Son of a Gun Got the Drop on Me: Recycled Pulp

If she's beautiful, trouble can't be far behind: Art from
If she's beautiful, trouble can't be far behind: Art from "Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps." (The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

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 hardboiled American private eye was created in really bad magazines. 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 hardboiled American crime story and the entire noir movement was 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 and Dashiell Hammett, who wrote stories like "The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon." Erle Stanley Gardner created Perry Mason and sold more than 300 million books. Maryland's own James M. Cain wrote staples like "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity."

These stories were entirely new and entirely American. But most of this pulp fiction was terribly written, misogynistic and racist (when it bothered to mention people of color), churned out by men who worked for a penny a word or less. Nearly all of 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." "Pigeon Blood." "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." And "She was nervous from the moment she entered my apartment."

"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."

George Pelecanos, the best-selling D.C. crime novelist, is scheduled to read from the book during its January publicity tour. During a college class on crime fiction, he became fascinated by the early days of the pulps.

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