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, June 28, 2014

The Mistress of Trailer Trash Noir

By Vicki Hendricks
250 pages
(Busted Flush Press; May 1, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0979270936
ISBN-13: 978-0979270932

228 pages
(Top Suspense, Jan. 11, 2013)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

How can you resist a book that begins like this:

"Hank was drunk and he slugged me -- it wasn't the first time -- and I picked up the radio and caught him across the forehead with it. It was one of those big boom boxes with the cassette player and recorder, but I never figured it would kill him. We were sitting in front of the fan, listening to country music and sipping Jack Daniels -- calling each other 'Toots' like we both enjoyed -- and all of a sudden the whole world changed. My old man was dead. I didn't feel like I had anything to do with it. I didn't make that choice."

This is the introductory paragraph of Vicki Hendricks' first novel Miami Purity, published in 1995. Since then, she has written five more: Iguana Love, Voluntary Madness, Sky Blues, Cruel Poetry, and a collection of short stories, Florida Gothic Stories.

I found out about Hendricks a couple of weeks ago, courtesy of Patti Abbott (author of Home Invasion), a woman who is no mean hand at a hardboiled crime story herself.

Now I don't know how I ever got along without her.

Vicki Hendricks, mistress of trailer trash noir

Miami Purity is the story of Sherri Parlay, a former topless dancer superficially similar to the central figure in Carl Hiaasen's Strip Tease, but perhaps emotionally closer to Cora, the amoral temptress in Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.

She Boom Boxes Hank, accidentally killing him in the process, then walks because he is what a politer era used to call a "police character" -- a goon with a long and violent record of malefaction.

On the rebound, Sherri decides a change of career is in order. She winds up working in a dry cleaners (the novel takes its name from the business), supervised by an irritable and ill-mannered woman, Brenda, and her handsome but feckless son, Payne.

The complication to the story is Sherri's sexuality: as Hendricks explains in passages rich with double entendre, the former stripper endrilets her glands do most of her thinking.

"I had Payne some nights, but never long enough," Sherri says at one point. "[His mother] thought he was working out at the gym and he'd come over to my apartment instead. Then he'd go home and I'd smoke a couple joints for dinner in front of the nine-inch TV and try to keep calm. Nine inches of TV just wasn't enough."

As she says of killing Hank, "I didn't feel like I had anything to do with it. I didn't make that choice." It's true: she didn't make the choice; her body chose for her. She swung that radio at Hank's head as a purely physical reaction to his punch. 

By same token, she balls Payne on the floor of the dry cleaners, hops into bed for a hump with a former surfer boyfriend, and even takes a quickie in the cab of a pickup truck with a stranger she just met in a bar.

A death occurs that can be seen as either a murder or an accident and it looks like Sherri's life is going to change again -- possibly for the better.  Then a series of unforeseen events send her veering off in another direction like a pinball machine on the San Andreas Fault.

It's not possible to recount the various turns that occur in the story without revealing how it turns out; suffice to say, there are two more homicides and a final twist that ties up all the loose ends very satisfactorily.

Please note: a satisfactory ending and a happy ending are not necessarily the same thing.

Miami Purity is a terrific thriller that keeps the reader wondering -- and worrying -- about what will happen next. Despite her lack of conventional morality, the reader becomes fond of Sherri as the story proceeds. The reader cares whether she fails or succeeds, goes free, dies or winds up in prison.

It is a sensational accomplishment that Hendricks has managed to make Sherri, a deeply flawed individual, such a sympathetic character. She does it by choosing every word, comma and period in this novel for maximum impact.

Take that first paragraph above, for example: it sets up the rest of the story by establishing that Sherri is single, and standing at a crossroads in her life, looking for a fresh start; but it also tells the reader she is impulsive, kind-hearted, sentimental ("calling each other 'Toots' like we both enjoyed"), rather empty-headed and from a cultural background in which violence can -- and does -- occur without warning. 

It is almost a little novel all by itself and everything that happens in this excellent book is presaged in it.

In another sequence, a taxi driver she has silently stiffed because she is too broke to leave a tip calls her "a hotty bitch." Hendricks shows us Sherri's lack of education by having her think the comment refers to her sexual desirability. She makes it clear that Sherri doesn't know that the word "haughty" means stuck-up.

