Pulp Fiction

LESTER DENT “Terror, Inc.” Sean Kerrigan #1. Novella. First appeared in Detective-Dragnet Magazine, May 1932. Collected in Terror, Inc.: The Weird Mysteries of Lester Dent (Black Dog Books, trade paperback, 2003.)

   Even though PI Sean Kerrigan was well enough known to be called from New York City to Los Angeles on a case by a local shamus who knows when he’s in over his head, there is no record of his ever showing up in a followup tale. No matter. This one’s doozy, at least in terms of goes on within the telling of the tale.

   It begins on page one, when Kerrigan and the taxi driver who picked him up at the airport follow the instructions given him and drive to find the car where the other PI is to meet them. But what they find are the bones of the man, loose and falling out of the door of the imported sedan, completely bared of flesh.

   Not the usual way to start a detective story, even one that first appeared in a pulp magazine! Admittedly the rest of the story can’t match this, but I doubt that Sam Spade himself would know what to do in having a face-to-face showdown with a master criminal who calls himself the Spark. The latter’s specialty is blackmailing the rich and famous in Hollywood with the threat of a horrible death if they don’t pay up. The man who hired Kerrigan is the seventh who has ended up as skin and bones, without the skin.

   It’s all kind of silly, when you think about it, but this was only Lester Dent’s fourth published story, and long before his long stint on writing most of the Doc Savage stories under the alias of Kenneth Robeson, a task that (eventually) made him famous. (I do not know how long it took for pulp aficionados to figure out who Robeson was, most of the time.)



DASHIELL HAMMETT – The Glass Key. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1931. First published as a series of four connected novelettes in Black Mask magazine, March through June 1930.

THE GLASS KEY. Paramount, 1935. George Raft, Claire Dodd, Rosalind Keith, Edward Arnold, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Ray Milland and Tammany Young. Screenplay by Kathryn Scola, Kibec Glasmon, and Harry Ruskin. Directed by Frank Tuttle.

THE GLASS KEY. Paramount, 1942. Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, Bonita Granville, William Bendix, Joseph Calliea and Donald MacBride. Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

MILLER’S CROSSING. Fox, 1990. Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, Steve Buscemi, Sam Raimi and Frances McDormand. Written & directed by Joel & Ethan Coen.

   “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish.”

   In its short arc, Dashiell Hammett’s fiction went from mysteries to mystery novels, and he seems (to me anyway) to have been on the brink of an actual novel-novel when he went to Hollywood and Hellman and burned himself out. Whatever the case, THE GLASS KEY is balanced nicely between the Mysteries (RED HARVEST, THE DAIN CURSE, THE MALTESE FALCON) and the near-novel that was THE THIN MAN.

   Set in some patently corrupt and nameless city, this is RED HARVEST writ for grown-ups, with gambler Ned Beaumont (Described as slim, mustached, well-dressed, hard-drinking — Hammett day-dreaming in the 3rd person) trying to protect the interests of his buddy, political boss Paul Madvig, and shield him from his own disastrous infatuation with a senator’s daughter, ambitious rivals, and from from taking the rap for a murder he may –or maybe not — have committed.

   Hammett is just as passionate a writer as Woolrich, but he holds his feelings close to the vest, like a card-player with an iffy hand. The strength of Beaumont’s personal honor, and his love for a friend, comes out in action, like the understated effort he takes to collect a gambling debt, and most memorably in the prolonged beating he endures at the hands of sadistic henchman Jeff, to protect Madvig.

   It’s a lengthy scene that becomes the emotional center of the book and lends a sense of uneasy tension to all the subsequent scenes where Jeff appears. Hammett sets up his characters nicely, then plays off our expectations like a real pro, and this finds him at the top of his game or pretty close to it.

   Paramount filmed it twice, first in 1935, then again in ’42. I really want to prefer the earlier version; it has a rough-and-ready pace, some expressive photography, and George Raft is just as inexpressive as Alan Ladd, with a veneer of slickness that suits the character well. There’s a particularly fine moment where he watches a brutal murder without a flicker of emotion. Director Frank Tuttle keeps the camera on Raft, his face lit by a wildly swinging overhead light that slows as a life slowly ebbs away. But the later version boasts a screenplay adaptation superior in most respects, and overall better casting.

   Foremost is Joseph Calliea as Nick Varno (Shad O’Rory in the book and the ’35 film) the gangster angling to supplant Brian Donlevy’s political boss. Calliea projects an icy authority that completely outclasses tepid Robert Gleckler in the earlier film. When Calliea snarls “You talk too much with your mouth, Jeff,” to William Bendix, you feel it in your bones.

   Bendix plays Jeff, the sadistic, sub-normal goon who delights in beating up Alan Ladd, and he conveys all the coiled-spring tension of the character in the book—much better so than Guinn Williams in the ’36 version, who seems just too downright neighborly for the job.

   As for Ladd and Lake, they make the unlikely attraction between the gambler and the society dame believable by dint of type-casting, if nothing else.

   There’s a phrase in Hammett’s book, “little Miss Jesus,” that reappears in the movie MILLER’S CROSSING, but that’s not the only similarity in a film that features Gabriel Byrne as an unlucky gambler and hanger-on to political boss Albert Finney, who has unwisely antagonized gangster Sol Polito and Polito’s psychotic torpedo J.E. Freeman, all for the love of a woman who is playing him.

   MILLER’S CROSSING emerges as a loving homage to THE GLASS KEY, with all the beatings, gang wars, double-dealings and understated feeling of the book, evoked by apt casting (John Turturro’s scheming chiseler is memorably drawn.) and a real feel for atmosphere and action.

   And as if that weren’t enough, there’s a fleeting glimpse of a fight poster featuring “DROP JOHNSON vs LARS THORWALD.”


KENNETH ROBESON – The Man of Bronze. Doc Savage #1. Bantam E2853, paperback, 1964. First published in Doc Savage Magazine, March 1933.

   Doc Savage avenges the death of his father and obtains a fortune in Mayan gold to continue his fabulous adventures in [what was] the first of his magazine tales. After being attacked in his New York [City] skyscraper laboratory, Doc and his crew of five fly to Hidalgo in Central America to investigate the land left to him there by his father.

   Hidden deep in the interior they find a golden pyramid guarded by the descendants of the ancient Mayan civilization. The killer of Doc’s father is the leader of those who would obtain the gold for themselves.

   Enormous improvements could be made in the writing style. Short sentences and shorter paragraphs prevail, slowing the reading pace. The continuity of the story itself is logical, although burdened with many fight, capture, and escape scenes, Excessive repetition of facts concerning the six men and incongruous metaphors and expression are annoying. As for Doc Savage, he must have been one of the first supermen. His popularity when he first appeared is quite understandable.

Rating: 2 stars

– August 1967


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.

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