Pulp Fiction

HENRY KUTTNER “Don’t Look Now.” First published in Startling Stories, March 1948. Reprinted many times, including: My Best Science Fiction Story, edited by Oscar J. Friend & Leo Margulies (Merlin Press, hardcover, 1949); The Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 10, 1948, edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, paperback, 1983); and Tales from the Spaceport Bar, edited by George H. Scithers & Darrell Schweitzer (Avon, paperback, 1987). Collected in Two-Handed Engine by Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore (Centipede Press, hardcover, 2005).

   Mos Eisley and the spaceport bar. What a perfect scene. One that thousands of long time science fiction fans had read about and pictured in their minds for years. And there it was, having come to life right before their eyes.

   Bars where spacefarers come to talk, lie and swap yarns. Not all of them human. All kinds and shapes of aliens used Mos Eisley as a stopover point, a place to restock and refuel and catch up on the news. Or in some cases the bar is on Earth, and the conversation is between two men, and the Martians are the beings secretly ruling the world that one of the men is trying to convince the other he can see. Most of the time they are invisible, lurking just out the corner of your eye, but when you can see them, they are easily identified by their third eye. Right in the middle of their foreheads.

   This is a classic story, first published way back in 1948, and if you go looking, over 70 years later, I’m sure you can find a book in print that it’s in, or if not, then in ebook format. In those years after the war, there was a certain uncertainty, if not outright paranoia, about the possibility we were not alone in the universe, that mankind had lost control of things, and in “Don’t Look Now,” Kuttner, in his most humorous mode, capitalizes on it most excellently.

   A long distance email conversation between Walker Martin and Sai Shankar about the former’s formative days as a Black Mask collector has evolved into a post on the latter’s “Pulp Flakes” blog. You can read it here. (Follow the link.)

HERBERT RUHM, Editor – The Hard-Boiled Detective: Stories from Black Mask Magazine, 1920-1951. Vintage, paperback original, 1977.

   I don’t think that anyone would argue the fact that Black Mask was the best detective pulp magazine around. It died a lingering death after World War II with all the other pulp magazines, but in its pages during the 1920s and early 1930s were some of the toughest detectives in the business – and the freshest writing on the American scene.

   The private detective as a two-fisted gallant knight , loyal to his clients and deadly to the undesirable, criminal element of society was a far cry from the sedate British counterpart, and as invented by Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, and a somewhat later Raymond Chandler, became a much imitated feature of American culture, with copies and variations still alive today.

   We’re told that Carroll John Daly’s “The False Burton Combs” (December 1922) marks the first usage of American colloquial speech in Black Mask, the slangy tough vernacular that was to become its trademark. For a time Daly was Black Mask’s most popular author, though today he’s perhaps remembered only by collectors. The story, about the impersonation of a rich boy in gangster trouble, is a good one. It’s told by the soldier of fortune hired for the job; he’s neither crook nor policeman., but he’s willing to make a quick buck, and equally willing to take his knocks when it comes time.

   The tough guy narration goes down smooth and natural, but the narrator is still an innocent rube behind his image of worldly sophistication. I suspect Daly later was undone trying to out tough himself with every story he wrote later on, and forgot the schmaltz that helps pull this one off.

   From the very same issue comes “The Road Home” by Dashiell Hammett, under his Peter Collinson pseudonym. It begins as a Stanley-meet-Livingston adventure that in only four pages says more about the inner compulsion of men who spend their lives hunting down criminals than in some novels. Understated and maybe the best story in the book, it’s hard to believe that this is the first time it’s been reprinted.

   “The Gutting of Couffignal” (December 1925) has been around many times, and in fact I think it’s the first story by Hammett I’ve ever read. It gets better every time. After the wealthy island of Couffignal is systematically looted by machine-gunning terrorists, the Continental Op, gets to demonstrate both his detective ability and his unswerving loyalty to that choice of career. I was unhappy that in the book’s introduction, Ruhm chose to quote from the final few lines to illustrate the point. You really deserve to get the full impact in context.