Hendricks writes the sex scenes -- and there are plenty of them -- with a twisted eroticism. After Payne's mother dies at the dry cleaner, Sherri grabs Payne for a furious sexual encounter.

"I stuck my tongue in his mouth and pulled him away from her onto the floor. I reached down and felt him -- he was hard as ever. He wanted me, too. We stripped down and did it right there, pounded it out fast, right next to his mother's dangling head. My foot touched her hair while I rode him."

Like Cain's book, Miami Purity is told in the first person and desire eventually leads to homicide. Hendricks' book even has a Postman-esque sadomasochistic angle that is hinted at early on, but does not come to fruition until much later in the story.

Though Hendricks works with a similar plot-line, however, she takes her characters in a totally different direction and gives her story its own tenderly diabolical nature.

Miami Purity is gritty, violent and sexy at the same time. Hendricks' use of language is superb and each of her major characters is vivid and memorable. Days after I finished reading it, entire passages from the novel would pop into my head; to me, that is the mark of a really superior literary work.

 Hendricks' Gothic Stories are Short but Bleak

Florida Gothic Stories Shows another side of Hendricks as an author: this slender collection of short stories includes a few tales that turn on criminal behavior, but the author's intention here is to examine humankind's dark side in other ways.

Here, "gothic" does not mean the ghoulish style affected by youthful fashionistas; it refers to the dark and morbid romances written by authors such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe.

These stories are more outrageous, more over-the-top than Miami Purity. A couple of them qualify as horror stories; with the proper illustrations, they would be right at home in the old EC Comics which, despite their gruesome twists, mutilated bodies and ghastly plots, were really exercises in conventional morality: those who did evil were invariably punished for it, usually in an ironically appropriate fashion served up with a ghoulish twist at the end.

Others are simply tales of wonder that leave the reader gasping at the types of human perversity conjured by Hendricks' fervid imagination.

Several involve relationships between humans and animals that may strain some readers' comfort level.

For example, "Stormy, Mon Amour" relates a woman's bizarre romance with a killer whale in a Sea World-style animal show; Another story, "Cold-blooded Lovers" tells of the platonic affair between a mentally ill man and his pet iguana; "Must Bite!" involves a lap dancer in a Florida road house who takes up with a man who has a menagerie of hungry -- and in some cases, randy -- apes.

Even those that do not involve animals turn on bizarre or depraved behavior, including "ReBecca," in which a conjoined twin finds herself sexually aroused by her Siamese sister's liaison with a normal man, or "Boozanne, Lemme Be," the unlikely tale of a burglar with dwarfism who secretly takes up residence in the crawlspace of a suburban house with the immense woman he is boffing.

As far-fetched as some of these stories are, and as off-the-wall as her characters may be, Hendricks makes it clear she sympathizes with and genuinely likes the peculiar people who inhabit her stories -- and she manages to make the reader sympathize with them, too.

Though several of the stories display Hendricks' seemingly inexhaustible capacity for the weird and abstruse, each has moments of humor to leaven their brutality and grimness. Some are laugh-out-loud funny. And all of them exhibit her open fixation on sex as the motivating factor that underlies much human behavior.

Hendricks' stories are perverse and discomfiting, gems of artful writing and her novels are just as good as her shorter fiction. Now that I know about her, I look forward to reading her stuff for years to come. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Two by Mike Monson

By Mike Monson
99 pages
(Stark Raving Group; March 17, 2014)

By Mike Monson
72 pages
 (Independently published by Mike Monson; Nov. 11, 2013)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

The Family that Preys Together Decays Together

Matt Hodges is a drunk and ne'er do well, a schemer and dreamer whose career as a businessman has been a disastrous failure. His wife, Lydia, is a slut who works for a cheesy law firm and spends her spare time balling just about any passing male, but particularly Hunter Manning, the professional criminal who gives the firm most of its business.

Tanner, Lydia's son by a previous marriage, is . . . well, he's Tanner: good-looking, belligerent and arguably psychotic.

