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Big Books Feature

The Mobtown Connection

Was H.L. Mencken the Godfather of Hard-Boiled Fiction?

Tom Chalkley

Big Books Issue 2002

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By Tom Chalkley | Posted 9/25/2002

It's a hard town to get a break in. Just ask the jazz heroes who grew up in Baltimore but had to skip town to get noticed. Ask the starry-eyed kids from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars who go home to Long Island with their diplomas still wet. Even the mighty H.L. Mencken had to catch a train to Manhattan once a month before people started calling him the Sage of Baltimore. Let's face it: Famous writers move here to take teaching jobs or, in the case of Anne Tyler, to enjoy the obscurity. If you're from here, you've got to leave town to get famous.

So it should shock no one to learn that Dashiell Hammett--the writer who created Sam Spade--grew up here on North Stricker Street and learned the detective business firsthand at the Pinkerton agency downtown. Or that James M. Cain, who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and a whole shelf of grisly crime stories, got his first writing job on the police beat for the old Baltimore American. Or that Black Mask, the magazine where detective fiction first muscled its way through the back door of literature, started out as a scheme for Mencken and his New York partner George Jean Nathan to make some fast money.

Nobody's calling Baltimore the birthplace of hard-boiled fiction. It's more like Baltimore gets named in the paternity suit. Hammett and Cain certainly used material from their on-the-job training here, but it's hard to pin down specifics. We know for sure that one of Hammett's recurring detective characters, the nameless "Continental Op," was based on his first boss at Pinkerton, a stubby little guy named James Wright, who taught Hammett the sleuth business. In 1915, Hammett answered an "enigmatic want-ad" and got the job. In those days, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency had its Eastern Division headquarters in Suite 807 of the Continental Building, on the southeast corner of Calvert and Baltimore streets. (The company's logo, an unblinking eyeball, gave the whole profession the nickname "private eye.") The building is gone, and Hammett's case reports were destroyed in a fire--or so said the Pinkertons. (Too bad about the reports. Hammett said they were pretty stylish.) It seems that Hammett liked the work, but took it seriously enough to keep his profile low: In the city directories circa 1920 "Samuel D. Hammett" of Stricker and, later, West Lexington Street is listed as a clerk and a salesman respectively.

Cain's paper trail is easier to follow, although his early police-beat stuff, from 1917, wasn't bylined. His very first newspaper piece, concerning a drowning, caught the eye of Raymond Hoblitzel, the American's night city editor, who predicted Cain would "go far." Or so Cain claimed, but he talked a lot--maybe too much. Here's what he had to say about our fair city: "I have always disliked Baltimore with a venomous, unreasoning dislike that goes beyond anything that can really be said against it." He wrote that to Mencken, who probably saw through the bluster. All his life, Cain called himself a "newspaperman," and his stories and novellas reek of the police blotter.

As for Mencken's part in the hard-boiled fiction racket, it was always about money. In 1914, he and Nathan had taken over a cheeky, highbrow magazine called The Smart Set, which they turned into a showcase for cutting-edge fiction, satire, and commentary. The problem was, the high-toned rag lost money. To compensate, Mencken and Nathan launched a series of pulp journals called Parisienne Monthly Magazine, Saucy Stories, and, in April of 1920, Black Mask. The pair spent $500 of their own money on Black Mask, and sold it eight issues later for a lot more. (Mencken said they got about $20,000 apiece; biographers say $12,500 total.)

The first issue of Black Mask featured on its cover a lurid picture of a murder in a taxicab, which had nothing to do with any of the stories inside. "It was gaudy and effective," Mencken wrote later, "and readers of such stuff are never too critical." In 1926, Mencken wrote a famous line that gets misquoted all the time, but it pretty much sums up his motive in the pulp racket: "No one in this world . . . has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."

