A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley

Monday, June 25th, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne


“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 Chandlers’ The Big Sleep

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

Like many pulpsters, Norbert Davis wrote for several different markets, such as westerns, romance and war stories. But he was at his best in the private eye and mystery field. Davis could write standard hardboiled fare, but he excelled at mixing humor into the genre, and many argue he did it better than anyone else.

Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw, legendary editor of Black Mask, didn’t feel that Davis’ hardboiled humor fit in to the magazine and the writer only managed to break into Black Mask five times between 1932 and 1937.  Davis had success in other markets, however, with eighteen stories seeing print in 1936, for example. And several stories appeared in Black Mask after Shaw departed.

Ben Shaley appeared in the February and April, 1934 issues of Black Mask and represent two of the five Davis stories that Shaw chose to print.

Shaley was a Los Angeles PI introduced in “Red Goose.” I like Davis’ description: ‘Shaley was bonily tall. He had a thin, tanned face with bitterly heavy lines in it. He looked calm; but he looked like he was being calm on purpose – as though he was consciously holding himself in. He had an air of hardboiled confidence.’

The humor that Davis is best known for is pretty much absent from this story, but that proves he could hold his own writing ‘straight’ hardboiled. Though Shaley’s exasperation with the nerdy museum curator, as the detective tries to lay the groundwork for the case is amusing.

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A Bit of the Roman Empire in my Pocket

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


As a writer, sometimes I get my inspiration in strange ways.

Going to art galleries is one. For some reason, enjoying fine art that isn’t writing fires up my writing. I also like to collect odd and interesting objects, although they have to be cheap because, you know, I’m a writer.

One of my favorites is this Roman coin that I snagged for 10 euros ($11.50) at a local coin shop. It was so cheap because the coin is in pretty bad condition. I didn’t care, because it’s cool to keep a piece of the empire in my pocket.

For a year I wasn’t able to identify it, but then at a party in Oxford I lucked out. I was showing it off and one of the people there knew a former numismatist for the British Museum. We took a couple of shots of it and sent it to her. An hour later I learned it was a coin of Magnentius, a usurper who ruled in the Western Roman Empire from AD 350-353.

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask — January, 1935

Monday, June 18th, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne


“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 Chandlers’ The Big Sleep

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

Joseph ‘Cap’ Shaw was still at the helm of Black Mask in January of 1935, when Raymond Chandler’s “Killer in the Rain” scored the cover. But this issue also included stories by Frederick Nebel, Erle Stanley Gardner, George Harmon Coxe and Roger Torrey. All that for fifteen cents!

“Killer in the Rain” featured Carmady. I’m in the camp that feels all of Chandler’s PIs: Carmady, Ted Carmady, Ted Malvern and John Dalmas were all essentially Philip Marlowe with slight differences. Carmady appeared in six stories – all in Black Mask.

The story was heavily cannibalized for Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. Carmen Dravec became Carmen Sternwood, played memorably by Martha Vickers in the HumphreyBogart film. Two other Carmady stories, “The Curtain” and “Finger Man,” were also used. I think that “Killer in the Rain” is a strong story on its own and is definitely worth reading. I’m tinkering with ideas for a separate post on this story.

Frederick Nebel, whose Tough Dick Donahue (subject of an earlier post in the series) would replace The Continental Op when Dashiell Hammett left the pulps, provided Black Mask readers with the twenty-eighth adventure featuring Captain Steve MacBride of the Richmond City Police and newsman Kennedy of the Free Press. MacBride is a tough, by-the-book cop, while Kennedy is a hard-drinking smart aleck reporter. However, both are committed to justice and cleaning up corrupt Richmond City.

Except for one story (“Hell on Wheels” – Dime Detective), the entire series appeared in Black Mask. The collection has been reprinted in a three-volume series from Altus Press.

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Burton in a Skirt, or What Are You Going to Do with Your Life when Game of Thrones Is Over?

