Foreword by Otto Penzler
Like jazz, the hard-boiled private detective is entirely an American invention, and it was given life in the pages of pulp magazines. Pulp now is a nearly generic term, frequently misused to indicate hack work of inferior literary achievement. While that often may be accurate, pulp was not intended to describe literary excellence or lack thereof, but was derived from the word pulpwood, which is the very cheap paper that was used to produce popular magazines. These, in turn, were the offspring of “dime novels,” mainly magazine-sized mystery, Western, and adventure novels produced for young or unsophisticated readers.
After World War I, the popularity of American pulpwood magazines increased rapidly, reaching their peak of success in the 1920s and 1930s, as more than 500 titles a month hit the newsstands. With their reasonable prices (mostly a dime or fifteen cents a copy), brilliantly colored covers depicting lurid and thrilling scenes, and a writing style that emphasized action and adventure above philosophizing and introspection, millions of copies of this new, uniquely American literature were sold every week.
At first, the magazines sought to publish something for all tastes, so a single issue might feature a Western story, an aviation adventure, a mystery, a science fiction tale, and a sports report. New titles came along and most of the old ones quickly morphed into special interest publications. The very first issues of Black Mask, for example, often had Western scenes on the covers, but by the mid 1920s it had become devoted almost entirely to mystery fiction.
While there were magazines designated to stories of railroads, jungle adventure, “spicy” stories, romance, horror, and any other subject that enterprising publishers thought would attract a readership, the most successful pulps were those featuring superheroes and detective fiction (with the notable exception of Weird Tales, the long-lived pulp devoted to fantasy and science fiction).
One of the elements that made the detective magazines so popular was the heroic figures in the center of the action. The hard-boiled cop or, especially, private detective was the idealization of the lone individual, representing justice and decency, pitted against virulent gangs, corrupt politicians, or other agencies who violated that sense of goodness with which most readers identified. The best of these crime-fighting tough guys became series characters, taking on one group of thugs after another, always emerging victorious in spite of the almost hopeless odds he (and these protagonists were almost always male) encountered.
Many of the most memorable of these protagonists became staples of Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, and the other major pulp publications. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams, Frank Gruber’s Oliver Quade, Ramon Decolta’s (Raoul Whitfield) Jo Gar, Norbert Davis’s Max Latin, George Harmon Coxe’s Flash Casey, W. T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox, Robert Reeves’s Cellini Smith, and Frederick L. Nebel’s Cardigan are just a few of the detectives who appeared month after month to the delight of a reading public whose appetite for this sort of no-nonsense, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later fiction remained unsated until the end of the second World War.
Crimefighters in the pulps were seldom the sensitive type who understood that a difficult childhood or an unloving grandmother were responsible for the violence of the criminals with whom they came into contact. No, his role was to battle bad guys, and he did it without fear, without pity, and without remorse. It was a black-and-white world in the pulps, a simple conflict between the forces of goodness and virtue and those who sought to plunder, harm, and kill the innocent. In the pages of the pulps, and between the covers of this book, Good is triumphant over Evil. Perhaps that is the key to the enormous popularity they enjoyed for so many years. Depression-era crowds eagerly snatched up each new episode of their favorite crime-fighting protagonist, rooting for and identifying with the stalwart men of action and intellect.
In addition to the hero, there was another essential element in each adventure–a monstrous opponent. For a hero to be worthy of the name, it was utterly required that he do battle with a villain so despicable, so vile, so conscienceless that only a man of supreme strength of body and mind, and an incorruptible soul, could hope to emerge victorious. Here, in The Crimes of Richmond City, you will see the almost overwhelming odds faced by MacBride and Kennedy as they attempt to right the wrongs they are forced to encounter. Other detectives, in other tales, had no lesser difficulties to overcome.
The pulps were also home to a different kind of crook, and readers were able to identify with them, too. These larcenous entities were admittedly thieves, but not your common, or garden variety, robber.
Virtually all the thieves who became successful series characters in the pulps (and, indeed, in all of crime fiction) were Robin Hood—type crooks. They did not commit violent acts, and they stole from the rich. Not just any rich person, mind you, but always someone who had come by his fortune illicitly. This was an exceptionally agreeable manner of behaving during the Depression era, when literally millions of Americans were jobless, standing in slow-moving bread lines to procure minimal sustenance for themselves and their families. The impoverished multitudes blamed the actions of Wall Street brokers, bankers, big businessmen, and factory owners for their plight, so what could be more attractive than to see someone break into their posh apartments and crack their safes, or nick the diamond necklaces from the fat necks of their bloated wives? Furthermore, these crooks generally donated their swag to charity or to a worthy individual (after deducting a sufficient amount to ensure their own rather lavish lifestyle, of course).
