Review of Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines by Erin A. Smith

As the boundaries between high and pop culture continue to blur, more academics are writing about pulp magazines, especially the detective genre. Much has been discussed regarding formal structure and subject matter, but Erin A. Smith, who teaches American Studies and Literature at the University of Texas at Dallas, broadens the study to include a sociological and historical context. Because Smith perceived a gap in the history of reading tastes among the less literate classes between the two world wars, she wanted to reconstruct a profile of hard-boiled fiction consumers. Specifically, she used Black Mask as case example, analyzing editorials, letters to the editor from writers and readers, the stories themselves, and advertisements to elucidate how the pulp magazine shaped its readers and vice versa.

In Part I, Smith discusses the status of hard-boiled writers, and by extension, all pulp writers in the literary marketplace. Her epigraphs from Vanity Fair (June, 1933) and Harper’s (June 1937) brought home the hostility slicks felt toward pulps; the former stated that pulp fans moved their lips when reading, and the latter asserted “they had tastes of savages.” Drawing heavily from Erle Stanley Gardner’s letters and Harold Hersey’s Pulpwood Editor. Smith gives us insights on how various writers worked the border between slicks and pulps, revealing it to be more porous than we might think. A dichotomy within detective fiction was introduced by presenting Raymond Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder, published in a 1944 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, where he defended hard-boiled, a mainly male genre, from its predecessor, the London Detection Club writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and others who crafted more traditional mysteries. This contrast gives the reader a lesson on hard-boiled origins.

In another chapter, Smith dissects ad copy and deduces who the target audience was. Reproductions of ads by I.C.S.-International Correspondence Schools to Earle F. Liederman’s book Muscular Development, to Lee’s work clothes (“Do you look the deserving man you are?”), to Sherwin Cody School of English (“Do you make these mistakes in English?”) show us, Smith concludes, that targeted readers were working-class males, possibly immigrants, who wanted to defend their masculinity in the face of increasing workplace mechanization. The ads also appealed to desire advancement in economic and social status.

In Part II, the author correlates hard-boiled plots and themes with readers’ working lives. Her most ambitious claim is that plots reflected both writer and readers’ societal positions in that pulp authors saw their stories as piecework, not great art, and the fast-paced, intricate plots mirrored the assembly line atmosphers for worker/readers. Her strongest example consisted of contrasting the reading experience of two novels about murder on a stranded train, Frederick Nebel’s hard-boiled Sleepers East and Agatha Christies traditional Murder on the Orient Express. Nebel’s rapid plot loosely connects a chain of discrete, violent scenes without resolution, while Christie ties up all loose ends. Smith concludes that the hard-boiled hero, and readers who identified with him, was struggling to retain the autonomous artisanal work ethic in the face of scientifically managed mass production factories.

But how convincing is Smith’s project? She draws parallels and extrapolations without interviewing real people for confirmation. For instance, were the hypermasculine ads and stories really taken seriously by the average male reader?

By concentrating on Black Mask, her study comes across as too limiting. She ignored readers of other genres, such as middle-class teenaged boys who underlined juicy descriptions in Spicy Mystery, women fans of romance pulps, or highly educated science fiction pulp readers, or readers of Weird Tales, which included many women, if letters to the Eyrie were any indication. Furthermore, the advertising she analyzed appeared across the board in all kinds of pulps, not only in Black Mask, which should have been named in the book’s subtitle (and not pulps in general) since that was her only example. Incidentally, the unattributed cover image of the book was not reproduced from Black Mask but from the May 1941 Private Detective Stories.

Nevertheless, I recommend this title to pulp fans, especially Black Mask collectors, because Smith raises topics not usually found in books on pulps, and although written by an academic, it is very understandable, with informative extensive endnotes to each chapter.

Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers And Pulp Magazines
Erin A. Smith, Temple University Press.
2000 paperback, $19.95

Authored by Alfred Jan; reprinted from The Pulpster #11 (2001).

Review of The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, Edited by Joseph T. Shaw

There’s no doubt that The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, published by Simon and Schuster in hardcover in 1946, is a landmark anthology. After all, the collection of 15 stories originally published by Black Mask was put together by the Old Man himself, Joseph T. Shaw.

But there’s two different editions of this book; when the softcover came out in 1952, it knocked out stories and juggled the running order of the survivors. Does this hurt or enhance the reading experience?

It depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re the type who reads through straight, the softcover version has a better running order, but it’s missing two good stories that were in the hardcover.