Sunday, June 10th, 2018 | Posted by Thomas Parker

(1) Game of Thrones-small

Are you still trying to pull yourself out of the depression death-spiral you entered when you heard that the next season of Game of Thrones won’t appear until 2019? And do you find yourself going through every day in an ostrich-like endeavor to evade the knowledge that the next season of Game of Thrones will be the final season?

What will you do? What will you do?

Well, you could surrender to despair and binge-watch whatever the current iteration of CSI is (CSI Fresno? Arkadelphia? Mu?) until the foul odor of your sweaty, unwashed body drives away everyone you love and cherish.

Or you could do as your fathers’ fathers’… er… fathers (just old are you, kid?) did, yea, even as they wandered in the barren wilderness of the pre-internet, pre-fanboy, pre-CGI age: you could return to the source, the ancient fount from which Game of Thrones derives much of its overheated, multi-hued, melodramatic substance: the historical epics and biblical blockbusters and costume dramas that were Hollywood’s bread and butter from the silent era through the sixties, when the whole madcap caravan broke down by the side of the road, a victim of cultural change and economic vapor lock.

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Two Castles in Slovenia

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Mali Grad

In last week’s post about Zaprice Castle, Slovenia, we looked at a well-preserved Renaissance fortification protecting the important crossroads of Kamnik. Two earlier castles can also be visited in this town, is an easy day trip from the capital Ljubljana.

Mali Grad (“Little Castle”) is an obvious landmark visible from most of Kamnik. It’s situated atop a small hill overlooking the town. All that remains today is a reconstructed tower, a few foundations of walls, and a medieval chapel.

Mali Grad is first mentioned in 1202 but dates to perhaps a generation or two before then.

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Exploring Zaprice Castle, Slovenia

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Zaprice Castle from the east. Image courtesy Vojko Kalan.

As a lover of all things medieval, whenever I’m traveling I always sniff out any local castles. Whether it’s a famous castle in England or a crumbling, little-known ruin in the Netherlands, I’m always glad to visit.

Thus I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Slovenia a few years ago. This compact little country is affordable, easy to travel around in, and has a lovely stretch of the Alps. More importantly, it has heaps of historic buildings, including an estimated 700 castles.

Zaprice Castle is one of Slovenia’s most famous and most visited. It’s located in Kamnik, a small town at the foot of the Alps just 45 minutes from the capital Ljubljana. The castle stands on a hill at the edge of town, making it a clear landmark.

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Black Gate on the list for the 2018 REH Foundation Awards

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018 | Posted by Bob Byrne

REHaward_ShanksIf you were to take a poll at Black Gate World Headquarters, asking for the staff’s favorite author, I’d put my money on Robert E. Howard coming in at the top spot. ‘Conan’ appeared in a Black Gate headline over a decade ago (thank you, Charles Rutledge!). Ryan Harvey, John Fultz, Bill Ward, William Patrick Maynard, Brian Murphy, Howard Andrew Jones, Barbra Barrett and more have written about Howard and his works under the Black Gate banner.

And the respect and love of Howard’s work has only increased over the past few years. All with the standard Black Gate quality. For the third year in a row, there is a solid Black Gate presence on the Robert E. Howard Foundation Preliminary Awards List. Our nominees for 2018:

The Cimmerian—Outstanding Achievement, Essay (Online)

(Essays must have made their first public published appearance in the previous calendar year and be substantive scholarly essays on the life and/or work of REH. Short blog posts, speeches, reviews, trip reports, and other minor works do not count.)

BOB BYRNE – “Robert E. Howard Wrote a Police Procedural? With Conan?? Crom!!!”

JAMES McGLOTHLIN – “A Tale of Two Robert E. Howard Biographies”

M. HAROLD PAGE – “Why Isn’t Conan a Mary Sue?”

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Doubling Down, or Just How Bad Are Ace Doubles, Anyway?

