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They made crime pay

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps; Edited by Otto Penzler; Vintage: 1,150 pp., $25 paper

December 02, 2007|Richard Rayner | 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 latimes.com/books.

"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.

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