Mean Streets readers get a Christmas Treat this year from no less than the pulp authority John Locke, doing a deep-dive into the origins of Hammett’s career as a writer. John made a cool discovery in the forgotten trade magazines of yesteryear, he and Terry Zobeck exchanged a few remarks about the find — combine those angles with his longstanding interest in Hammett and the pulp world, and you’ve got magic.
You know what’s really hard to do?
I’ll tell you: Say Anything New about Hammett.
Pour yourself a drink and sit down to re-evaluate those years in San Francisco you thought you knew so well, when Hammett saddled up the Continental Op.
John tips the hat: “Thank you to Don Herron, Matt Moring, and Rob Preston, who helped with ideas and information. A special thanks to Terry Zobeck for lighting the fire and providing critical review.”
Here’s John Locke:
In 2011, Terry Zobeck discussed the ads Dashiell Hammett ran in Writer’s Digest in 1924, in which Hammett offered “criticism of prose fiction.” As Terry notes, Hammett’s own fiction wasn’t generating enough income. Now an additional ad has surfaced, from the January 1924 issue of the awkwardly-titled and woefully obscure Story World and Photodramatist.
The magazine was published by the Palmer Photoplay Corporation, a correspondence school for writers. I discussed the Palmer company in detail in The Thing’s Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales (2018), in a chapter on Arthur J. Burks.
Burks enrolled in the Palmer course in late 1923 and, under their guidance, started selling to Weird Tales in April 1924. Palmer eased Burks’s transition from promising amateur to professional fictioneer, a point Burks freely divulged as his career blossomed.
Hammett’s writing skills are a bit of a mystery, since he rose from high-school dropout to one of the most acclaimed crime-fiction writers of the twentieth century, without a clear explanation of how. It has long been presumed that he learned to write by composing field reports for his employer, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, supplemented by his voracious reading habits.
But, because SWP was generally only available to Palmer students, Hammett’s presence in the magazine raises a new question: did he actually hone his writing skills as a Palmer student?
While that question is interesting enough on its own, it fits a larger and largely unexamined set of issues addressing how the early years of Hammett’s writing career meshed with the particulars of the commercial writing climate that existed in the early Twenties.
Before proceeding to the Hammett story, we must know a little about that climate.
Fiction Enters the Machine-Age
The Palmer Photoplay Corporation was founded in 1918 by Frederick Palmer (not the famous war correspondent and novelist of the same name) and three partners. Palmer’s experience in Hollywood as a publicist and “scenario” writer — as screenplays were then known — made him aware of a special problem. The film industry churned out thousands of two-reelers a year with the writers only a breathless step ahead of the filmmakers.
Hollywood needed writers!
Thus the birth of the Palmer school, to train freelance writers for this market.
It was a wonderful plan — other than its two enormous defects. First, the industry shifted to longer (and fewer) feature-length films. And, second, because of the specialized nature of scenario writing, the studios built their own writing staffs.
Hollywood never opened up as a freelance market.
In the years it took to fully realize this, the Palmer company shifted emphasis to magazine fiction. The tail-end of the shift is reflected in the student magazine’s title: born as The Photoplaywright in 1919, it had evolved into Story World and Photodramatist. The “story world” is the magazine market and it ranks before the “photodramatist’s” world.
In March 1924, two months after the Hammett ad ran, the company changed name to the Palmer Institute of Authorship. In June, the magazine became, simply, Story World, the transition complete.
Palmer had been correct in concept, but wrong in market. The magazines were the genuine freelance market and by 1924 they were booming. Fiction appeared in all but the most technical or news-oriented magazines. The magazines were the opposite of Hollywood’s closed shop; they were wide-open to freelancers, in fact dependent on them.
And most welcoming of all were the genre-centered all-fiction magazines, or, as they would eventually be called, “the pulps.”
The most important thing about Frederick Palmer is not the history of his company, but rather his insight into how the world of the fiction writer had changed. As his Hollywood experience had revealed, in that era of staggering technological transformation — to which no industry was exempt — the writer had entered the machine-age.
The writer was no longer a pure artist, but instead had become a hybrid of artist and assembly-line worker, as contradictory as that might sound. As an artist, the writer was still concerned with inspiration, imagination, and traditional storytelling values. As a machine-age worker, the writer had to think like an efficiency expert, to obey the immutable logic of the assembly-line.
In practice, the word was the unit of measure, and the word-rate was the unit-price. Every budding professional would grapple with the attendant conundrum: If I write a story of a certain number of words, and sell it for a certain word-rate, can I produce stories fast enough to earn a living wage?
For most would-be professionals, the answer, learned quickly enough, was no.