   I have a weakness for Hollywood detectives, and “Kansas City Flash” (March 1933) by Norbert Davis takes full advantage of that weakness. When Mike Hull investigates the kidnapping of Doro Faliv, Hollywood’s latest rage in leading ladies, success only reveals yet another sad story midst the twistedly tangled plot. Intended or not, in many ways Doro Faliv is symbolic of the famous 1930s glamor capital of the world. Hiding behind its glittering facade is a brittle sadness and emptiness that all the many love affairs and busy publicity agents were never able to cover up.

   Frederick Nebel’s “Take It and Like It” (June 1934) is meant mostly for fun, but in doing so Kennedy and MacBride form the prototype for many 1ater wisecracking detective teams. Kennedy’s a screwy newspaper reporter not averse to a drink or two, while MacBride is his long suffering police captain friend. This time around, however, MacBride has orders to pick Kennedy up for murder, to the glee of the reporter’s enemies on the D.A.’s staff. Nevertheless Nebel has everything under control, and he easily keeps it way this side of flat-out comedy.

   It may be heresy to say so in print, but I’ve never really been a diehard Raymond Chandler enthusiast. “Goldfish” (June 1936) would seem to do well as illustration. The story itself is about a pair of missing pearls, stolen nineteen years before and never recovered by the insurance company. Carmady’s late start on the case doesn’t mean that the fireworks are over – in fact, the treachery and bloodshed have just begun. Chandler’s verbal imagery dazzles, I admit, but more often than not, it’s merely for show and also quite useless to the plot, which has all the connectivity of a plate of hash-browns.

   Possibly I’m missing something, as I keep getting the feeling that some key element is hanging just out of my grasp. Chandler and I are fractionally out of sync.

   Lester Dent was not really a Black Mask writer, as he wrote only a couple of stories that appeared in the magazine. He spent most of his writing career doing a couple hundred Doc Savage novels. “Angelfish” (December 1936), the story included here, is plagued by Dent’s characteristic semi-literate understatement, but it’s for sure a tough story, told with hurricane ferocity. His hero is a tall, lanky detective named Sail, who dresses all in black. The chase is after some aerial photos of a promising oil field. Uncomplicated, in a breathless way.

   At another extreme is Erle Stanley Gardner, who was so prolific in short pulp work that his bibliography fills a short book in itself, “Leg Man” (February 1938) was a late-appearing pulp story, and it exhibits both Gardner’s unmistakable ponderous dialogue and the elaborate plot machinery that may creak here and there but yet meshes with intricate mastery. Pete Wennick is the leg-man, doing a high-priced law firm’s dirtier investigative work, which may include actively defusing a blackmail scheme. Even though less complicated than usual for Gardner, it still fooled me.

   Any anthology taken from the pages of Black Mask needs a Flashgun Casey story by George Harmon Coxe. In “Once Around the Clock” (May 1941) the famed photographer for, the Express requires only a quick twenty-four hours to help an ex-piano player out on parole escape a murder rap. I wouldn’t say Coxe is a bad writer, but the best I could say is that he’s indifferently average.

   How then has he lasted so long? Take Casey. He’s a down-to-earth guy, with cares and problems of his own, as well as concerns for others. If this makes him a sentimental slob instead of just another hard-boiled character, I’d say that’s why Coxe can keep finding something that readers can keep on enjoying.

   Luther McGavock is the only detective I know of who works out of Memphis, Tennessee, and his cases always seem to take him deep into the hill country of the South. In “The Turkey Buzzard Blues” (July 1943), Merle Constiner gives us a deceased aristocratic gentleman of another age, a frowsy political hack, moonshiners, a tired sheriff suffering from the miseries, and a pet buzzard. There’s more than a tinge of comic mayhem throughout, but it’s all too durn much for me, and at 71 pages, far too long.

   I’d call William Brandon’s “It’s So Quiet in the Country” (November 1943) Runyonesque if I’d ever read enough Damon Runyon to be sure. A city type mixes it up in rural Vermont with a couple of Poe scholars who find they are in need of his burglarizing services. Kind of funny, but no more.

