A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dime Detective – August, 1941

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dime Detective – August, 1941

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)


Black Mask’s major competition came in the form of Dime Detective Magazine, which touted itself as “twice as good – for half the price” (Black Mask cost 20 cents at the time; though the price would shortly drop to 15 cents, in part due to Dime Detective’s success at the cheaper cost).

Editor Kenneth White (the same mentioned above) was instructed to lure as many writers from Black Mask as he could, paying an extra penny a word as enticement. And with a going rate of one to two cents for pulp writers (Black Mask’s three cents a word was indicative of its standing and quality in the field), the four cent rate made a significant difference to writers. As the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner supposedly replied to observations that he always seemed to use his hero’s last bullet to knock off the story’s antagonist:

“At three cents a word, every time I say ‘Bang’ in the story I get three cents. If you think I’m going to finish the gun battle while my hero still has fifteen cents worth of unexploded ammunition in his gun, you’re nuts.”

Writers were forbidden from doing novel serializations (The Maltese Falcon was first a serial) and were also instructed to create their own characters, which could not appear elsewhere, for the magazine. The onslaught was successful, with many of the era’s most popular writers switching to Dime Detective. Carroll John Daly (who brought the iconic Race Williams with him), Erle Stanley Gardner, Frederick Nebel and Norbert Davis (whose humorous stories were frequently rejected by Shaw but who flourished at his new home) were among those lured to Dime Detective.

Some authors would publish stories in other magazines but never return to Black Mask after moving to Dime Detective. Many fans would say that the best of those who switched was Frederick Nebel, Cap Shaw’s handpicked successor to Hammett when Dash left the pulps for more lucrative writing pastures. I’m one of those fans.

Nebel was the creator of Black Mask staples MacBride and Kennedy and Tough Dick Donahue, and his Jack Cardigan of the Cosmos Detective Agency dominated the pages of Dime Detective.

Popular Publications would actually purchase Black Mask in 1941, and Ken White would end up editing both magazines, with stories doled out between the two.

And now that we’ve finished the ‘Dime Detective Primer’ portion of our Introduction, let’s turn to this issue.

1941’s August issue of Dime Detective included Hugh B. Cave, John Lawrence, and T.T. Flynn. Flynn appeared in the magazine more than any other writer, and his horse track bookie, Mr. Maddox, was second only to Nebel’s Cardigan. Lawrence (who wrote his Acme Indemnity Op stories as Jan Dana) was fourth on the list – only one story behind Carroll John Daly. And he had two of the five most frequent characters in Dime Detective.

The month before had seen the debut of Norbert Davis’ Max Latin. If you read my stuff here, you know I’m President of the non-existent Norbert Davis fan club. And I wrote a new intro for Steeger Books’ Latin collection: replacing the original, written by my favorite writer, John D. MacDonald. You can read it here.


C.P Donnel, Jr. – “Fraulein Judas”

I’ve only read one Colonel Stephen Kaspir story (not this one). He is the Chief of Section Five, a very active, below-the-radar, counter-espionage (non-military) agency. Once described as a ‘great big round man,’ he’s often rude and isn’t particularly likable, though he can exert a type of charm when he chooses to. Some shades of Nero Wolfe, though he seems to be more unpleasant. He talks in a rustic fashion, dropping the last letter of words and using homespun phrases.

The stories are narrated by Captain Michael Kettle, and the two are assisted by a Miss Maude, who seems to be a secretary of sorts. They are both on Kaspir’s staff.

From 1941 through 1944, there were fourteen Colonel Kaspir stories in Dime Detective. Donnel wrote about forty stories for the Pulps during that period, including over a dozen Doc Rennie stories for Black Mask. A Virginia newspaperman, he would only write five stories in the latter part of the forties, then disappeared from the magazine market.


Merle Konstiner – “The Puzzle of the Terrified Mummy”

Merle Konstiner was very active in the forties. He wrote about down-home Luther McGavock for Black Mask, while over in Dime Detective, The Dean (Dean Wardlow Rock) appeared about three times a year.

The Dean runs a private investigation agency, but it fronts as a fortune-telling outfit – though he actually does tell fortunes: That’s a bit of a twist! He comes across as a screwball, but he carries a .357 Magnum in a shoulder holster, and the predominant one of his many hobbies is ancient magic, and divination lore.He’s a man of brains and brawn.

He often ventures out solo to talk to his extensive network of helpful friends throughout the city, which allows him to keep his assistant  – and the reader – in the dark. And he’s not afraid to blast away with a gun that Race Williams – or Mike Hammer – would happily have toted. He’s no desk-bound Nero Wolfe.

His Archie Goodwin is Ben Matthews, who used to be a troubleshooter for safe company, but was down on his luck when he came across The Dean and got a job. He’s tough and had survived on the streets before The Dean hired him. He seems to regularly take a beating in each case, though.

The Dean’s personality makes these entertaining stories, and I’ve enjoyed the two which I’ve found so far (neither of which was the one in this issue). Steeger Books put out the first four stories in a Volume One collection.

Constiner lived most of his life in Ohio, so he was a fellow Buckeye. Like many of his contemporaries, he also sold to the slicks, and wrote paperback Westerns after the demise of the Pulps.His Westerns were often mysteries, not usually featuring a cowboy – they are worth checking out.


