Thursday, October 03, 2013

Dent and Sail - Living up to potential, Part 2

Lester Dent was a prolific pulp magazine author, and a successful one (see part one for more details).  In 1936 Dent was writing a 40,000 word Doc Savage novel monthly, and getting paid $750 for each one (that's about $12,400 in 2913 dollars).

But Dent wanted to write something of substance, and Joseph P. Shaw, editor of Black Mask magazine, gave him that chance. Shaw forced Dent to produce the best writing of his career -- two stories about Miami-based private investigator Oscar Sail.

Angelfish - published December, 1936

As with the previous story about Oscar Sail, Dent begins by throwing the reader off balance.
She was a long, blue-eyed girl who lay squarely on her back with the sun shining in her mouth. Her teeth were small and her tongue was flat, not pointed, and there was about two whiskey glassfuls of scarlet liquid in her mouth.

As she tuned her head slowly to the side, the scarlet emptied out on the black asphalt walk, splashing her tan columnar neck and the shoulder of her white frock.

Oscar Sail stood beside her and kept looking at the gun in his hand.
Angelfish has two parallel stories -- one in the foreground, one in the background. The foreground story involved purloined documents, murder, and kidnapping -- and a considerable amount of mayhem to Oscar Sail's body. The background story is the hurricane that's rapidly approaching Miami.

Lester Dent was owned a sail boat -- as did his protagonist Oscar Sail -- and was quite familiar with the waters around Miami. He also knew quite well the real danger hurricanes present to boats.

In Angelfish the reader first hears of the storm through a radio broadcast playing in the background. As the story progresses, windows are shuttered, boats are taken to dry dock, and the city hunkers down as the storm approaches. But all of these activities are seemingly secondary to the main action. And as Oscar Sail is the only character who has nautical experience, he's also the only one who takes the approaching hurricane seriously.

At the climax, the villains (and supporting heroes) who've ignored the hurricane warnings are caught in the full fury of the storm. And Oscar Sail, who would have preferred to ride it out in safety, is stuck right in the middle of it with them.
Sail jockeyed the wheel and the stream of water moving past and pressing against the rudder caused the bugeye to swing on her chain in towards the power boat. He was facing the wind now. His polo shirt and trousers hugged one side of his body while ballooned out on the other. And he could see at all only when he held his open hand over his eyes and squinted between the fingers.
Dent's writing is fast-paced, and accurate. One can almost feel the fury of the storm as it hits.

Angelfish was published two months after Sail, and Dent was working on a third story Cay when Shaw was abruptly fired as editor of Black Mask. Dent abandoned the story, and at the same time abandoned the hope of making the move from pulp writer to literary writer.

As he said in a later interview,
[Shaw's firing] is what kept me from becoming a fine writer. Had I been exposed to the man's cunning hand for another year or two, I couldn't have missed. Instead I wrote reams of saleable crap which became my pattern and gradually there slipped away the bit of poetry Shaw had started awakening in me.
Editors can make a world of difference.

Living up to potential, part 1

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