I got a Kindle recently, and while I’ll never, ever stop looking for affordable stories on paper, I discovered a world of affordable, out-of-print pulp. The very first thing I loaded on my tablet was Classic Tales from Black Mask Magazine,Digital Series #1. If you like hardboiled writing, in all its historical significance, with all the rough edges, then you should already be familiar with Black Mask; they had the greats and more. I already have at least three of the X stories in this volume, but it’s well worth the $3.00 cover charge, in that it introduced me to Mr. Charles G. Booth.
There’s a nice little bio at the end of each tale (props to Editor Keith Alan Deutsch), that tells us Booth was one of their “most distinguished and subtle writers.” His story “Sister Act” in this collection is a stunning example of that. The regret and anger of the characters in this story pours off the pages along with the plot. Sure it’s got all the hardboiled aspects of one of Hammet’s fellows—but in this one you can feel the emptiness of a room defining a character, and that bench where lovers neck in the courtyard seems more shadowed in menace than romance.
I stayed up late to finish reading this one, and it was just flying fantastically by when I hit this paragraph and stopped. Boothe’s Detective Blair is looking at a murder victim.
Rolling a match in his ear, Blair looked at the body. In his youth Nick Ricardo had been handsome in his swart, Latin way. Blair knew his reputation. Many women had found him irresistible. His excesses had burned him out, but his vanity had carried him brazenly into his fifties, he had kept his persuasive tongue, and young girls were still thrilled by his arrogant gestures. Death had made him altogether gross. He wore a white carnation.
Initially I stopped to look at that last sentence, probably because it didn’t seem to fit. But upon reading it again, I came to the conclusion that it fits perfectly. That white carnation—a symbol of life—brings the ultimate irony to this murder, and death always trumps the arrogance of life, especially among the hardboiled.
Then I went back and read it a third time, fully experiencing the cut throat poetry of a man who had written it some eighty years ago.
I can only hope to have that affect on some reader in the future. Meanwhile I’ll be trying to find a copy of his story “Stag Party.”