One of the well-thumbed books on my shelf is The Black Mask Boys, edited by William F. Nolan. Any reader of crime and mystery fiction needs this book. Nolan not only covers the rich history of Black Mask, the pulp magazine (and who knew the mag also published romance stories!), but several of its most important authors.
Nolan sketches a vivid picture of the movers and shakers involved in the magazine's history, from the original owners, who used the cash flow to shore up other so-so selling magazines, to the original editors (one of whom was a woman), to ultimately Phil Cody and Captain Joseph T. Shaw, who shaped the magazine as we know it. He highlights some of the authors who regularly contributed, and provides a description of whatever series character or recurring themes they used. It’s the kind of history that makes a writer wish he had been there.
Then we move on to the meat of the book, bios and accompanying stories from major Black Mask contributors. Carroll John Daly leads the pack with a detailed bio and the FIRST private eye story EVER: Three Gun Terry. It’s a terrible story and has more continuity holes than The Big Sleep (I kid!), but without it, as Nolan points out, the private eye as we know him wouldn’t exist.
Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Nebel, Horace McCoy, Paul Cain, and Raymond Chandler continue the flow. Millions and millions of words have been written about Hammett and Chandler, and what Nolan shows is that their contemporaries were sometimes just as talented and deserving of attention of their own. I was particularly impressed with Frederick Nebel, and continue to track down stories of his and read them with great pleasure.
The biographies are short but Nolan packs into them a ton of information; the other benefit is the emotional impact Nolan creates. You feel as if you’re succeeding, failing, coming back a winner, and dying, along with these writers.
The book is long out of print but worth the hunt. I found my copy on eBay. It took a few months, but it turned up and I grabbed it. Pretty soon I'll need another copy because the one I have will someday fall apart!