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COMMENTARY

Stories that will beat you to a bloody pulp

December 27, 2007|Neely Tucker | Washington Post

The book thudded on my desk like a bum fighter hitting the canvas.

"The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps." That's what it said on the cover, right above the picture of the dame.

I drained a shot of rye and got to thinking about those thrilling days between the world wars, when the hard-boiled American private eye was created. Men who beat the typewriter like a percussion instrument hacked out an entire genre of literature.

It was the golden age of pulp magazines, when 500 or more action and adventure fiction magazines flooded newsstands. They were weeklies or monthlies whose literary merit was so low they were printed on flimsy paper made from pulpwood.

The pulps covered everything from romance to westerns, but in long-defunct magazines such as Black Mask, Dime Detective or below-the-counter sleazoids like Spicy Detective, the hard-boiled American crime story and the entire noir movement were born. Their primarily blue-collar male readers understood certain truths: that bad things should happen to bad people, beautiful women are a problem, sex is dirty, violent crime can be funny and whiskey is our friend.

The gods of this mean little universe were Raymond Chandler ("The Big Sleep") and Dashiell Hammett ("The Maltese Falcon"). Erle Stanley Gardner created Perry Mason and sold more than 300 million books. James Cain wrote staples such as "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity."

These stories were entirely new and entirely American. Most were terribly written, misogynistic and racist (when they bothered to mention people of color), churned out by men who worked for a penny a word or less. Nearly all the pulps slid beneath the pop culture waves shortly after World War II, done in by cheap paperbacks and TV.

And yet we are delighted to report that, for the first time in ages, a large chunk of this ur-text is available in "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps." At 1,150 double-columned pages, it's the most complete anthology of the golden age of pulp detective fiction ever assembled. It was put together by the legendary Otto Penzler, proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York.

There are 53 stories here, and every one will smack you in the mouth: "Two Murders, One Crime." "He Got What He Asked For." "Killer in the Rain."

Typical are hammer-fisted beginnings like "I didn't like his face and told him so."

"Ninety percent of the writing was really bad," says Penzler, who tracked down the titles for several years to include in this volume (printed, of course, on pulp paper). "But Americans tend to have that frontier mentality -- the lone gunslinger walks into town to clean up Dodge City. . . . You're more interested in justice than the law, and these stories really resonated with readers. They sold millions of copies."

"These guys unknowingly created art out of poverty," bestselling crime novelist George Pelecanos says. "They weren't trying to be artists, just to make a living. In some shape or form, a lot of them lived the lives that found their way onto the page."

Cain, married four times, wrote about adultery and dames so desirable that men would kill to get them. Cornell Woolrich was a closeted gay man who lived in a seedy Harlem hotel with his mother and was so lonely he dedicated stories to his typewriter. Alcoholic Roger Torrey and his girlfriend wrote stories side by side with a bottle of whiskey between them; the first one to finish got to start drinking first. Other writers whose work is included in this volume hid behind pen names, and not even Penzler could discover anything about them. They are stories left behind by anonymous writers.

The best of them all, Chandler, had his own alcohol and sexual issues (women almost always kill people in his books), but he famously summed up the genre's ethos in a 1944 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." He said that Hammett was brilliant and wrote for "people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street." He said Hammett gave murder "back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons."

The sophisticated crime stories that developed in the wake of pulps so dominate our cultural landscape now that we hardly notice their origins. Go to any bookstore and you'll see an entire section devoted to mystery or crime. Go to the theater, turn on the television, and the pulps' descendants are everywhere. "No Country for Old Men." "The Sopranos." "Gone Baby Gone." "The Departed." "Fargo." "The Wire." "L.A. Confidential." "The Godfather."

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