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Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, Edited by Otto Penzler

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Edited by Otto Penzler, who author Robert B. Parker stated “knows more about crime fiction than most people know about anything,” comes an outstanding book for lovers of the genre. A mammoth tome at over 1,000 pages the book contains more than 50 crime stories from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s that appeared in pulp magazines such as Black Mask, Dime Detective, Gangster Stories, and Gun Molls, and includes their original artwork. The one exception is the inclusion of James M. Cain “Pastorale” that appeared in the intellectual journal, The American Mercury. Penzler thinks it’s worth the cheat to include it and after reading it, I agree.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps features work from well-known crime writers like Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, whose short story “Faith” is being published for the first time, alongside some authors whose identities are unknown due to pseudonyms and publishing house names. Cornell Woolrich wrote under many aliases. Three of his stories made the collection and are attributed to Woolrich, but his most famous tale is arguably “It Had to be Murder” written under the name William Irish. That has grown to great prominence because it was adapted into Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Popular characters appear as well. When Chandler’s “Finger Man” was first printed in October 1934, the first-person narrator was unnamed, but when it was collected for a book, he was identified as Philip Marlowe. There are appearances by Hammett’s nameless operative from the Continental Detective Agency in “The Creeping Siamese” and Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar, better known as The Saint, in “The Invisible Millionaire.” One of the three stories Erle Stanley Gardner contributes features a defense attorney named Ken Corning who is very reminiscent of Gardner’s more famous creation, Perry Mason.

The Big Book is divided into three sections — Crime Fighters, Villains, and Dames — which all would easily make fine volumes on their own, and soon will.

Carroll John Daly is credited with creating the first hard-boiled detective story, 1923’s “Three Gun Terry,” featuring private investigator Terry Mack, and later that same year the first hard-boiled detective series when P.I. Race Williams returned in “Three Thousand to the Good” in the July 15, 1923 issue of Black Mask. “The Third Murderer” is a Williams' story from 1931. Other popular heroes are Horace McCoy’s Captain Jerry Frost of the Texas Air Rangers, Charles G. Booth’s McFee of the Blue Shield Detective Agency, and Frederick Nebel’s Homicide Captain Steve MacBride.

“The Villains” are an interesting lot because many of them are Robin Hood-types, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, which no doubt had an appeal to readers affected by the Great Depression. Like The Saint, Frederick C. Davis’ The Moon Man stole from people who deserved it. He wore a dome made out of one-way glass to hide his identity, similar to Spider-Man’s nemesis, Mysterio, because during the day he was police officer Stephan Thatcher. Gardner’s Lester Leith only stole from rich crooks, giving away most of the money to charity minus a 20% recovery fee.

Steve Fisher, who went on to write for many TV shows such as Starsky & Hutch, McMillan & Wife and Barnaby Jones, has a story from 1938 that will unfortunately always be timely. “You’ll Always Remember Me” is about a juvenile killer who cannot be tried as adult. It closes with a great final paragraph as the unrepentant 14-year-old narrator in reform school says to the reader, “You’ll always remember me, won’t you? Because I’ll be out when I am older and you might be the one I’ll be seeing.”

“The Dames” usually get short shrift in these stories, usually appearing as secretaries, damsels in distress or femme fatales, but Penzler was able to collect a good variety of characters, even though none of the stories are written by women. We meet a smart criminal lawyer Phyllis Martindel in Leslie T. White’s “Chosen To Die,” savvy jewel thief Countess d’Yls in C.S. Montanye’s “ A Shock for the Countess,” and intuitive reporter Katie Blayne, nicknamed “the Duchess” in Whitman Chambers’ “The Duchess Pulls a Fast One.”

D.B. McCandless’ private dick Sarah Watson is unique because rather than the usual good-looking dames that fill these stories, Penzler describes her as “middle-aged, heavy, dowdy and relatively charmless.” She appears in "The Corpse in the Crystal” and “He Got What He Asked For.”

The most intriguing female is Lars Anderson’s masked hero The Domino Lady. Ellen Patrick is a rich kid who swore vengeance on criminals after her father was murdered. Batman fans will surely recognize this story's origins although Bruce Wayne didn’t appear until four years after The Domino Lady’s first appearance. The story “Black Legion” is from the October 1936 issue of Saucy Romantic Adventures.

And speaking of saucy, it wouldn’t be the early twentieth century without something completely inappropriate, which is where Adolphe Barreaux’s racy comic strip Sally the Slueth comes in. In her two featured adventures, “Matinee Murder” and “Hawaiian Spy Hunter,” Sally finds herself tied up in each. In the former, Sally’s dress is ripped off and her bra slips revealing a breast. In the latter, Sally is forced into wearing only a hula skirt and a strategically placed lei. Pretty wild stuff for the ‘30s.

The Big Book of Pulps is a great collection of pulp fiction, but not everything in it is great. Some of the material is dated in its characters, plotting, and word choices, but even the bad stories are still fascinating from a historical perspective. Luckily, if there’s a story you don’t like, there are more than plenty of others at hand.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    I suppose it’s only fair–you’ve just added to my Christmas list, too. Nice review.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Thanks, GH. Hope you’ve been nice this year.