Panty Raid?

Break The Black Panty Spy RIng Charles Copeland

I see this ‘silver age’ pulp interior duotone illustration all the time at Pinterest, Tumblr and wherever, though rarely credited. I suppose that sometimes it’s just because the posters are…well, lazy. But maybe in this case it’s because the source’s title is just so darn silly: A Charles Copeland illustration for “Break The Black Panty Spy Ring” by Maxwell Hamilton from the February 1960 issue of Stag magazine. And no, I personally don’t own any so-called ‘men’s sweats’ rags. Doesn’t mean I won’t browse the artwork from Copeland, Bill Edwards, Samson Pollen and others from that peculiar post-pulp-heyday genre. And that has to be one of the silliest titles among those magazines’ many, many outlandish story titles.

The Poetics Of Pulp.

Spicy Detective Reprint

The Poetics Of Pulp? A couple weeks ago, I commented about precisely that (link below).

Each mystery/crime fiction enthusiast (or writer) has to find their own way to process what’s merely retro-fun vs. what’s infuriating in mid-twentieth century pulp fiction. I noted in that prior post that W.M. Akers, author of the newly released novel Westside (just got my copy a few days ago) grappled with this very issue when using old pulp tales to do research for his re-imagined hard-boiled fantasy 1920’s New York City. The rampant racism, homophobia and relentless misogyny that was so pervasive in old pulp tales is hard to digest, yet the allure of the rapid-paced storytelling and slang-filled vintage prose can be so addictive.

It’s the language that always gets me, rarely the plots. Imagine yourself a 1930’s – 1950’s pulp scribe, churning out tales month after month for multiple titles and publishing syndicates in order to reliably put three squares on the table. The most imaginative writer might dream up some nifty set-ups and create a compelling scene or two for each story, but eventually it would become increasingly difficult to concoct genuinely unique solutions for so many mysteries. Inevitably, things start to become contrived, maybe even outlandish, if not downright silly.

So be it. While the best of the bunch might still suffer from those contrived plot resolutions, they were wrapped up nice-n-neat in wonderful language brimming with authentic (or entirely fabricated) street vernacular that could sometimes be — dare I say it – ‘pulp poetry’ when done right.

There aren’t many actual pulp magazines in my bookcases, not being a collector. Reprints and omnibus books? Those I have. Adventure House reprints of Spicy Detective and Spicy Mystery, for example, are a real treat since they’re cover-to-cover reissues of the original magazines, complete with all ads, illustrations and even the crummy two-column linotype typesetting that can make your eyeballs spin.

The July 1941 Spicy Detective Stories (a 2005 Adventure House reprint, 128 page glossy cover perfect-bound trade pb) has seven stories plus a four-page “Sally The Sleuth” comic strip. A couple of the stories are a snore, a couple are actual stinkers. But the two that lead off the book are gems (albeit gems with ridiculous conclusions). “The Second Slug” by Justin Case (get it?) is from that writer’s long-running “Eel” series about a gentleman thief of “courageous action and questionable morals”. Here the Eel earns an easy C-note just to accompany racketeer Knuckles Orio to an after-hours nightclub audition of a naïve young fan dancer, supposedly to ensure that Knuckles behaves himself. But it’s just a setup to provide the gangster with an alibi when his fiancée is murdered. The ‘Eel’ has to keep the law at bay and duke it out with Knuckles’ thugs, but manages to romance the young fan dancer while solving the crime. Some clues and even the final resolution are a bit far-fetched, but what makes the fast-paced story sing is the Damon Runyon style prose. ‘Justin Case’ – one of several pen names used by writer High B. Cave – was an ardent fan of the Bard of Broadway’s stylish “present-tense, first-person narrative style”.

