Pulp Fiction!!

December 28, 2007 at 12:28 am (books, Mystery fiction)

pulps1.jpg This past Sunday’s Washington Post featured this delightful piece: “Son of a Gun Got the Drop on me: Recycled Pulp.” Neely Tucker herein provides a breezy survey of early hardboiled fiction in his review of The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.

I’m seriously under-read in this crime fiction subgenre, and when I do read it, it can leave me cold – or worse, bewildered. Nevertheless, I could not resist this juicy compendium, which is at the moment on the table to my left – in all its 1150-page glory!

pulps2.jpg The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps is divided into three sections: “The Crimefighters,” introduced by Harlan Coben; “The Villains,” introduced by Harlan Ellison; and “The Dames,” introduced by Laura Lippman. The general editor is that eminence grise of American detective fiction, Otto Penzler. penzler.jpg (He also wrote the foreword.)

The anthology includes stories by the usual suspects – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Erle Stanley Gardner – as well as those whose names are barely known, if at all, nowadays: Horace McCoy, Thomas Walsh, Leslie T. White, Frederick Nebel. Many of these writers had a penchant for hiding behind multiple pseudonyms. For example, Paul Cain kicks off this collection with the story “One, Two, Three.”(This is a story, by the way, whose careening plot I was barely able to follow!), “Paul Cain” was known to be the pen name of screenwriter Peter Ruric. Recently, it was discovered that “Peter Ruric” was also a pseudonym; the name behind that one is George Carrol Sims. Is that the end of the chain of names? Who knows…

Carroll John Daly, described by Penzler as “…a hack writer devoid of literary pretension, aspiration, and ability,” is nevertheless considered the progenitor of the hardboiled fiction genre.. His story “Three Gun Terry” appeared in the May 15, 1923 edition of Black Mask Magazine. black-mask-cover.jpg Black Mask had an advantage over the other pulps in having had as its editors George Sutton Jr. and Captain Joseph T. Shaw, both of whom had an eye for genuine talent and knew how to nurture it.

( guilty-parties.jpg See chapter 4, “The Hard-Boiled School,” in Ian Ousby’s Guilty Parties. This book is one of my favorite mystery references: it features fascinating background on the pulp phenomenon – and full page reproductions of some splendidly lurid cover art.)

“Three Gun Terry” is not included in the Black Lizard anthology; it does appear, however, in an earlier, much smaller collection entitled The Black Mask Boys. the-black-mask-boys-cover.jpg This is a book I treasure mainly for William Nolan’s wonderful introduction:

Black Mask, and the fiction it printed, grew directly out of the era between the two wars, when machine guns flashed fire from low-slung black limousines, when the corner speakeasy served rotgut gin, when swift rum-runners made night drops in dark coastal waters, when police and politicians were as corrupt as the gangsters they protected, when cons and crooks prowled New York alleys and lurked in trackside hobo jungles, when Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone made daily headlines and terrorized a nation….

The elegant, deductive sleuth, the calm, calculating sifter of clues, gave way to a new breed–the wary, wisecracking knight of the .45, an often violent, always unpredictable urban vigilante fashioned in the rugged frontier tradition of the western gunfighter.

In the pages of Black Mask, the private eye was born.”

hammett.jpg Black Mask Boys also contains a Hammett story I particularly like: “Bodies Piled Up.” The protagonist is known only as the Continental Op. Here’s how the story begins:

“The Montgomery Hotel’s regular detective had taken his last week’s rake-off from the hotel bootlegger in merchandise instead of cash, had drunk it down, had fallen asleep in the lobby, and had been fired. I happened to be the only idle operative in the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco branch at the time, and thus it came about that I had three day of hotel-coppering while a man was being found to take the job permanently.”

Naturally, they prove to be a very eventful three days!

(Hotel detectives, aka “house dicks,” were apparently a feature at low rent properties in the 1920’s; they appear frequently in pulp tales.)

One of the three Chandler stories included in the Black Lizard compendium is the brilliant “Red Wind,” which I referenced in an earlier post. Another Chandler tale that I’m partial to is “The King in Yellow.” This story displays virtually all the hallmarks of the genre:

“‘Sock him low! Dance the gum-heel on his neck!'” (hardboiled slang)

“‘If you want trouble,’ he said, ‘I come from where they make it.'” (bravado on the part of the hero)

“‘He shot at me,’ he repeated quietly. ‘With a gun. This gun. I’m tender to bullets. He missed, but suppose he hadn’t? I like my stomach the way it is, with just one way in and one way out.'” (snappy dialog)

“Court street was old town, wop town, crook town, arty town. It lay across the top of Bunker Hill and you could find anything there from down-at-heels ex-Greenwich-villagers to crooks on the lam, from ladies of anybody’s evening to County Relief clients brawling with haggard landladies in grand old houses with scrolled porches, parquetry floors, and immense sweeping banisters of white oak, mahogany and Circassian walnut.” (casually tossed off ethnic slurs, economy of description)

And one of my favorite instances of figurative language: “She looked tall and her hair was the color of a brushfire seen through a dust cloud.”

chandler-with-cat.jpg Raymond Chandler brought something approaching genius to the writing of hardboiled fiction; he also contributed a seminal essay to the literature on the subject: “The Simple Art of Murder.” (“Down these mean streets a man must go…”) The final paragraphs of The Big Sleep contain some of my favorite writing in all of detective fiction:

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”

[Reading the above set me to wondering just where Chandler himself was “sleeping the Big Sleep.” Findagrave.com informs us that he is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego. chandlerraymond.jpg ]

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