1930s, 1932, 1933, 1935, 1940, anthology/collection, Black Mask, crime, hardboiled, investigation, journalism, MysteriousPress, mystery, Open Road Media, pulp, pulp fiction, short fiction, Theodore Tinsley
The late ’20s/early ’30s were the formative years of many genres that have since become bookstore standards. Amazing Stories began to meld science fiction into a coherent genre. Weird Tales was influential on the development of horror and fantasy, particularly their sub-genres such as sword-and-sorcery and weird fiction. And then there was Black Mask. While that magazine claimed to represent “the best stories available of adventure … mystery and detective stories … romances … love stories … [and] the occult,” it’s best known for influencing the shape of the mystery, crime, detective, and thriller genres. It printed stories from the hardboiled school of fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Paul Cain; it was where authors like Earle Stanley Gardner, Cornell Woolrich, Frank Gruber, Max Brand, and Steve Fisher got their start.
Theodore Tinsley was one of many writers in Black Mask’s stable. He wrote 27 of The Shadow’s tales of suspense, and in the pages of Crimebusters developed Carrie Cashin, pioneering female detective of the Cash & Carry detective agency. In the fall of 1932, he came up with Jerry Tracy, a celebrity gossip reporter for the New York Daily Planet. (Clark Kent didn’t work there until 1940, so no, their paths do not cross.) Tracy is a wisecracking journalist, equal parts cynicism and jovial wit; together with his palooka Butch and butler McNulty, he reports on the seedy underbelly of Manhattan’s stars and starlets—which can be a dangerous profession, full of all manner of hoods and crooks, as well as various characters who take offense at the gilded gossip Jerry Tracy pens. Tinsley started out writing them monthly for Black Mask in 1932 and 1933, and while Jerry Tracy stories became more infrequent, he kept writing them until 1940.
I honestly don’t have the space to get into every single Jerry Tracy story printed, because there are twenty-five of them jammed into this volume. That number alone is impressive, and on top of that they’re sizable: most of the stories are closer in length to novelettes, with some of the later ones being novellas. The table of contents has the book weigh in at over 900 pages; that’s a boatload of fiction. I can only imagine how unwieldy a physical edition would be. (Also, how much more expensive; 900-page books are not cheap, but the e-edition of Jerry Tracy is around $10.) Ah, the power of ebooks, which this volume brilliantly illustrates.
Instead, a few brief overviews of some of the stories. “Party From Detroit” sees Jerry Tracy tasked by the police to look into some out-of-town hoods who are shaking up New York. In “South Wind,” a Southern gentleman pays Tracy to find his runaway daughter, who turns out to have reinvented herself as a Broadway starlet. “Beyond All Light” sees Tracy hire a perceptive blind man he exchanges wisecracks with on the street; his mission: gauge if one of Tracy’s female acquaintances is setting Tracy up with her latest hot tip. Tracy’s softer side comes out in “Help Wanted,” as he rescues a girl from a blizzard; she ran away to New York to become famous, but ran smack into a crook who’d use her as bait for a man-trap. “Five Spot” follows a five-dollar bill many would kill for; it’s up to Tracy to find out why.
As you can see, the stories have good diversity of plot; Tracy runs afoul of many celebrities and outlaws, each with their own distinct scam or secret for Tracy to uncover. The stories never felt like Tinsley was re-using old ideas, which makes every one new and refreshing. Also, most of them come with their original illustration, which is a nice touch.
Tinsley’s Tracy stories were even popular enough to spawn a trio of movies: “Five Spot” (Nov, 1935) became Panic in the Air (1936), “Body Snatcher” (Feb, 1936) became Alibi for Murder (1936), and “Manhattan Whirligig” (Apr, 1937) turned into Manhattan Shakedown (1937). A fourth film to feature Tracy, Murder is News (1937), was apparently an original screenplay. The first two rename Jerry Tracy and make him a radio commentator, and while there’s less information about the third, it at least kept his name “Jerry Tracey.” Based on some trailers, Tracy is still a fast-talking gossip reporter; I’ll have to see about tracking them down.
Tinsley’s prose has the rapid-fire staccato of a Tommy gun; Jerry Tracy’s razor wit and snappy dialogue evokes the fast-talking journalist stereotype and reminds me of Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. Tinsley flexes his impressive banter on every page, and the effect can be dizzying: there’s a depresh on, see, but Jerry cracks wise with femme fatales and roscoe-toting hoods with a casual joviality. No matter how tough or tense the situation, Tracy has a witty response. I guess you could say I’m spellbound by his dialogue. The atmosphere, too, is enthralling, a blend of pure 1930s-vintage New York painted in prose: the smog, the crowds, the glitz and glam and grit of the Big Apple. Tinsley was a native of the City, and his firsthand perspective gives an authentic background to his fiction.
On the other hand, Tinsley was writing these stories some eighty years ago, and that snapshot of 1930s New York falls short in the political correctness department. I think “Party From Detroit” uses every ethnic slur in the book; Tracy’s Chinese butler McNulty spleaks in bloken engrish; the hot tip in “Beyond All Light” is that a starlet’s getting divorced since her father was black, thus she’s a “negress” living in a “sham marriage.” Suffice to say, views were different back then. As with all older fiction, easily offended readers should take fair warning about the antiquated views of the age: fiction mirrors the era it was written in, and it was both fascinating and shocking to see how far we’ve progressed.
Jerry Tracy’s exploits are a wild ride through New York’s seedy underworld. Tinsley’s writing is a joy: rich in atmosphere, riddled with wit, and breezes along at a steady, pleasant pace. Black Mask built its reputation on being the best in the business, and where it excelled was with mystery and detective works, which the Jerry Tracy stories are excellent examples of. For anyone interested in vintage crime fiction, here is a treasure-chest of stories by a long-forgotten master, ripped from the pages of the legendary pulp Black Mask. As the complete chronological collection, it promises many, many hours of reading enjoyment.
My copy was provided free as an advance reader copy by Mysteriouspress.com/Open Road Media, who are releasing a number of Black Mask reprints this year. This August, they started with Tinsley’s “Jerry Tracy,” “You’ll Always Remember Me” by Steve Fisher, “Red Goose” by Norbert Davis, and “Pigeon Blood” by Paul Cain. (Like many pulp fans, I’m amenable to having easily-accessible Black Mask fiction.) If you like the sound of Jerry Tracy, you can acquire his complete exploits for $11.99 for the e-reader of your choice. Compared to spending untold thousands to buy the crumbling original pulps, $11.99 is a steal.