Next up is Robert Leslie Bellem with a Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective story, “Death By Arrangement”. Bellem’s Dan Turner tales are notorious for logic-defying solutions to their crimes, and this one’s no different, a spin on the locked-room mystery with a pistol rigged up to a grand piano’s keyboard. I adore Dan Turner pulp stories and even the Dan Turner comics, though I’m tempted to skip right over the final paragraphs or panels when the crimes are finally solved. But Bellem’s language always gives me a thrill. Here’s the opening of “Death By Arrangement”, where the Tinsel Town gumshoe has just arrived at a Hollywood bigwig’s swanky cocktail party:

“The read-haired cupcake in the low cut emerald evening gown dished me a kiss that jostled me all the way down to my fallen arches. And then somebody hung a hand on my shoulder, spun me around and measured me for a swift poke on the horn.” Dan recovers his composure before returning the blow. “But I braked my duke when I tabbed the bozo who was trying to paste a mouse on my smeller…it isn’t polite to lower the boom on a half-pint drip like him, not with my dimensions. You don’t drive tacks with a sledgehammer.”

 I can only fantasize about crafting a phrase as cool (and as corny) as “paste a mouse on my smeller”.

Adolphe Barreaux’ Sally The Sleuth series was a Spicy Detective staple with two to four page B&W comic strips in each issue. In “Dangerous Delivery”, Sally investigates a refugee murdered over a rare stamp worth $35,000, and of course manages to end up in trouble and out of her clothes by the second page. This July 1941 Spicy Detective issue’s cover by Allen Anderson depicts a damsel in distress who could almost be Sally The Sleuth herself, and not unlike Sally, isn’t waiting to be rescued but using a conveniently placed candle to burn through her bonds…and also just like Sally, is doing so in powder blue silkies.

Hate ‘em. Love ‘em. Or simply find a way to compartmentalize the vintage pulps to process the bad and savor the good. Me, I’ll stay conflicted even while binging on the ‘poetry of pulp’.

https://wordpress.com/post/thestilettogumshoe.com/1841

Problematic Pulp Poetry? 

Black Mask - May

Pulp poetry. Hmmm…

Sometimes, they creep out of nowhere and catch you unawares, even though you really shouldn’t be surprised. You’re enjoying a classic film noir or crime caper flick when suddenly (incredibly, for what was then considered comic relief) a grotesque bit of racial/ethnic stereotyping intrudes. It was just a few weeks ago that I watched Raoul Walsh’s 1941 High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino on TCM’s Saturday Night Noir Alley feature, having forgotten all about the scenes with Willie Best playing ‘Algernon’, the mountain resort’s resident ‘step-n-fetchit’ style porter/handyman. The bits are hardly unique, but still made me squirm and were almost enough to ruin the viewing experience. I still adore the film. I mean: Bogart and Lupino, come on.

But…

Detective-Story-April-9-1932

Whether it’s a vintage movie, novel, comic, pulp story or even some 1950’s/60’s television shows, repellant racial/ethnic stereotypes rear up out of nowhere. Often, they’re not even intended to be demeaning, and that casual indifference almost makes them worse. At the same time, the prevailing dismissiveness about virtually all female characters in most 20th century mystery/crime fiction and film is so overwhelming that we can almost fail to recognize it. It just…is. Women (sometimes, even if billed as the lead) are relegated to secondary characters at best, mere eye candy, damsels in distress or potential victims, more commonly. Gay/lesbian characters? Well, barely acknowledged in retro film or TV, of course, and deployed mostly in vintage sleaze novels for titillation, popping up in vintage crime fiction as caricatures or presumed villains.

Different times, different culture. It was what it was.

Saucy Movie Tales - June

Nowhere is this more apparent than in mid-20thcentury pulp fiction – specifically, the 1930’s through 1950’s mystery/crime pulp fiction magazines. Inevitably, a crime/pulp/noir fan has to wonder: How can I possibly enjoy these films, novels, magazines and comics when so many are riddled with disappointing ethnic/racial/gender dismissiveness, or worse, utterly offensive stereotypes? If I’m enjoying these works, even in part, isn’t that some kind of implicit endorsement?