   We’re now in the era when straight crime stories were predominant. After a couple of decades perhaps readers and authors both were tiring of the hard-boiled detective. “Killer Come Home” (March 1948), by Curt Hamlin, combines anger with domestic tribulations. Paul W. Fairman tells about a young kid learning about the big time in “Big Time Operator” (July 1948). In “Five O’Clock Menace” (May 1949) Bruno Fischer deals with undercurrents of human nature in a small-town barbershop. All short and all inferior to the crime shocker tales that Manhunt later brought to perfection and rode to success on.

   But what results is a true cross-section of Black Mask magazine for the length of its existence. If the quality of the stories begins to slide downward from the beginning of the book to the end, so did the magazine as a whole. I do wonder why something by John D. MacDonald wasn’t used to close the book, as JDM in particular was a strong part of the upturn in quality in the crime story in the 1950s, as the pulps died, and writers turned to paperback novels, and the previously mentioned Manhunt.

   One might wish for all the stories from the 1920s, but all but a few that were used have been reprinted for the first time, and the truth is that there’s plenty of stories left for more pulp detective anthologies as good as this one. The best stories, all worthy of “A” ratings, plus or minus, are the pair of Hammett’s, and the ones by Daly, Davis and Dent.

Overall Rating: B plus.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1977.



RON GOULART, Editor – The Hardboiled Dicks: An Anthology and Study of Pulp Detective Fiction. Sherbourne Press, hardcover, 1965. Pocket 50560, paperback, 1965.

   This excellent anthology has an introduction by Goulart and eight stories originally published in Black Mask, Detective Fiction Weekly and Dime Detective between 1932 and 1941. Goulart says that he hopes to rescue a few hardboiled detectives from oblivion. He has certainly chosen fine stories for it.

   Probably the best story in the book is Lester Dent’s “Angelfish,” about Oscar Sail, which is almost as good as the earlier “Sail.” It’s unfortunate that Dent didn’t write more short stories of this type rather than the Doc Savage stories. Two other excellent stories are Raoul Whitfield’s “China Man,” about island detective Jo Gar in the atmospheric Philippines, and Norbert Davis’s tough and amusing “Don’t Give Your Right Name,” featuring Max Latin.

   Richard Sale’s A Nose for News” and Frederick Nebel’s “Winter Kill” have newspapermen as detectives, while others feature a cabby (John K. Butler’s “The Saint in Silver”), encyclopedia salesman Oliver Quade (Frank Gruber’s “Death on Eagle Crag”), and crooked detective Lester Leith (Erle Stanley Gardner’s “Bird in the Hand”). There isn’t a weak story in the bunch. Recommended.

–Reprinted with permission from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 2, March 1977.

RAOUL WHITFIELD “Mistral.” Short story. Anonymous (“Benn”). First published in Adventure, 15 December 1931. Reprinted in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, 22 April 1981, and in Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini & Jack Adrian (Oxford University Press, 1995).

   The unnamed narrator of this short but very tough, hard-boiled tale is an European operative for an international detective agency based in Paris. After finishing one job in Genoa, he heads west along the Riviera coastline to Monte Carlo, Nice and Cannes. Along the way his path keeps crossing that of another man, one with a red and very visible scar on his neck. The man is almost certainly an American. He is unfamiliar with European customs, but he seems to have money, spending one night in a casino playing with thousand-franc chips.

   The narrator is intrigued, but is nonetheless surprised when a bulletin from his home office informs him that a client is on the lookout for him. Reporting in, he is told to back off, and that the client will handle things from that point on. Telling the man, whom he has taken something of a liking to, that his name is Benn, most probably not his real one, and what the score is, he then lets events take their own course from there.

   Telling the story tersely against a backdrop of a continually rising wing (a mistral), Whitfield keeps the tension rising right along with it, to an absolute knockout of an ending. Other than the Pronzini-Adrian anthology, this story may be hard to find, but it’s well worth the effort.


DASHIELL HAMMETT “The Scorched Face.” The Continental Op #17. Novelette. First published in The Black Mask, March 1925. Collected in Nightmare Town (Mercury, paperback, 1948) and The Big Knockover (Random House, 1966). Reprinted in Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini & Jack Adrian (Oxford University Press, 1995) among others.

   You may certainly correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this is one of Hammett’s better known stories, and do you know, I don’t remember reading it before last night (from the Pronzini/Ardian anthology). I know I read The Big Knockover from cover to cover when it came out in paperback, but last night? Nothing came back.