The Bubble Within the Bubble
The other frame to Hammett’s pulp career is the magazine market of the 1920s. The all-fiction field had grown steadily through the previous two decades, but from 1920 through 1930, the newsstands became a rapidly expanding universe of cheap fiction. In 1920, a fully-stocked newsstand offered about 38 new all-fiction magazines a month, spread among 24 different titles (some titles came out more than once a month). In 1930, that newsstand numbered about 120 all-fiction magazines and 86 different titles.
In the January 1924 issue of SWP that carried Hammett’s ad, novelist Frank H. Spearman (Whispering Smith) giddily described the market: “There never was in the history of the written word such an opportunity for young writers as the present affords.” It was true when he wrote it and would only become more so as the decade progressed.
Undoubtedly, Hammett examined that issue of SWP when it was published — to double-check his ad — and if he only read one article in the issue, it likely would have been Spearman’s. Hammett was already more than a year into his writing career by then, but the prevailing sentiment expressed by Spearman may have been what made Hammett think he had a shot at success in the first place.
By the end of the decade the unprecedented opportunities had turned into a giant speculative bubble, which burst with the onset of the Great Depression. This is a well-known phenomenon. Less understood is a smaller and almost invisible bubble, within the larger bubble, that occurred in the early years of the decade. It, too, would impact Hammett’s fortunes, both when it started and when it ended.
The growth throughout the decade was generally fueled by new publishers and additional titles coming onto the market. This reached ridiculous extremes in the late ’20s when fiction magazines were tailored to absurdly narrow tastes, like Fire Fighters and Zeppelin Stories.
However, during the bubble within the bubble — let’s call it the “boomlet” — growth was achieved through publishers increasing the publication frequency of existing titles, most commonly going from monthly to semimonthly (twice-in-a-month) publication. From about 1921-24, the publishers doubled the frequency of at least half the magazines on the market.
It was if land-grab fever swept through the industry with no one wanting to get left behind.
A plausible explanation for the boomlet is that after the Goliaths of the industry — the Munsey and Street & Smith chains — had established the viability of weekly magazines, the smaller publishers saw increased frequency as a necessary path to survival. The Goliaths had cut the market into thin slices, and were taking the lion’s share.
It’s hard to pinpoint the pistol-shot that set off the rush, but it may have been when Short Stories doubled to semimonthly in August 1921, followed by Street & Smith’s People’s Favorite Magazine in September, followed again by Adventure going from semi – to trimonthly in October.
The trend was great news for writers who had material suitable for the magazines that were upping frequency. Overnight, practically, there were twice as many pages for the editors to fill. For loyal readers, it was an abundance of riches, but also a burden. It meant paying twice as much to keep up with a magazine, some of which used serials to hook readers into buying every issue.
For some titles, doubling frequency proved to be a winning strategy. Short Stories didn’t retrench until 1949.
But for most, the experiment failed. The glut was followed by a shakeout, which happened from 1924-26, as magazines, each subject to its own circumstances, retreated to monthly publication. In one case — Hammett’s main port of call, The Black Mask — the experiment had been quite costly, undermining the viability of the magazine.
Hammett Seizes the Moment
Now we’ll trace the progress of Hammett’s career against the backdrop of the brave new world of the writer in the machine-age and the turbulent cycles of the magazine business.
He moved to San Francisco in June 1921, married his nurse Jose on July 7, and, on October 15, she gave birth to their first daughter, Mary Jane. Hammett worked his last cases with Pinkerton’s as the year wound down. His poor health wouldn’t let him continue the taxing outdoor labors of the job. With a new family to support and the loss of employment, he needed a profession that would marry his language gifts with a less stressful environment.
In February 1922, Hammett enrolled in San Francisco’s Munson School for Private Secretaries, completing the program in May 1923. Munson participated in a program that allowed him to divert his Veterans disability pension toward tuition. The school specialized in teaching stenography and touch typing, two skills highly relevant to the speed and efficiency demanded in the machine-age. Stenography quickly translated dictation into symbols; typing converted the symbols, or longhand, into the clear, unambiguous format demanded by the business world.
Allegedly, Hammett hoped to apply these skills to a reporting job but, as Nathan Ward (The Lost Detective) notes, that might have been as strenuous as his Pinkerton’s assignments.
Outside of school, Hammett had other ideas. His first attempt at fiction, “The Barber and His Wife,” appeared in the December 1922 issue of Brief Stories. His first published work, “The Parthian Shot,” a single-paragraph short-short, had appeared two months earlier, in the October 1922 issue of The Smart Set. A steady stream of works followed.
As he recalled years later, “I decided to become a writer.” Had that idea preceded his trivial early works, it most likely meant that he was scratching the itch for self-expression. I suspect that, as his confidence and success in getting published grew, his ambitions ratcheted up as a dream job took shape.
