Thursday, June 19, 2014

Who's Got the Diamond?

Frederick Nebel isn't as well known as Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but by golly he oughta be!

Like Hammett and Chandler, Nebel often wrote for Black Mask, contributing excellent hard-boiled tales to the magazine that largely gave birth to the genre. A very prolific writer, Nebel also wrote detective, adventure and Western stories for other pulp magazines as well.

For Black Mask, Nebel created two important series. The first were the stories featuring Police Captain Steve MacBride, who was working to clean up a corrupt city--often getting help from perpetually drunk reporter Jack Kennedy. This are great stories and I might very well eventually use five inter-connected MacBride/Kennedy tales as part of my Read/Watch 'em in Order series.

MacBride, by the way, eventually made it to the big screen in a series of B-Movies, with the drunken Kennedy transformed into perky girl reporter Torchy Blaine.

Nebel's other important Black Mask creation was the "Tough Dick" Donahue, a private eye working for a big agency--a character introduced in 1930 to replace the Continental Op after Hammett left the magazine.

Hammett was the Master, but Nebel's Donahue stories still managed to fill the void. Sharply written in the sparse but fully descriptive prose that marks the best hard-boiled yarns, the Donahue stories combined intricate but well-constructed plots with truly surprising twists and some of the best chase scenes and fight scenes I've ever read:

Jess roared and blazed away, and Ames staggered backwards, as his own gun thundered. Donahue fell on the gun in the woman's hand, tore it from her feeble grasp. He whirled on Jess, charged him and jammed the muzzle against his side, press the trigger. The explosion was muffled by by Jess's clothes. 

Jess heaved away, groaning. He started running. Donahue streaked after him. Swinging into University Place, Jess twisted and sent two shots at Donahue. One nailed Donahue in the left leg, and he skidded against the building. He clawed his way to the corner and saw Jess running north on
University Place. He toiled after him, hopping on one foot, dragging the other.

As you can gather from that excerpt, Donahue is not one to give up. The second, third and fourth stories from the series were published in the December 1930 through February 1931 issues of Black Mask. The three are interconnected, with the events of one story leading into the next--though all three could be read individually and still leave you satisfied that you've read a complete tale.

The stories involve the search for a stolen and very valuable diamond. A traveling artist was unwittingly used to smuggle the diamond into the U.S., but then he was murdered. The villains involved have a hard time trusting each other and Donahue stirs things up further as he investigates. Stirring up things even more is a beautiful femme fatale named Irene Saffarrans. (A name that seems to fit the character type perfectly. Poor girl probably never had any choice but to become a femme fatale.)

Donahue catches a killer at the end of "The Red-Hots," the first story in the series, but the diamond is
apparently lost. But in "Gun Thunder," Donahue discovers that the diamond might still be around and people are once again getting shot in pursuit of the thing. This time, Irene gets in a little too deep and Donahue sends her up as he finally recovers the jewel.

Or does he recover it? The diamond he finds is a fake. In "Get a Load of This," he acts on a theory as to who might have the real thing. But his suspect is murdered and the chase for the diamond is on once again. To complicate matters further, yet another femme fatale puts in an appearance. 

Throughout the story, Donahue remains determined to run down the bad guys, following up clues and hunches in a logical manner that allow the stories to function properly in procedural terms. But the great prose and dialogue tie together with Donahue's mixture of brains and guts elevates everything to classic hard-boiled storytelling that really sit next to the Continental Op stories without being out-of-place. 

Nebel's success in the pulps eventually led him to move on to the better-paying slick magazines. This by itself is fine--he had earned his success. But in later years, he often declined to allow his Black Mask work to be reprinted. He wrote: "I think it served its purpose well when it was first published but I honestly cannot see what purpose it would serve now." 

In his introduction to a recently published collection of the Donahue stories, pulp historian Will Murray states that Nebel is as important to the genre as Hammett and Chandler AND that it was Nebel's decision not to reprint his hard-boiled stories that dropped him into obscurity. I would agree with this. Gee whiz, the man was GOOD

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