   Here’s something else you can correct me on if I’m wrong, and that’s that I think the story is based on one of Hammett’s own cases when he was a Pinkerton detective. He’s hired here by a distraught father whose two daughters have gone missing. There was a small disagreement about money, but nothing out of the ordinary. What convinces the Op that the girls may be in considerable danger is that one of their female friends commits suicide the same evening after he questions her about them.

   The first part of the tale is filled with plodding legwork — no, plodding is not quite right word. It’s the kind of work a private investigator always has to do before he gets any traction on a case, and yet Hammett’s flair for detail as well as the personalities involved keeps the story in at least second gear until things begin to fall into place. This is about halfway through, and this is when the story really starts to take off, punctuated by short one line paragraphs that the reader (me) simply can’t read fast enough.

   The crime involved is not a new one by today’s standards, but I’ll bet it raised a few eyebrows back in 1925. It didn’t do too badly last night, either.

ROBERT MARTIN writing as LEE ROBERTS – Little Sister. Andrew Brice #1. Stark House Press / Black Gat Book #27, trade paperback, August 2020. Based on the story “Pardon My Poison,” as by Robert Martin, Dime Detective Magazine, April 1948, in which the leading character was Jim Bennett. Introduction by Bill Pronzini. First published as a paperback original by Gold Medal, #229, March 1952, as by Lee Roberts.

   Between 1951 and 1964 and under his own name, Robert Martin wrote fourteen novels in which PI Jim Bennett was the leading character, but back in the 1940s Bennett was the detective of record in several dozen pulp stories, largely but not exclusively for Dime Detective Magazine. Bennett was a down to earth sort of guy, based in Ohio with a steady girl friend whom he later married. He wasn’t flashy, and in quiet contrast to all of the other PI’s of the same era, as Bill Pronzini points out in his introduction to the upcoming Stark House reprint, “he never once gets laid.”

   This may be the reason why the Jim Bennett of the earlier pulp version of this story gets replaced by Andy Brice in this one. The setting is still Ohio, PI Andy Brice is still a nice guy, but yes, one big difference is, he does get laid. He’s hired by the older sister of a younger girl, who if the word “sexpot” hadn’t been invented yet, they’d have had to come up the word, just to describe her. She is the kind of girl who cannot seem to keep her clothes on properly, at least whenever she’s in the same room as Brice. Her bigger problem, though, when she comes home on night in a doped-up daze, what they also find in the trunk of her car is the body of a dead man.

   It isn’t the younger girl whom Brice spends the night with, however, and wishes for more, but his client, the older sister. And while on the case for her, Brice is also poisoned and shot at, while other characters fare much worse. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, many of them men with eyes for Linda, the little sister, but Martin’s prose is smooth and easy and keeps things running like a well-tuned engine.


ROBERT WALLACE “The Mark of the Beast.” Dexter Wynne #1. First published in Thrilling Detective, February 1933. Facsimile edition published by Adventure House, paperback, January 2012.

   Robert Wallace is a house name known to have been assigned to the work of eight or more authors. Unless there is someone who reads this and knows, I have no way of telling you which one of them wrote this particular story.

   Billed as “a complete book-length novel,” it is the longest story in the magazine, but even so, it takes up only 33 pages. In it, private eye Dexter Wynne is asked by a client to check into a mysterious telegram from his sister, telling him that she is afraid of something in the mysterious house where she is living with their stepfather.

   Wynne asks his client, Harry Bates to stay while he investigates, but when he gets there, he find Bates has gotten there ahead of him, dead on the road, with half his face torn away. More than one death follows, making the guilty person all the more apparent as soon there is no one left to suspect. Lots of hidden passageways add to the atmosphere, or at least that was the intent. The build-up to the conclusion fails badly, with a rather prosaic explanation making the whole affair rather shoddy and shopworn.

   I have not said anything about Dexter Wynne, the PI in this tale, and whose only appearance this probably was. There is a reason for that. There is nothing to say. His name could have been chosen out of a hat.

