Wednesday, August 1, 2012

TOUGH AS NAILS: Frederick Nebel's complete Donahue series from Black Mask

Every time I read Frederick Nebel I’m surprised how good a writer he was.

I shouldn’t be surprised, because I’ve been reading him off and on for a long time, but that’s the way it is.

And when I delved into this new Altus Press collection, Tough as Nails, I was more surprised than ever, because to my mind, these “tough dick” Donahue stories present Nebel at the very top of his form. If you like hardboiled fiction, and have never read Frederick Nebel - this is definitely the place to start.

Tough as Nails collects all 15 Donahue stories, originally published in Black Mask between 1930 and 1935. Six of them were featured in the Avon paperback Six Deadly Dames way back in 1950, and a couple of others have appeared elsewhere over the years, but most  are reprinted here for the very first time.

Donny Donahue is a private detective, the ace operative of the New York branch of the Interstate Detective Agency. As Will Murray points out in the introduction to Tough as Nails, the timing of Donahue’s debut is significant. Hammett had all but abandoned his number one Black Mask hero, The Continental Op, and editor Joe Shaw needed another agency dick to replace him. Enter Donahue.

But though Donahue works for an agency, he’s definitely NOT based on Hammett’s Op. If anything, he was inspired by Hammett’s other Mask detective, Sam Spade. As in The Maltese Falcon, (a book Nebel owned and clearly read more than once) the third-person narration of the Donahue stories is ultra-objective. We’re never inside Donahue’s head, never privy to his thoughts and emotions. We’re simply very close observers.

We do get to know him, of course, the same way we get to know Spade - through his expressions, his body language, his speech, his actions, and the way other characters react to him. Nebel was a master at putting the fine points on every detail, and that’s one reason I’m so much in awe of his writing. All those details come together to create a strong picture of the character Joe Shaw liked to bill as “tough dick” Donahue. With good reason. Donahue was one of the toughest dicks every to walk the pages of Black Mask. And Nebel’s diamond-hard prose complimented him perfectly.

The bad news is there are only 15 Donahue stories, so no matter how long you space out your reading, you’re eventually going to run out. The GOOD news is that Nebel created a Donanhue clone named Cardigan and put him to work in Dime Detective, where he appeared in a whopping 44 more stories. The BEST news is that Altus Press will be reprinting that entire series too. The Complete Casebook of Cardigan Vol. 1 is already available, with three more volumes to come.

Both Tough as Nails and The Complete Casebook of Cardigan Vol. 1 are available HERE.


Deka Black said...

15 stories is a number big enough for a series... and clearly not enough if you love the stories. i think the feeling many of us have with, at least a series as readers.

Walker Martin said...

I reviewed both books for the MYSTERY FILE blog. I was very impressed with Nebel. If you like Hammett and Chandler, then you have to read Nebel also.

Altus Press is doing some excellent pulp reprints and I encourage everyone to support their efforts. Then we will see even more books reprinting the best from the pulps.

Anonymous said...

I have it, but like so much else here, it sits in a stack of books I'm planning to get around to one of these days.

Brian Drake said... hide my credit card! Thanks for posting this! I've only read one Donahue story from an anthology so this is a treat indeed.

The Donahue story I read, "Rough Justice", is terrific. St. Louis in the summer, it's hot, sweat drips from the pages; Donahue's looking for stolen jewels; tough crooks and cops and a crooked lawyer's all wonderful hard-boiled nonsense but the way he wrote was mesmerizing. Objective, yes, but not detached, as some objective writers are. Nebel really made you feel like you were in the story too and you sweat along with Donahue. It's an effect few authors can achieve.