The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1952 paperback)

The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1952 paperback)

The cover of the Pocket Book edition (25 cents!) promises “12 of the toughest murder stories ever written,” but two of these stories don’t include any killings. There’s also another inaccuracy. The book claims to have “every word contained in the original, higher-priced edition,” but three pieces from the original edition were deep-sixed: “The Devil Suit,” by J.J. Des Ormeaux (Forrest Rosaire); “Murder Mixup,” by George Harmon Coxe; and “Sister Act,” by Charles G. Booth.

“The Devil Suit” was the leadoff story in the hardcover edition. Although it drags a bit, it shouldn’t have been dropped altogether. The plot was interesting enough to hold a reader for the 50-odd pages it ran, but maybe not for the very first story. “Sister Act” was also a good story featuring two pairs of sisters and breaks away from the typical blazing-guns formula.

I agree with the cut of “Murder Mixup,” a story featuring Coxe’s series character Flash Casey. The exaggerated tough-guy antics of Casey haven’t aged well.

The softcover leads off with Lester Dent’s mighty fine “Sail,” featuring the vertically-unchallenged detective Oscar Sail. Deftly written, there’s an atmosphere of corruption and menace sure to hook readers in right from the start. This story had been in the middle of the book and it plays better being up front.

Next is Reuben Jennings Shay’s “Taking His Time,” an amusing short-short (five pages) about a flim-flam in a small town. It fits in fine as the second story, where it was in the original. There’s a complete absence of violence in this piece, and yet there’s no mistaking that it is hard-boiled. It’ll crack up any Black Mask fan.

Batting third is the first of two stories by Shaw favorite Raoul Whitfield, “Death in the Pasig,” a Joe Gar short written under his Ramon Decolta pen name. Readers can feel the hot and humid Manila air as Gar slowly but surely makes his way to fingering the killer.

Then there’s Raymond Chandler’s “The Man Who Liked Dogs.” Supposedly the story appeared in the collection without Chandler’s consent, but the book notes the story was reprinted “by permission of the author,” as the original did. Whatever the circumstances, this is great writing and great reading.

Ditto for Dashiell Hammett’s “Fly Paper,” which follows Chandler like the second half of a one-two punch.

Whitfield’s second story, “Inside Job,” is a letdown, and not only because it follows Hammett and Chandler. The killer and the method are just too obvious, even before the murder is committed. This story should have been cut instead of “Sister Act,” which would have fit well here.

Norbert Davis’s “Red Goose” rights the ship again with a well-mixed assortment of personalities in an art-world theft. It’s funny in a way that only Davis could have done, along with his killer ear for dialog.

Another story from the immortal Paul Cain, “Red 71,” raises the bar higher. This story of double-crossing, savage brutality and a tender marriage proposal is already well-known by readers of Cain’s Seven Slayers collection.

The last four stories in the collection remain unchanged in order from the original. Three of them in a row zip by: “Best Man,” by Thomas Walsh; “Kick-Back,” by Ed Lybeck; and “Clean Sweep,” by Roger Torrey. There’s nothing too distinctive here, but they’re not lousy. Time hasn’t been kind to stories that stuck too close to “run and gun” formulas, which these three slip into at their worst.

The last story shows the sentimental side of Shaw. “South Wind,” by Theodore Tinsley, doesn’t get more violent than a broken arm. What drives the story is the interplay between the two leading columnists for the newspaper, not unlike Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. In fact, the man’s name is Tracy.

“Hey hardboiled,” calls the woman before a train whisks her away, “any time you get sick of this crooked game, come on down to Thunder Run. I’d be awful glad to see you.”

“South Wind” is a wistful ending to a great anthology, in either version.

The Hard-Boiled Omnibus
Edited by Joseph T. Shaw
Review edition published by Pocket Books, 1952
324 pages

Authored by Ed Lin.

Review of The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

Having had a number of months away from reading anything by Chandler, and having read other pulp detective authors in the meantime, like Bellem, Daly, Davis and Browne, this novel really struck me a blow to the side of the head. This isn’t typical Chandler. All of the Chandler style is there, actually more so than usual, so much so that I was continually rereading passages just to absorb his eloquent prose style, 180 degrees opposite of the Bellem story I was reading the day prior.

