Pulp Fiction

FRANCIS K. ALLAN “The Lost Hours of Murder.” Published in Dime Mystery Magazine, August 1948. Probably never reprinted.

   The final story in this issue, “The Lost Hours of Murder,” by Francis K. Allan, is the second of two full “novels” contained therein, and as such runs to all of nineteen and a half (pulp-size) pages.

   Allan, by the way, was an extremely prolific writer for the detective pulps. During the years right after the war you could hardly pick one up and not read one of bis stories. In 1945 and 1947 he had a couple of hardcover novels published, but then none from then on until 1976, when he wrote Death in Gentle Grove, which I’m sure nobody else but me remembers. I do because it was one of the first books I did when I started writing reviews for the Hartford Courant.

   (I might be wrong, but it’s my impression that Allan went on to law school and better things, thus explaining the 30 year gap in his writing career.)

   “The Lost Hours of Murder” concerns a guy who wakes up on what he thinks is Thursday but discovers when he gets to  work that it is really Friday, and his partner, with whom he apparently quarreled in the interim, has mysteriously disappeared. It’s a classic situation, but even in full “novel” length, Alla’s tale is crowded, without all the space he needs to do anything with it.

   Cornell Woolrich, say, might have done better with the premise, which is a good one, but as it is, only the first half of this one holds any interest at all. There’s no hint of any supernatural influences at work, which was common in stories published in Dime Mystery Magazine, just a straight-forward mystery story, interesting for the moment but also instantly forgettable.


Final Thought: Unfortunately, maybe that last phrase would apply just as well to pulp magazines in general. It would make a great epitaph, wouldn’t it? “Throwaway literature at its finest!”

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.

ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT “Man of Granite.” Novella. Published in Dime Mystery Magazine, August 1948. Probably never reprinted.

   Back in August, 1948, Dime Mystery Magazine cost fifteen cents. (I don’t know how they got around that, but they did.) It had been around since December, 1932, as Dime Mystery Book, and lasted until October 1950, by which time it was known as 15 Mystery Stories. The stories throughout its run were often a blend of mystery and supernatural fiction, with the latter usually explained away in the final two paragraphs.

   The cover of this issue shows a man being subdued by a cloaked and hooded figure in black, with chalk-white hands holding a knife to the victim’s throat, but to me, it’s not as horrifying a sight as it might seem. It’s effective but just little too static for me, especially for a pulp cover. You opinion may vary.

   The lead story, “Man of Granite,” by Arthur Leo Zagat, takes place during a single night that a young babysitter named Arlene Morgan is not likely to forget. Ever.

   Why don’t I quote to you the first paragraph? It’ll do two things. It’ll set the stage more than I could in simply telling you about it, and it’ll also show you exactly how a pulp story almost always began: right at the begin, daring you, if you will, to put the magazine down before it’s over. (And these were also the day when authors who lost their readers were also authors who were soon out looking for another line of work.)

   It wasn’t being alone in the house, except for the baby, that made Arlene Morgan uneasy. She’d done a lot of baby-sitting since her sixteenth birthday, last May, and she’d gotten used to the silence of an empty home and the noises within the silence: old wood whisperings to itself, scurrying inside ancient walls, ivy rustling against windows dark at night.

   This is the story, as it turns out, of a Golem, the stone monster of Frankfort, but what he is doing in this story, and what relationship he has with the parents of the child Alene is watching, it’s still not clear by story’s end.

   Several twists in the story have taken place by then. Even so, a final twist in the last few paragraphs shatters the reconstruction of the night’s events that Arlene’s father has carefully put together, shattering it to bits, leaving the reader to put everything back in order, if it’s something that can be done.

   It’s an unsettling end to an unsettling sort of story, full of dankness and noises in the night. It’s clumsily told at times, so at first thought it’s not quite clear if Zagat (a prolific but rather obscure SF and mystery writer in his day) fully intended the ending to be as perfectly matched to the story as it is – at least in the way I’m looking at it – of if it’s purely coincidental.

   It’s probably a little of both, but on reconsideration, I’m going to give Zagat the full benefit of the doubt, and say this is nicely inspired ending after all – in spite of (or maybe because of) all the loose ends.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.


VINCENT STARRETT “Footsteps of Fear.” First published in The Black Mask, April 1920. Collected in The Quick and the Dead (Arkham House, hardcover, 1965). Reprinted in The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, edited by Otto Penzler (Black Lizard, softcover, 2017).

   Dr. Loxley has it made, or so he thinks. He has killed his wife Lora, but the police are not on his trail – not as the killer, that is. He made his plans well in advance, and to all intents and purposes is considered dead as well, as he (under his own name) has completely vanished. But under a new name and a new profession, he is doing quite well: as the frosted glass door outside his outer office says, he is now William Drayham, Rare Books, Hours by Appointment.

   He is friends with his neighbors on the same floor, and he does not need to leave his building. It has all the amenities he needs: restaurants, barber shops, and so on. And as a big plus, the sign on the door was “formidable enough to frighten away casual visitors.”

   This may have been an inside joke included here on the part of the author, a well known bookman of his era. Stories in this very first issue of Black Mask were far from the hardboiled fare for which it later became famous.

   It is, however, reminiscent of one that magazine’s better known writers, Cornell Woolrich, with a twist in the ending that brings a severe comeuppance to the former Dr. Loxley. In spite of the new name and facial features, he becomes more and more convinced that his plans have fallen short, and a zinger of an ending worthy of a story on Alfred Hitchcock’s television show ensues, well thirty or forty years ahead of its time.