Hammett had the chance, for happiness and for health, to enlist in the army of freelancers feeding stories to the all-fiction magazines from the comfort of their own homes, using the U.S. mail as the go-between.
Now a machine-age writer, whether he realized it or not, the machine of necessity was a typewriter. Editors refused to be slowed to decipher a longhand manuscript, regardless of how neatly written. Palmer advised students in the correspondence course to own or rent a typewriter, and learn to use it as “accurately and rapidly as possible.”
Hammett, coming to similar conclusions, bought a black Underwood.
As a simple example of how the boomlet expanded Hammett’s opportunities, he placed a short story, “The Dimple,” in the October 15, 1923 Saucy Stories. The magazine had been a 128-page monthly through June 1922, then jumped to two 128-page issues a month with issues dated the 1st and 15th of the month. Just like that, they needed double the sauce with which to wet their pages.
Without commenting on the quality of “The Dimple,” Hammett had sold into an expanded market in which some stories that would have been rejected by the monthly were, of necessity, now acceptable. The threshold had dropped — but only through March 1924, after which Saucy returned to monthly publication after 21 months as a semimonthly.
The example that matters, though, is Black Mask. Hammett’s first appearance in its pages was “The Road Home,” issue of December 1922. A straggler to the trend, with the February 1923 issues Black Mask became a semimonthly, also dated the 1st and 15th. Hammett’s next story in the magazine was “The Vicious Circle,” June 15, 1923. It was his ninth or tenth published work, after about a year of writing.
For a beginner, his timing could not have been much better. The magazine’s needs doubled just as he was finding his niche. However, Black Mask fared even less well than Saucy Stories, only maintaining the red-hot semimonthly pace for 15 months, through April 1924. Harmoniously, Hammett scattered 15 stories across those 30 issues, establishing himself as a regular.
The Ghastly Pulps
One claim should be taken off the board at this point. Hammett’s biographers invariably refer to the debased reputation of the “pulps,” and how Hammett must have been “embarrassed,” perhaps even “ashamed,” at appearing within their pages, as if being such a writer was to be exposed as a moonlighting bootlegger, murderer, or tax collector. This mortification, presumably, derives from him being a classy guy who hung out in the public library reading the classics.
To begin with, and why I’ve adhered to the term, in the early ’20s the “pulps” were called the “all-fiction magazines,” if they were identified as a class at all. In the late ’20s, “woodpulps” became the term of art, to be abbreviated in the ’30s to the “pulps.”
During that decade, the term “pulps” and their scandalous reputation grew in tandem, owing to the escalating glorification of sex and violence in the magazines, most obviously in the garish cover art splattered across the newsstands.
It’s anachronistic to transplant that view of the pulps to the early ’20s when it didn’t exist.
Hammett, like any normal person, was probably exceedingly pleased to be selling his material to national magazines. As a practical matter, his best two early markets, the “tony” Smart Set and the “trashy” Black Mask, advertised identical freelance rates in 1922-23. The difference between them was not quality but genre.
Lest we think that Hammett’s literary class consciousness is also an anachronism from the ’30s, his daughter Jo recalls from her childhood his diverse reading habits, from Dostoyevsky to the pulps’ own Doc Savage, which represents, to put it charitably, an extremely wide range. And this was in a time when Hammett enjoyed a reputation as having floated above the genre ranks into the lofty realms of literature.
What’s in a Name?
To be successful, the assembly-line writer needed to realize something in a hurry: selling an original story every time out was difficult but, once a name had been established, it could be sold over and over with relative ease as long as the quality of the stories held steady. Stories are anonymous on their face, but readers identify with names the same way that film fans identify with actors. It could be the author’s name (or penname) or the name of a fictional series character, or the combination of the two.
It took Samuel Dashiell Hammett about a year to figure this out. From his earliest work in 1922 through the end of 1923, he was published in magazines 21 times, under four names: Dashiell Hammett (12), Peter Collinson (7), Mary Jane Hammett (1), and Daghull Hammett (1).
Regardless of his motives, it meant that he was diluting his name recognition with the public. He was trying to sell multiple authors when the safe bet was to establish one.
But figure it out, he did. From 1924 forward, he settled on the memorable Dashiell Hammett.
At about the same time, he invented his famous series character, which we remember as the Continental Op. The move to a series character was not inevitable, but it promised to make Hammett’s career viable. Ironically, and unusually, the Op has no name himself; his job title is his name, but the principle is identical, if applied. . . .
