Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Heritage of Hate" ("Secret Stain")

Black Mask magazine was undoubtedly the most influential and most highly regarded mystery pulp ever published. The list of authors that appeared within its pages is a literal 'who's who" of detective fiction, including Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner and the creator of the hard boiled detective, Carroll John Daily. Its initial focus, articulated by editor Joseph T. "Cap" Shaw, was "...simplicity for the sake of clarity, plausibility and belief...[and] action [that] involve[d] recognizable human character in three dimensional form." It's place in American fiction cannot be overstated.

Many of the finest works by the great mystery writers were published in Black Mask. Hammett's Sam Spade originally appeared in the serialized debut of The Maltese Falcon, and the prototype for Chandler's Phillip Marlowe was born in a number of Black Mask stories, later "cannibalized" by the author for his early novels. And while John D MacDonald published stories in the magazine long after the greats had either stopped or moved on to novels, his entries there were uniformly excellent. I've already written about two of them -- "Killing All Men" and "Jukebox Jungle" -- both terrific examples of "revenge" writing with much psychological subtext. "Heritage of Hate" fits nicely into that category as a story of retribution and redemption, filled with mystery, violence, an interesting and instructive background and an ending that doesn't quite resolve itself.

The story takes place in the world of the "numbers racket," a setting that must seem quaint to today's readers, what with state-run lotteries and ubiquitous Powerball promises of instant riches. Before it became "OK" to gamble, lotteries were illegal and the purview of organized crime, meticulously stratified organizations that thrived in poor urban neighborhoods. For the gambler the cost was low, the chance of winning real, and the ease of involvement ridiculously convenient. It was a lucrative business that naturally invited competition, and in the world of criminals, any inroads made against their flow of money was met with violence and gunplay.

The protagonist in "Heritage of Hate" is the mysterious Lawrence Hask, a right-hand-man to a syndicate lieutenant named Gus Lench. Hask came to be employed by Lench after he showed up one day attempting to run his own numbers game inside Lench's territory. He was dragged into Lench's office by a couple of strong-arms and immediately began explaining why he was muscling in on Lench: his operation was "soft."

"You've got no penetration in your area. Stinking little candy stores and horse rooms and newsboys. Hell, you've got half a hundred big plants in your area. One out of every three foremen and sweepers and setup men ought to be peddling for you."

Lench -- a man whose "weakest point was his inability to think of any motive beyond profit" -- hires Hask and makes him his "promotion manager." For one full year Hask has been working, improving the operation, all the while "gently prodding Lench ... telling him how smart he really was, of how unappreciated he was by the higher-ups." That higher-up is a man by the name of Carter, a big, dignified, well-dressed boss known for his ruthlessness. The story opens at Lench's luxurious Westchester home, where a party is underway, including drinks, dinner and swimming in the heated indoor pool. Carter is there and Hask senses that this is the evening Lench is going to make his move against his boss. With the help of his ex-swimmer wife Gail -- who is secretly having an affair with Hask -- he has arranged a pre-dinner swim for all the guests. Once everyone is in the pool the lights suddenly go out and Hask immediately heads to where he last saw Carter. Sure enough, Carter is underwater and unconscious, and after quickly getting the lights back on, Hask pulls Carter out of the pool and revives him with artificial respiration. The look on Lench's face shows he is not pleased.

Once Carter is conscious he asks who saved him, and when he is told it was Hask, he tells him that the two of them are leaving and that Lench's days are numbered. Although he didn't see his assailant he knew it was a woman's arm that grasped his throat from behind, and he also recognized Gail's perfume. Lench sputters his claims of innocence as Carter is walking out the door, but Carter will hear none of it.

"You, my greedy friend, may live another twelve hours, or even as much as thirty-six hours if you stay and fight it out. If you run like a rabbit, it may take my people a year to find you. If you want another year -- run."

As Hask leaves with Carter he gives the frightened and enraged Lench a wink, as if to tell him that this is all part of some grand plan. Carter brings Hask on as his assistant and immediately begins pumping him for information on Lench's operation, seeking the best way to rub him out. Hask tells him that Lench is too well fortified to go down in a direct assault and suggests a double cross: Hask will go to Lench and propose a burglary of Carter's safe, while Carter will hide out in his office and gun down Lench during his attempt. A time and alibi is established, but when he makes the proposal to Lench he gives him a different time, one that will take both of the crooks by surprise. Just who's side is Hask really on?

The story ends violently with plenty of bloodshed, and includes a scene that may or may not be a surprise to the reader. Running 6,300 words, "Heritage of Hate" zips along at a rapid pace and is ultimately satisfying, if morally ambiguous. It would prove to be MacDonald's penultimate entry in Black Mask.

Black Mask ceased publication in in 1951, ending with its July issue. In May of 1953 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine "merged" with the defunct Black Mask, announcing on the cover of that month's issue, "Black Mask Magazine -- originator of the hard-boiled mystery -- is now part of EQMM." This simply amounted to reprinting one or two old Black Mask stories in each issue, under a separate heading in the table of contents. In the very next issue (June 1953) EQMM reprinted MacDonald's first Black Mask story, 1947's "Manhattan Horse Opera," re-titled "Heads I Win, Tails You Lose." A year later in their April 1954 issue they republished "Heritage of Hate," again under a new title, "Triple Cross."

To make matters even more confusing to bibliographers, MacDonald restored his original title -- "Secret Stain" -- when he included the story in his second anthology of pulp tales, More Good Old Stuff. Happily, because of the unique setting of the numbers racket he had employed, MacDonald was unable to "update" the story into a modern setting, an unfortunate practice that marred so many of the stories reprinted there.

No comments:

Post a Comment