Jan Dana –  “Death in the Center”

Jan Dana authored only one series – the Acme Indemnity Op. Except, that’s not actually the case. Dana was really John Lawrence, one of Dime Detective’s most prolific contributors. He had four regular series’:

Sam Beckett (9 stories, after two elsewhere)
Cass Blue (8 stories)
The Marquis of Broadway (26 stories)

And there were 24 Acme Indemnity stories. I talked about Lawrence some in my introduction for Volume Two of Cass Blue. You can read that intro for free, here. I haven’t read any of the Acme stories, so I don’t have anything else to say.


Hugh B Cave – “Ding Dong Belle”

I wrote the intro to Steeger Books’ Peter Kane collection, which you can read here free, online. I’m a big fan of the big, rarely sober, Boston PI. Kane had been a police officer, engaged to a wonderful woman named Anne. He was such a drunkard, he ruined his career and his relationship. He was kicked off the force, and while Anne always cared for him, she needed a reliable man, and indeed ended up marrying Moe Finch, another policeman, who is now the chief. He’s bland and unremarkable, and Kane, a private eye, consistently, has to solve cases for him.

In “Ding Dong Belle,” Kane’s nemesis on the force, the loud, usually wrong, jerk named Lt. Moroni, is angling for Finch’s job. It’s a high society double murder, and Finch is out of his depth (he’s also mostly out of the story, his wife Anne pulling Kane into affairs). Moroni is working the press and actively blocking Kane’s investigation.

Kane is literally never actually sober. About the best he gets is dry drunk, as he muddles through a case. But he’s likable, if pitiable, and Moroni is a Grade A jerk. So, we root for Kane as he tries to function just capably enough to get the bad guy. He frequently has to put away considerable amounts of alcohol to fight off losing the drunk edge, which gives him a temporary boost. He’s a mess.

Cave was one of the great Weird Menace pulpsters, but these are more traditional hardboiled PI stories. Only one at a haunted amusement park had an element of the supernatural, which you might expect from him. But Cave could write multiple genres. And well.

I highly recommend checking out Kane, if you like a socially unfinished PI, with a twist.


T T Flynn – “Post-Mortem at Pimlico”

Mr. Joe Maddox appeared in Dime Detective more than any other non-detective, with thirty-five stories. Only Nebel’s Cardigan showed up more often (44 issues). Maddox is a bookie who makes the rounds of the horse racing circuit. He manages to walk into a murder case or find a dead body, as frequently as an old lady in an Agatha Christie story.

Maddox usually has nothing to do with the shenanigans, but often gets framed: and usually knocked out along the way. He’s usually even-keeled, and the cover page for this story refers to him as ‘The bland Buddha of the bangtail circuit.’ He always plays fair, has an assistant named Oscar, and sets up shop in a hotel room at each race. He’s a big time bookie.

He dresses well and has a big diamond ring which is the symbol of his professional success. More than once, he is knocked out and wakes up to find the diamond missing. Getting it back is a side-quest in such cases.

But Maddox gets mad when acquaintances turn up dead, and the police think he is responsible. He often carries a gun, and he’s tough in a tight spot. He’s also incredibly resistant to being killed, which almost happens a frightening number of times.

He has a nemesis, though it’s not a member of the police. Cassidy is a detective for the Masterson agency. They are employed by racetracks all over the country, to cut down on pickpockets,  race touts, and con men. Cassidy’s specialty was bookies, because they diverted money from the betting windows, costing the track owners. Which repeatedly brings him into contact with Maddox. But he can never catch him; though he often is on his trail due to the frame which Maddox is evading.They are friendly enemies.

The Maddox stories are true novelettes, and longer than the typical Pulp story in Dime Detective, or Black Mask. I feel like they’re a little bit of a chore to read, but it’s not a problem. Similar to Basil Copper’s Solar Pons stories being much longer than August Derleth’s originals. They’re still good. Just know it’s gonna take longer to read a Mr. Maddox, and get your closure on the story.


Rafael DeSoto – ‘Platinum-Haired Girl was Changing the Plates’

I’m a huge fan of DeSoto’s Dime Detective covers. They’re probably my favorite Pulp mag covers. They’re easy to identify, and I like his style, coupled with the clean look of Dime Detective’s cover layout.


So, that’s a pretty impressive issue of Dime Detective, just a few months before America entered World War II.

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Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’).

He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE Definitive guide to Conan. He also organized 2023’s ‘Talking Tolkien.’

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI, XXI, and XXXIII.

He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.

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Thomas Parker

Bob, I assume you have a copy of Ron Goulart’s The Dime Detectives on a shelf somewhere?

Thomas Parker

A book that I loved was Geoffrey O’Brien’s Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir. It’s less a reference book than a genuine critical study (of writers who never got that kind of attention paid to them, at least in 1981, when the book was written). O’Brien connects a lot of unexpected dots (he’s the editor-in-chief of the Library of America) and he’s especially high on David Goodis, Jim Thompson, and John D. MacDonald.

Last edited 23 days ago by Thomas Parker
Thomas Parker

Actually, Howard is in the LOA, though not with a Conan story. The first volume (“Poe to the Pulps”) of the two-volume American Fantastic Tales set has REH’s “The Black Stone.”

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