So, very slowly, I've been piecing together an anthology. All reprints, all tales from pulp fiction's heyday. I've been loving it.
While it's not the best (it certainly could be better), I decided to post my introduction here. Why, you ask? Because, well, I just plain feel like it. So here you are. My introduction (at this point, anyway) to Dames, Booze, Guns and Gumshoes: Classic Tales from the Dawn of Crime.
Usually when these words are uttered today, people immediately think of the Quentin Tarantino movie, which, my God, is already twenty years old. To my recollection, though, the movie did little if anything to remind people of, or help bring back, the type of literature the film was inspired by. Pulp Fiction the movie, to me, was Tarantino’s well structured if not overly stylized tribute to mostly a literary genre that, in many respects, had fallen by the wayside.
Whether it was his fresh take on the genre or complete and utter ignorance by the world at large that the genre had already existed for more than half a century, I don’t know. What I do know is that, while a very good movie, Pulp Fiction did not create a new genre, as many people said at the time.
Tarantino’s now seemingly obvious tribute appeared to have been pretty much lost to viewers at the time—myself being one of them. I was in my late teens when the movie came out, and I don’t recall anyone in my peer group—or anyone older, for that matter—suddenly discovering the old pulp crime novels from the thirties through the sixties, or getting into the genre’s movie counterpart, Film Noir. What I remember is everyone owning the soundtrack, quoting snippets of dialogue, and talking about the violent and gory scenes.
All fine and good. I owned the soundtrack. I own the movie now on DVD. I’m neither slamming Tarantino or America’s collective consciousness. It’s just that I wish that, at the time, the popularity of the film would have spawned more knowledge of the vast number of books and short stories and movies that inevitably inspired the film. (I use the words “movie” and “film” interchangeably, by the way; to do otherwise, I think, is to be a snob… or a beatnik.)
You can go ahead here and state a few of the obvious folks. Hitchcock, Chandler, Hammett, Cain. Again, all fine and good, but these dudes have always been consistent in their level of the mainstream. The earliest writers of quote-pulp-fiction-end-quote, for the most part, achieved critical acclaim while they were still alive. They were put on the same level as Faulkner and Hemingway. Cornell Woolrich, it seems, kind of blurred between the two, for a long time seemingly only known as the guy who wrote “Rear Window.” And I mention Alfred Hitchcock because you simply can’t ignore him (he also directed the movie Rear Window). Since this piece all started with talking about a movie, it wouldn’t be fair not to mention at least one filmmaker, especially one as brilliant and obvious as Alfie.
Today many of the old pulp crime writers have achieved success to one degree or other. Sadly, like so many artists, they had to die before anyone took their work seriously. Thanks to Stephen Frears’ film The Grifters (1990, adapted for the screen by one of my favorite writers, Donald E. Westlake), Jim Thompson climbed out of the muck a bit earlier than most, and has come to be regarded as a relatively important literary figure. David Goodis is another who has managed to achieve a level of success, over forty years after his death (remember that movie with Bogart and Bacall where Bogart walks around with his head wrapped in bandages for half the movie?).
Hard Case Crime has been, without a doubt, the best publisher for helping to bring many of these authors back into the spotlight, to a degree, anyway. Without them I may not have ever found some of the authors I now love deeply—Day Keene and Gil Brewer, for example.
These days anyone can write a full-length novel and get it released, thanks to ebooks and print-on-demand companies (Hey, look at me right now). I’m not going to go into the ups and downs of this. That’s a subject for another time. What I’m saying is, back in the day, and up until only about ten or fifteen years ago, the means for a writer to get their work out there was very different. Literary magazines are essentially dead now, but through the entire twentieth century they were the primary way for a writer to get out there. Send short stories to magazines, get rejected, rewrite, resend, etc., until you started getting accepted and published. From there, keep doing it until enough readers look forward to seeing what it is you have to say, then hope for that book contract.
Gold Medal, Dell, Fawcett, much like the major publishers of popular fiction today, were interested in product. That’s fine. What is a writer doing if they’re trying to get published? They’re trying to sell a product. Duh. Even the writers who’ve turned their nose up so many times that they resemble the “people” in the Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder” are trying to sell. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be publishing or trying to publish their work. (On that, Dean Koontz was very correct in saying—total paraphrase here—that writing for a select few is very easy compared to writing for millions of people.)
The old magazines, as well as the publishers, usually had strict and required word lengths if the author wanted to get paid his penny a word. At times this clearly hurt a story, but at times it very well might have helped it. I was not one of these authors, so I really don’t know for sure. But what matters here is the entertainment. People were not picking up Thrilling Detective to study Heidegger’s hermeneutics transmuted by extraterrestrial rabbits with an emphasis on Kant’s categorical imperative as defined by reindeer who had survived Santa’s slaughter house. They were picking it up to be entertained, to escape the dreadful reality that surrounded them, or if not to escape, then simply to get a glimpse of what it was like to look at the world through another person’s eyes.
Is that philosophy? Don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go.
Anyway, in between the covers of these old magazines were short, snappy tales of dames and booze, guns and gumshoes, double-crosses and triple-crosses. Action! Suspense!
These days if you say pulp fiction, and someone doesn’t go immediately to Tarantino’s movie, they might come up with Jim Thompson, they might come up with Robert Bloch, but more than likely they’ll come up with something ignorant and/or snobby, like trash, or those old cheesy throwaways with the sleazy covers. It has gotten better with time, and writers like Michael Chabon have helped considerably. It’s very unlikely, however, unless you’re speaking with an aficionado, that you’ll hear names like Joe Archibald, William O’Sullivan, Charles Einstein, Norman A. Daniels, Gil Brewer, or Jerome Severs Perry.
My director is pantomiming cutting his throat, which means I need to wrap this up.
Too late to make a long story short, there were many great writers in pulp fiction’s heyday, many who have slipped beyond unknowing. I hope in the pages that follow, you are not only thoroughly entertained, but that you find some writers worth researching a bit, and that while at times you might say to yourself, “The writing could be better,” you might also consider something like, they had to do it this way, because if they didn’t, they weren’t gonna get paid, and everybody needs to eat.