The “Tough Guy” Persona

The Black Mask was launched in the 1920’s by H.L. Mencken and George Nathan; it quickly became a magazine primarily dedicated to crime fiction, although it also published westerns and adventure stories. As an advertising scheme, the covers of the pulp magazine were adorned with images inspired by a key story from the issue. Interestingly, the covers were not illustrated by the authors of the stories, but by an independent illustrator. For example, author Dashiell Hammett had no say in the image depicted on the cover of the March 1930 issue of the Black Mask, even though it featured a substantial excerpt from his new book, The Glass Key. I was able to read The Glass Key before witnessing the Black Mask magazine where it was featured, and thus my reading experience was not influenced by preconceived ideas or expectations introduced by the arresting cover illustration. If a reader saw the cover prior to reading The Glass Key, they might have held certain notions about the text that were subliminally constructed by the cover image. Using the image on the cover of the Black Mask’s March 1930 issue, I will compare it to the text of Hammett’s The Glass Key, and examine the disparities between the illustration and its provocations with the actual text and Dashiell’s descriptions.

Cover. Black Mask Magazine. March 1930. Courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Ali Cox.

While the cover certainly garners attention with the sizable illustration of the ‘tough guy’ I assume to be the main character Ned Beaumont (protagonist wouldn’t exactly be an accurate description); the most glaring disparity I detected was how different Ned looked on the cover versus how he was described in the text by Dashiell Hammett. According to the darling Dash, Ned was “tall and lean” with “dark eyes” and a “mustache he twirls”; whereas the cover image depicts a heavily muscled man with light hair and a mustache that seems as though it would be very difficult to twirl. Amusingly, the cover illustration actually strongly resembles Dashiell Hammett himself. I cannot help but wonder if the famous writer of hard-boiled crime fiction inspired the illustrator.

Portrait of Dashiell Hammett. (Maltese Falcon. Hammett, Dashiell, San Francisco: Arion Press, 1983). Courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photography by Ali Cox.

As for the quote at the bottom of the cover, “NOW YOU AND I WILL TAKE A RIDE,” all caps for emphasis, I can’t recall Ned Beaumont (or anyone in the novel for that matter), taking a ride with anyone. In fact, Ned Beaumont never drove a car. He took quite a few taxicabs throughout the story, but even if he did utter the words, “Now you and I will take a ride” at some point, it was certainly not prominent enough for me to notice. Therefore the cover page is not only misleading in its image, but also in its text. The bold quote paired with the well-dressed man holding a gun gives the impression of Ned as an overtly ‘tough guy’ while my unhindered impression of him was more of a mysterious sleuth, (and unabashed alcoholic) although his ‘toughness’ was certainly present . I wonder what Dashiell might have thought about the cover illustrations; as I think any author would find it frustrating. But at the same time, I can’t resist my inclination to think he would be ‘too cool’ to care, or at the very least, ‘too cool’ to show it.


Dashiell Hammett: Suspense in Understatement

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Dashiell Hammett, $106,000 Blood Money (New York: Lawrence E. Spivak, 1943). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by H. Wong.

A white envelope encircled by a stark, ominous shadow rests on a vermillion background. On the envelope, a precise letterpress typeface – reminiscent of newspaper headlines – spells out “BLOOD MONEY.” Above it, the postage-ink-red outlines of money sacks peek out from behind a commanding black dollar sign. The numbers that follow on the right are faded like the texture of stamped lettering or smoke. The words “Bestseller Mystery,” the author’s name, and a blurb about him are in a lurid, serpentine gothic-script typeface. Below the envelope are the delicate silhouettes of a gun and a masquerade mask. This 1943 cover of Dashiell Hammett’s $106,000 Blood Money conveys greed, deception, and murder.

However, unlike the formulaic pulp fiction cover with garish colors, a sensational scene, and a half-clothed damsel-in-distress, this one is a studied understatement. There are only three colors – black, white, and red. The center alignment of the text and images, along with the regularity of the rectangular envelope, guides the eye methodically from top to bottom. Although lacking in energy and movement, the text and images confined within the definiteness of symmetry evoke apprehension and suspense. I believe the tense restraint of the cover characterizes Hammett’s writing:


My hands were in my overcoat pockets—one holding the flashlight, the other my gun.

I pushed the muzzle of the pocketed gun toward the man—pulled the trigger.

The shot ruined seventy-five dollars’ worth of overcoat for me. But it took the man away from my neck.