While Hammett quickly settled on his own name, he neglected to do his detective the same favor, rendering him near anonymous in the stories and leaving the question of identification to Black Mask’s editors. On their initiative, the Op’s title was a work in progress. In 2012, Terry Zobeck traced its long evolution through Black Mask and elsewhere, from “the San Francisco detective” to “the Continental detective” to, finally, “The Continental Op,” in the February 1930 Black Mask, in the editor’s heading to the penultimate story in the series.
Name identification addresses selling the product; the use of a series character addresses the machine-age nature of the business, the need to be both artist and assembly-line worker. The goal of the writer was to produce stories which were different and yet the same, a uniform product.
The reader wanted a new story but also something that was good in exactly the same way. The series character satisfied that paradigm.
The first Op, “Arson Plus,” bylined Peter Collinson, appeared in the October 1, 1923 issue of Black Mask. Two more Ops appeared in October 15, under the separate bylines of Dashiell Hammett and Peter Collinson, presumably to avoid repeating author names in the magazine. The readers may have been fooled at first, but both stories mention the detective’s fictional employer, the Continental Detective Agency.
The ruse was definitively demolished by the author’s letter commenting on Collinson’s “Slippery Fingers”; it was signed S.D. Hammett. The fourth Op, which cemented the Hammett-Op connection for good, appeared in the November 1 issue.
The Op had burst onto the scene like a storm, with four episodes over three consecutive issues. Clearly, the stories were a big hit with editor George W. Sutton. Still, it was unconventional to risk oversaturation in that manner. The normal approach would have been to space the stories out at one per issue, to not use them up too fast — to maximize reader anticipation.
But with the magazine being published twice a month, the need for suitable material was dire. And, as we’ll discover later, joining the boomlet damaged the magazine’s finances. The rush in establishing the Op with the readers may have been an act of desperation.
There are few surviving examples of Hammett talking about his writing. One is “Vamping Samson,” an article he contributed to The Editor (May 29, 1925), in which he described how he wrote the short story “Ber-Bulu” for San Francisco’s Sunset magazine. Hammett confesses: “I framed and wrote it in three days, an almost miraculous speed for me, who can seldom do anything in less than three weeks.”
Normally, an artistic writer wouldn’t boast of how fast it took to write a story because it invites a charge of superficiality, but Hammett clearly had on his mind the efficiency calculation of the assembly-line. A three-day turnaround would allow his survival as a magazine writer; a three-week minimum put that outcome in doubt.
During the same month that “Ber-Bulu” appeared, March 1925, Black Mask published the sixteenth tale of the Op.
The Ops, as they progressed, became more detailed, precise, intricate, polished, took longer to construct, and, presumably, Hammett recalculated the numbers as he went along.
So what we might at first interpret as self-congratulation in his “three days” comment, more importantly reveals Hammett’s growing anxiety over his sense of impending failure.
The Author Is the Detective
In the all-fiction magazines, as much as in any forum, readers yearned for authenticity in their fiction. This might come from the fiction itself, but it often came from connecting the authenticity of the author to the fiction. Thus, the western writer had grown up on a ranch, perhaps had met Wyatt Earp (1848-1929). The adventure writer had traveled the world on tramp steamers, hung out in Shanghai’s most dangerous waterfront saloons. The science-fiction writer had a PhD — in a scientific field, naturally. The author was, in many readers’ minds, an auxiliary hero to the protagonist of the story.
Typically, readers became acquainted with the authors inside the magazines: in biographical features, or in mail columns the authors used to comment on the backgrounds of themselves and their stories.
Hammett has one of the most powerful author-subject associations in all of the pulps: ex-Pinkerton’s detective becomes top detective-story author. Owing to the sparsity of evidence from his sleuthing years, the association remains a source of great fascination and mystery. Note that the inherent power comes not from “ex-detective,” but from “ex-Pinkerton’s detective.”
In the same respect, “ex-pilot becomes aviation-fiction writer” is far weaker than “ex-Western Front aviator becomes aviation-fiction writer.” It’s not special enough to be a mere detective or pilot, but “Pinkerton’s” or “Western Front” authenticates achievement at the highest professional level, or, at least, the reader will willingly assume that it does, because it implies that the fictional fantasy contains the reality they’re seeking.
An issue for Hammett, therefore, is how his background was unfurled before the public.
He hinted at his experience in “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective,” a set of brief vignettes in the March 1923 Smart Set. For his first year-plus in Black Mask, though, during which a number of his stories were accompanied by letters in the mail column, and where his past would have made much more of a difference, Hammett was consistently modest in his allusions and never reveals his Pinkerton’s employment.
For his first story (June 15, 1923), he mentions “the years during which I tried my hand at ‘private detecting.’” From the carefully chosen wording, the reader might have concluded that he was unsuccessful. For the first Op story (October 1, 1923), he writes, “I’ve worked with several [detectives].” For “Slippery Fingers” (October 15, 1923), “I have seen forged prints.”
