About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Pulp Fiction That's Damned Hard to Beat

Beat to a Pulp, 
Edited by David Cranmer

Before I got hired by the San Francisco Chronicle, I spent a year writing for Argosy and Saga, two of the old-fashioned men's pulp magazines that dated back to the 1930s and 1940s.

Growing up in a Kitt mobile home as a blue collar kid, I read a lot of the articles and short stories those two mags (and their counterparts True, Male and Cavalier) served up each month.

I used to call them, "hairy-chested men's magazines" to differentiate them from "bare-breasted men's magazines" such as Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler.

Their cover art and general orientation was consciously aimed at the testosterone brigade and often featured rugged fellows in khaki using machetes to hack their way through jungles or tricked out in SCUBA equipment and spear guns to face impossibly large tiger sharks.

But if you actually read their contents carefully, the main thing that set these titles apart from Reader's Digest, Colliers the Saturday Evening Post and Look was the square jawed artwork and masculine topics they explored.

They actually ran general interest fiction -- western stories, crime tales, the occasional horror yarn and science fiction piece -- that wasn't exclusively oriented toward men; they did travel articles that, once you removed the superheated prose that made a visit to Denmark sound like a cruise up the Zambezi, could have appeared in the Sunday rotogravure section of your daily newspaper.  

All of which is a long-winded way to say they were pretty much like the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. And, in the case of Cavalier, Saga, True and Argosy, they were actually their direct descendants.

I have just spent three weeks digging through examples of the electronic pulp publications that have appeared in the last few years, courtesy of the E-book: 

*Thuglit, a cybernetic mystery magazine most like the Black Mask of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Hughes; 

*Blood & Tacos, which satirizes knuckle-dragging pulp heros such as The Destroyer, the Death Merchant and the Executioner of the 1970s and 1980s; 

* Beat to a Pulp, which we review this week.

In addition, I have been looking at anthologies of stories from Shotgun Honey and Crime Factory, two other electronic pulp publications. I conclude, based on what I have been reading, that the pulp tradition is alive and well.

Of these 'Zines, Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled is the closest to the pulps I wrote for. The three "hardboiled" issues I examined have two western yarns ("Hard Time" by Tom Roberts and "The Wicked" by Edward Grainger, a nom de plume for BTAP editor David Cranmer), a space opera ("Down, Down, Down, Burns, Burns, Burns" by Jedidiah Ayres), a couple of Vault of Horror style tales of terror ("It's Coming" by Jen Conley and "A Small Thing at the Devil's Punchbowl" by Kent Gowran), and several violent hillbilly thrillers (e.g.: "Black Eyed Susan" by Thomas Pluck and "Gunpoint" by Fred Blosser).

In addition, Volume One contains what I consider to be one of the best essays on the pulp sensibility I have read, "Introduction: Hard Times," by Ron Scheer, himself a writer of Noir Westerns.

Scheer notes that the initial rise of pulp corresponds with the collapse of the progressive movement and the onset of World Wars One and Two. These societal shifts gave rise to public cynicism about democratic institutions, the legitimacy of governmental and corporate authority, and the undermining of traditional moral strictures.

"The new order now revealed in fiction [was] corrupt, hypocritical and complacently indifferent to the consequences," he writes. "The bleakness of that vision found expression in a break from literary styles that had served the past. Others no doubt preceded them, but Hemingway's and Hammett's influence was profound and is still felt today."

The terse, tough and anomic style has enjoyed a renaissance, Scheer says, because the conditions that gave rise to the original pulp fiction are back.

"Government and the media are unduly influenced by big corporations," Scheer writes. "We hover on the brink of economic collapse. International relations are confounded by terrorism and loose nukes. Public trust is abused right, left and center. Our government, we're told, is broken, while the rich get super-rich and the poor get poorer."

"Reading hardboiled fiction written today . . . we see reflected the same conditions that gave birth to hardboiled fiction almost a century ago. No surprise that hardboiled has found a renaissance among a new generation of writers. Like its antecedents, it is partly escapist and tongue in cheek. But read the news, and try to believe it's not a fitting response to the new normal."

David Cranmer

Almost all the stories contained in these volumes demonstrate Scheer's point. The main characters -- even the protagonists -- operate outside the traditional moral code. Authority figures are corrupt. The actions they take are dark and cynical, shrouded in an atmosphere of doom. The language is blunt and sometimes crude, as befits the underlying philosophy it expresses.

For example, in "Vengeance on the 18th" by Beat to a Pulp editor Cranmer, the owner of a golf course takes revenge against a close friend for sleeping with his wife. Unfortunately his shot ends up in a bunker -- and there are no Mulligans in this match.

".38 Special," a terse little tale by Amy Grech, author of The Art of Deception, is a nice piece about a man who's lucky at love and even luckier at Russian Roulette. He shoots his load, then his lover shoots hers -- with lethal results.

In Garnett Elliott's "The Tachibana Hustle," a pair of Yakuza who work for an aging Japanese mob boss try to hijack a warehouse filled with the PAC Man machines that are putting their Oyabun out of business.

There is an excellent showdown in which one of the Kobun (underlings) parallels the action in the videogame while fighting off several foes, complete with a pit stop for narcotic and methamphetamine "power pellets" that give him the ability to overcome his rivals.

When the dust settles, of course, the Oyabun's plan to monopolize the PAC man video game business goes awry.
These stories are all excellent. Much of the writing is as good as anything produced by the historical masters of the pulp genre. Thus, "The Speed Date" by Kieran Shea, author of the hardboiled sci-fi mash up Koko Takes a Holiday, is as breezy as the hook-up it takes its name from, and ends with a slick twist that will leave you with a sadistic smile on your face.

And "Doe in Headlights" by Patricia Abbott, author of Home Invasion, has some truly memorable lines, including this one:

"The same night they had sex for the first time. She could still smell Ruthie on his sheets. And it wasn't perfume since Ruthie didn't wear any. Ruthie on the Sheets, as she thought of that scent, was soon replaced."

The Beat to a Pulp anthologies are excellent starter fare for those interested in hardboiled crime fiction and noir. The tales are lively, well-plotted and entertainingly written; since the collections range in price from only 99 cents to $2.99, they are as inexpensive as any first-rate electronic literature currently available.

Best of all, they give you a chance to sample a host of new writers without getting bogged down in novels that you may end up disliking. That was the case for me -- after reading their short pieces, I ended up buying longer books by Chris Holm, Abbott and Hilary Davidson.

Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled, is hard to beat, Pick up one of these collections and you will see why. 

1 comment:

  1. I like characters who operate outside the moral code sometimes. Makes a change. Ta, mate.

    Greetings from London.