Hammett’s description of a killing made by the protagonist is matter-of-fact and efficient. The protagonist aims and kills mechanically, expending more emotion on his ruined overcoat than on the death of his enemy. Hammett does not bat an eye, and neither does his protagonist who is just going through another day on the job. There is no heroic bravado. The tension simmers and, without a release, I am left chewing my nails through the action. A vivid and dramatic cover would contradict Hammett’s restraint and the protagonist’s nonchalance. While I admittedly would have preferred a cover with a provocative femme fatale, I concede that this cover expresses the understated suspense of the story.

Packaging Pulp

Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Fig 1. Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Dashiell Hammett, Hammett Homicides, (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 19456). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Fig. 2. Dashiell Hammett, Hammett Homicides (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1946). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Dashiell Hammett, The Adventures of Sam Spade, (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1944). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Fig. 3. Dashiell Hammett, The Adventures of Sam Spade (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1944). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.

The name Dashiell Hammett conjures up images of gangsters with flashing guns and seductive women with secrets. This common association is no mistake given Hammett’s literary worlds full of murder and mystery. Throughout the writer’s career he worked to create these vivid worlds via a voice and narrative distinctly his own. This aptitude for crafting a cohesive style generated a Dashiell Hammett detective brand, as recognizable today as it was six decades ago. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Hammett was no stranger to the world of marketing. In 1926 he worked as an advertising copywriter and ad manager at Albert S. Samuels Jewelers where he fine-tuned the skill of selling products. Over the years, as Hammett’s works filled magazines and lined retailer’s racks, his stories became entrenched in the emerging literary mass-market. Like diamonds, his rough and gruff mystery tales had to be sold in the most effective way, sparkling in order to catch a buyer’s eye.

Pulp fiction, of course, had a decidedly different market than fine jewelry. But like the blue of a Tiffany’s box, book covers had to lure a customer to the register. Most commonly one may associate the pulp movement with the now-iconic covers showing scantily clad women and suggestive phrases. But mirroring the cohesive tone of Hammett’s work, the “Bestseller Mystery” collection utilized covers that created clear brand recognition. As seen in figures one through three, the Hammett covers had nearly identical layouts (Fig. 1-3). “The Continental Op” features a blue badge, “Hammett Homicides” a selection of green weapons, and “Adventures of Sam Spade” red and black pistols. These simple designs allude to cop adventures, murder plots, and gun fights within the texts. But despite these small variations in design each novel adheres to the same general cover-topography: a large white square holding the title with a black mask and gun beneath and the phrase “Bestseller Mystery” above.

The strength in this strategy is the construction of a sense of consumer trust. If a reader has enjoyed one Hammett’s stories, he or she can identify the next similarly packaged product and expect a repeated quality. This sense of quality, in the world of Hammett, meant the production of genuine thrills, dramatic showdowns, and knockout reveals. Undoubtedly the author delivers on the paper promise of consistency by offering honest covers that open to high adrenaline Hammett style stories. And although the wrappings for Hammett’s pieces may not be as inherently eye-catching or heart quickening as other contemporary pulp fiction, there is a reason a woman loves a blue box wrapped in a white bow and a reason a subway rider loved a twenty five cent Dashiell Hammett story.

The Key to Great Cover Art – The Glass Key

One can almost hear the thrilling mystery music playing in the background as one picks up this first edition of the Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett.   The eyes are torn between the bright green letters and the large comic font and the black and white image of the girl. Just as with his writing, there is so much going on, it’s difficult to decide what to focus on first.

1931 Edition of The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
Cover of The Glass Key (New York: Knopf, 1931). Photograph by Astha Berry. The Sheraton Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

The very first thing my eyes honed in on was the compelling look of the young and beautiful damsel in distress trapped in what appears to be a small window or opening. Her classic red lipstick and dramatic expression look Hollywood ready – which is fitting since Dashiell Hammet’s writing made for great screenplays and movie adaptations. The look is sensational and automatically, as the reader, questions begin to flood your mind: “Who is that girl? Where is she? Why does she look so distraught? Is she alone or is there someone else in the background? Does anybody actually look like that in dire circumstances?” And so forth.

On the other hand, the title in its eye-catching lettering takes up almost half of the cover. The light green has an ominous effect associated with evil and horror films. As the only pop of color on the cover, the lettering also draws attention to itself. Behind the lettering, the reader may realize they are looking at a keyhole – a detail that might not have registered at first. After reading the title though, it would make sense to include a key or keyhole in the picture. The cover has become infinitely more intriguing because that small window could be a keyhole, and of course, all keys lead to something or someplace, so even more questions arise.