His great March 1, 1924 letter, in which he lays out the rules of shadowing, is very convincing that he knows his stuff, but he undercuts his growing mystique by stating that there’s “more fun in writing about manhunting than in that hunting.” Implicitly, the work wasn’t that dangerous. In the June 1924 issue, he describes “The Girl with the Silver Eyes” as “pure fiction . . . based on things that I’ve either run into myself or got second hand from other detectives.”
Just who was this beezark? And why did Hammett underplay his powerful hand? We might assume that, as a beginning writer, he didn’t recognize the marketing tool available within his grasp.
He may have misunderstood the storytelling business and thought that it would undermine him as an artist to have too much of a real-life basis for his fiction, when just the opposite was true.
He may have feared that his Pinkerton’s experience had not been exciting enough to be spoken about frankly, not realizing, as so many authors of the day did, that the author’s biography was simply another work of fiction that could be dramatized for maximum benefit. The publishers didn’t care.
Ironically, for the man who would give up writing for advertising in 1925, the one thing he struggled to advertise was himself. His naturally private nature, tellingly reflected in the Op’s lack of a name, worked against the need for selling the product.
Editors Sutton and his successor Phil C. Cody must have been as intrigued by their mystery man as the readers. It wasn’t just Hammett underplaying a powerful hand, but Black Mask as well. Thus, in the November 1924 issue, in conjunction with the thirteenth Op story, “The Golden Horseshoe,” Hammett finally spilled his formal biography, in a letter of about two hundred words. “I was born in Maryland . . .” he begins stiffly. And finally, the critical detail: “An enigmatic want-ad took me into the employ of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency.”
The momentous confession came two years after his first story for the magazine. The letter is completely out-of-the-blue, but conversely lacking in spontaneity, and it’s unrelated to the subject matter of “Horseshoe.” Therefore, the bio must have been solicited by Cody (or his assistant Harry C. North). No doubt, readers had been pestering the editor for more information about the intriguing Mr. Hammett, so Cody pressed the point with the author.
How would Black Mask exploit this jewel of information? Not well, it turns out.
The only time that I could find it repeated was in the story heading to the seventeenth Op, “The Scorched Face” (May 1925): “Here’s another realistic detective tale by Mr. Hammett, formerly of the Pinkerton’s.” Cody dropped the story headings from the magazine after that. (His successor Joseph T. Shaw restored them.)
As we’ll explore later, Hammett quit writing and disappeared from the magazine. In late 1926, Cap Shaw took over as editor and lured Hammett back, offering him a higher word-rate and the opportunity to publish longer works.
With this move, Hammett’s writing career turned from problematic to successful. After Shaw’s experiment had proven itself with “The Big Knock-Over” (February 1927) and “$106,000 Blood Money” (May 1927), he promoted Hammett heavily in the magazine, but omitted his Pinkerton’s background, instead choosing to emphasize his literary and storytelling qualities. This fit Shaw’s editorial ethic, which reflected the disingenuous claims commonly made in the all-fiction magazines, that story quality always ranked above the author’s name, or, by implication, that the name of the magazine ranked above the name of the author.
As Hammett progressed, the lost opportunity persisted. In the promos for “The Main Death” (June 1927), the editor praised the story as “a gem — a model of what the short story can be.” For “The Cleansing of Poisonville” (November 1927), he described Hammett as “beyond any doubt the greatest writer of detective stories now living.”
In perhaps his only nod to Hammett’s past, in the blurb for “Black Lives” (October 1928, for the November issue), Shaw exaggerated with “Mr. Hammett was formerly head of a large detective agency.” Whether this was purposeful, or whether he simply didn’t understand who Hammett was, is unclear. The fact that the amplification was, apparently, never used again, suggests that Hammett set the record straight.
Shaw’s promos for The Maltese Falcon in 1929 were the most extravagant to date. A full-page feature boasts of the attention that Hammett’s Red Harvest, the hardback publication of the Poisonville series, was receiving from national critics, including favorable comparisons in The Bookman between Hammett and Hemingway.
Shaw described Falcon as “the finest detective story it has ever been our privilege to read.” Nevertheless, authenticity was an issue to Shaw: Falcon was the exemplar of the “more true to life” story that “this magazine has been developing. . . . Dashiell Hammett has been the leader in this development.” But nary a word of Hammett’s authentic background.
New readers attracted by Shaw’s development of the magazine might have had no idea that Hammett had been a Pinkerton’s man. Older fans of the magazine may be forgiven for having forgotten the time-lost biographical letter of November 1924.