Chandler, or Marlowe, really seems to be going through some sort of mid-life crisis here, so much so that is almost subverts the plot. Years of living in the same, constant, kind of world, has it taken its toll? Marlowe is investigating the murder of a friend(so it seems, yet all cursory evidence points to a suicide), and gets the usually round of dirty dealings by folks not wanting him to dig deeper. Coming away from this book, I have this odd feeling of depression. Is it just me or is this what Chandler was trying to potray, the futility and stuck-in-a-rut feeling that Marlowe, a man outside of his own world, seems to be living?

For me there is little point discussing the novel itself, it is easily acquired, and has been read by most serious detective readers already, so enjoy this one as something just a little unusual.

Review of His Name Was Death by Fredric Brown

In the world of crime novels, it’s only a matter of time before an average Joe with an opportunity to make a few crooked bucks goes for it. After all, an engraver with a print shop can only make so many sales flyers (“Sheet blankets. Assorted cotton plaid, deep napped. Pink, blue, green. Regularly $1.49”) before he turns to counterfeiting bills.

“You’d never in a thousand years have guessed that he was a murderer and a criminal. You’d have thought him dull, plodding, honest,” Brown writes.

Emboldened by getting away with the murder of his philandering wife the year before, Darius Conn figures that printing up fake $10 bills will be a cakewalk, in Frederic Brown’s 1951 novel, His Name Was Death. And like every criminal, he figured wrong. But how straight a life can someone named “Conn” live?

Despite Conn’s careful planning, the fake bills end up in circulation prematurely, setting off a chain of murders as he hunts down and kills the unfortunate recipients of the bills.

The book, which jumps between Conn’s and his victims’ points of view, shows Brown’s mastery of internal dialog, which puts an individual face on the most mundane of lives. A man, just scraping by, envisions his upcoming marriage changing his drifting ways. A woman who gets stood up for a date is distressed that she went too early to a double feature to kill the entire afternoon. But how the criminal thinks is of prime importance, and Conn’s cockiness as he contemplates the next step for the “perfect criminal” is chilling.

Brown’s flashes of dark humor work well. When Conn mulls over murdering his assistant at the print shop, the thought of searching for someone as good a worker gives him genuine pause for thought.

His Name Was Death may not be “hard” enough for some hard-boiled fans, but its portrait of unflinching viciousness sheathed inside a mild-mannered printer will disturb any jaded readers. You may never look at Kinko’s the same way after reading it.

Authored by Ed Lin.

Review of American Pulp

You’ve got to hand it to the people at Carroll & Graf. A few years after all the jerks who wanted to read pulp just because they saw Pulp Fiction have moved on to raising kids or something, the publisher continues to chunk out hard-boiled collections.

I’ve got some of their other collections, Pure Pulp and The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, but American Pulp is the only one that fits in my coat pocket. And I read it cover to cover.

The quality here is high, and each story is distinct and memorable enough so that you won’t need a bookmark, even after laying off for a few days between reads.

There’s several name writers here: John D. MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake, Evan Hunter, Mickey Spillane and Marcia Muller.

MacDonald turns in the standout of the collection, “In a Small Hotel.” A psychotic customer on the lam takes the proprietor and some of her friends hostage. When they overpower the customer, they turn on each other when find his stash of embezzled money. The lines of trust drawn and redrawn and strong characters loom in the reader’s mind for the rest of the book (it’s the third story in on this collection of 35).

In my mind, any book with another farcical romp by Norbert Davis alone is worth the price of admission. Davis’s “Murder in Two Parts” will satisfy fans of his slap-sticky murder stories.

There’s a lot of other things to like here: a gem of a story by Donald Wandrei, “Tick Tock” (like Davis’s story, originally published in Black Mask); a sharp western-mystery, “Lynching in Mixville,” by contemporary author L.J. Washburn; a typically awkward tale of insecurity from David Goodis, “The Plunge,” and a fine ironic ditty from Fredric Brown, “Cry Silence.”

But there’s also the lousy “Doing Colfax” from modern-day writer Ed Bryant. Ed Gorman says his writing is “innovative and stunning,” but the example here only portrays two low-lifes committing a murder with no remorse, and worse, little distinction. I might be missing something here, but I doubt it. I’m pretty sharp.

The collection also ends on a bum note with Richard Matheson’s “The Frigid Flame,” a 70-page relative opus on a murderous twist that readers will see through far too early on.

Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg have done all the little things right, seamlessly integrating stories from the 70s through the 90s in with the pulp era. They even wrote short bios for all the authors. I’m a big fan of that.

At a little more than two cents a page, you can’t not buy and read this book.

