Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences Although the genre has acquired a trashy reputation, pulp fiction is full of language worth relishing, says Otto Penzler editor of The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. Magazines that sold for just a few cents in the '20s killed excessive prose and gave us the hard-boiled detective that continues to fill pop culture today.
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Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences

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Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences

Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences

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This morning, we're featuring some thrilling tales from a bygone era, from the days when men were men, and women were women. These stories are collected in "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age."

Here's how one begins "Stag Party," published in 1933.

(Reading) Stirring his coffee, McFee - Blue Shield Detective Agency - thought he'd seen the girl somewhere. She had dull red hair. She had a subtle red mouth and experienced eyes with green lights in them. That was plenty. But over her provocative beauty, lay a hard sophistication as brightly polished as a new nickel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OTTO PENZLER (Editor, "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age"): They just don't write it like that anymore.

MONTAGNE: No, they don't.

Otto Penzler edited the "Big Book of Pulps," and he owns the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.

Good morning.

Mr. PENZLER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: You've divided this massive collection into three categories: crime fighters, villains, and dames. Those would be the three key ingredients of all pulp fiction.

Mr. PENZLER: That's largely true. A pulp story without a detective and, obviously, somebody for him to do battle with is unthinkable and I can't remember reading a pulp story that didn't have a dame - either a good girl or a bad girl.

MONTAGNE: Here's a perfect line - I didn't like his face and I told him so.

Mr. PENZLER: Carroll John Daly.

MONTAGNE: From the story "The Third Murderer." Now, Carroll John Daly is not a name that jumps out and as the way, say, Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would today. But it turns out he has quite a place in the history of pulp.

Mr. PENZLER: In a way, he has the most important place. He created the hard-boiled private eye character. And then he followed that with writing more than one story about the same character, so he created the first series - private detective in literature.

MONTAGNE: This era, the 1920s, '30s and '40s - it gave rise to this form. Why?

Mr. PENZLER: I think it was really the beginning of a different kind of writing. The kind of writing in the world of literature, world of books that everyone had been familiar with was Henry James and long sentences, long paragraphs. And then Ernest Hemingway came along, and Dashiell Hammett came along, and they started to write short clipped, quick sentences that didn't require lots and lots of description, and the pulps provided the perfect springboard for that kind of literary tone.

MONTAGNE: You've got the book with you, right?

Mr. PENZLER: I do.

MONTAGNE: Read for us the favorite Dashiell Hammett moment in there.

Mr. PENZLER: There a lot of paragraphs in Hammett that stand out. But, generally, you need the whole concept of a longer piece because so much has told in dialogue. Let me give you just a little bit in the story "The Creeping Siamese."

(Reading) He opened the door briskly and then hesitated, standing in the doorway, holding the door open, turning the knob back and forth with one boney hand. There was no indecision in his face. It was ugly and grim. And its expression was the expression of a man who is remembering something disagreeable.

Don't you like that?


Mr. PENZLER: You get the look of that face without needing four paragraphs to describe what did I actually look like.

MONTAGNE: All of this pulp fiction rested on one other character and that for the most part was a city, with a place that they were in. Raymond Chandler, of course, that was Los Angeles. And in one of his stories in his book, "Red Wind," he begins the story with weather, some very quintessential aspects of southern California. Would you read that first paragraph for us?

Mr. PENZLER: I'm glad you asked that because it's my favorite story in this entire book.

(Reading) There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband's neck. Anything can happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PENZLER: I have many friends in California who, every time there are fires or the Santa Anas blow, they refer to "Red Wind" as if it's a red-wind-night here, you know, I'm not going to turn my back on my wife.

MONTAGNE: Put the knives away.

Mr. PENZLER: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, but - you know, it could be another city - fog in San Francisco, rainy streets of New York. It seems that the city has to evoke a sense of menace.

Mr. PENZLER: Well, big cities do evoke a sense of menace. Remember, it's the time of the Great Depression for much of this, a time where a lot of people didn't have a lot of money and gangsters flourished during the Prohibition era. And all of that contributed to a sense of menace in the city, but it's only in a few cities. It's a very rare story indeed in the pulps where you would find something happening in Cincinnati or Indianapolis. It's New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. Apart from that, the rest of the country doesn't really exist.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's a word for women that get used in the pulps along with, you know, girls, and dolls, and dames. And the word is very unfamiliar to us now - is frails.

Mr. PENZLER: I love the word frail. It's not a word that I would use, although I have used doll, much to the disgust of my wife.

MONTAGNE: Well, put frail in a conversation because I can't - I'm not sure if it's…

Mr. PENZLER: It's just referring to a woman. The frail walked into the room or the blond frail sat at the desk. Skirt is used frequently to mean a woman.

MONTAGNE: What was the target audience? Who were they writing for?

Mr. PENZLER: The pulps that I'm using in this book, the crime-mystery pulps, were written for men - generally younger men, generally blue-collar. You know, the covers were very alluring, almost inevitably. There was a beautiful young woman, partially exposed, and frequently in a torn sweater or dress and looking menaced, and here is the hero coming to save her. Well, this was a very attractive image for a young guy at the news stand figuring out what he was going to read.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. PENZLER: This was fun. Thank you a lot.

MONTAGNE: Otto Penzler is editor of "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: To read "Stag Party" beginning to end, the story that launched an influential detective series at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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