The Hodges are at the center of Mike Monson's nifty noir novella, "What Happens in Reno," as bleak a piece of fiction as you are likely to read. 

Author Mike Monson -- he knows his genre
and is damned good at pulling it off
The good news is, Matt is about to score some serious cash by selling off the shabby 1700-square foot house he grew up in, his inheritance from his recently deceased mother.
The bad news is, Lydia wants most of the swag so she can get more plastic surgery.

The really bad news is, Manning wants the cash to pay the IRS back taxes from his criminal activities. Unlike either of the Hodges, he's willing to take it by force if necessary.

Too many people fighting over too little money: it's an old story, and you know it's going to end badly for one or more of these people by the time you turn the last page.

"What Happens in Reno" is noir to the bone. Monson and his associate Chris Rhatigan edit All Due Respect, a quarterly e-Zine that specializes in grim and gritty transgressive fiction. Mike knows the genre and is damned good at bringing it off.

Almost every character that turns up in this book's pages is despicable -- including some who initially appear to be innocent bystanders. Matt and Lydia manage to briefly show a hint of decency, of human kindness, but by the time they do it's much too late to redeem them.

This is Monson at the top of his form. As was the case in his short novel, A Scent of New Death, the characterizations are sharp, the plot deceptively simple looking, and the ending, while jaw-droppingly unexpected, is satisfying and "right," given the grim material that precedes it.

Monson's sparing use of description does exactly what is needed: it conveys a clear sense of time and place to the story and brings these unhappy characters up off the page in a fully realized form. Monson keeps the ratiocination internal as it should be and uses sharply drawn dialog to fill his characters in and move the narrative forward. In this he follows the advice of Elmore Leonard, the old master of hardboiled himself: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Love Among the Underclasses

In addition to What Happens in Reno and Scent of New Death, there is more of Monson's perversely violent fiction available for fans of hardboiled literature: the former Modesto resident serves up 22 primo doses in his anthology, Criminal Love And Other Stories.

These pulpy yarns have exactly what you're looking for in hardboiled and noir: tattooed badasses, skanky women on the make, Mafiosi trying to avoid subpoenas and enough speed-freaks with missing front teeth to put an orthodontist's entire family through Harvard.

Take the title story, a tale about a wannabe dope dealer who has the bad luck to run into a wannabe hit man. One of these wannabes is lucky enough to have the skills and aptitude for the job. The other ends up dead meat.

How about Mona, the central figure in "Altar Call?" She's one of those girls Cyndy Lauper sang about who "just want to have fun:" "Her first stop with the $24.39 in her pocket was to see Wilson, a guy that would sell her oxy at a good price," Monson writes. "Ten dollars plus a blow job for four 10 mg pills."

All by itself, the beginning of "Central Valley Swingers" is enough to pull you in like a Broadway pitchman selling lap dances outside the Condor: "I decided to take a little break from beating in the face of [Cheryl's] new husband. You know, wash the blood off, inspect the damage to my knuckles -- have a smoke. This also gave me a moment to really stop and savor watching my new friend Harold fucking Cheryl over and over and over in the most disgusting ways possible."

Nice people, eh?

Not that every character in these stories is a crook or a thug. Jake, the protagonist in "Service of Process," is a process server, somebody who hands a summons to people who are being sued, or serves subpoenas on those who are supposed to give evidence. Jake has a square job, relatively speaking. But even Jack the Bear occasionally needs a little trickery to get by.

Or consider "Not Lost," a short-short about a family en route to a vacation; its members take a wrong turn somewhere and end up in hell. In less than one thousand words, Monson conjures a blistering Central Valley summer that sucks the air from the reader, sends sweat trickling down his sides and plasters  the upholstery of a clapped-out 1990 Nissan Sentra to his ass.

To me, not every tale in "Criminal Love" is a home run. A few come close to being vignettes that leave the reader wondering "is that all there is?" But the ones I didn't care for -- like "F on F," a single unpunctuated paragraph that briefly recounts the violent fantasy of a worker in an office building -- appear to be experimental.

