They made crime pay

Richard Rayner is the author of several books, including "The Devil's Wind: A Novel" and the forthcoming "The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California." His column Paperback Writers appears monthly at

“Pulp FICTION” means more than Quentin Tarantino, and it isn’t just a term of literary disparagement -- or recommendation, for that matter. During the 1920s and 1930s, fiction-only magazines replaced the dime novel as a source of cheap thrills for the American popular audience. The “pulps” -- they got the nickname because they were printed on low-quality wood pulp paper, pages that even when new were flimsy, like raw slices from a tree -- crowded the newsstands with hundreds of titles, featuring gaudy, high-impact covers, usually with guns or semi-clad women (preferably the two together).

A pecking order of quality was quickly established. Black Mask was at the top, thanks to its editor, Joseph T. Shaw, and Shaw’s big discovery and ace performer, Dashiell Hammett. Gun Molls came somewhere near the bottom; in between were hosts of others, including Argosy, Dime Detective, Weird Tales, Underworld Romances, Ace-High Detective, Hollywood Detective, Gold Seal Detective and Spicy Detective. These magazines, costing only a dime or 20 cents each, were designed to be read and tossed. Editors paid a penny a word, or less. To make a living, a top pulp writer -- Erle Stanley Gardner, say -- would churn out upward of 1 million words a year. Most people would have trouble just typing that much. “Pulp paper never dreamed of posterity,” Raymond Chandler wrote in 1950. The cheap paper might not have lasted, but the fiction, oddly, has -- as evidenced by “The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps,” a massive anthology edited by Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and a scholar and impresario of the field.

The pulps covered pretty much every fictional genre -- westerns, romance, science fiction, historical fiction, horror, adventure, sword and sorcery -- but Penzler sticks to crime, his area of expertise. Even so, he ranges far and wide; this book, a lavish paperback original, runs more than 1,000 pages, featuring illustrations taken from the magazines, biographical notes on 50-plus writers and introductions written by Harlan Coben, Harlan Ellison, Laura Lippman and Penzler himself.


There are three stories each from Hammett, Chandler and Cornell Woolrich, the bard of haunted noir doom. Hammett’s “Faith,” telling of a psychotic and religion-obsessed hobo, is a totally new find, never published before. Chandler’s “Red Wind,” “Finger Man” and “Killer in the Rain” are among the best-known detective stories ever written. James M. Cain is represented by his breakthrough story “Pastorale,” published in March 1928 (not 1938, as noted here) by H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury -- hardly a pulp publication, as Penzler acknowledges.

“Pastorale” derives from a true anecdote that Cain had heard about: Two guys cut off another guy’s head and don’t know what to do with it when it starts rolling around in their wagon. Cain added a twisted romance to the yarn and put the story in the mouth of a blue-collar barroom observer: “So, Burbie, he’s going to get hung as sure as hell, and if he hadn’t felt so smart, he would have been a free man yet. Only I reckon he done holding it all so long, he just had to spill it.” At a stroke, Cain found a way in “Pastorale” to tell his favored murder-for-love-and-money plot and its bedrock theme: People often find they can’t bear to get away with the crimes they are driven to commit.

“Pastorale” is stunning; it prefigures Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and, in its mingling of dark humor, violence and tension, a story such as Steve Fisher’s chilling “You’ll Always Remember Me” (included here) and even the movies “Blood Simple” and “Fargo,” both by the Coen brothers. It’s a landmark, both for Cain and the genre.

Penzler rescues other stories and writers from outright oblivion. As a young man, Leslie T. White witnessed the bursting of the St. Francis Dam north of L.A. in 1928. He had come to L.A. (for his health, as many did back then) and joined the investigative unit of the district attorney’s office, newly formed by Buron Fitts. White specialized in forensics and was involved in some of the era’s biggest cases: the Doheny mansion murder-suicide; the Jake Lingle affair (a Chicago reporter gunned down on a train platform during rush hour); the “love mart” white-slavery scandal, in which various local millionaires paid to receive a virgin a week. White knew the mean streets inside out, yet when he turned to writing (on the advice of Gardner), he stood some distance from the dirty reality. In “The City of Hell!,” one of two White stories included here, renegade cops take down a crime machine that has an unnamed city by the throat. The cops kidnap racketeers, lawyers, the chief of the grand jury and a judge, and they hold vigilante trials in the sewers. They then save the state -- and taxpayers -- a lot of money, shortcutting the necessity of more formal sentencing proceedings with a staged nightclub shootout: “All hell broke loose! With the deafening chatter of the twin machine guns, came the screams of stricken men.”

Writers don’t really write what they know; they write what they can. Chandler himself pointed out that Hammett’s realism only looked easy; in fact, it was amazingly artful. White, like most pulp writers, had verve and a quick gift for story. He leaned in the direction of hokum and melodrama, not reportage, and created comic book avengers, as if he felt that only in fantasy could he make right a world he knew to be irreparable.

Charles G. Booth’s “Stag Party,” on the other hand, is an excellent Hammett-like story, featuring McFee of the Blue Shield Detective Agency, set in an unnamed city that is obviously L.A. Booth’s plot directly reflects, down to the names of the characters, a real struggle for control of the city’s vice rackets in 1931 and 1932 -- a violent little war that White saw first hand. Born in Manchester, England, and a contract screenwriter at Fox, Booth grabbed his stuff from other writers and from the headlines. White’s imagination worked in a different way. It’s interesting to note the gap between the tough, guns-blazing, over-the-top adventure of Horace McCoy’s “Frost Rides Alone” (which appeared in Black Mask in March 1930) and the minimalist despairing existentialism of his novel “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” published five years later. McCoy’s arrival in Los Angeles from Texas, and the effects of the Depression, signaled for him a very different approach.

Critics argue about whether Hammett developed his terse style from Ernest Hemingway or the influence went the other way. It doesn’t really matter. The hard-boiled idiom was in the air, a feature of the times, and it had to be learned, or caught, like a disease -- it was a shotgun marriage between the western and themes taken from Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. The stripped-down prose owed as much to hard-hitting tabloids as to the blue pencils of Gertrude Stein or Ezra Pound.

The pulps won their place in American literary history, sending out to the mass market both the cynical private eye with his .38 and a type of writing that was sometimes -- consciously or unconsciously -- flavored by modernism, making, as Chandler noted, “most of the fiction of the time taste like a cup of lukewarm consomme at a spinsterish tearoom.” Readers of this almost ludicrously entertaining collection will find both junk and excellence, more lazy harebrained plotting than they can shake a stick at, legions of clunky sentences and pages of great dialogue and off-the-cuff poetry. “Kennedy was saying, ‘It’s tough the way sometimes a broad has to die to get her picture in the paper,’ ” writes Frederick Nebel, beautifully, at the end of “Wise Guy.”

Every one of the 53 writers featured here is male, reflecting a curious but definite historical reality. On the other side of the Atlantic, as Irish novelist John Banville recently observed, “the great English crime writers were women.” But Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and the splendid Josephine Tey wrote for a middle-class audience that longed for a brief and thrilling puncturing of its politesse before everything was tied in a neat and reassuring bow at the end. Chandler, on the other hand, first paid attention to Black Mask in 1932, after he’d lost his job and was driving around California, looking down the barrel of the Depression. The crime pulps aimed at a more impoverished audience in a time of mass insecurity; they were all about male social and sexual fantasies and fears -- in their wild energy, they shook with the real possibilities of anarchy and chaos