hardboiled noir - problematic art

W.M. Akers questions this in his terrific piece from the 5.10.19 Crime Reads  (crimereads.com, link below), Hardboiled Noir, Pulp Favorites, And Problematic Art,  subtitled: “Reckoning With Hateful Attitudes In Classic Crime Fiction”. Akers’ own first novel, the historical-fantasy Westside just released in May 2019, deals with amateur sleuth Gilda Carr in a re-imagined 1920’s New York City, and he explains how he turned to vintage pulps to capture the feel of the era, “the same way I used old newspapers and pre-code movies and Joseph Mitchell essays and any other scraps from the period that I could find as a portal to a city that, if it ever really existed, doesn’t anymore”. He points specifically to a Theodore Tinsley (creator of the groundbreaking 1930’s era Carrie Cashin female detective character) story from a 1934 Black Mask pulp magazine issue, “Smoke”, featuring the sleuthing NYC columnist Jerry Tracy. The tale, one of 25 Jerry Tracy stories the prolific Tinsley wrote, is tainted by casual racism and sprinkled with overtly offensive stereotypes. So Akers asks, “In a moment when lovers of problematic art are asked to be more critical of their taste than ever before, it is worth asking what it takes to enjoy sloppy pulp fiction in 2019 – and why it’s worth the effort.”

True Jan 1939

Akers realizes that each film viewer or story reader will need to arrive at their own conclusions and react accordingly, whether by foregoing the material entirely, merely ignoring the objectionable content, or finding some way to process it. He still finds much to inspire him in these 60 – 90 year old pieces. I get that, because I do, too. I won’t ignore their intrinsic flaws, which aren’t limited to ethnic/racial/gender issues, but also include outlandish plots, padded word counts, copycat characters and more.

But the language always lures me in. Give me any old mystery/crime fiction pulp reprint or omnibus collection and I guarantee that the period slang and vintage word-smithing will hook me, from their nearly comical descriptions of hard-to-choreograph action scenes, to snappy banter and dialog sprinkled with authentic vintage street talk, to frequent but cautiously handled love scenes and female character depictions, which can border on the surreal or just plain pervy and fetishistic. I’m hooked, I’m an addict, I admit it.

Pulp poetry? In a way, I guess that’s what it is. At least for me. So then call me a pulp poetry sucker if you insist, and I won’t argue, despite all the objectionable content that may be surrounding it.

Some months ago I speculated about nagging issues of complicity, sparked in part by a Megan Abbott essay about the then recent release of Raymond Chandler’s The Annotated Big Sleep (link below). The issues here are much the same. And as someone currently working with writing projects in a mid-twentieth century setting, it’s more than a matter of reacting to random squirm-worthy content in my recreational reading or film viewing, but becomes a challenge to achieve some sense of period authenticity without reinforcing outmoded attitudes or reviving offensive content in my own writing. I’m certain that I’m not alone in this.

Westside

Well, one thing I definitely took away from W.M. Akers’ Crime Reads essay: I need to get his novel Westside,  because it sounds pretty cool! I’ll be checking the indie bookstore on my route home after work today, and if unavailable, will be online for a moment or two this evening to order it. I definitely want to read about Gilda Carr in Aker’s reimagining of 1920’s New York.

https://crimereads.com/hardboiled-noir-pulp-favorites-and-problematic-art/

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/01/03/the-annotated-big-sleep-and-uneasy-feelings-of-complicity/

I Was A Hideout Honey

Howell Dodd 1951

As is often the case with vintage pulps, it’s not always clear which of the bloodcurdling or teasingly sexy stories the cover art actually depicts. Face it: Sometimes the cover art was commissioned or purchased without any regard for that issue’s individual stories, or before they were even written.

