Pulp Fiction

RUSSELL BENDER “Heat Target.” PI Dick Ames. Published in Black Mask, October 1936. Not known to have been reprinted or collected.

   Richard “Dick” Ames is set up as a full-fledged private eye, with a license, an office, and a secretary. But in reality he’s a troubleshooter with only one client, that being Jonathan McCrea, the mayor of Terrapin City, Maryland. And his work is really cut out for him in “Heat Target,” apparently his only appearance in print. This one’s a doozy.

   The boy friend of the mayor’s daughter is the problem. He’s been warned to stay away from Felicia (her friends call her Felix), but they’ve been seen together far too often for the mayor’s liking. But when the young lad turns up dead in his hotel apartment, and the mayor was seen entering at exactly the time of his death, Ames suspects it is an all but iron-clad frame-up, but he can’t prove it.

   I liked this one. Bender tells the resulting tale, one chock full of a lot of shootings and other crooked business going on, with a terse, hard-bitten prose that does nothing more than remind you that there’s a reason why Black Mask is considered the best there was when it came to detective pulps in the 20s and 30s.

   Here’s a lengthy description of Ames himself:

   “He was a large, indolent looking man, broad of shoulder, slim of waist; but the indolence was in the careless grace of his walk, in th manner in which he slouched on a chair, slouched against tables, bars, telephone poles. He had a rugged face. There was a strength about him, but it was the strength of a dozing, stretching lion. His movements were slow but you knew instinctively that he could move as fast as hell.”

   I think I might have cast Robert Mitchum in the role if they’d ever made a movie of this one.

   Strangely enough, while Russell wrote quite a few stories for the detective pulps, he wrote only two others for Black Mask: “Body-Guard to Death,” (novelette)   October 1938 and “Copper’s Moll,” (short story) July 1940. Based on this one only, I’d have thought there’d have been more. There should have been.

Note: Some other information about Bender can be found in the comments following Paul Herman’s recent overview of the entire issue of the October 1936 Black Mask.

JOHNSTON McCULLEY “The Murder Note.” The Green Ghost #5. Novelette. First published in Thrilling Detective, January 1935. Collected in The Swift Revenge of the Green Ghost, Altus Press, paperback, 2012. Reprinted in Shadow Justice: Classic and New Tales of Pulp Magazine Costumed Heroes, FuturesPast Editions, edited by ??, Kindle, 2016.

   I’m not exactly sure why it is that ordinary people take it up on themselves to dress up in costumes to fight criminals, but enough of them did for pulp collectors of our era to create a entire subcategory of hero pulps to include them in. (I’m not talking about comic books. They came along later and knowing a good thing when they saw it, then came the deluge.)

   It was probably an individual thing. In Danny Blaney’s case, he was framed by criminals and lost his official standing as a cop, and to get revenge on all such gangsters, takes his fight against the underworld by fighting them directly, putting on a green hood and gloves and becoming the Green Ghost. While doing the work of the law, he holds no good feeling for the cops who did not stand up for him, either.

   There were in all seven of his adventures that were recorded in the pages of Thrilling Detective, a second-rate detective pulp, between March 1934 and July 1935. If “The Murder Note” is an example, all of these tale were minor and undemanding. The idea of dressing up as the equivalent of a “caped crusader” was, however,  and still is, an idea that catches the imagination of many readers, then and now.

   In “The Murder Note” Danny is about to bring a mobster by the name of Rod Rordan to justice, only to find him dead in his apartment, already killed by another gang who plan on Danny being charged with the crime. A note so stating, mocking him, is left at the scene of the crime, a note that cannot be used as evidence, however, as it is written in disappearing ink.

   The story from here on out is pure action. Nothing more, and as the wise pundits always say, nothing less, with no particular twist to the tale in pages to come. It’s quite forgettable, in fact, but it doesn’t stop sellers from asking $494.99 and up for a copy of the Altus Press collection, now apparently out of print.



DASHIELL HAMMETT – Red Harvest. The Continental Op. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1929. Originally serialized in Black Mask, November 1927 to February 1928.

   My favorite of Hammett’s works, and a classic example of the “one-damn-thing-after-another” school of hard-boiled fiction.

   The plot exists merely as a blank canvas to paint vivid scenes and characters upon, but here it is, for what it’s worth. Hammett’s nameless Op is summoned to the city of Personville (called Poisonville by the locals) at the behest of Donald Wilsson, son of the local tyrant, Elihu Wilssson, and editor of the daily paper.

   Young Donald gets himself murdered before the Op ever meets him, but old Elihu engages him to find the killer, then gives him a carte-blanche to clear out the criminal element, who seem to outnumber the ordinary folk by an unhealthy margin.