American Pulp
Edited by Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg
550 pages, $12.95
Carroll & Graf, 1997

Authored by Ed Lin.

Review of Memento

In this, one of the best films of 2001, Guy Pierce plays Leonard Shelby from San Francisco, a “detective” trying to solve his own case, who is being used for the dirty work of a friend. Regardless of his handicap, the lack of his ability to create new memories, he manages to get revenge. Or does he?

This film is very evocative of a typical Woolrich style story but is not the usual amnesia case. The film is told in reverse, with the climax being the first scene, as a result creating an odd sense of deja-vu while viewing. Throughout the film there is an interesting mix of black & white and color which further jumbles up the plotline. Black & white is used for flashbacks and pre-injury memories and further plot elements. One of the creepiest feelings the director manages to get across is the distorted sense of time.

Highest possible recommendation.

A I Remember/Newmarket Capital Group/Team Todd Production
116 minutes
Color/Black and white
Based on the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky, Jorja Fox, Harriet Sansom Harris, Callum Keith Rennie

See also the Thrilling Detective website page.

Authored by Rob Preston.

Review of Long Live The Dead by Hugh B. Cave

Taken from the near the start of a more than 70 year professional writing career, Hugh B. Cave’s Long Live The Dead is a solid collection of pulp fiction stories.

Specialty publisher Crippen and Landru has taken all 10 of the Cave stories that appeared in Black Mask Magazine and collected them in a sharp package.

Cave began his lengthy career working in the pulp magazines before moving on to the higher-paying slick magazine and book markets. One of the most prestigious markets for pulp crime fiction was the legendary Black Mask Magazine, where the earliest stories in the hardboiled tradition were published.

Keith Deutsch opens the book with a lengthy interview with Hugh Cave about his pulp career and his experiences writing for three different editors of Black Mask, including the legendary Joseph Shaw. Cave is one of the few remaining primary sources who actually worked for the pulps, and perhaps the last survivor to have sold stories to Shaw.

Another nice feature is a bibliography of Cave’s detective and mystery fiction. Unfortunately, it’s admittedly incomplete, owing to the fact that even Cave is not sure of all the stories he’s written over his long career. A tragic fire at his writing studio a number of years ago destroyed Cave’s records and file copies.

There are bigger names in the hardboiled field than Cave, but he is a solid, competent writer who sold many stories to the crime pulps during their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Because of the time period over which these stories were written and published, Cave’s growth as a writer can be seen.

The first story, “Too Many Women,” is choppy in its action and plotting, but Cave wrote this story when he was only 23 and he soon improves.

The second story, “Dead Dog,” has a smoother execution and better plot, but still isn’t firing on all cylinders. It is, however, a good enough story to stand up with the rest of the collection.

Cave starts to show his sentimental side quickly, a tendency that aided his ability to sell stories to the upscale slick magazines, but keeps these from being as hard and brittle as some of his Black Mask contemporaries.

By the third story, “Shadow,” Cave has worked out how to plot a pulp story, and knows how to put his characters though their paces in what is a typical cop story of the day.

In “Curtain Call,” a cop risks his badge to investigate a suicide that, of course, is really a murder. The older cop who assists in this case is not on stage enough to make the sad ending effective as it could have been. It might have made a better story if Cave had told it through this cop’s eyes rather than through the eyes of the younger officer. It’s still a nice crime story and typical of pulp stories of the time.

The title story is very melodramatic: it’s about a former magician who must regain his lost skills in order to save his life and the life of the girl he loves, but doing so places him in jeopardy of a murder charge. The ending is too pat, and Cave uses coincidence, and the deathbed statement of a madman, to save his hero from the electric chair.

“Lost and Found” is a pretty good story, but Cave once again has trouble with his ending. The protagonist is a former newspaper reporter who has to track down the daughter of a millionaire in Florida. The reason for all of the fuss is a stretch and Cave’s hero has to rely on the actions of others, and last minute confessions, to succeed in his mission and figure out what is going on.

“Stranger in Town” has a trick ending, and some good villains, but the hero has to have a helping hand from fate to survive the story. In this story, Cave shows how well he can handle suspense and build to a climax.

While Black Mask is typically thought of as the home of private eyes, these stories are about cops or civilians and not about the stereotypical P.I. It’s also interesting to see that many of his protagonists are short, balding and not at all in the hulking tough-guy mode. His characters are physically competent, however, and can take a beating in the best hardboiled tradition.

