In November 1931, Dime Detective published the first of 44 Jack Cardigan stories. Author Frederick Nebel was already an established pulp writer, having cut his teeth over the previous several years at Black Mask and magazines.
Along with drinking buddy Dashiell Hammett, Nebel is credited with creating the hardboiled detective genre. Yet today, Nebel is unknown outside the circle of pulp fiction devotees, while authors like Hammett, James Cain, and Raymond Chandler are well known and often reprinted, with many of their works having been made into movies.
Part of the blame has to go to Nebel, who wouldn’t allow his pulp work to be reprinted, telling one editor, “The reason why I don’t want to see my old Black Mask stuff between boards is because I think it served its purpose well when it was first published but I cannot see what purpose it would serve now.”
Matt Moring disagrees. The part-time editor who grew up in Bangor wants to rescue Nebel from obscurity. He has collected all 44 Cardigan stories into four volumes that include the original magazine artwork. The first volume is available now; the other three, by the end of 2012.
The stories are a time capsule of laconic urban tough guys. All these Cardigan stories were published long before Bogey winced his way through “The Maltese Falcon,” before there was that B-movie genre called film noir. Uniquely, Nebel’s Cardigan had a sentimental side. This may be in part because of his own life.
After dropping out of high school, Nebel worked on the New York docks and even as a sailor, but what seems to have impacted him most was time spent working on an uncle’s western Canada homestead. His first forays into writing were adventure stories and westerns. Even as he moved into hardboiled detective fiction, he continued — as did many of his peers — to write in those other genres.
Because of his love of the outdoors, Nebel moved to Bridgton, where he lived half the year among some of his favorite things: “white water… the smell of coffee boiling over a woods fire… summer fog.” The rest of the year was spent traveling or in New York, drinking with Dashiell Hammett.
Nebel’s dialog doesn’t pop and sizzle like that in classic noirs like “Double Indemnity,” but it has an authenticity to it. Cardigan may not have been the best-spoken man in the room, but he took up the most space. His size and scruffiness are referred to in every story. He doesn’t have time for fools, often fists his way through rather than talk to them. At the same time, he has a soft spot for working stiffs and those down on their luck.
After selling a different detective series to Hollywood in 1936 and moving from Dime Detective to glossy magazines like Cosmopolitan and Collier’s, Nebel retired Cardigan and never looked back. Thanks to Moring, we can all look back now and enjoy Cardigan’s adventures on the mean streets of America.