   And from there on, as I say, it’s just one damn thing after another. Fixed fights, mercenary dames, dynamite, crooked cops, bootleg hooch, gang wars, and the occasional solo murder solved just to give things a rest.

   All this would have crowded up most novels, but in Hammett’s terse, evocative prose, it flows smoothly all the way, livened up by characters who strut and fret their few lines across the page with color and conviction: tough guys with names like Reno Starkey and Whisper Thaler, backed up by sharply delineated supporting players who come and go in less than a paragraph. Hammett didn’t waste any words here, but he didn’t leave any out, either.

   This was the first of Hammett’s Black Mask serials to be published as a novel. Oddly, it is the only one never faithfully adapted to the screen, though it was cited by Akira Kurosawa as the basis for Yojimbo, which inspired A Fistful of Dollars, which inspired the prohibition-set gangster film Last Man Standing, so I guess in a way it came full circle.


ROGER TORREY “Jail Bait.” Pat McCarthy & Margie Chalmers #1. Published in Black Mask, October 1936. Not known to have been collected or reprinted.

   This is Roger Torrey’s homage to The Maltese Falcon, as you might decide to call it. I lost track after a while, but there are at least four, maybe five, passages where PI Pat McCarthy tells somebody that while he disliked his partner, now dead, he didn’t kill him and he’s obliged to find out who did do it, because … well, for two reasons. The first because it wouldn’t be good if he didn’t, and secondly because to clear his name for good, what better way to do so than to find the real killer.

   McCarthy is the kind of guy who’s left several jobs with other agencies across the country, all because he has a temper and doesn’t necessarily get along with people, especially cops, and he really would like to keep this one, which he bought into as an equal partner. This means looking into the cases that Dakin was working on. The most obvious of these was a case involving city-wide police corruption.

   Where Margie Chalmers comes in is that she was Dakin’s beautiful blonde girl friend, and she introduces herself in this one by coming for him gun in hand. McCarthy escapes a bullet by the narrowest of margins and eventually calms her down, enough so that he manages to persuade her to help in trapping Dakin’s killer. Even so, there’s no indication that the two of them are going to continue as a crime-fighting duo, but apparently it was so, as they appeared together in thirteen more tales, all for Black Mask between this one in 1936 on through to the February 1940 issue.

   All in all, though, this is no more than an average story, well padded with incidental and somewhat repetitive byplay, such as with a pair of cops who hold a grudge against him, and the feeling is mutual. It’s good enough, though, to wish that someone might read this and decide to put together a collection of all the McCarthy/Chalmers stories.

S-F YEARBOOK: A Treasury of Science Fiction, Number One, 1967.     Overall rating: 2½ stars.

JOHN D. MacDONALD “Ring Around the Redhead.” [First published in Startling Stories, November 1948.] An inventor discovers a doorway to other dimensions, then must defend himself in court when it proves dangerous. Readable in spite of weak plot. (2)

CHARLES L. HARNESS “Fruits of the Agathon.” [First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948.] Novelette. Agathon is a word from the Greek meaning death of an individual planned for the good of society. Confusing, disturbing, and unreadable, but much better than average. (4)

MARGARET ST. CLAIR “The Unreliable Perfumist.” [First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1953.] Intrigue between a family of Martian perfumists. (0)

GORDON R. DICKSON “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” [First published in Startling Stories, December 1952.] Two Cuperians need the help of a talking at to escape Earth. (1)

RAY BRADBURY “The Irritated People.” [First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1947.] Warfare is conducted by radio music, confetti, and mosquitos. (2)

MARGARET ST. CLAIR “The Stroller.” [First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1947.] About strange creatures from Venus. (0)

GEORGE O. SMITH “Journey.” [First published in Startling Stories, May 1948.] Space pilot has to come up with FTL theory to prove he traveled to Alpha Centauri. (3)

EDMOND HAMILTON “The Knowledge Machine.” [First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1948.] Two men take over an inventor’s discovery that speeds learning electronically. (3)

THEODORE STURGEON “The Sky Was Full of Ships.” [First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1947.] Strange visitors to Earth are concerned about the use of atomic power. A famous last line. (3)

– August 1967

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER “Slated to Die.” First published in Argosy Weekly, January 11, 1936. Delbert “Del” Free #1. Novelette. Probably never collected or reprinted.

   Del Free, whose first and most likely only appearance this was, is one of those gentlemen of leisure in Erle Stanly Gardner’s pulp stories who every so often seeks out adventure by poring carefully over the personal ads of local newspapers and sees what he can find. Here’s the one that catches his eye to start this story off:

At eleven o’clock tonight drive your
car to place where you had your puncture
about a month ago when you walked in to
the Big-E-Garage. Park it and wait. We
will blink our lights three times. Every-
one well. Sends love.   A. B. C.