This is a good book for Cave and Black Mask fans, even if it is not the place to begin for somebody just starting to read hard-boiled mysteries.

Crippen and Landru
Trade size paperback, 2001
240 pages, $16.00

Authored by Warren Harris.

Review of Phantom Lady By Cornell Woolrich

Imagine you have come home from an evening out on the town. It was a fairly typical evening. You had drinks, went to dinner and even took in a show. The only thing to spoil the evening was your dark mood. You went out after having a fight with your wife. She refused to give you the divorce you want. She laughed in your face when you begged her for the divorce. When you stormed out of your apartment you went to a bar and on the spur of the moment you picked up a woman to take to the show so as not to waste the ticket. The two of you made a deal to not divulge each other’s name, and at the end of the evening the two of you agreed to part company, never to meet again. It was purely a practical arrangement. When you arrive home you find you have company in the form of a squad of homicide detectives. They want to question you about why your wife happens to be dead, strangled with one of your own neckties. In questioning you, the detectives find out about your argument, and the reason for your argument. They perceive motive in this. They find the means for murder in the form of your necktie. Opportunity is present in that you cannot prove you were at a bar at the time your wife was murdered. The irony of it all is that the woman you met at the bar, the sole person who can provide you with an unbreakable alibi, is a total stranger, a non-person. She is a phantom in a city of millions who cannot be found and does not come forward. You were found guilty and sentenced to death and you now sit in the death house at the prison. Your only hope is a college friend who is turning the city upside down trying to find this “Phantom Lady.” Each chapter of the book details the search efforts made to free you. Each chapter details how each effort fails. Each chapter describes a day closer to your execution.

Cornell Woolrich was a master of suspense and a prolific contributor to pulp fiction publications. He lived the life of a recluse in hotels and wrote stories of beautiful terror. As the author of such suspense classics as “Rear Window,” and “I Married a Dead Man,” Cornell Woolrich delivers again with Phantom Lady. He does a more than admirable job in building a tale of terror that has both Fate and Justice toying with a man’s life. As the accused lays helpless behind bars of steel waiting for death, the author systematically crushes the protagonist’s hopes and dreams until finally, the reader finds him crouched in his cell listening to a priest giving him his last rites. The question of his survival is left dangling until the very end, and with an author such as Cornell Woolrich, the answer is not the expected one. This is not a book you read once. It is one to be read and then re-read. It is a story that mesmerizes the reader as each hope is dashed, each clue is run down, until all that is left is the approaching execution. Or is there more? You have to read the book to find out. And thus is the genius of Cornell Woolrich revealed in his masterful tale, Phantom Lady.

Authored by Robert D. Wheadon.

Review of Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammett

So you think you have read everything by the master of detective fiction, huh? You’ve read The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and the rest of Hammett’s detective novels and think you’ve read it all? Well, you haven’t.

Just when you thought the well was dry and there was no more from the pen of this quintessential wordsmith there comes a collection of some of the best short stories that Hammett penned in his short, bright writing career. Pick up Nightmare Town (1999, Knopf) and you will find 20 of some of Hammett’s best short detective fiction. In a 12-year writing career, Hammett wrote over 100 short stories for magazines such as Black Mask, Collier’s, and The American Magazine, as well as his well-known novels.

One of the interesting things about this collection is the broad display of characters. When one thinks of the literary writing of Dashiell Hammett, the Continental Op immediately comes to mind. Here in Nightmare Town, you will be introduced to a variegated display of fictional characters. In the title story, the protagonist is a rough, whiskey drinking adventurer who carries an ebony walking stick which he wields with great effectiveness.

“A Man Named Thin” highlights a detective with a poetical slant to his style. “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams” and “Afraid of a Gun” are both written in western settings, instead of the expected San Francisco area. “His Brother’s Keeper” is a story narrated by a brutish boxer. You will find three Sam Spade stories here that hum with Hammett’s staccato pace of telling a tale. “The Assistant Murderer” is a tale chock-full of action right out of the pages of the pulps.

Those are just a few of the pearls in this compilation. Hammett’s style of prose is biting, harsh and most of all realistic. The most telling proof of Hammett’s contribution to the genre of detective fiction is that his characters come to you full-fleshed and telling you like it is in a realistic picture. Hammett was a literary genius. He brought crime out of polite society into the real world where it belonged. Pick up Nightmare Town. You won’t regret it.

Authored by Robert D. Wheadon.