Mencken was a complicated man. He sneered at the sensational tastes of "the mob," but he liked snappy stories, especially yarns with slangy dialog and scenes that would panic the censors. He was an intellectual snob and a half-closeted bigot--check his Diary and judge for yourself--but he gave a lot of breaks to unknowns from nowhere. One of them was Hammett, who Mencken mentions exactly once in his unfinished memoir My Life as an Author and Editor: "[A] strange Marylander . . . who was to develop into one of the most successful manufacturers of homicidal fiction ever heard of."

Mencken claims in My Life that he "recruited" Hammett to Black Mask, but the timing seems wrong: Mencken and Nathan sold the magazine sometime late in 1920 or early in '21, and Hammett's first piece for Black Mask, a story called "The Road Home," appeared under a false name in December 1922. The editor was a guy named Francis Osborne. The first thing Hammett sold to Mencken--a short anecdote called "The Parthian Shot"--had run in The Smart Set two months before. Maybe Mencken gave Hammett a push in Osborne's direction.

While he didn't invent the tough-talking private eye--that credit goes to Carroll John Daly, whose story "Three Gun Terry" ran in Black Mask in May 1923--Hammett perfected the type. He was Black Mask's prize property, the guy all the other writers imitated. He gave the magazine a classy quality that raised it above the common run of detective pulp. He kept selling stories to Black Mask until 1930.

It's possible but seems unlikely that Hammett and Mencken ever met. Hammett was 15 years younger than Mencken, and he left Baltimore before even coming to Mencken's attention. In 1920 at the age of 26, he moved to Spokane, Wash., and later to San Francisco, working as a Pinkerton operative. "I stuck at that until early in 1922," Hammett wrote later, "when I chucked it to see what I could do with fiction writing." In 1923, Smart Set ran a semi-fictional Hammett piece called "From the Memoirs of a Private Detective" that gives a foretaste of the Black Mask tales to come. The "memoirs" are a set of quirky, paradoxical one-liners and anecdotes relating to detective work, including one whiff of Maryland--"I know an operative who while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track had his wallet stolen . . ."--but the fact was that Hammett had traveled all over the country for Pinkerton and sampled a lot of scenery.

Not long after Hammett's "Memoirs" piece ran, Mencken and Nathan sold The Smart Set and got busy on a new monthly, The American Mercury, which hit the stands in January 1924. Enter Cain, who had been writing for the Baltimore Sun since 1918, interrupted by a one-year hitch in the Army. Aware of Cain's rising star and liking his style, Mencken invited him to lunch at Marconi's on Saratoga Street to pitch the new magazine. Cain's first article for the Mercury, a commentary on union leaders, ran in the second issue in February 1924. Later that year Cain moved to Manhattan and wrote editorials for the New York World. His first published fiction, a grotesque piece of rural mayhem called "Pastorale," appeared in the Mercury in March 1928. Cain was big on mayhem. He sold both fiction and nonfiction to the Mercury for the next eight years, outlasting Mencken, who left the magazine in '33.

Cain and Hammett never knew each other. If they passed each other on a Baltimore sidewalk sometime in 1919, it was like ships in the night--a detective and a reporter. Answering critics who lumped them together in the "hard-boiled" category, Cain once said, "I have read less than 20 pages of Mr. Dashiell Hammett in my whole life." Still, Cain and Hammett led parallel lives: Besides being Maryland-born, Mencken-published writers of tough-talking crime fiction, Cain and Hammett were close in age (born in 1892 and '94); both served in World War I; both survived tuberculosis; both had work adapted into movies and eventually got into screenwriting themselves with mixed success; both spent chunks of their post-Baltimore lives in Los Angeles and New York.

While the coincidences are interesting, it's the link to Mencken as editor that matters. Mencken picked them out and published them, as he did a lot of other less-talented scribes. He probably encouraged both men to draw on their experience and write about crime. And in Cain's case, Mencken was a hands-on editor--sometimes a little too hands-on for Cain's taste--for at least five years. That's the real Mobtown connection. If there are any particular Baltimore qualities or hidden Baltimore references in their work, tracing them would take some real detective work. Maybe some starry-eyed kid from the Hopkins Writing Sems will give it a shot before they skip town.

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