This week Isaac Babel’s tough-talking “Lyubka the Cossack” found herself in fitting company, between the covers of the newly revived Black Mask Magazine, the erstwhile stomping ground of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Raoul Whitfield, Paul Cain, and other masters of the hardboiled school. I suspect Babel would have been proud to join this murderers’ row — and I’ll speak for myself with greater confidence: The inclusion of my translation in Black Mask feels like the successful end to a case I’ve been trying to crack for ages.
As I’ve written before, my take on Babel’s gangsters is informed by my long love affair with American crime fiction from the 1920s and ‘30s. I was glad to see that readers and reviewers who looked kindly on Odessa Stories picked up the scent of the pulps in the book’s pages. In The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard wrote: “You could watch Goodfellas or Reservoir Dogs in between reading them and consider them all part of a single, continuous thread.” And in Vice, Andrew Katzenstein traced that thread to its origins: “Boris Dralyuk, who preserves the characters’ Yiddishisms … imbues the dialogue with hard-boiled language reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett.” A snippet of that last review now appears on the gloriously noirish cover of the mass market paperback, which came out in November of last year from Pushkin Press.
Yes, Babel and Black Mask are together at last, thanks to one pulp-loving Odessan broker… The new Black Mask, by the way, is edited and published by a real mensch, Matthew Morning of Altus Press, who has worked like gangbusters to preserve the legacy of this legendary magazine. The Black Mask website features a number of articles on the writers who shaped, and were shaped by, its unmistakable house style. One of these articles, written by me, pieces together the life of the mysterious Paul Cain, who is remembered (if he is remembered at all) for a single novel, Fast One (1933), which Raymond Chandler called “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.” The same could be said of the fellow’s biography.