Otto Penzler (ed.) | The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (Vintage)

bigbook-header.jpgNeed to bribe some lowlife? Give the gift that keeps on giving. Give the gift of murder.



The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age—The ’20s, ’30s & ’40s

1168 pgs; $25.00

Know a vegan that needs some meaty adventure to sink their teeth into? Or maybe a metrosexual that could use some five o’clock shadow and a rumpled business suit? Does the guy in the cubicle next to you need a spine straightening jolt of sordid conspiracy that burns like a shot of cheap gin? If that’s the case, brother, you need The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. Edited by Otto Penzler, this tombstone-sized tome collects the good, the bad, and the beautiful from three decades worth of pulp fiction.

Click for a larger image.No, not Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which is probably where most of you pikers first heard the phrase. Real pulp fiction. Here’s the skinny: during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, pulp magazines—so named for the cheap pulp paper they were printed on—packed more punch and pulled in more readers than can be easily imagined. In the days before the idiot box came to town, these stories served as a window on America’s steaming fleshpots, shady nightclubs, and blood-soaked streets. No big surprise, people loved it, and so did the writers. There was plenty of hack work to be had, but if you were good—and some of them were damn good—you could make yourself a nice bundle.

Working at a penny a word (and sometimes less), the writers were often as hard-boiled and booze-soaked as their heroes. Yet from such dubious beginnings, some of America’s literary greats fought their way up from obscurity, specifically Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Those names ring a bell? They should. Without them we wouldn’t have Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, the great-granddaddies of all streetwise detectives everywhere.

Yes, all the stars are shining in Penzler’s hulking compendium, the big constellations and the lesser lights as well. Our other suspects easily slip under today’s new-fangled radar, but they were the big guns of their day and many of them went on to similar successes in print, Tinseltown, or writing for television. Since it’s appropriate to the genre and there is just too much material to cover everything, let’s see some bullet points:


  • Perry Mason’s creator Erle Stanley Gardner presents the case for a Mason prototype, Ken Corning. Swap out the names and you get a new Perry Mason adventure, which is fine for Mason fans. I found other Gardner creations such as Ed Jenkins a.k.a. the Phantom Thief and the alluring Cat-Woman to be more intriguing.
  • William Irish, an alias of better known loner Cornell Woolrich, wrote the story that became Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Not a fan of happy endings, this hardcase dedicated stories to his typewriter and hotel room. Another Woolrich tale, The Dilemma of the Dead Lady, starts with a morbidly intimate murder and ends with a twist that O. Henry and Alfred Hitchcock could both appreciate. Like a mob hit, you either see the finish coming from a mile away or get completely blindsided.
  • Eavesdropping costs a small time blackmailer his life in The Price of a Dime by the tragic Norbert Davis, who mixed humor with bloody violence. After early successes Davis thought he was too good for the pulps that made his rep. When the "slick" magazines started rejecting his stories, he took his own life.
  • For fans of the genre’s more weirdly garbed characters, we have the Cobra and the Moon Man. Flip sides of the same coin, the Cobra is lawman by day and by night a costumed crimefighter armed with poison darts. The Moon Man is a police detective who (ahem!) moonlights as a strangely masked thief that preys upon the ultra-wealthy.
  • Pastorale leaves behind pulp’s New York-L.A. axis for rural Georgia. As with Paris in Dilemma of the Dead Lady and London in The House of Kaa, the change of scenery refreshes the palate. Indeed the southern gothic tones of Pastorale lend it a reality both brutal and banal.
  • A juvenile psychopath makes some memories in the chilling You’ll Always Remember Me. He also has one of the most memorable lines in the book, "One person more or less isn’t so important in the world anyway, no matter how good a guy he is."
  • Political maneuvering and a woman scorned lead to murder in Stag Party by Charles G. Booth, but which woman was scorned? Two femme fatales involved in a single murder manage to cloud the truth when an up and coming attorney drops dead from lead poisoning.

Personal favorites include the aforementioned Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Cat-Woman, and Woolrich’s The Dilemma of the Dead Lady. Other stand-outs are the last stand of Raoul Whitfield’s Kid Deth, Red Wind by Raymond Chandler and two of several tales by Dashiell Hammett, The Girl with the Silver Eyes and his previously unpublished Faith. Rough, uncut, and lacking the polish of Hammett’s published material Faith is still a small treasure to die for. Editor Penzler even throws in a few naughty comics for a laugh. Straight from the pages of Spicy Detective, Sally the Sleuth gets caught up in plenty of bodice ripping action.

What to avoid? The fairly straightforward adventure of Frost Rides Alone features two damsels, but without the moral ambiguity of Stag Party. It’s pretty simple, one of the girls is good and one of them isn’t. Carroll John Daly’s The Third Murderer packs less punch than other stories and comes in at twice the length. Skip this ambling horse and buggy ride and go for one of the more powerful roadsters. You can safely give The Devil’s Bookkeeper a miss as well. It also features two ladies, one of them cold-hearted mob accountant Clerical Clara, in a similar farce of good versus evil. A popular theme it seems. Eat your hearts out, Betty and Veronica.

If you aren’t sold on this bill of goods yet, there isn’t much more to tell. Well, there is one thing: Girls. Yes, I’ve already mentioned the ladies, but you don’t understand: there are tons of them.  Pulp fiction just wouldn’t work without the girls, its gun molls and Gal Fridays, the whores and madonnas alike. Clever, kind, beautiful, vicious, vivacious, and deadly, the pulps owe so much to the girls: The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Girl with the Silver Eyes, The Cat-Woman, the Lady from Hell, the Duchess, Countess d’Yls, even the ultra obscure Domino Lady and all their other sultry sisters. They are the chthonic earth mothers from which the blood of both passion and violence flow.

So give your favorite rum-soaked snitch the gift of murder. Even if these stories don’t stop their heart this book just might stop a bullet. | Greg O’Driscoll

Want to learn more? Click here to read an excerpt, courtesy of Random House!

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