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.

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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.

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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.

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