Here, I’m going with “I Was A Hideout Honey” from this 1951 issue of True Cases Of Women In Crime. The classic Howell Dodd gouache illustration (I’ve also seen it credited to George Gross…couldn’t be, though. Right? Experts, please correct me if I’m wrong!) is crammed full of every genre trope and cliché you can ask for: Cigarette dangling from his lips, a bad guy smirks while he fingers his .45. The end table’s littered with an empty glasses, another cigarette smoking away in the ashtray, so you can almost smell that dingy old room. On the divan, the ‘hideout honey’ herself glances his way, resplendent in her filmy negligee, lacy black slip, coyly fussing with her nylons. Who knows what crime’s gone down already or is about to be committed, but Dodd sure nailed it all with this cover art.

True Cases Of Women In Crime 1951

 

Bill Edwards’ Black & Whites

bill edwards 1964 babe magazine #4

I’ve posted Bill Edwards illustrations before, and will again, hopefully along with some explanatory background on this truly intriguing artist, once I get the time.

Some have claimed that the figures in his full color cover art can look a little stiff or his backgrounds too pedestrian compared to some of his contemporaries, which include the genre’s masters like McGinnis, Maguire and others. I don’t now about that, not being an art critic. I do know that his B&W and duotone interior illustrations — surely done fast, probably not for mega-bucks and normally for the bottom-feeders of the fast-fading pulp magazine marketplace — the so-called ‘mens sweats’ – are full of verve and manage a lot of pop with only a one-color palette. Period-perfect retro-sauciness, too, don’t you think? This particular piece is a Bill Edwards gouache on board for a 1964 issue of Babe magazine.

‘Babe’ magazine? Yikes.

Can’t Go Wrong With EQMM

EQM519-Cover

I understand why publishers prefer readers to subscribe to their magazines, which can sidestep costly distribution and retailer discounting and enable better readership forecasting and print runs. But I happen to like buying my Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (still called the original title Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine on the perfect-bound spine) at the store. There’s something delightfully retro about those digest-sized books with their flimsy cover stock and pulpy interior paper. Paying a cashier (in cash) and walking out with a copy just feels right, somehow. Like I should be buying a pack of filterless Luckies and some Beechnut gum to go along with it.

EQMM March April 2019

EQMM has been at it for nearly eighty years now. That’s a heck of a lot of crime fiction, and almost too many writers to count when you think about it. I’ve heard some folks dismiss the publication as too soft, old fashioned, or even ‘cozy’, though my response to that is simply, “Hey, have you actually read it?”

The fun of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is that you get to read a little bit of everything, and can do so at a reasonable price. I don’t have the new May/June 2019 issue yet and actually just finished the March/April issue, with tales from Bill Pronzini, Joyce Carol Oates and Carolyn Hart. Harley Mazuk’s “The Road From Manzanar” was a sprawling and thought-provoking piece of literary fiction about a former volunteer in the Spanish Civil War now faced with combat again as the U.S. enters WWII, and Mazuk somehow managed to condense this amazing tale down to 18 perfect pages. R. J. Koreto’s “The Girl On The Roof”, a delightfully dark bit of adultery and murder with a good ‘gotcha’ ending, and Robert S. Levinson’s bittersweet Golden Age Hollywood tale “All About Eve” were particular favorites this issue.

In a way, EQMM and the companion digest, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine are the closest thing we still have to the old pulp magazines. Sure, I could get either for my phone or tablet. But what’s the fun of that? The print digests simply feel right in my hands. There’s that subtle but tangible scent of that newsprint paper stock. And I’m still hoping I’ll stumble across a downtown newsstand or Mom-n-Pop corner store where I can buy my next copy…maybe with a pack of filterless Luckies and some Beechnut gum.

Heck, I don’t even smoke filterless Luckies…

EQMM Dec 1953

 

 

Who’s Rescuing Who? Just Askin’…

CNDA G-Men Detective Nov 1948 copy

Pulp magazine cover illustrations can be beautiful, lurid, hokey or sexy, though they don’t always make perfect sense. Still, it can be fun to decode them. Browse a few and see for yourself if you aren’t occasionally befuddled by just who’s the hero, who’s the villain and who’s the victim. Case in point: The November 1948 issue of G-Men Detective with a colorful action-filled illustration by pulp-maestro Rudolph Belarski (A Canadian edition shown here, I think).

