Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hard and Dirty

Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters, by Various, Edited by Otto Penzler with introduction by Harlan Coben, Quercus, 2007

I haven’t technically read this volume. To be sure, I’ve read every word in it, but my own edition is the The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age--The ‘20s, ‘30s & ‘40s, collecting this volume along with its companions, Pulp Fiction: The Villains and Pulp Fiction: The Dames. Having seen the New Yorker ad for this telephone-sized book of crime writing about a week before I received a Barnes & Noble giftcard, the two ideas became inextricably intertwined.

And it’s a decision I haven’t regretted a whit. To be sure, lugging this massive 1168-page, two-column tome around is a bit of a chore. It doesn’t fit into my messenger bag so I have to tote it about, but when I’m between its covers I’m transported to fictional nirvana. I’ve even gotten so gaga for the work that I’ve put a bunch of Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, and Nelson Riddle style crime jazz onto my iPod to maximize the effect.

And what an effect it is. Penzler, the old grand man of mystery letters with The Mysterious Bookshop, Mysterious Press, and Armchair Detective Library under his belt, as well as scads of anthologies edited by same, has put together the Seventh Heaven of crime/detective fiction. Were you to distill pulp crime writing down to three principals, you’d get your crimefighter, from Raymond Chandler’s noble Gallahad to Hammett’s more vicious Continental Op to even morally sketchier contributions from others; you’d get your villains, as wicked as they come; and you’d get your dames, beautiful, but never to be fully trusted.

The three main ingredients, if you will, form a kind of ménage à trois, the eternal triangle of crime fiction, stories almost wholly unimaginable without all three pieces (though, to be sure, dames to get sidelined from time to time). This first volume claims to be focused on that first ingredient, though how precisely the other two shift remains to be seen. We are treated to offerings by Hammett and Chandler, naturally enough, the former dishing out “The Creeping Siamese” while the latter provides “Red Wind.” Both stories feature their most notable characters. The Continental Op’s story starts right out of the gate with a man staggering into the detective agency, only to fall on his face, dead by a stabbing. Tracking down the murder proves rather easy, though things are not always so black and white as they first seem. Maybe not one of Hammett’s greatest stories, this bit of mental spadework proves fascinating nevertheless. In Chandler’s Philip Marlowe tale, everyone is a liar, no one is what they seem, and a chance violent encounter threatens to spool out of control into the hero’s death.

Another stand-out would be “Honest Money” by Erle Stanley Gardner in a story not about Perry Mason, although it might as well have been. Maverick lawyer with bombshell secretary and run-down office gets in too deep and won’t back down from powerful crime bosses. Sound familiar? George Harmon Coxe’s “Murder Picture” treads a slightly different path in that our hero isn’t an actual detective, but a newspaper photographer who happens to catch a criminal in the act, unbeknownst to him, but not the criminal. The villain in this instance doesn’t appear to be one person in particular, the criminal, but a shifting series of villains as powerful forces conspire first to suppress, then to destroy the evidence. Coxe wrote quite a few stories about photographer Flash Casey, and you wonder how many times you could run the meter on accidentally catching a crime or a clue with your flashbulb.

“Two Murders, One Crime” demonstrates the absolute master of tension Cornell Woolrich at the top of his game or damn near close. Having to let a killer go rather than embarrass City Hall after an innocent man is executed for the crime, our hero detective resigns and begins shadowing the assassin, waiting for his chance at revenge. Woolrich was a master of the form whose name is lesser known these days than it should be, his stories being the inspiration for films by Truffaut (The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid), Hitchcock (Rear Window), among others.

Horace McCoy, who wrote the blisteringly great They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, here turns in the kind of pulp writing that gave the magazines their bad rep. Cheesy, filled with socko-action that would make Jerry Bruckheimer blush to put up on the screen, his “Frost Rides Alone” is almost embarrassing to read in its fanboy glorification of the protagonist. Not nearly as cringe-inducing as “The City of Hell!” by Leslie T White which features four retired cops on a vigilante mission to clean up their city, a tale the glorifies and excuses police brutality in the most puerile fashion imaginable while setting a hard to beat standard for exclamation overusage.

The volume’s final entry, The Third Murderer by Carroll John Daly is one of the couple full-length pulp novels included in this Black Lizard collection. Quality-wise, it’s nowhere near the realm of the greats, but Penzler excuses its inclusion on the basis that Daly, again lesser known than he should be, was perhaps the great-godfather of pulp fiction, his novels and stories some of the earliest, setting the tone and the pacing of the action. Great in its way, it’s filled with its share of corn. For instance, the femme fatale is actually referred to repeatedly, by differing characters, as The Flame: The Girl with the Criminal Mind. The entire phrase (though often shortened to “The Flame,” as when bullets were flying overhead) replete with capitals, colon and all. It’s more than a little ridiculous, but Daly’s novel is a fast-paced, white knuckler of suspense as detective Race Williams tries to break up the power of the three Gorgon Brothers. The novel includes dialogue that never gets too far above this particular example: ‘“Friend,” I told him, “I’ll hurl this message into the teeth of the devil himself for one thousand dollars.”’ And I say that as a bit of faint praise.

Just like pulp fiction has always delivered, this collection is the good, the bad, and the ugly, and sometimes all three in one. Chandler’s “slumming angel” works of art rub wing-to-jowl with the worst of the lot and somehow, in his presence, these slabs of raw meat are elevated to more than just cheeseball escapism, somehow in their striving (and even quite possibly because of their failure) they manage to glimpse a bit of rough-hewn poetry. I zipped through 372 pages of double-columned text in less than a week and there’s as surely something to be said for the great plot-driven engine as there is for the leisurely pace of the finest wrought crystalline prose.

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