Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters
Edited by Otto Penzler
Quercus £12.99 ISBN 1905204574
I’m not sure THE
CRIMEFIGHTERS is the best title for this collection, but since titles like THE
HARDBOILED DICKS have already been taken, an anthology by any other name it
would surely read as sweet. Garnered mostly from the pages of Black Mask
magazine, this batch of detective tales is diverse enough to appeal both to the
classic crime newcomer and the hardened hardboiled pulp fan.
I speak as the
latter, and although many of the entries are familiar, there are good arguments
for including them. Paul Cain’s stories were collected in SEVEN SLAYERS, but if
you haven’t read them, ‘One, Two, Three’ is a good introduction. Cain is, in
many ways, the hardest-boiled of all Black Mask writers, and this story of
triple cross is about as hard as it gets, and no less amusing for that.
The big names are
there too. Raymond Chandler’s ‘Red Wind’ should be familiar to anyone who’s
read detective fiction, but as you read its opening pages in this context it’s
easy to realise how Chandler’s prose style and his softer-boiled version of the
genre set such a standard. It reminded me too that ‘Red Wind’ was adapted in
the Showtime television series Fallen Angels, with Danny Glover as Marlowe.
Worth seeing if you can find it. Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Creeping Siamese’ is
interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a clue-laden story that shows
how much he learned from traditional mysteries while his Continental Op was
setting a whole new standard of realism. And second, because you can see some
of the elements of this tale reappearing in THE MALTESE FALCON.
Gardner is a big name too, but for Perry Mason, not Ken Corning, though Corning
and his secretary Helen Vail are a lot like Mason and Della Street, but maybe 33
1/3 rpm faster. ‘Honest Money’ is a good yarn that has a little bit of the bite
of political corruption. Meanwhile, Horace McCoy’s ‘Frost Rides Alone’ is a
rather straight-forward tale of an airborne Texas Ranger that at first glance
may seem out of place in a hard-boiled anthology. Maybe that’s why it was
called THE CRIMEFIGHTERS! Yet as you read it, you sense its influence on Elmore
Leonard, and maybe it’s just because I wrote about Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY
FOR OLD MEN last month, but the setting is similar and the border bits are
effective in a very 1930s movie serial western way. So is George Harmon Coxe’s
story featuring ‘Flash’ Casey, the newspaper photographer: many of them were
made into B pictures, and this one moves with a fast pace that makes you long
for the good old days of yellow journalism. And there’s Cornell Woolrich’s’
‘Two Murders, One Crime’ lest you forget where his roots lay.
But it’s the
relative unknowns who make this anthology so impressive. Norbert Davis ought to
be better-remembered for things other than his novels about the detective pair
of Doan and Carstairs, Cartsairs being a Great Dane, but his humorous approach
never really appealled to Cap Shaw, who edited Black Mask in its glory days.
Still, ‘The Price Of A Dime’ featuring Hollywood detective Ben Shanley, is a
small jewel of a story, amusing and fast-paced. You wonder if Shanley is where
Robert Leslie Bellem got Dan Turner, his over-the-top hardboiled Hollywood dick.
Thomas Walsh had a long career as a novelist long after his pulp days ended, but
his very first Black Mask story, ‘Double Check’ is a classic inside heist story,
which ends in a wise-cracking shootout. Charles Booth’s ‘Stag Party’ is equally
entertaining, and William Rollins Jr.’s ‘Chicago Confetti’ reminds you just how
fast-paced and crackling first-person narration can be.
first-person narration, Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams is best-remembered
today as the inspiration for Mike Hammer, and ‘The Third Murderer’, a short
novel originally serialised in three issues of Black Mask, is a good example of
why Daly’s not remembered for much else today. Race was a ground-breaker in his
day, but the story and the writing are all over the place, something which got
more noticeable in Daly’s writing the longer the stories were. But it’s the
kind of thing anyone new to the pulps needs to experience, to get into the
mind-set which made Williams the readers’ favourite for many years.
disappointment. Frederick Nebel’s sombre cop Steve McBride and wise-cracking
newsman Kennedy are among my favourite Black Mask characters, but ‘Wise Guy’
isn’t one of their best outings. You can see the appeal, especially as McBride
holds sway throughout, but the spice is missing. Kennedy and McBride deserve
their own collection, and if no one wants to edit it, I’d volunteer happily!