In sum, Black Mask did very little to associate Hammett the writer with Hammett the detective, as if Shaw was afraid — he had good reason — of “Hammett” becoming a bigger name than “Black Mask” and thus unaffordable.
So how did “Pinkerton’s man” get permanently tattooed on Hammett’s reputation? Just like “The Continental Op,” the process concluded late in the game.
It starts with Hammett himself, who, finally, shed his reticence. He approached book publisher Alfred A. Knopf directly with the manuscript that would be issued as Red Harvest. “Gentlemen,” typed the author on February 11, 1928, “By way of introducing myself: I was a Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency operative for a number of years; and, more recently, have published fiction . . .” Knopf would not ignore such a gift. More sophisticated than Black Mask’s brain trust, they knew how to sell their author to a wide audience and immediately incorporated Hammett’s Pinkerton’s credentials into their marketing. Invariably, from Red Harvest onward, newspaper book reviews, usually cribbed in part from publisher promotional materials, mentioned Hammett’s background, often as the lead sentence.
Hammett’s hometown San Francisco Chronicle review of Red Harvest even had it in the title: “Bad Town Swept Up by Former Pinkerton ’Tec.”
’Twas Knopf who forged the legend, while Hammett gladly donned the cloak.
The Bursting of the Boomlet
Having skipped ahead through the history of that particular legend, let’s rewind. Starting late in 1923, and continuing into early 1926, Black Mask published a steady stream of Op stories, of increasing length. Hammett was popular with the editors and the readers. But then he quit the writing game. If he was that valuable to the magazine, why couldn’t they pay him enough to keep him in that game?
We know his side of it generally, although we’re hindered by not knowing exactly what his word-rates were and how they changed over time. His meticulously written stories took too long to compose to make the numbers work.
As it turns out, he wasn’t the only side of the equation suffering financial difficulties. There’s evidence that Black Mask struggled for years during and after the failure of the twice-a-month experiment. The signs of distress begin to appear in early 1924.
George Sutton’s last issue as editor was March of that year. The official story — Sutton’s farewell note in the March 15 issue — was that he was returning to his true calling, writing “automobile and motorboat articles.” That’s certainly plausible since he did indeed publish on these topics for a variety of magazines.
But regarding Black Mask, he has “fall guy” written all over him, as Sam Spade might have observed it. The semimonthly experiment began and failed on his watch. He became editor with the October 1922 issue and four months later, in February 1923, the experiment began. It may even have been his idea.
Sutton’s replacement, circulation manager Phil Cody, was a competent enough editor. In fact, several of the magazine’s marquee names were introduced during his tenure: Erle Stanley Gardner, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Tom Curry.
However, Cody gives every impression of being brought in to cut costs and rescue the magazine, the hatchet man for the dirty work. Taking Sutton off the job may have been his first act.
Cody’s first month as editor was April; not coincidentally, it was the last month of the two-week publishing cycle. After flirting with greater glory, Black Mask returned to a monthly in May.
Finally, Cody slashed the advertised word-rate. Since 1922, it had been a cent-a-word minimum, the industry standard for mainstream all-fiction magazines. Cody cut it to a cent-a-word maximum, a significant difference to all parties. Of course, preferential rates could still have been paid to favored authors, but it’s just as likely that cost-cutting went across the board and that Hammett felt the pinch.
Note that while other magazines retreated from semimonthly to monthly in this period — the collapse of the boomlet — Black Mask was the only one to drop its advertised rates. The magazine was now at a competitive disadvantage in attracting quality writers.
As the Sutton era wound down, the Hammett classified ads ran in the January 1924 issues of Story World and Photodramatist and Writer’s Digest. The text is identical in both. Hammett brazenly used his name as the title for the ad, in which he offered fiction criticism for a dollar per thousand words. The SWP ad is boxed and tops the column, two features Hammett probably paid extra for (SWP didn’t publish its ad rates):
Why did he buy the ads? It’s hard to imagine that he would have taken that step if he’d been pulling enough money out of the all-fiction mags. He’d already figured out that he wasn’t likely, the way things were going, to survive as a fiction writer.
The extra income from criticism, if the scheme worked, might have bridged the gap, and it would have been easy money to boot.
And why did he buy the ads at that particular time? He may have been planning ahead, if he had sensed Black Mask’s troubled situation, or been told outright.
The ad itself is problematic. Hammett may have thought that he had earned name recognition from his numerous published works, about two-dozen at the time. But this came at the end of the period in which he had spread his identity among four pennames. “Dashiell Hammett” had only appeared a dozen times by the end of 1923, and they had been diffused among magazines as diverse as Saucy Stories and The Black Mask.
The magazine with the most Hammett appearances had been The Smart Set, with five mostly trivial items. Realistically, he had very little name recognition when the ads ran. Of all the people in the world, he was the only one who knew the breadth of his accomplishments.
