Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Dent and Sail -- Living up to potential, Part 1

Sometimes an editor can make all the difference.

Lester Dent was a prolific and successful author of the 1930's. Beginning in 1926, just about everything Dent wrote sold. In 1932 he was contracted by Street and Smith to write a 40,000 word novel a month for their new character, Doc Savage.

Not only did Dent do so, but continued to write other stories under other aliases as well as his own name. Lester Dent developed a formula for writing fiction, and by sticking to it he could produce commercial fiction almost at will.

But as Dent himself admitted, little of it had any staying power.

Joseph P. Shaw, editor of Black Mask magazine brought the detective story into the realm of serious literature, and was responsible for developing the authors who defined the genre -- Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner (among many others).

Thanks to his encouragement, Lester Dent dug deep and produced two outstanding stories for Black Mask. These two mysteries are considered Dent's best writing (by both Dent and critics alike), and are (in my opinion) on par with the best stories produced under Shaw's leadership.

Lester Dent's writing paid well, and he owned a sailboat he enjoyed sailing to Florida. That first-hand knowledge of sailing was an integral part of "Sail" and "Angelfish," the two stories featuring Oscar Sail. The stories -- unlike the fantastic adventures of Doc Savage -- were thorough grounded in reality.

Sail - published October, 1936

The famous Dent formula is absent from Sail. There are actually two mysteries going on in this story. The one that Oscar Sail deals with is relatively straight-forward and simple. But the one Dent presents to the reader is a little more complex.

The story opens this way:
The fish trembled its tail as the knife cut off its head, thin red ran out of it and made a mess on the planks and spread enough to cover the wet red marks where two human hands had tried to hold to the dock edge.
This disturbing scene  has far more gore than the entire canon of 181 Doc Savage novels. Oscar Sail is the person gutting the fish -- and making sure its blood covers up the hand prints on the edge of the dock.

And that's the mystery for the reader. What happened, and why is this man trying to hide it? It's only about halfway through the story that we learn who Oscar Sail really is, and why he's acting the way he does.

It's masterful writing. Dent's style was always somewhat spare, but with Sail, he makes every word count. Consider his description of his hero:
The officer splashed light on Sail He saw the round jolly brown features of a thirtyish man who probably liked his food, who would put weight on until he was forty, and spend the rest of his life secretly trying to take it off.
That's a lot of characterization in one sentence.

Unlike a lot of Dent's work, Sail was revised and rewritten several times before being accepted for publication. But that's where Shaw's editorial genius came in. He knew what Dent was capable of, and wouldn't accept anything less than his best. And the esteem Sail holds among mystery scholars over 80 years after its publication attests to Shaw's success.

Living up to potential, Part 2

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