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018 | Posted by Thomas Parker

The World of Null-A-small Universe Maker-small

Ace Double D-31: The World of Null-A (cover by Stanley Meltzoff)
paired with Universe Maker (cover by Paul Orban)

Just so you know where I stand, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat — I love Ace Doubles (and if you don’t know what an Ace Double is, are you ever in the wrong place. You should immediately go to Slate or HelloGiggles or Shia LaBeouf.com or somewhere, anywhere else or risk irreversible contamination. You’ve been warned.) I’ve loved them ever since the first time I laid eyes on one, in the thrift store that was around the corner from my middle school. The day I pulled the dual volume of A.E. Van Vogt’s The World of Null-A and Universe Maker (D-31) off the dusty shelf, I fell and fell hard; my lunch money never had a chance. I have a lot of reasons for loving these books, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of the writing found between their gaudy covers, and a good thing too, but we’ll get to that. First, though, the looooove.

To begin with, I love them for those aforementioned gaudy covers, and why not? For twenty years, from 1953 to 1973, from D-31 to 93900 (mastering the Doubles numbering system is an arcane science in itself, especially the legendarily convoluted final five-digit series), artists like Ed Emshwiller, Kelly Freas, George Barr, Jack Gaughan, Gray Morrow, Ed Valigursky and many others poured forth a stream of wonderful images that amount to a romp in a candy shop of pulp science fiction props: mutants, ray guns, futuristic metropolises, bug eyed monsters, alien armadas, hostile planets, a-bomb shattered landscapes, femmes in danger, dangerous femmes, space stations, super-submarines, time machines, jut-jawed heroes in bubble-helmeted spacesuits, robots, domed cities… and, of course, spaceships, spaceships, spaceships! What, I ask you, is there not to love about that?

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Greco-Roman Treasures in the Egyptian Museum

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Mummy portrait from the 2nd century AD
of two brothers who appear to have died together

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is an addictive place. On my two writing retreats in Egypt last year I found myself returning again and again. The collections are so vast, the displays so stunning, that no matter how many times you go you always find something that bowls you over.

Much of the museum is laid out chronologically, from the predynastic era all the way up to the Greco-Roman period (332 BC – 395 AD). This last period of ancient Egypt is often overlooked except for the famous mummy portraits like the one pictured above, lifelike paintings of the deceased. The rest of the art from this time is less compelling. Some of it is overdone, almost cartoonish, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Here’s a small sample of what the museum had to offer.

I apologize for the quality of some of these photos. The Egyptian Museum is poorly lit and many of the cases are dirty, making good photography difficult. Hope you enjoy them anyway!

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A Demanding Work that Sings all the Stronger in 2018: The Queen of Air and Darkness by T.H. White

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018 | Posted by markrigney

The Witch in the Wood-small The Witch in the Wood-back-small

In my early teens, I discovered and devoured T.H. White’s omnibus quartet of novels, The Once and Future King. The first and most child-like remains the best known: The Sword in the Stone. After this, and unjustly neglected (by Disney and the world in general), come The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle In the Wind.

In my later teen years, I concluded that The Once and Future King, taken as a whole, was the single best novel I had ever read. Having reached the ripe old age of fifty, it’s time to re-evaluate. Is White’s work still worth its weight in gold?

Perhaps you recall Book One, in which the young King Arthur, known affectionately as the Wart, meets Merlyn, gambols through a lifetime’s worth of transformational adventures, and draws a certain sword from a stone. Hysterically funny, dreamy and given to long flights of fancy about hawks and birds, The Once and Future King still works genuine magic, even when its digressions and mood swings threaten to topple the whole everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink mess into a stew of narrative anarchy.

In short, it’s a full meal and then some, and I, along with fantasy lovers the world over, adore it still. (Ursula K. LeGuin, R.I.P., lent her opinion to one edition’s jacket copy, saying, “I have laughed at White’s great Arthurian novel and cried over it and loved it all my life.”) Yet, many seem unaware that the cycle, tracing Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, continues.

Book Two began life as The Witch in the Wood, and arrived in print in 1939, just as the world fell off a precipice it hadn’t seen coming, and descended into a darkness from which it is still fighting to recover. Revised and expanded, The Witch in the Wood became The Queen of Air and Darkness, and no book better upholds the argument for valuing a work as the sum of its discordant parts.

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