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The Reading Life

Brian Ritt's lives of the hard-boiled masters

August 05, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Brian Ritt's "Paperback Confidential" offers a writer-by-writer history of crime fiction's classic era.
Brian Ritt's "Paperback Confidential" offers a writer-by-writer… (Sean Kelly / For the Times )

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two friends and I decided to develop a little known pulp novel into a film. The book in question was Harry Whittington’s 1959 kidnap caper “A Ticket to Hell,” which had recently been reissued by Black Lizard.

We tracked down Whittington, pooled our resources and offered him $1,500 for the rights. He agreed, but within a week, we discovered there was already an option out on the novel — a detail Whittington had neglected to share. All these years later, I no longer remember the specifics, only that we eventually did get our money back, as well as a lesson in the ethics of the pulps.

Whittington, after all, was known as the “King of the Paperbacks”; between 1945 and 1965, notes Brian Ritt in “Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era” (Stark House: 344 pp., $19.95 paper), he produced “more than 150 novels … crime fiction, westerns, ‘sleaze,’ historical fiction, ‘backwoods’ novels and TV adaptations.”

In the late 1960s, he quit writing fiction altogether because he was tired of being exploited by his publishers. Why not, then, take advantage of our offer, no matter how small, even if he had already assigned the novel’s rights to someone else?

Looking back, it seems the most hard-boiled thing he could have done.

Whittington died within a year or so of our interaction, but he makes a comeback, of sorts, in “Paperback Confidential,” along with 131 other crime novelists of the classic era. The idea is to produce a biographical digest, not unlike the old “Rolling Stone Record Guide,” which encapsulates a series of careers in a page or two apiece, while also making recommendations about the work.

Ritt, who lives and works in Burbank, knows the territory, going back as far as Paul Cain and Raoul Whitfield (whose “Green Ice,” originally serialized in Black Mask in 1929 and 1930, is a choice bit of early noir), and including many novelists we’ve come to associate with the genre: Raymond Chandler, Leigh Brackett, David Goodis, Jim Thompson and James M. Cain.

Indeed, what’s compelling about the book is its range, the way it brings in all sorts of underappreciated authors: William Lindsay Gresham, Lionel White, Steve Fisher, Horace McCoy.

There’s Dan J. Marlowe, who teamed up with a bank robber and explosives expert named Al Nussbaum for coaching about “weapons, ballistics, locks, safes, vaults and alarm systems.” Or A.I Bezzerides, author of “The Long Haul” (filmed with Humphrey Bogart as “They Drive by Night”) and “Thieves’ Market,” who helped push film noir in new directions with his screenplay adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s “Kiss Me Deadly.”

Ritt’s an inconsistent writer, and some entries here (Fletcher Flora, Stephen Marlowe) come off as boilerplate, little more than glorified data sheets. Still, there’s something about seeing all these authors in one place, framed as part of a lineage.

After all, noir (or crime fiction, or whatever you want to call it) is as potent a folk art form as this country has produced, one that transcends its commercial roots to tell us about despair and dissolution, the dark side of the American dream.

Or, as Whittington once put it: “If a character hurt in his guts, I wrote to make you feel how bad he hurt.”

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