The point of an experiment is to try something new, so even though I didn't care that much for "F on F," Monson was pursuing something different when he wrote it. I find that easy to live with -- a lot easier than reading the repetitious glop churned out by big ticket publishing superstars like Tom Clancy, James Patterson or Lee Child, who seem to write the same damned story every time they sit down behind a  word processor.  

In any case, the Monson stories that I deemed missteps are few and far between. Most in this book are grabbers that I will probably return to time and again. I particularly recommend "Hot Cups," "The Price of Doing Business" and "An Evening in Sin City." The last two stories have nice twists at the end that are textbook examples of irony.

As he does in his longer stories, Monson keeps it simple and straightforward here. His bad guys are seriously bad, and his good guys -- well, they're bad, too; they just have better teeth.

Monson's stuff is brutal, gritty -- and utterly fascinating. As long as he keeps churning out stories this good, I am going to keep reading them.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Sometimes the Toughest Guy in the Room Is a Dame . . . (Part Two)

Women and the Pulp Crime Tradition
(The second of two parts)
By William E. Wallace

The assumption that all serious readers of hardboiled detective stories are men is widespread . . . Although some of these texts are now available as Vintage Crime Classics trade paperbacks with arty black-and-white photos on the covers, they were originally published in cheap pulp magazines whose Technicolor covers featured tough-looking men with guns and gagged, terrified women falling out of their low-cut dresses.

-- Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines by Erin A. Smith (Temple  University Press; 2000)

Given the long history of women writing crime stories in the pulp tradition, why is the genre so often associated only with such male writers as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain?

Why do male writers like Raymond Chandler (above)
get most of the credit for hardboiled crime fiction?

Perhaps the Erin Smith quote above is the answer. Some female writers contacted by Pulp Hack Confessions seem to think so.

"So much of this [the failure to recognize women who write noir and hardboiled crime fiction] comes down to marketing," said Hilary Davidson, whose debut novel, The Damage Done, (Forge; 2010) won the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First Novel, said in an exchange of e-mails with Pulp Hack Confessions.

Hilary Davidson

"I think there are misconceptions about what men write versus what women write, and what male and female readers are interested in," she said. "When I was publishing my first book, someone in the business told me that men would never read a novel with a woman's name on the cover. That sexist nonsense hasn't been my experience at all. But that thinking definitely exists in the publishing business."

Jen Conley, an editor at the crime fiction magazine Shotgun Honey who has written for her own publication and a variety of others, including Thuglit and Beat to a Pulp, tends to accept Smith's thesis.

Jen Conley

"Maybe the pulps were originally targeted towards men and perhaps we haven’t broken out of that old mold," Conley said. "Or maybe because these male writers tell stories about a violent and gritty world--something that is considered masculine -- we use male writers to hail the genre."

Her view could be seen as ironic considering that Conley has an expert touch in rendering the violent and gritty. Her short story, "It's Coming!" in the anthology Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled (Vol. 2) is full of verbal violence that barely conceals the physical brutality simmering between two primary characters -- brutality that ultimately bubbles to the boil in the last few hundred words of the tale. 

Or maybe it doesn't? Hatred and a concomitant threat of violence are so heavy in Conley's story that the reader is left wondering whether one of the main figures died accidentally or at the hands of someone else.

Similarly, in "Visitor at Copenhagen Street" in Thuglit, Issue Nine, the action spins out in a run-down flat in London where the heroine lives with her ominously loutish boyfriend -- and has an encounter with his violent "mate," Nigel. 

The story features a series of psychological threats that eventually ends up in a physical assault. The woman eventually realizes she is living a cycle of victimization.

In both stories, Conley shows dexterity in handling brutality. Her touch is as sure as any man's -- perhaps even more so. If the purpose of fictional violence is to shock the reader and help him or her understand what is at stake for the main characters, I can tell you that Conley's mere suggestion of violence is more compelling than all the bare-knuckled beatings in Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels put together.

Bonnie Jo Campbell, whose collection of short stories, American Salvage, was a finalist for both the National Book and the National Book Critics Circle awards, echoed Davidson's view about the differences between the work done by men and women in the noir genre.

