Friday, July 19, 2013

Forgotten Books: WEEKEND TO KILL by Frederick Nebel

Frederick Nebel was one of the most important contributors to the two most important hardboiled detective pulps - Black Mask and Dime Detective. His work stood head and shoulders above that of most other writers in the field. But sadly, he did not write mystery novels.

Of Nebel’s three hardcover novels, Sleepers East (1933), But Not the End (1934), and Fifty Roads to Town (1936), only the first has mystery elements. So in 1945, when paperback publishers (and their readers) wanted mystery novels, he didn’t have much to offer. Avon, possibly at the urging of ex-Mask editor Joe Shaw, had issued collections of hardboiled novelettes by Raymond Chandler and George Harmon Coxe, and Shaw wanted Nebel to submit a collection of his own. But Nebel wasn’t interested.

On Sept. 18 he wrote his agent: I’ve looked over some of those novelettes. They were written a dozen and more years ago and I think we ought to forget about them. However, I ran across a book length of about 50,000 words that was published in McCall’s in 1937 and of which you probably have a copy in your files. My title was DEATH FOR A HOLIDAY but it was published under the title of WEEKEND TO KILL. It was not, so far as I know, offered anywhere for book publication. This might interest one of the pocketbook outfits.

The agent responded on Dec. 4: You remember a long time ago when I asked you for material for a collection for direct publication in cheap editions you suggested WEEKEND TO KILL. Since Avon, the house which inquired for the Black Mask short, was not interested in novelette length, I sent WEEKEND TO KILL after Century Publications, another 25 cent house. They want it for publication sometime next year and are offering an advance of $500.00, payable half on signature and half on publication, against a royalty of ½ cents a copy to 150,000 copies, and a ¾ cents royalty on all copies sold over 150,000 copies. This is because they generally put two novelettes by different authors in one 25 cent book.

That bit about Century “generally” putting two novelettes together was not exactly true, because when the book was published a list of fifteen previous Century Mysteries shows only one containing two stories.

Weekend to Kill does qualify as a mystery, because one of the main characters is an ex-cop working to solve a murder. But it’s really more a play of manners and romantic foibles, and the murder is mainly an excuse to create conflict among the characters. There are faint echoes of Nebel's MacBride and Kennedy series from Black Mask. The narrator is a reporter, his pal an ex-cop, and there’s talk about a crusading editor striving to expose a corrupt political regime. But the characters are creampuffs compared to Kennedy and MacBride, and the corrupt politicians remain offstage. The murder is eventually solved, but takes a back seat to the resolution of the romantic subplot.

This book, complete with the shorter Hugh Pentacost story, is now available as a POD trade paperback from Wildside Press. Is it worth the $13.46 Amazon price? Not really. Weekend to Kill is good example of Nebel’s slick fiction, but lacks the crackle of snap of his pulp work. You’d do far better putting your money toward Black Dog Books’ adventure collection Empire of the Devil, or one of the five volumes so far available from Altus Press: Tough as Nails, the Complete Adventures of Donahue (from Black Mask) or The Complete Casebook of Cardigan (a four-volume set of stories from Dime Detective).

More Forgotten Books at pattinase.


J F Norris said...

Why doesn't someone reissue SLEEPERS EAST? I've been wanting to read that for a decade or so. It's one of those incredibly hard to find and/or ridiculously expensive collectable books and deserves an affordable edition.

Evan Lewis said...

Sleepers East is a good book, with some mystery elements (and a better read than Weekend to Kill), but I think he was trying too hard to sound like a "novelist."

Oscar Case said...

That agent sounds like he was apologizing for the pittance of royalty the author was to receive. Anything is better than nothing, though.

Evan Lewis said...

You're right, Oscar. The agent's letter concluded thusly:
"If for any reason you would rather not let this go through, there will be no harm done but I think it is simply a small plus sale."

Shay said...

A dozen or so of his short stories are on the Unz site. A little hard to read because of the Collier's layout.

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks Shay! Didn't know they were there.