Raymond Chandler and the Pulps
by Robert F. Moss
Raymond Chandler began writing detective stories to make a living during the Depression. In the 1920s he had had a successful career in the Los Angeles oil industry, being promoted from a bookkeeper to vice-president in the Dabney Oil Syndicate. Then, in 1932, he was fired for drinking and womanizing. He was forty-four years old.
Because he had testified for them in a lawsuit, two of Chandler’s old friends from the oil business offered him a living allowance of $100 a month. Chandler listed himself as a write in the Los Angeles City Directory and began his apprenticeship in detective fiction. He chose the genre partially for artistic reasons and partially for financial ones. In 1947, looking back on his early career, Chandler recalled that he had decided on the pulps because he believed,
(a) some of the pulps at that time had very honesty and forthright stuff in them; (b) that the literary standard was flexible and there was a chance to get "paid while learning"; (c) that although the average story in Black Mask was not too good, there was a possibility of writing them very much better without hurting their chances of being read. (MacShane Letters 86).
From the beginning of his career Chandler was balancing his aesthetic standards with practical concerns, a pattern that would define his life as a professional author until his death in 1959.
The pulp magazines had their origins in the 19th-century dime novel, adventure stories printed on cheap wood-pulp paper. The novels evolved into weekly magazines offering short stories in a variety of genres, the most notable of which was Frank Munsey’s Argosy. By the end of World War I, some two dozen pulp titles were in circulation (Goulart 4). These magazines sold for ten to twenty-five cents an issue and had circulations of up to a half-million copies each.
The hard-boiled fiction style, which Chandler would soon adopt, had its roots in Black Mask magazine. The periodical had been founded by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1920 as a sideline project to earn income to support their sophisticated Smart Set magazine, though they soon sold it to Eugene Crowe and Eltinge "Pop" Warner. Black Mask got off to an inauspicious start, publishing dull, pretentious stories that were highly derivative of the English deductive mystery. Over the next three years, the magazine’s character changed. The 1 June 1923 issue contained the first of Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams stories, which would become the most popular pulp series of the decade. Williams, a tough, cynical private eye, narrated his own stories in a wooden American vernacular and dispatched villains with unapologetic brutality. One-dimensional and simple-minded, Race Williams was quite different from the detectives who would follow him (such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe), but his toughness laid the groundwork for the hard-boiled school of American detective fiction.
On 1 October 1923, shortly after its launching of Race Williams, Black Mask published Dashiell Hammett’s first Continental Op story, "Arson Plus" (Goulart 34). Like Daly’s, Hammett’s detective was sardonic and tough and spoke and unadorned vernacular. He differed from Race Williams in his detachment and restraint. The Continental Op was willing to use a gun if he had to, but never reveled in his own violence.
Black Mask February 1930
The hard-boiled story became closely associated with the Black Mask title after Joseph Shaw became its editor in 1926. Shaw, a former army officer and newspaper man, adopted an editorial policy that encouraged new writers and fostered their development through a close editor-author relationship—including advice, help with revisions, and simple kindness (Gruber 77). He also steered the magazine’s character toward the type of writing Hammett had developed. In 1946, in his preface to a collection of short stories originally published in Black Mask, Shaw wrote that as an editor he "wanted simplicity for the sake of clarity, plausibility, and belief. We wanted action, but we held that action is meaningless unless it involves recognizable human characters in three dimensional form" (viii). This editorial policy caused writers such as Erle Stanley Gardner (the creator of Perry Mason) to accuse Shaw of "Hammettizing" the magazine, making all his authors write in a uniform manner (Gruber 136). The policy, though, so closely linked the hard-boiled detective story with the magazine that writers such as Hammett, Chandler, and Horace McCoy are often called members of "The Black Mask School."
Under Shaw’s editorship, the magazine’s circulation rose, and it became the most prestigious of the pulps. In his memoir The Pulp Jungle, Frank Gruber, one of the magazine’s contributors, described its status in 1932: "It was the mystery magazine and Captain Joseph T. Shaw was the editor. Its contributors were the envy of all the other writers." Among Black Mask’s regular writers were Daly, Hammett, Gardner, Norbert Davis, W. T. Ballard, Raoul Whitfield, and Frederick Lewis Nebel. The magazine’s circulation peaked in 1930 at 103,000 copies and was still selling well in 1933, when Chandler submitted his first short story (Goulart 40).
Opening Pages of "Blackmailers Don't Shoot (Black Mask Dec. 1933)
For a full year after he was fired from Dabney Oil, Chandler worked at learning to write detective stories. He relied on imitation at first, using Hammett, Gardner, and Hemingway as models for subject matter, plotting, and style. His first original story, "Blackmailers Don’t Shoot", took five months to complete. He submitted it to Black Mask in 1933. Shaw accepted the story and published in the December issue. Chandler’s career as a detective writer was launched, and with the most prestigious of the pulp magazines. For his efforts, he received the standard Black Mask rate of a penny a word—a total of $180 for "Blackmailers Don’t Shoot" (MacShane Life 49).
Black Mask Advertisement for Chandler's "Nevada Gas"
For the next five years Chandler continued his apprenticeship in the pulps. Between 1933 and 1936 he sold ten stories to Black Mask and one to Detective Fiction Weekly. As the Depression wore on, Black Mask began having financial troubles. By the end of 1935 its circulation had fallen to 63,000, and in 1936 Joseph Shaw chose to leave the magazine rather than take a pay cut. Chandler switched to Dime Detective, the leading mystery pulp behind Black Mask. Its editor, Kenneth White, paid higher rates to popular authors—up to a nickel a word—and was more open to accepting humorous or parodying stories than Shaw had been (such as Chandler’s "Pearls Are a Nuisance", which burlesques hard-boiled conventions). Chandler sold seven stories to Dime Detective between 1937 and 1939.
June 1938 Issue of Dime Detective, Which Featured Chandler's "Bay City Blues"
Though the detective story was a popular form, it did not pay very well. To be able to live off of pulp sales, writes had to produce a large number of stories very quickly. Most successful pulp authors cranked out one to two million words a year and yet still earned only a meager income. They also had to be versatile, writing not only mysteries but also science fiction, romance, horror, western, and adventure stories. Chandler wrote only detective stories, and even when he received the pulp’s highest per-word rates, he produced far too slowly to earn much money. During 1938, the earliest years for which Chandler’s payment records survive, he published three novelettes and earned a total of $1,275 (MacShane Life 59). He and his wife Cissy lived frugally, keeping their furniture in storage, renting furnished rooms, and moving as often as three times a year.
Chandler had learned much from his apprenticeship in the pulp jungle, but by 1938 he was ready to move on. In the spring of that year he began writing The Big Sleep, his first novel, which would be published in 1939. He wrote for the pulps for only a few more years, publishing three stories in 1939, none in 1940, and his final true pulp story in 1941.
Goulart, Ron. The Dime Detectives (New York: Mysterious Press, 1988).
Gruber, Frank. The Pulp Jungle (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1967).
MacShane, Frank. The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: Dutton, 1976).
MacShane, Frank, ed. Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (New York: Columbia UP, 1981).
Shaw, Jospeh T. Introduction to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946).