Bonnie Jo Campbell
"Gosh, there's a mistaken idea floating out there saying that men's and women's writing is fundamentally different, that women write about softer or more domestic subjects, while men engage with the exterior world and the big issues," Campbell said in an e-mail interview.

"That is clearly untrue," said Campbell, who admits she doesn't consider herself a crime writer per se. "V. S. Naipal just recently said books by women weren't important or worth reading, which makes him sound like a knucklehead."

"I also don't know what it means that Men's Bull Fiction literary Magazine named me one of the ten "Manliest" writers working today. I'm reading Sara Paretsky's Critical Mass right now and she doesn't shy away from the tough stuff."

Kim Cooper, whose novel The Kept Girl (Esotouric Ink; 2014), features real life noir stylist Raymond Chandler as a central character, said she thinks unfamiliarity with hardboiled fiction is part of the reason women who write in the pulp tradition are  on their contributions to the genre.

Kim Cooper's The Kept Girl
follows the hardboiled tradition
"With occasional exceptions, critics have neglected the hard-boiled genre, offering grudging respect to its most financially successful practitioners, but ignoring the qualities and creative development of the genre as a whole," she said in an e-mail interview. "The misperception of the hard-boiled as exclusively masculine and unworthy of analysis is changing, and I think it helps that a critic as respected and widely read as Sarah Weinman shone a light on mid-century female crime writers with her recent anthology."

(Weinman's collection, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Storiesfrom the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (Penguin; 2013), was mentioned last week in the first part of this essay).

"As always with mass media entertainments—like Bubblegum Music, the focus of my first book in 2001-- the true story of any vast body of work gets written retrospectively, by observers who weren't the intended audience. It's exciting to be on the cusp of any reassessment."

"And honestly, I think lurid paperback cover art has had a lot to do with the mainly masculine perception and the critical neglect," she added. "The stuff just looked too trashy (in the best way) to take seriously. Even the art is getting fresh critical eyes, and doing well in the marketplace, now."

Others think that there is merit to the theory that women and men working in the hardboiled tradition have a different approach to the stories they write.

"All of the women mentioned here do something that many men who write in the field today don’t do: they present females as fully realized characters-- as more than femme fatales, sidekicks or victims," said Patti Abbott, the author of Home Invasion (Snub Nose Press; 2013), which has been described as "a novel in stories that examines a dysfunctional family across fifty years."

Patti Abbott
"They make a very concerted attempt to look at their characters, both men and women psychologically," she said in an e-mail to Pulp Hack Confessions. "They rarely are content with just presenting plot and action. Now this approach can be pleasing to readers or not; I think a lot of men would just as soon skip over what are my favorite parts of a book to get to the car chase, the kidnap note, the gun to the head, the woman tied up in the corner."

"I am surely being unfair but based on the books I hear mentioned by men, I have to assume a lot of them prefer books where there is mostly action."

"Every year I look at lists of favorite books from the year, and almost every male’s list is comprised almost totally of men," Abbott said. "The books they list are similarly about men. On my blog, I have been doing a feature called 'Friday’s Forgotten Books' for more than six years and many of the men that contribute have never or almost never reviewed a book by a female author. They review great books —don’t get me wrong -- but not ones written by women. Although women seem to read male writers, many men do not read women writers."

Given this lack of recognition, why do women continue to work in the pulp genres? Those with whom we raised the issue seemed to agree that the internal conflicts of characters who find themselves up  against the wall are a major part of why they were attracted to the pulp tradition.

"I think I’ve always been attracted to characters who have limited choices, who are close to the edge," Conley said. "I like stories where people survive on their last hopes or have done something desperate because there was no other way."

"I wrote 'Pipe' [a short story about a kid who seeks revenge on the school bully by arming himself with a length of pipe]  with this in mind," she said. "My main character had no other choice—he had to defend himself. That story was actually based in some truth. A kid in my high school was being harassed so he hid out in the bathroom with a pipe and a plan. He was caught before he could strike and for some reason, when I learned about the story, I felt bad for him. I didn’t know him well at all and I can’t recall his name, but I do remember he was picked on and the story stuck with me for years until I gave him some vengeance."

