Weighing in at over 1,100 double-columned pages, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, seeks not just to anthologize the best of the hard-boiled detective stories from the pulp magazines of the 1920s and ‘30s, but to emulate what must’ve been the party line of the publishers: it’s all about quantity. It’s astonishing to learn that at the height of demand, more than 500 titles a month would be published.
These magazines, with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Weird Tales, and called “pulp” because they were made on cheap paper from pulpwood, contained everything from Westerns to jungle tales. Otto Penzler, long-time editor of The Best American Mystery Stories, has collected here a slew of detective yarns, enough to get you through the longest winter on record.
In all, the anthology contains 52 stories, two complete novels, three introductions—one for each of the sections, respectively The Crimefighters, The Villains, and The Dames—and short introductions to each story. This is a bargain at 25 clams but only, of course, if the stories deliver—and they do, in spades.
The heavy hitters are well-represented: Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett each get three stories apiece, and one of Hammett’s pieces appears in print for the first time. If you’re unfamiliar with American detective fiction then you can do no better than by beginning with Chandler and Hammett, and from there move on to James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich, both of whom also have several notable stories in the anthology.
The rest of the represented authors—names like Carroll John Daly, Frederick Nebel and Norbert Davis—are less well-known and rightfully so. Hard-boiled prose done well can be poetry; done poorly it can be as stale as week-old bread. The problem is that there’s not a whole lot of distance between the two. Here’s a fairly routine description of a femme fatale from Carroll John Daly’s novel The Third Murderer: “There were times also when I felt The Flame was really all good, and the hard cruel face—that went with the woman of the night—was put on to hide the real good in her.”
Compare that to Cornell Woolrich, and this description of a night-club gal in Angel Face: “There were a pair of swell ski slides under her eyes; she was reading Gladys Glad’s beauty column to try to figure out how to get rid of them before she went out that night and got a couple more.” The cadences are the same, the words make a world of difference.
All told, the good stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps are terrific reads and the not-so-good stories—if you get to them—are never dull. Lots of stuff happens, most of it involving deceitful dames and gunplay and double-crosses and slumping bodies. And no one sits around analyzing one another’s feelings, and there’s no sub-text or epiphanies, and best of all, the writers weren’t out to impress anyone, or win awards, they were just out to make a couple of bucks. The driving force behind all the stories is to make sure readers kept reading, that the plot twists came frequently and unexpectedly, and that no one got shorted of the requisite amounts of sex and violence.
What I found most amazing about the writers included in this anthology was the rate at which they produced material. Some of the numbers are astounding. Take Erle Stanley Gardner, most famous nowadays as a crossword puzzle clue (“first name in crime”) and as the creator of Perry Mason. Gardner, a lawyer by day, wrote stories for the pulps from the early ‘20s through the early ‘30s. During that time he averaged 1.2 million published words a year, the equivalent of 12 lengthy novels.
One of Gardner’s creations was the character of Ed Jenkins, also known as the Phantom Thief, a good-hearted crook who steals from other criminals and often winds up in the role of detective. This archetype of the gentleman thief was standard pulp fare and a full third of the stories in the anthology are devoted to these criminals.
Out of this tradition comes the Moon Man, a character created by Frederick C. Davis. The Moon Man is Stephen Thatcher, a police officer by day and a thief by night who disguises himself with a glass sphere over his head that is made from one-way glass. Thatcher showed up in 39 stories during the ‘30s, his dual identity and fantastic disguise an antidote to the drudgery of surviving the Depression. Reading one of his tales now is both a fascinating glimpse into a singular American art form, plus a reminder of the earliest pleasures of reading, the pleasure of moving from word to word to find out what will happen next.
The popular myth is that television killed the pulp magazines, but it’s not entirely true. What really killed off the magazines was the advent of the cheaply produced paperback novel. Many of the pulp writers, such as Gardner, went on to prolific careers as genre novelists, while some of the writers fled to Hollywood. The stories themselves, for the most part, have probably turned back into the pulp from whence they came, so Penzler and Vintage Books has done a real service in providing a few of the better yarns in a book heavy enough to crush a skull.
If I had any complaint it would be that I wished the book had included a few color reprints of the amazing cover art from the old magazines, but that’s a minor complaint at best. Besides, those garish covers of buxom women and scar-faced thugs were just the lures. What really mattered, then and now, were the words.