This brings us back to the original question: does Hammett’s presence in SWP, the obscure publication of the Palmer correspondence course, make it likely that Hammett was enrolled in the course?
There are several arguments against this possibility. First, there’s a lack of corroboration, or even a hint, in the surviving paper trail. Second, the course was expensive and Hammett was perpetually strapped for cash. Arthur J. Burks paid $136 for the course in late 1923, payable in monthly installments over a year. Third, Hammett had diverted his disability pension into the Munson School. He finished at Munson in May 1923, and in October his disability was restored at only 50%, or $40 a month.
With his additional earnings from writing, he potentially could have afforded the Palmer course, but it would have been a sacrifice.
Lastly, had he been enrolled in the course, he would have understood how unwise it was to spend money on an ad in SWP selling a criticism service. Every Palmer student received three coupons, each redeemable for manuscript criticism from the Palmer staff. Thus, Hammett was offering a paid service to students who essentially had it for free already. Had he been a Palmer student, he would have understood this.
How then did he find SWP in the first place? The magazine had a cover price of 25¢, so it’s remotely possible that he bought it off a well-stocked San Francisco newsstand. But it’s unlikely that SWP had commercial distribution.
Another dim possibility is that he got it from a writing acquaintance, but he seems to have had none at the time. My pet theory is that he came across SWP in his main haunt, the San Francisco library.
At any rate, the ad was a one-off. It didn’t run in any subsequent issues of the magazine, and probably not in any prior issues.
The magazine that got more of his classified ad business was Writer’s Digest. They had the fourth ad below Hammett’s in SWP, so it’s possible that the one magazine led to discovery of the other and, knowing Hammett’s reading habits, he was probably scooping up anything related to writing technique.
The Digest ads ran from January through July. Hammett spruced up the text twice in that period, which suggests that the ad was getting little or no response. It made more sense to run the ad in the Digest because of its much larger pool of readers, many of whom were wannabe writers for the all-fiction magazines. However, he was competing against similar and better-known services.
Hammett’s classified ads imply his challenges in making enough money from fiction alone.
Under new editor Phil Cody, matters only got worse. Assistant Harry C. North soon rejected two of Hammett’s stories, an ominous turn of events after the author’s impressive string of acceptances.
We can attribute some of this to the boomlet’s collapse. With the move to twice-a-month publication, the magazine needed twice as much material. With the return to a monthly, they needed half as much as that. Some manuscripts that would have been bought and published during the boomlet now fell below the threshold of acceptance. The magazine was taking less and paying less, swinging the pendulum from seller to buyer.
To compound Hammett’s dilemma, a few months later the Veterans Bureau judged him sufficiently healthy and ended his disability payments. Awful timing.
In the August 1924 Black Mask, under the heading of “Our Own Short Story Course,” the editors printed their perspective on the rejections and Hammett’s response. It’s a highly unusual exchange for a magazine’s pages. Authors often discussed their rejections in, notably, the writers’ mags, to offer lessons learned to beginners, while editors routinely discussed the differences between a rejection and an acceptance.
However, it was entirely the author’s prerogative to name the rejecting editor in public, and never the editor’s to cause embarrassment by naming the author.
In this instance, we should assume that Cody (or North) obtained Hammett’s permission to reprint his letter; a failure in this regard would have been a first-order faux pas. Presumably, Hammett agreed having been told his rejections would be cast as a positive. As the editor wrote: “We believe that authors . . . can learn more about successful writing from the hundred or so words following, than they can possibly learn from several volumes of so-called short story instruction.”
Take that, Palmer!
Those hundred or so words from Hammett ring as hollow as a coerced Soviet-style public confession (he said with a wink): “I liked [the Op] at first and used to enjoy putting him through his tricks; but recently I have fallen into the habit of bringing him out and running him around whenever the landlord, or the butcher, or the grocer shows signs of nervousness. . . . From now on . . . I’m through with trying to run him on a schedule.” And the showstopper: “honest work as I see it is work that is done for the worker’s enjoyment as much as for the profit it will bring him.”
So that was the problem: crassly introducing time and money into a commercial enterprise predicated upon time and money.
In those collected words, Hammett denied the essence of writing for the magazines, of being a machine-age writer in thrall to an efficiency equation, which he understood all too well by then through his struggles in being productive enough to pay his bills. Hammett’s letter reads like an insincere but necessary — or so he thought — effort to appease a helpful prosecutor.
The exchange highlights the imbalance between the magazine and its authors. The magazine operated under the oppressive demands of the assembly-line, of having to produce a uniform issue on schedule using the best available materials; while, at the same time, denying that the author was subject to the same conditions, expecting instead art-for-art’s-sake purism at a bargain price.