"Growing up, I remember things going violent very quickly among my peers," she said. "I don’t know why—it wasn’t a terrible place or anything, but people didn’t have it easy."
Conley's response was similar to that of Davidson, who said she liked the hardboiled tradition because of the motivations that drive characters.

"I'm not particularly interested in hardboiled detectives, per se, but I love the themes that hardboiled fiction deals with," said Davidson. "It delves into the deepest recesses of human psychology and hits us where we're most vulnerable. That's what makes it so timeless."

Campbell offered a similar explanation:

"I live to write difficult characters and situations," she said. "I mean, if I see problems that are easy to solve, I don't bother writing about them. People sometimes call my writing 'Rural Noir,' but I'm not trying to write in any particular style. I write in the manner that tells my story most richly.

"Because my characters face a lot of difficulties, I cannot in good conscience make light of their troubles. I do like to see my characters gaining some insight into their own lives. There is often violence and despair in my stories, but, I feel I come by it honestly, which is to say, it is realistic. I avoid gratuitous violence, if that means anything."

She said her attraction to the noir tradition stemmed from reading Dashiell Hammett, whose Maltese Falcon (Vintage Crime-Black Lizard, new edition published in 2013) and Continental Op stories helped set the standard for hardboiled crime fiction.

Dashiell Hammett influenced Bonnie Jo Campbell's interest in noir.

"His sentences cut to the bone, dispensing with all nonsense," she said. "[Hammett's] amazing ability is to make the reader give a damn right off the bat."

"He does objectify women sometimes, and that's too bad . . . unfortunately some [others] writing in the style assume it [hardboiled fiction] has to be sexist, but of course that's not true."

Patti Abbott said her own work in the genre is an outgrowth of the subject matter she explores.

"I see myself as writing stories about a certain sort of person: one that’s faced with a dilemma but often not the tools or wherewithal to get out from under it," she said. "Even when most of my stories were published in literary journals, the characters in them were like this. It’s my personality—I am not a cheery person. I am amazed at anyone who is."

"Having said this, I am very grateful to occasionally stumble on a writer that knows how to make the world seem more hospitable, more palatable. It may be an illusion, but one I am grateful for."

The hardboiled and noir tradition "suits my world outlook," Abbott said. "I am interested in people pushed to their limit. Sometimes they survive but often they don’t. In a short story, readers will accept a character not overcoming that dilemma. In a novel, less so. The time commitment kicks in."

In Cooper's case, the use of the hardboiled formula was a one-off and whether she uses it again or not depends on what she writes about in the future.

"My debut novel The Kept Girl contains elements familiar to the pulp genre, particularly in the escalating state of anxiety as the heroine Muriel is menaced by members of the cult she's infiltrated," she said. "The style served this story, and might serve another, but I wouldn't say I'm married to the hardboiled."

"At its core this is a book about human relationships, love, need, faith and regret. In crafting the largely fact-based narrative, I enjoyed using the genre's quirks to file off some of the rough, factual edges that makes true crime such a demanding format. Fiction is forgiving. History is not."

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sometimes the Toughest Guy in the Room Is a Dame . . . (Part One)

Women and the Pulp Crime Tradition
By William E. Wallace

"Love is the world's infinite mutability; lies, hatred, murder even, are all knit up in it."
-- the epigraph to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: from Tony Kushner's play, "The Illusion."

Last March I was in the audience at a panel on the contemporary pulp scene at Left Coast Crime when somebody asked why women writers haven't been major generators of stories in the pulp tradition that includes hardboiled crime and noir.

For a moment, the panelists -- Gary Phillips (The Warlord of Willow Ridge), Chris Holm (the Collector trilogy) , Dale Berry (Tales of the Moonlight Cutter) and moderator Juliet Blackwell (Secondhand Spirits) -- seemed baffled. Then in the discussion that followed, this answer emerged, haltingly at first but with growing conviction and confidence:

They have -- and they still are.

For purposes of this discussion, what I mean by the pulp tradition is what Merriam-Webster calls "crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings." The Oxford English Dictionary definition is possibly more accurate and less repetitive: "A genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity." 