 Scenario 1: Racing to free the woman on the sofa, the woman in the red dress has just removed her gag and is about to untie her friend when the gangster, kidnapper or generic gun-wielding gangsterish bad guy appears. Or…

 Scenario 2: That green scarf wasn’t a gag at all. The fellow with the cigarette tucked between his lips and brandishing the .45 automatic is no gangster. He’s a cop, private eye or generic good-guy, arriving just in the nick of time to rescue the the blonde haired woman in white who’s struggling on the sofa, about to be strangled by the evil woman in red. Or…

Oh hell, you could come up with another scenario for this one.

A Noir-ish Icon

Mort Kunstler

An often-seen and often-ogled illustration by pulp-art maestro Mort Kunstler, who’s still with us, I believe, and in his early nineties. Kunstler’s pulp magazine, paperback covers, and men’s ‘sweats’ magazine cover art and interior illustrations may be cherished by fans of all that’s retro, kitschy and sleazy, but the artist would understandably prefer to be known for his incredible historical art, his many epic Civil War paintings in particular. Nonetheless, this bit of 20th century naughtiness is from a February 1970 issue of Men magazine and seen often enough to almost be a noir-culture icon, replete with a spartan room, a rugged shoulder-holstered bad guy with gun in hand and a table covered with stolen loot. Just how many gals were still rolling on nylons by 1970, I don’t know, but some pulpy clichés almost demand to be retained, don’t they?

Men 1970

The Dames

pulp fiction the dames

Otto Penzler’s Pulp Fiction: The Dames is a follow-up to his previous anthologies Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters and Pulp Fiction: The Villains. My copy shown here is a 2008 Quercus UK edition, a big fat 500+ page trade paperback which includes 22 stories plus two saucy Sally The Sleuth comic strips from 1930’s – 40’s pulp fiction magazines, including the top tier mags like Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, right down to the bottom rung in publications like Gun Molls, and Spicy Romantic Adventures. Penzler’s preface and Laura Lippman’s well-written introduction frame the material well. As she writes, “The pulps of the early 20thcentury will never be mistaken for proto-feminist documents…(but) there is just enough kink in these archetypes of girlfriend/hussy/sociopath to hint at broader possibilities for the female of the species.” Indeed, the roots of V.I. Washawski, Kinsey Millhone and even Lippman’s own Tess Monaghan can be traced right back here.

Pulp Fiction The Dames Back

The anthology opens with a terrific Cornell Woolrich 1937 tale, Angel Face, about a chorus girl trying to keep her wayward younger brother out of trouble, but when he’s framed for murder, she ignores the cops and does her own sleuthing to nab the mobster she’s sure did the deed. It may end abruptly and even a bit implausibly, but every sentence absolutely sings with vintage slang and retro word-smithing that’s a dark delight. That’s followed by Leslie T. White’s Chosen To Die from 1934 with husband and wife team of P.I. Duke Martindel and attorney Phyllis Martindel, the well-intended gumshoe relying on his savvy spouse to get him out of jams with the law. The book includes stories from Dashiell Hammett, a Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady tale, a T.T. Flynn Trixie Meehan story and even Raymond Chandler’s 1935 Killer In The Rain, which he cannibalized (along with material from other short stories) for The Big Sleep. Read it and see if you don’t spot some mighty familiar scenes and passages, even if the private eye isn’t named Marlowe.

‘The Dames’ from pulp fiction aren’t all snoopy reporters, private investigators or even uniformed cops (rare as those were). The bad girlz might be some of the more memorable characters in this anthology, from gun molls to gang leaders. Unlike Penzler’s recent – and enormous – The Big Book Of Female Detectives (see link below for a post on that book) this one’s strictly vintage pulp fiction. Which isn’t always literary, can sometimes be a little squirm-worthy, but is almost always entertaining, and the female private eyes, girl reporters, sleuthing secretaries and, yes — even former chorus girls – make for one terrific tale after another.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/03/09/the-big-book-of-female-detectives/

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