Frederick Nebel: Hero of pulpdom

Frederick Nebel’s detective stores, written for magazines, were later collected and republished as books.

Frederick Nebel’s detective stores, written for magazines, were later collected and republished as books.

Contributed / Hearst Connecticut Media

In 1955, Frederick Nebel marked the 25th anniversary of his career as a full-time writer. “In that quarter century,” The Ridgefield Press said, “he has, by his own estimate, pounded out more than 4,000,000 words on his three typewriters — in the form of novels, novelettes, short stories, and articles.”

Many of those words were for the classic “pulp” magazines of the 1920s and 30s, such as Black Mask and Dime Detective. He and his friend, Dashiell Hammett, were leading producers of the era’s noir style of hard-boiled detective tales.

Seven of his stories were turned into Hollywood films; many more movies sprang from characters he’d originated.

A native of Staten Island, N.Y., Louis Frederick Nebel was born in 1903, dropped out of school at 15, worked on the docks, sailed on tramp steamers, and labored as a farm hand in northern Canada until he was in his early 20s and began to write for money.

His first story appeared in Black Mask in 1926 and he soon created the MacBride and Kennedy series of mysteries about a police detective and a hard-drinking newspaper reporter. He later sold the rights to Hollywood, which turned the boozing male Kennedy into a female named Torchy Blane, and nine movies — not involving Nebel — resulted. “Hell, they always change the stuff around,” Nebel said when asked about the movie series. “But I don’t mind — as long as I don’t have to make the changes.”

He wrote only three novels; first editions of Sleepers East (1933), But Not the End (1934) or Fifty Roads to Town (1936) fetch as much as $1,300 today. Sleepers East became a 1934 movie — actor, raconteur and concert pianist Oscar Levant worked on the screenplay.

He and his wife, Dorothy, came to Ridgefield in 1934, and he became active in the community. During World War II, he was a member of the War Price and Ration Board and later served as one of the first members of the Zoning Board of Appeals — including stints as chairman.

In the late 1950s, after he became ill, the Nebels moved to California where he died of a stroke in 1967, age 63.

Nebel is being rediscovered today and collections of his short stories are being published as books. For instance, his complete series of Dick Donahue private detective stories, published in the 1930s in Black Mask, were collected in a 2012 anthology, Tough As Nails.

“While Nebel’s work is not as well known as his good friend Hammett ... he deserves to be read and reread as a hero of pulpdom,” said Hugh Lessig, a historian of the “hard-boiled pulps.”—Jack Sanders