Sara Paretsky
Marcia Muller
Think Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Sara Paretsky (Critical Mass), Margaret Millar (Beyond This Point Are Monsters), or Marcia Muller (Wolf in the Shadows).

Patricia Highsmith
As Sarah Weinman put it in her introduction to Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (Penguin; 2013) "[women noir and crime authors] color outside the lines, blur between categories and give readers a glimpse of the darkest impulses that pervade every part of contemporary society."

Women have been writing hardboiled fiction since the first pulps appeared, and some have been recognized as the original founders and shapers of the form. 

Elisabeth Holding, who started by cranking out romance fiction in the roaring twenties, took up the hardboiled form of detective fiction after the stock market collapsed in the first U.S. depression. She wrote eighteen novels that loosely fit into the genre before her death in 1955, and won high praise for her technique, characterization and realism from luminaries such as Anthony Boucher and Raymond Chandler, who once called her “the top suspense writer of them all.”

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding:
Chandler called her "the top suspense writer of them all."

Holding's accomplishments in the field are particularly noteworthy when you consider that she began writing "hardboiled" crime yarns almost as soon as the genre first emerged from the romantic fiction tradition that gave it birth and its philosophical underpinning.

Carroll John Daly, who wrote the Race Williams private detective stories while churning out suspense fiction for Black Mask magazine, has been credited with writing the first "hardboiled" detective story, "The False Burton Combs" in 1922. Holding's first detective tale, "Miasma," appeared only seven years later.

Olive Higgins Prouty
Olive Higgins Prouty, one of Holding's contemporaries, is associated with the noir genre, which was an outgrowth of the pulp tradition. Her novel Stella Dallas (HarperCollins; re-released in 1990) was later made into an immensely popular film with Barbara Stanwyck as the title character. It's the story of a working class woman who marries into wealth but finds herself excluded from her rich husband's social circle.

(Incidentally, James M. Cain's noir classic, Mildred Pierce (Vintage Crime-Black Lizard; new edition released in 2010) was originally published nearly twenty years later. Cain's novel explores wealth and class in a similar fashion in Mildred Pierce, although his novel features more overt criminality -- blackmail, embezzlement, fraud and physical assault -- and a decidedly different twist on the social climbing subplot.)

Contemporary women working in the noir and hardboiled tradition use many of the same literary techniques as their male counterparts -- adopting the central character's point of view, often in the form of a first person narrative, and often writing the story as if dictated by the protagonist; they can be as brutal as the boys but generally approach their material from the perspective of a female protagonist, substituting psychological menace for the physical brutality used by their male counterparts.

On the brutal side, consider Gillian Flynn's Adora, the villainess from her novel Sharp Objects (Crown; 2006). Adora is a homicidal lunatic that resembles a female version of Patrick Bateman, the central character in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (Vintage reissue; 2010) or Lou Ford, the protagonist in Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me (Vintage Crime-Black Lizard; 1991). 

Gillian Flynn
She is vain, pushy, duplicitous and manipulative, a villain's villain capable of almost any sort of obscene violence. She also happens to be the protagonist's mother -- and her secret tormentor.

Flynn's Adora's is sadistic and seething with sociopathic madness. She could easily be the work of a male author. In fact, Flynn's villainess is painted with an almost masculine brutality in much the same way that Joan Medford, the central figure in James M. Cain's The Cocktail Waitress (Hard Case; 2012) is conjured with a woman's understated touch.

Another good example -- although of a totally different type -- is the commercial real estate broker named Cara Willis who is the protagonist in Patti Abbott's short story, "The Higher the Heels" Thuglit, Issue Eight.  Cara discovers she is being conned by a commercial burglar she is dating. It seems the fellow strikes up temporary liaisons with female brokers in order to case properties he is planning to rob.

Patti Abbott

Having figured out his scam, Cara could report him to the police. Instead, she sets a diabolical trap that puts him out of business -- permanently. The yarn reads like a story by Patricia Highsmith, right down to the indifference Cara shows when her scheme goes fatally awry:

Cara is as neat a femme fatale as any in the genre, but she is not overdrawn like many women in pulp thrillers written by men. Her amorality is even more chilling for this reason: the reader is confronted with an antisocial act that perfectly fits Hannah Arendt's description of "banal evil."  The fact that she gets away with murder despite her bland exterior makes her more frightening than a cartoon madwoman, rending her clothes and frothing about her desire for revenge.

