Hammett: “If I Had Been a Black Mask Reader in 1926”

I told John Locke that once his post on Hammett’s early years in the writing business hit the blog, if he noticed any places where he wanted to tweak a word or whatever, just to let me know and I’d quietly go in for the fix.

We’ve replaced a word here and there, adjusted a clause or two. One change-out occurred because John’s fellow fans and scholars in the FictionMags Facebook community jumped out of the brush and began jabbing at him with spears because he used the term bimonthly — in preference to semimonthly.

“I defended the choice,” John writes, “since — by modern dictionary definitions — both terms are ambiguous, meaning either twice-a-month or every two months. But in digging into the old writers’ mags, I determined that the industry used semimonthly to mean twice-a-month, and bimonthly to mean every two months. The distinction was never made explicitly, though, because there were no bimonthlies in the 1920s, and almost no semimonthlies in the 1940s when actual bimonthlies became common. In short, let’s change bimonthly to semimonthly in the article to remain era-appropriate.”

Subtle and nuanced, indeed — but keep in mind that for overall blog purposes I just use bimonthly (never semimonthly that I recall) and the more general “pulps” instead of “fiction mags.” Sometimes I like to toss out the term “wood pulps,” because it sounds cool.

And John just sent in the longest addition so far, a few sentences beginning “If I had been a Black Mask reader in 1926. . . .”

That year had few Hammett yarns and no great ones, as he bailed for a few months from the crime-writing quest. If I had been a Black Mask reader, I’d have shot for 1924 and 1925, and then 1927, 28, 29. . . .

To ease the plight of all the folk who’ve already read John’s post but might be curious about the new lines, I’m pulling them below for quick reference. I’m sure many will want to revisit that post, but if you don’t want to hit it again just now, here you go:

In the section titled Rejection! this juggled and additional wording:

Meanwhile, in the January 1926 issue, Cody boasted that circulation was rising rapidly. In the March issue, the last of his Op inventory, “Creeping Siamese,” appeared.

The next data point is that by summer the circulation had dropped. This turn is commonly attributed to Hammett’s disappearance from the magazine, and that certainly may have played a small role. If I had been a Black Mask reader in 1926, I would have missed the author of “The Whosis Kid,” “Dead Yellow Women,” and numerous other top-rank page-turners. But Cody already knew how Hammett might have affected circulation. In 1925, the author was absent for four months between the seventeenth and eighteenth Ops, “The Scorched Face” (May) and “Corkscrew” (September).

Presumably, the circulation man took careful note of the relationship between author line-ups and issue sales, both through raw numbers and fan mail to the magazine. If Hammett was accounting for significantly increased sales, Cody would have known as much and probably given him that raise.

Another variable may be more meaningful. In early 1926, the advertised word-rate suffered its second drop, to a flat cent, which conflicts with Cody’s grandiose claims of increasing prosperity. If the magazine’s struggles had become apparent earlier, it helps explain why Hammett didn’t get his raise, why Cody fought him over the $300, and why Warner viewed Hammett as expendable.

This entry was posted in Dash and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.