   This, of course, would catch my eye, too, if I had the free time and a lust for doing something out of the ordinary. Free scouts out the area, finds a car he thinks may be Valere’s, blinks his lights three times, and finds himself way over his head in, of all things, a kidnapping scheme, and caught between a girl who is trying to pay off the gang who are holding her father ransom, the gang members themselves, and yet another gang who also has read the same personal ad that Free has.

   The result, from the point of view of the reader of the story itself, is a long, involved tale of who is where, doing what, being captured and threatened with torture before escaping, and in general racing around not knowing exactly what is going on, the latter on the part of all three parties.

   There is no deduction in this tale. It is pure action from start to finish. Not one of Gardner’s better tales, but even so, third rate Gardner is a lot better than a lot of his competitors.

   One other thing. Most of the rest of this issue of Argosy Weekly is taken up by small chunks of serial installments, which is why most pulp collectors today are not all that interesting in buying single issues of the magazine. There are four such installments in this issue: various portions of novels by Borden Chase, H. Bedford-Jones, Karl Detzer, and Dennis Lawton.

   Question: Did those people who bought copies of Argosy from their local newsstand back in 1936 read a given issue straight through and throw them away, or did they stack them up at home and then read novels that had been serialized only once they had all the parts together? It’s too late to ask anyone who was there then, but maybe some of you just happen to remember how their grandparents handled this.



   After reading Steve’s recent review of “No Rest for Soldiers,” the first story in the October 1936 issue of Black Mask, I pulled out my copy and just finished reading it cover to cover. Not a stinker in this issue. Giving a rating of four stars for the highest, I rate them as follows:

   “No Rest For Soldiers” – John K. Butler – 4.

   “Jail Bait” – Roger Torrey – 3. Although a complete rip-off of the The Maltese Falcon without the “Falcon” to look for (main tec’s partner is killed and he’s going to find the killer, though they didn’t like each other), this is still a pretty good story. I’m not a great Torrey fan but this story works for me.

   “Heat Target” — Russell Bender — 4. Really well written! I don’t think I’ve ever read a story by Bender. I’ll now go see what else I can find that he wrote for Mask.

   “Sail” — Lester Dent — 4. I can’t count the times I’ve read this story over the years. I still wish that he had written more than two stories for Mask before Shaw got the boot. As good as it gets!!

   “A Ride In The Rain” — W.T.Ballard — 4. One of my favorite Mask writers. If anyone out there has not read Ballard, do yourself a favor and try him. Holds up continuously, time after time!

   I really think this is a top issue of Mask from beginning to end. Steve, let us know how you feel after you finish your copy.

   Added later: Just checked on Russell Bender. He only wrote two others for Mask, though lots more for other titles: October 1938 and July 1940. I have both and will be checking them out soon.

ARTHUR J. BURKS “Death of the Flute.” Dorus Noel #1. Short story. First published in All Detective Magazine, April 1933. Collected in Grottos of Chinatown (Off Trail Publications, softcover, 2009).

   This is the first story that prolific pulp writer wrote about super sleuth Doris Noel. In a way it’s too bad that he didn’t write any of Noel’s earlier adventures that took place in China fighting the evil ways of Chu Chul, obviously a Fu Manchu wanna-be also known as The Cricket, because they do sound interesting. What we have here in “Death of the Flute” is a continuation of their mutual struggle against each other, ending, perhaps, in the death of one of the combatants, and it isn’t Dorus Noel.

   It may or may not be Chu Chul’s either, because the latter shows up in “The White Wasp,” Noel’s next adventure. I’ve not read that next tale yet, though, so it may only be an imposter that Noel has to face down.

   But not wishing to get ahead of ourselves, “Death of the Flute” begins with Noel under the firm belief that he saw Chu Chul die. He’s back in New York City now, and in Chinatown in particular, working for a unidentified benefactor with the charge to wipe out crime and corruption in that section of the big city.

   But of course Chu Chul is not dead, and before Noel can get to work on his real mission, he must deal with that particular evil genius and end his dream of world domination once and for all.

   This is no easy task, of course, but after some setbacks, including the agonizing death of his faithful servant at the hands of Noel’s archenemy, the latter does indeed prevail, in good pulpy fashion.