Though women hardboiled writers occasionally indulge in what seems to be a masculine taste for blood, they seem to favor mental torture to the physical stuff.

For example, in "Ric with no K," a story Abbott wrote for Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled (Vol. Two), an anthology of crime fiction, an underage girl calmly relates how she got involved with a petty hoodlum who is much older and how the relationship led to death and disaster.

It is a study in how a refusal to acknowledge the truth -- or even know what it is -- can put a person into a dream world in which even a sociopath can be seen as having redeeming characteristics.

The "matter of fact" narrative, told from the perspective of an individual who is, in some ways, as unworldly as a novice in a convent, is a perfect example of, in the words of Ron Scheer, using language and sentences "that shun emotion. It's tone is matter of fact, which is often a mask for deep irony." In the story, someone who is portrayed as naive and unworldly with an imperfect grasp of her own history, gives an excellent example of the hardboiled approach.

Hilary Davidson, the author of Blood Always Tells (Forge Books; 2014), follows a similar approach in her short story "Fair Warning," (Beaten to a Pulp, Hardboiled (Vol. Two), a tale of the evil that can accompany office lust. It is a brilliantly written story in which the central character, Emily, finds herself the subject of a nasty series of threats channeled through her office mail in a fashion no one can figure out.

Hilary Davidson
The tale, though short, takes as many devious turns as a crooked taxi driver. Emily's friend, Vanessa, acts suspiciously, but so does her boyfriend, Jason. It turns out Jason has the kind of secrets that can lead to something nasty. Conclusions are drawn and they turn out to be lethal -- as well as wrong. By the end of the story, Emily doesn't know who to trust. We do: Hilary Davidson; she knows exactly what she is doing, both to her characters and to us.

In some cases, women who write in the noir tradition skip the crime angle entirely, or reduce it to a mechanism for putting their subjects in dire circumstances; how the characters react to those situations is the real crux of these stories.

This is the case in Bonnie Jo Campbell's excellent short story, "World of Gas," published in the collection of her work American Salvage (Wayne State University Press; 2009). When a woman named Susan comes home to find her 15-year-old son in bed with his girlfriend while a television set babbles the Jerry Springer show in an adjoining room she explodes in a way that few "hardboiled" men would:

"I love her, Mom," Josh said. "You wouldn't understand that. . . "

"Well, if you love her, then why in the hell would you take a chance on getting her pregnant?" asked Susan. "Why take a chance on screwing up both your lives?" Susan was also thinking: if this girl means so much to you, then why don't you turn off the damned TV when you're in bed with her?

Bonnie Jo Campbell

In another story in the Campbell anthology, "The Inventor," a down on his luck hunter accidentally runs into a young woman with his truck when she crosses the road in front of him. He is tortured by the incident, which reminds him of the death of Ricky Hendrickson, a teenage friend, years earlier:

He has always been able to clearly picture [Ricky] in his coffin, silent and pale, his freckles covered with makeup, and he has a photographic vision of Ricky building homemade bottle rockets beside the pond, with charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter, but when he sees Ricky's face in the girl's face, he fears he is losing his mind.

"Please, don't die," he whispers.

There is no crime in either tale, but both have the doomed tone associated with the best of noir, a grim  aura that hangs over each story as surely as if they had focused on murder, blackmail or theft.

 Similarly, Amy Grech -- who describes herself as a horror writer, but has worked in the hardboiled tradition with stories like her novel, The Art of Deception,(Xlibris; 2000), a tale about a rape victim's complicated scheme to get revenge, and ".38 Special" a nice little piece in Beat to a Pulp, Hardboiled (Vol. One), the tale of a man who's lucky at love and even luckier at Russian Roulette. He shoots his load, then she shoots hers -- with lethal results.

Later, when her boyfriend gets a chance to pull the trigger, the outcome is not what you thought would come out.

(Next time: women who write in the pulp tradition often receive no credit for their work; we ask some of them why their efforts are downgraded or ignored).