A final ingredient in the reader’s experience is the fact that this book is by the one and only Dashiell Hammett, as explicitly emblazoned across the bottom of the cover. By this time he is already well known, so the book is expected to be an exciting and fast-paced page turner and the cover art only adds to this expectation. The blurb on the cover that mentions his other famous book, The Maltese Falcon, builds an association and hints at another promising mystery.

All of this is done without a word mentioned about the plot or the characters – an air of mystery and thrill have already been set in place before a single page has been read. This exact same cover image of the lady in the keyhole is also reprinted on the back (without the lettering). There is no short description or summary or quotes as many novels display nowadays on their back cover. The photo and lettering emphasize to the reader the mystery awaiting them without any description or clues to the actual novel inside.  From the beginning, the reader is ready to be excited  – and that is the key to effective cover art.

The Mystery of Dashiell Hammett

After reading only a few works by Dashiell Hammett, it’s not hard to recognize the reasons for his popularity. His cool and collected detectives, ever calm in the face of danger, put a new spin on the concept of the traditional hero, while his casual yet carefully constructed language conveys masterful intelligence without pomposity. But beyond these modern innovations, Hammett still accomplishes the classic aim of storytelling; just as in any good story, he gives his readers a glimpse into a different world, one filled with excitement and mystery.

“Pulp fiction” covers, the lurid illustrations on mass market paperbacks, were primarily meant to draw readers into these worlds. With their insinuations of sex, crime, and violence, they gave readers a taste of the excitement to be found in each story. Many of Hammett’s novels and stories were published in this format, but later editions of his most popular works, like The Continental Op pictured below, completely abandoned this cover strategy.

The Continental Op, published by Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945
The Continental Op, (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945) From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photo by Laura Ewen

Why would Hammett’s publishers shift away from this typical structure? It seems this drastically different approach serves as a testament to Hammett’s mastery of his form and popularity with his readers. The most prominent aspect of this cover, featured exactly in the middle, is Hammett’s name in bold, drawing attention to his stamp as the most important feature of the book. This suggests that by the time of this edition’s publication, his reputation has already been firmly established. The blurb on the cover reaffirms this, as it emphasizes that Hammett “is our most important modern originiator.” The choice of this quote to advertise the book is unique in that it focuses wholly on the author and his skill rather than the content of the particular novel.

This approach serves another purpose, as it draws attention to the appeal of the book’s mystery. The artful use of suspense is integral to Hammett’s detective stories, as each twist and turn keeps the reader in the dark until the very end. Therefore, since Hammett’s quality as a writer has already been established, there is no need to reveal any content of the book – rather, the reader can approach it with the excitement of the unknown. Both the headline “Bestseller Mystery” and the gun paired with a mask, suggestive of hidden identities, emphasize the complete novelty of the experience of reading this book, in which previous knowledge of the plot would actually detract from the exhilaration of entering its dark and seedy world. Only the badge in the cover’s corner signifies that this book will share a story of detective intrigue and prepares the reader to reconnect with a character they may already know.

In this way, I think that this kind of cover allows Hammett’s stories to be read the way they were meant to be. I feel even more inclined to pick up this copy of The Continental Op than I would one with an illustrated cover – my previous experience reading Hammett has already given me a feeling of what this book has to offer, a story whose delights are best appreciated when completely unexpected.

The Hook

This is the cover image on a collection of stories featuring the Continental Op.
Dashiell Hammett, The Return of The Continental Op. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Devika Agrawal.


The cover of The Return of the Continental Op makes one inclined to think that she is in for a thrilling ride. The reader’s attention is first captured by the big, bold, capital red letters against the bright yellow background of the cover. Next, one wonders who or what this Continental Op could be. Without knowing that he is a character, one may think it is the name of a place or that it is the name of some sort of operation. The illustration of a gun that is going off in someone’s hand suggests that the story likely involves a villain, a thief, or maybe a hero. The title is written on a yellow colored shape, resembling a badge of some sort. The reader’s mind may now jump and speculate that the police will be involved in this story somehow. The word “OP” is written in the largest font and surrounding it is a red chain like design. It shares similarities with a handcuff because of the “official” badge style ornamentation.  Personally, I think this cover image serves as a “hook,” or introduction that engages my curiosity towards what is to follow.