      The Dorus Noel series —

Death of the Flute (ss) All Detective Magazine Apr 1933
The White Wasp (ss) All Detective Magazine May 1933
Bells of Pell Street (ss) All Detective Magazine Jun 1933
Red Tassels (ss) All Detective Magazine Sep 1933
The Golden Cocoon (ss) All Detective Magazine Oct 1933
Cloisonne (ss) All Detective Magazine Dec 1933
Spheres of Cathay (ss) All Detective Magazine Jan 1934
Design for Murder (ss) All Detective Magazine Mar 1934
Tinkling Bells (ss) All Detective Magazine Jun 1934
Black Snow (ss) All Detective Magazine Sep 1934
The Blood Screen (ss) All Detective Magazine Dec 1934



MAXIM JAKUBOWSKI, Editor – The Mammoth Book of Pulp Action. Carroll & Graf, trade paperback, December 2001.

   There was only one story, Fredric Brown’s classic “Don’t Look Behind You,” that I’d read before in this solid anthology of what the editor calls Pulp Fiction though not all the stories were published in the pulps. Since there are too many to go through one by one, I will just comment on some of them.

   The volume opens with Erle Stanley Gardner’s “The Kid Clips a Coupon,” which features The Patent Leather Kid (a sort of Simon Templar/Raffles type character), who manages to steal $70,000 while clearing an innocent man of murder. Though Gardner wasn’t much of a prose stylist, I find his stories featuring minor series characters like the Kid or Lester Leith compulsively readable.

   “Motel” by Evan Hunter seems to be added for the author’s name value since the only action in it is the pounding on the motel room’s walls by the guy in the next room. It’s three chapters depicting the beginning, middle and end of an adulterous relationship, and should be in The Mammoth Book of Adultery if/when that’s published (or maybe Carroll & Graf already has in the five years since this one came out). Judging by the long list of other Mammoth Books listed in the beginning, it’s only a matter of time.

   “Burn, Corpse, Burn” by Bruno Fischer, despite its lurid title, is a sad, sentimental supernatural tale about a lonely man who sees the body of a young woman floating in the water while ice fishing. “The Pulp Connection” by Bill Pronzini has his Nameless sleuth solve the murder of a man killed in the locked room containing his pulps. Not only is this a homage to John Dickson Carr but also to Ellery Queen since the victim leaves a “dying message” clue.

   “Caravan to Tarim'” by David Goodis is a pretty good Arabian adventure story rather than a crime tale per se. “The First Five in Line” is the opening twenty pages of an unfinished novel by Charles Willeford. Intriguing is the word. “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Slay” by Frederick C. Davis has a man returning to his home town to open a factory, trying to solve the murder of a lawyer friend and. confronting a nest of vipers.

   “Dog Life” by Mark Timlin is the only story written for volume. A man avenges the murder of a petty crook/informant though his motive and identity isn’t revealed. Finally, “The Pit” by Joe R. Lansdale is about a small town of redneck types who kidnap any strange men of a certain age who pass through, hold them prisoner while training them and pit them against each other in an unarmed fight to the death.

   There are quite a few more stories that are well worth reading in the 630 pages of this fat paperback.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #44, March 2006.

JOHN K. BUTLER “No Rest for Soldiers.” Novelette. Published in Black Mask, October 1936. Not known to have been collected or reprinted.

   It was one of John K. Butler’s Steve Midnight stories in Ron Goulart’s Hard Boiled Dicks (1965/67) that was one of the first pulp detective tales that I ever read. Midnight was a Los Angeles-based cab driver who kept running into dead bodies, and the name of the story was “The Saint in Silver.” I don’t know why, but while the rest of the stories in Goulart’s groundbreaking anthology have faded into memory, on an individual basis, the Steve Midnight story has stayed with me ever since.

   Even though Butler’s name has been long forgotten by everybody else, he wrote well over a hundred stories for the pulps before going on to the movies and TV, with (according to IMDb) 69 credits. What this tells me, more than anything else, is that he could produce vivid, well-constructed storylines meant to keep his audiences reading or watching, and “No Rest for Soldiers” is a prime example.

   I don’t know the full history behind it, but the basis for the story is that in 1936  or thereabouts, disabled US soldiers in World War I were given a bonus in cash to help them get along now that they’re back home. Ernie Chappell is once such, now living in a National Military Home. Across the street, though, is a strip of cheap cafés, shady beer joints and honkytonks, all there to take money from the pockets of the vets living in the home, legally or otherwise, with a wink and a nod on the part of the law.

   Ernie, it seems, has been accused of killing of the silent owners of one such establishment. What’s worse is that he woke up in the same room as the dead man, not knowing whether he did it or not. Luckily for him, he has a good friend from the war, now a used car salesman, who decides to investigate on Ernie’s behalf.

   It’s a good hard-driving tale that as the old cliché says, keeps the pages turning – and of course, there’s a woman involved – as well as a head of detectives who decides that going along with City Hall is something he’d rather not do any longer.

   If I were doing an anthology of old detective stories, I’d do my best to include this one.

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