Perhaps not strangely, but nevertheless in apparent contradiction to their chosen careers, a large percentage of these redistributionist thieves, after several successful adventures, become detectives. Often they are suspected of a murder or another crime which they did not commit, and so must discover the true culprit in order to exonerate themselves. In other instances, they have friends in the police department who need their help. A long tradition of criminals behaving in this manner predates the pulp era. The American master criminal, Frederick Irving Anderson’s creation, the Infallible Godahl (not included in this collection because he did not appear in the pulps), was so brilliant that he planned and executed capers so meticulously that he was never arrested. Eventually, the police paid him a large stipend to not commit crimes, since they knew they could never catch him and wanted to avoid the embarrassment of seeing headlines with yet another successful burglary. It is left to your own ethical proclivities to determine whether you identify with the safecrackers, con men, burglars, and villains or with the police who are paid to catch them.
Women were not significant in the early years of the pulp magazines. Hulbert Footner’s Rosika Storey was a successful character in the pages of Argosy, eventually appearing as the prime figure in six books beginning in the late 1920s, but she had little company. Black Mask seldom used stories in which women were featured, rarely bought stories by women writers, and never had a female series character. The major authors didn’t mind writing about women; they merely wrote about them, sometimes with great prominence, as the catalyst for all the ensuing action. Also, in more cases than not, they were the victims, either innocents or bad girls who got what was coming to them (according to the murderer).
When girls (and they were usually called girls, or dolls, or, heaven help us, frails, or some term of endearment like honey or sugar or baby or cutie) took the role of detective, they tended to be acceptable to male readers mainly when they were assistants, girlfriends, or professional sidekicks, such as reporters. Their roles were predictable in most stories. If they weren’t present as comic relief, they needed to be rescued. It would be impossible to calculate the number of pretty young things who were kidnapped or held hostage until our hero burst through a door on the last page to save her–often from a fate worse than death. One needs only to look at the colorful cover paintings that adorned the magazines for evidence of this cliché. It is a rare cover indeed that does not display a buxom beauty in a low-cut dress or sweater, frequently in tatters, being menaced by a thug or gang of thugs.
Some of the lesser pulps, those that paid even less than the standard penny a word, began to feature women in the second decade of the detective pulps, the 1930s, while those that sought an audience with racier material, such as Gun Molls, Saucy Stories, and Spicy Detective, had even more ample reason to feature them. In these pages, opportunities for placing luscious young beauties in grave peril of violation were rampant, providing titillation to young male readers who hid their ten-cent purchases inside newspapers or more respectable journals.
One role in crime fiction in which women have been featured with some regularity is as the criminals. The pages of the pulps are rich with female jewel thieves of a certain elegance who seem always to be in formal attire at a country house party or a penthouse soiree. They function largely in the same manner as their male counterparts, though they are often required to use their seductive beauty to escape capture. Tough broads appeared in later pulps, either as out-and-out hoodlums or, more frequently but no less dangerously, as gun molls for their gangster boyfriends.
All types of female detectives and crooks who first saw the light of day in pulp magazines appear in section three of this book. There are independent private investigators, assistants, rogues, victims, molls, police officers, and innocent bystanders. They are young and old, good looking and plain, funny and dour, brave and timid, violent and gentle, honest and crooked. In short, very much like their male counterparts.
While there is more than one way to judge the success of a pulp magazine, including longevity, circulation, and profitability, the undisputed champion in the area of having developed the greatest writers and having had the most long-lasting literary influence was Black Mask, and most of the stories in this collection were originally published in its pages. Had it done no more than publish Carroll John Daly’s first story, Black Mask would have achieved immortality. On May 15, 1923, with the publication of “Three Gun Terry,” the hard-boiled private eye made his first appearance, quickly followed by Daly’s creation of Race Williams, the first series character in hard-boiled fiction.
While Daly was truly a hack writer devoid of literary pretension, aspiration, and ability, he laid the foundation for the form that continues to flourish to this day in the work of such writers as Robert B. Parker, Joe Gores, James Crumley, Bill Pronzini, Michael Connelly, and James Lee Burke (although the latter two employ series characters who are cops, they function in the same individualistic way that private investigators do, and frequently use the same smart-aleck speech patterns as their kindred freelancers do).
Dashiell Hammett produced his first Continental Op story for Black Mask later in the same year, and the future of the genre was secure, as the editors and the reading public quickly recognized that this was serious literature in the guise of popular fiction. Every significant writer of the pulp era worked for Black Mask, including Paul Cain, Horace McCoy, Frederick L. Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Erle Stanley Gardner, Charles G. Booth, Roger Torrey, Norbert Davis, George Harmon Coxe, and, of course, the greatest of them all, Raymond Chandler.
It was the era between the two World Wars in which the pulps flourished, their garish covers enticing readers and their cheap prices providing mass entertainment through the years of the Great Depression. It has been widely stated that the advent of television tolled the death knell for the pulps, but it is not true. They were replaced by the creation and widespread popularity of paperback books, virtually unknown as a mass market commodity before World War II.
There is quotable prose in these pages, and characters that you will remember, and fascinating evocations of another time and place, but the writers mainly had the goal of entertaining readers when these stories were produced. No reasonable reader will ever complain that the stories are slow moving, that they lack action and conflict–in short, that they are dull. Many of the contributors to this book went on to successful writing careers in other arenas, including Hollywood, but here is the real stuff: stories written at breakneck speed and designed to be read the same way.