,Richard. Discovering the Maltese falcon and Sam Spade. Vince Emery Productions, 2005, ISBN 0-9725898-6-4,(p. 78)
  8. ^ Pronzini,Bill, "Women in the Pulps", in Deadly Women: the woman mystery reader's indispensable companion edited by Jan Grape, Darryl Dean James, Ellen Nehr. Carroll & Graf, 1998 ISBN 0-7867-0468-3, (pp. 17-19)
  9. ^ Nolan, William F., The Black mask boys: masters in the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. William Morrow, 1985,(p.30).
  10. ^ Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, (p.256).

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