Hammett’s two rejected stories did eventually find their way into print. “Women, Politics & Murder,” presumably rewritten, appeared in the September 1924 Black Mask; while “The Question’s One Answer,” refashioned as a true-crime article in which Dashiell Hammett of the Continental Detective Agency described a case, appeared in the November 1924 True Detective Mysteries as “Who Killed Bob Teal?” True Detective, the pioneering true-crime mag, would eventually stop disguising fiction as fact.
Black Mask’s lowered rate lasted for about a year, before being restored to a cent minimum in early 1925. Hammett undoubtedly got a boost from the improved conditions. He may have felt emboldened because, in September 1925, with Jose pregnant with their second daughter, he asked for a raise. Cody turned him down, however, and in desperation or defiance Hammett abandoned his professional aspirations (though there were a number of Op adventures still in the pipeline).
Further trouble erupted in January 1926 when Hammett demanded $300 in a dispute over money owed on past sales. Most likely, this was an argument over estimated word-counts; in the industry, authors often received smaller-than-expected checks. Famously, Erle Stanley Gardner volunteered to take a cent a word less in order that Hammett get the benefit, but publisher Eltinge Warner scoffed at the idea.
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.
Again, it’s useful to compare Black Mask to the broader market. In an era of overall growth, every other all-fiction market had advertised rates which either remained flat or ticked up. Which just goes to show that even in a boom market there are losers. The Mask’s flat-cent rate persisted into late 1928.
Hammett was wising up to another facet of his commercial viability: he had one solid market, and that put him at their mercy. Cody and Warner probably understood this as well. The obvious solution to Hammett, as it was to many successful writers in the all-fiction trade, was to diversify, preferably within the trade.
There are hints all along that Hammett thought about it. His first year, with multiple markets and pennames, can be interpreted as a successful scattershot strategy to find out what worked. After that, he settled on Black Mask with only half-hearted additional attempts at diversification within the all-fiction magazines. “Nightmare Town,” in the December 27, 1924 Argosy All-Story Weekly, is one example. It’s the mystery of what’s really going on in Izzard, Arizona—“The whole damn town is queer”—but it lacks a detective protagonist and the detailed analyses common to the Op stories. The timing of its publication in late ’24 suggests that it was written on the rebound after the two rejections from The Mask in the spring.
He also tried diversifying within Black Mask. “Corkscrew” (September 1925) features the Op out West — another Arizona setting. The story is not anchored to a specific crime to be solved; instead, the Op is as much participant as disinterested observer. Ultimately, when Hammett branched out, the gravity of his detective’s imagination pulled him back. He ended up in a Black Mask-or-bust strategy, with bust winning out.
He also tried escaping the all-fiction class. In 1925, he appeared twice in Sunset. He tried writing a novel. He studied advertising at the library, which is probably how he became acquainted with Western Advertising magazine. Beginning in its December 1925 issue, Hammett, initially bylined “S.H.,” contributed a series of essays, articles, and book reviews, all related to the art and technique of advertising.
These publications kept his hand in the writing game, and also made a nice credential when he landed an advertising job, about March 1926, with Albert S. Samuels Jewelers, of San Francisco. Hammett’s long hours eventually taxed his health and led to his physical collapse in the office, and his reluctant resignation on July 20. After his recovery, he could only resume as a part-timer.
His writing career appeared to be over, but then destiny chose another path.
Escape from the Gulag
While Hammett was failing at fresh opportunities during 1926, he was absent from The Black Mask for almost a year, until Cap Shaw took over the editorship and lured the ace writer back with everything he needed to hear: the $300 dispute would be decided in Hammett’s favor, his word-rate would go up, and Shaw believed that he was ready for longer works.
The latter two variables promised to vanquish the ruthless calculus of the business.
Hammett was still captive to a single market, and he would have to prove himself at a higher level of complexity, but his central conflict with the magazine had been resolved. After his longer works had been established in Black Mask, he resigned his Samuels position for good. The possibility of continued success as a writer must have sparkled before his eyes.
But the true escape — the dream of the working storyteller — was to be good enough to crack the really lucrative markets: mainstream book publication; the slicks, which paid multiples over the all-fiction magazines; and of course Hollywood, which tossed away thousand-dollar bills like cigarette butts.
Shaw’s helping hand was Hammett’s bridge to all three. His Black Mask serials turned into bestselling books. Promiscuous Hollywood came calling. And then the slicks opened their doors for his new fiction.
Frank H. Spearman had laid out the plan in that Story World and Photodramatist article of January 1924: “the man who writes short stories is building up another man’s property— the magazine owner’s — while the man who writes a novel is going into business for himself.”