The cover image is a crucial part in the reader’s experience of the text inside. Even before opening the book, the reader is already given a sense of its contents. One expects something dramatic, electrifying, and sensational. The gun hints at lots of action, some crime, and a flavor of suspense. The reader becomes captivated by this cover image; her mind is now racing as the first impression settles in. This first impression ( in this case, a story filled with blood, mystery, and something big and exciting) sticks with the reader as they go through the text. The reader is now given a point of view, or a lens through which she can view the body of the text. The image creates a mood that reinforces the body of the text, and this mood allows the reader to form preconceptions about the story inside. In particular, this image makes the reader emotionally engaged enough to want to know what Continental Op stands for and why it’s a name that elicits excitement, crime, and danger.

This cover does an excellent job of giving the reader a taste of a Continental Op story. In “$106,000 Blood Money,” the Continental Op is the main character who faces two major obstacles. He battles the betrayal of one of his own agency’s members and fights to try an capture an escaped gang leader. These obstacles not only test his willingness to fight crime, but also test his morality. Through this story, he proves to be a character with a personal code of ethics that he refuses to violate no matter what threats he faces. Violence fails to engender fear in him, and he doesn’t hesitate to kill criminals. The title “$106,000 Blood Money,” also reinforces that risk and temptation will plague the pages inside. This story, as well as other Continental Op stories, fulfill the expectations the reader gets from the cover.  The cover image effectively communicates what kinds of stories the reader should expect to read.



Painting a Blank Canvas

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H.L Mencken, Chrestomathy. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Devika Agrawal.

H.L. Mencken is a comedian, a critic, an author, and I strongly believe, a clever man. I wonder, if I had come across him in person, would he have been a good conversationalist?  Written and curated by Mencken himself, Chrestomathy is a collection of his pieces from books, magazines, newspaper articles, and unpublished notes.

We must believe that Mencken’s arrangement of Chrestomathy is intentional. He begins with the category “Homosapiens” and ends with “Sententiae,” a Latin word signifying moral sayings.  Beginning with a description of the physicality of modern day humans and ending with an intangible way of encompassing human life, Mencken illustrates the components that are important in understanding the facets of mankind. Morality and ethics are what separate humans from other animal forms. To demonstrate this uniqueness of humans, he starts off with a very basic approach to analyzing humankind and progresses to a more complex way of examination.  Further, he chooses to start his collection with the scientific name for humans, indicating his acknowledgement of science and the evolutionary cycle. He starts from the very rudimentary and basic core of mankind, our genetic makeup, and ends with what he believes are words of wisdom that encapsulate takeaway lessons about the world. A closer look at his categories reveal that they follow a distinct order. “Religion” comes before “Morals” and the “Human Body” follows “Quackery”. Why does he choose this particular succession? I can’t help but think that through the Chrestomathy  he is setting out to paint his own blank canvas. His words become his paintbrush and allow him to sculpt his own painting about life. Like an artist with a pallet, Mencken starts the Chrestomathy with a broad layer, then as he begins to add layers they become finer, or more specific. He begins with “Homosapiens,” then divides into types of men, then further branches into women. He next adds religion to the society, which becomes closely tied to morals, and links directly to crime and punishment. I am led to believe that he ends with “Sententiae” in order to encourage readers to recognize the sublime beauty of human life.  However, he incorporates a lot of humor in “Sententiae,” trying to make sure that readers don’t take themselves or life too seriously.

In his preface, Mencken himself states that readers will find his pages “marked by a certain ribaldry,” or humor that has aspects of indelicacy. This rings true in many of his works, especially in his article “The Nature of Love”. Mencken writes that romantic love is simply “a wholesome diminishing of disgust, in its later stages, taking on a hallucinatory and pathological character” (Chrestomathy, 44). He goes on to describe how lovers become infected with a fever, and ends with how the powerful effect of habit overrides disgust. He is cynical, verbose, and wildly entertaining. One may ask, why does Mencken choose to present heavy and serious topics in a comical tone? I believe the answer is simple: he strives to exemplify harsh truths about human nature and society, while letting himself and his readers be humored by these very truths. Although his writing may make him appear as a pessimist, I view him to be a critic of pessimism. His individual articles also contain a structure mirroring the larger Chrestomathy collection. “The Nature of Love” starts off with a broad description of romantic love, then progresses into a more detailed account of the superficial nature of attraction and disgust, finally bringing in emotion, culminating in marriage and wise thoughts on how marriages still manage to survive. This  movement from the general to the specific reflects the larger shape of how the Chrestomathy is ordered.