   It is wonderful to have artifacts such as the magazine this story first appeared in reproduced in such a beautiful format, but I’ve sampled the rest of the stories in it, and I haven’t found any of them to be any better than this one. Not all of the detective pulps published in 1933 were of Black Mask caliber.


      Complete contents:

The Mark of the Beast by Robert Wallace
The Banding Murder Case by Allan K. Echols
The Black Ram by Perley Poore Sheehan
The Face That Came Back by Wayne Rogers
The Den of Skulls by Jack D’Arcy
Death Talks Backs by John H. Compton
The Trail of the White Gardenia by Donald Bayne Hobart
The Coward by Ken Rockwell
Reflections by John Lawrence
The Crumpled Clue by J.S. Endicott

TALMAGE POWELL “Her Dagger Before Me.” Novelette. Lloyd Carter #1. First published in Black Mask, July 1949. Reprinted in The Third Talmage Powell Megapack (Wildside Press, Kindle edition, 2020).

   Lloyd Carter’s home base is Tampa, Florida, and has been for thirteen years. He’s been a private eye for almost 21 years, when you count the years he spent in the profession in New York before his wife ran out on him then died when a fast freight “got in the way of the automobile” she and her new lover were in.

   He hasn’t gotten used to the heat in Tampa, though.

   The case in “Her Dagger Before Me” involves a girl, tall and slim but with rather drab brown hair who could easily lose herself in a crowd. Her father, now dead, had been enormously wealthy, but she can’t inherit until she is thirty. In the meantime she is convinced that her stepmother is spending it so fast there will be no money to inherit.

   Carter’s job: to scare off her stepmother’s current boy friend, a smooth operator who’s doing his best to help her spend it. When Crater goes to confront him, however, he finds hm dead. As far as suspects are concerned, there are plenty.

   Powell was the author of hundreds of short stories for both the pulps and the digest magazines that followed them in a career that extended from 1944 to 1982. He was also the author of seventeen novels under both his own name as well as various pen names. This story was early in his career, but the writing is smooth and clear, and the story nicely constructed, with an ending that’s well worth waiting for.

   Now here’s what’s interesting. Of the novels he wrote, five of them featured a PI from Tampa called Ed Rivers. Not only was Rivers based in the same location, but the reasons for him moving there were exactly the same as Lloyd Carter’s. Another similarity is his use of a knife as his weapon of choice. Kevin Burton Smith on his Thrilling Detective website considers Carter and Rivers to be one and the same. I agree.

RICHARD DEMING “The Juarez Knife.” Novella. Manville Moon #1. First published in Popular Detective, January 1948. Available as an individual story in a Kindle edition (Wildside Press, 2018).

   Not only is this Manny Moon’s first appearance in print, it’s also Richard Deming’s first published work of crime or mystery fiction. Not only did he go on to write hundreds of short stories for the pulp and digest magazines, but he was also the author of dozens of hardcover novels, including three featuring the same Manny Moon, known best perhaps as the private eye with only one leg.

   And in “The Juarez Knife” we learn that he lost the portion of it below the knee in the war, and that to replace it, he’s been fitted with a “cork, aluminum, and leather contraption” that when he tries to get up suddenly at night without it, he finds himself “lying half under the bed on a bruised right elbow.”

   The call is from a semi-crooked lawyer who has a job for him. “Semi-crooked” is my term for him, since he has been indicted once, but nothing more. When he gets to the gent’s office, a young girl goes in before him. When he is called in, the girl has gone out a side door, but his would-be employer is lying across his desk dead, with a knife in his chest.

   As it so happens, the door the girl went though was under watch, and she is the only one who came out. The windows are open, but the ledge outside is too narrow for anyone to have used it, and it’s fourteen stories up. Moon takes her on as a client anyway. He believes she is innocent simply on the fact that after leaving the office she calmly went on to a previously scheduled hairdresser appointment.

   You do not expect stories tin pulp magazines to be traditional locked room mysteries, but this is a good one, and it’s fairly clued as well. The only problem is that the real killer could only be one person, and sure enough, he/she is. Beside the three Manny Moon novels, there were eighteen novelettes and short stories in which he appeared. They’ve never been collected, as far as I know, but a number of them are now available in Kindle format, reasonably priced at only 99 cents each.

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