At the time, Gruber was eager to crack Black Mask, going to the extent of courting the favor of Joe Shaw, but having no luck. When Fanny Ellsworth took the magazine’s reins, though, his luck changed. He had sold stories to her at Ranch Romances, and she was a fan of the Human Encyclopedia.
For Oliver Quade’s debut in Black Mask, Gruber gave him an assistant named Charlie Boston and cranked up the humor. That first story, “Ask Me Another,” leads off this book. Included are eight other Black Mask tales (including “Funny Man,” featured below) and one from Thrilling Detective.
For anyone who’s read one of Gruber’s Johnny Fletcher & Sam Cragg novels, these stories are immediately familiar. Oliver Quade is clearly the prototype of Johnny. The only difference is that Johnny has not read the encyclopedia, and the book he sells is Every Man a Samson. Sam Cragg is basically Charlie Boston with muscles. So - if you like the Johnny Fletcher books, you’re sure to enjoy these stories too.
To me, the book’s main attraction is a 40-page memoir called “The Life and Times of the Pulp Story,” a sort of warm-up to his book The Pulp Jungle, published a year later in 1967. There are great stories here, touching on people Gruber knew well, like Joe Shaw, Carroll John Daly and Steve Fisher, and many others he merely crossed paths with.
One major feature of “The Life and Times” is Gruber's eleven-point formula for creating a sure-fire mystery story. I’ll be featuring that tomorrow here on the Almanack, and invite to come on back to take a squint at it.
Then on Sunday I’ll review the 1939 film Death of a Champion, the one and only Human Encyclopedia movie. It’s based on one of the Black Mask stories in this book, “Dog Show Murder.” Hope to see you here for that one too.
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