Trashy Pulps Spun into Literary Gold | The Reader’s Shelf

womaninthedark030414The “pulp” era of popular fiction influenced many forms of current entertainment. Early 20th-century magazines, printed on cheap pulp paper and dazzlingly designed with lurid illustrations, featured pure escapist fare that lured readers with tales of women in danger, mysterious villains, and larger-than-life heroes/rescuers, often set in exotic locales. Contributors to those pulps gradually evolved into writers who changed the landscape of pop fiction and, through their lasting influence, continue to shape the modern literary scene.

James M. Cain, one of America’s most influential authors, is best known for his noir novels such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Less familiar to readers are his short stories, but they are well worth seeking out. A classic is “Brush Fire,” found in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Selected Stories (Everyman’s Library. 2003. ISBN 9780375414381. $26), which features an average Joe who becomes a hero as a firefighter on the same afternoon that he is arrested for murder.

Dashiell Hammett, author of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, also wrote minimalist, no-nonsense, and gritty shorter works, inspired by his employment with Pinkerton National Detective Agency. An example of this style of writing is the little-known novella Woman in the Dark (Vintage. 1989. ISBN 9780679722656. pap. $12). A female protagonist, pursued by a few dangerous men, stumbles onto a cabin inhabited by a recently released convict. The two are soon on the lam. The story highlights Hammett’s cynical style as it depicts conniving tough-talkers plotting their path through a noirish, corrupt world.

The “Dickens of Detroit,” Elmore Leonard is often praised for his amazing ear for dialog. A former ad man, Leonard began writing pulp fiction in the early 1950s, with Westerns, and later expanding into crime fiction with legendary plot twists. In his short story “Louly and Pretty Boy,” anthologized in Dangerous Women, edited by Otto Penzler (Grand Central. 2005. ISBN 9780446614573. pap. $6.99; ebk. ISBN 9780446507196), Depression-era Louly, a woman keenly fascinated with the notorious criminal Pretty Boy Floyd, marries a fellow acquainted with Pretty Boy and gets plenty of mileage out of the situation before her brief marriage ends. An original to be sure, Louly is someone readers want to know, and Leonard later featured her in his novel The Hot Kid.

hard-boiled030414Hard-boiled fiction master Raymond Chandler began contributing to pulps in the 1930s and at the end of that decade published his first novel, The Big Sleep, which introduced his now iconic private detective, Philip Marlowe. Chandler followed his breakout novel with Farewell My Lovely, reprinted in Raymond ­Chandler: ­Stories & Early Novels (Library of America. 1995. ISBN 9781883011079. $40), a convoluted noir mystery cobbled together from previously written Marlowe stories. Its many hairpin curves focus on Marlowe, sidetracked from a dead-end case, as he becomes embroiled in murder, drugs, hot jewels, and gambling, among other distractions. Full of twists and turns and poetic ramblings, it is a wild ride but one with an expert driver at the wheel.

Pulp fiction was a male-dominated kingdom, but Leigh Brackett was a notable exception, writing for important magazines such Adventure, Argosy, New Detective, and Startling Stories. She also frequently collaborated with Ray Bradbury and wrote the screenplays of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep. Her story “So Pale, So Cold, So Fair,” collected in Hardboiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian (Oxford Univ. 1997. ISBN 9780195103533. pap. $25), is an engrossingly dark tale of an Ohio city gripped by corruption and murder and of the “hero” who cleans up the place.

In The Colorado Kid (PS Publishing. 2010. ISBN 9781848631267. $40.79; ebk. ISBN 9780743292764), horror icon Stephen King stepped outside his usual genre comfort zone to write a taut noir mystery, originally published by Hard Case Crime in 2005. The story within a story focuses on two salty Maine journalists continuing an ongoing investigation into a 25-year-old murder cold case. The reporters narrate the facts of the case to their young intern, and over the course of the story all three speculate and deduce answers—even as the intrigue becomes more opaque. As a result of King’s gripping style and structure, readers are also turned into reporters and detectives, intent on ferreting out the clues of this mystery about a mystery. King’s nod to the pulps illustrates that he knows every reader is a sleuth at heart.

This column was contributed by Andrea Tarr, Librarian, Corona Public Library, CA, and a freelance writer. She lives in Alta Loma, CA

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at

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