   Here below is a list of the other stories in that same issue of Black Mask, taken from the online Crime Fiction Index. Only Harold Ward’s name, he being a long time pulpster, is vaguely familiar to me. I’m going out on a limb here, without reading any of the other tales, but I suspect none of the others have anything very much to offer modern day readers. This one by Starrett may be the only one that’s ever been reprinted.

      The Black Mask [Vol. I No. 1, April 1920]

Who and Why? · J. Frederic Thorne
The Stolen Soul · Harold Ward
The House Across the Way · Sarah Harbine Weaver
The Peculiar Affair at the Axminster · Julian Kilman
The Puzzle of the Hand · Stewart Wells
Piracy · Harry C. Hervey, Jr.
The Mysterious Package · David E. Harriman & John I. Pearce, Jr.
A Small Blister · David Morrison
Hands Up! · Ray St. Vrain
Footsteps of Fear · Vincent Starrett
The Dead and the Quick · Gertrude Brooke Hamilton
The Long Arm of Malfero · Edgar Daniel Kramer

WILLIAM JOHNSTON – The Affair in Duplex 9B.  George H, Doran, hardcover, 1927. Previously serialized as “Duplex Nine” in six installments in Flynn’s Weekly between January 8 and February 5, 1927. Also published in the Sunday newspaper supplement for the Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger, dated Sunday, December 16, 1934.

   According to Hubin, William Johnston wrote a, total of nine mystery-novels published between 1910 and 1928 (he died in 1929), but if I were to say he is unknown today, it would be the understatement of the year. Pulp collectors might like to note that this particular novel was previously serialized in Flynn’s Detective Fiction Weekly in early 1927, however, and this is probably the only reason I picked this one up when found it in a used bookshop not too long ago.

   Johnston is no Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, though, and you needn’t go out of your way to find any of his other books, either. (Still, he also wrote a book called The Fun of Being Fat Man, and while it’s not one of his mysteries it does sound interesting.)

   His hero in this book is Hugh Chilton, a young assistant district attorney who is on the scene when a famous diplomat mysteriously collapses and dies at a party, It is there that Chilton also falls in love (at first sight) with the equally young (and pretty) singer who otherwise should have been the chief suspect in the case. Hard as nails, he’s not.

   And he’s no detective, either. Every so often the action stops as he (and the author) go over the case and clues that have been gathered up to that point, and no matter how he shifts them around, he never does come up with a satisfactory theory for the affair. Only a grizzled old reporter named Taylor seems to be actively pursuing the case, as he keeps coming up with stories for his paper, using facts that the police have just gotten to themselves.

   The underworld in the late 20s was a glitzy sort of place that the rich and famous flocked to in droves, and dope smugglers are  eventually  discovered to be the key to the crime. If it weren’t for the only slightly stilted way of telling the story, it would be nearly as up-to-date as today’s newspapers.

   But as a detective story, it lacks a strong finale. Chilton is outwitted by Taylor at nearly every turn, and he’s not likely to ever have been given such a big case again — but on the other hand, he does end up with the girl. More than that, maybe it’s impolite to ask.

– Slightly revised from Mystery*File #30, April 1991.


CORNELL WOOLRICH “I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes.” Novelette. First published in Detective Fiction Weekly, 12 March 1938. Collected in I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (Lippincott, hardcover, 1943), as by William Irish. Reprinted many times.

I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES. Monogram, 1948. Don Castle, Elyse Knox, Regis Toomey, and Robert Lowell. Screenplay by Steve Fisher. Produced by Walter Mirisch. Directed by William Nigh.

   At his worst, Woolrich could be wordy, verbose, prolix, repetitive, redundant, tiring and tedious. He could take a metaphor, strap it to the rack, and stretch it till the reader screamed for mercy. But at his best, he could wring poetry out of plot twists and make the pages sing with strange, melancholy music.

   This is Woolrich at his best.

   Tom Quinn starts out on a hot August night as a working stiff, married, and living on the ragged edge of poverty. By the story’s end, it will be Christmas, and he’ll sit on Death Row, framed by circumstances that could only occur in Woolrich’s dark Universe. It begins with him throwing his shoes out the window at noisy cats, builds as the shoes disappear and are mysteriously returned, then twists when he finds money on the street — money taken in a robbery-and-murder committed by someone wearing his shoes. Even his wife begins to doubt his innocence.

   Whereupon Woolrich picks up a familiar theme: The Cop who pinched him begins to doubt his guilt and sets out to find the real killer, a feat achieved with fast-moving prose and a bit of genuine pathos. So Tom is free again. But fate and Woolrich have one last surprise for him….

   In 1948, a producer named Walter Mirisch at Monogram foresaw the end of B-Movies as second-features and began the lengthy and sporadic process of transforming the runty little studio into the less-runty Allied Artists. Mirisch went on to things like West Side Story, Allied Artists gave us Cabaret, but in the meantime, there were still a lot of B’s to churn out, and I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes was one of them.

   The thing is, Shoes shows some of the extra care and attention of a producer and studio aiming just a little bit higher. Don Castle and Elyse Knox take the leads as married dancers whose careers have stalled out — not unlike the careers of Castle and Knox themselves — and when he finds the money, they react believably. Screenwriter Steve Fisher wisely keeps in as many of the characters and as much of the Woolrich dialogue as the budget will allow, and he even rings in a familiar twist of his own to skew things a bit more.

   What impressed me most about this, though, was the acting. Everyone involved, down to Second Detective, sounds convincing. And Robert Lowell (who he?) makes a lasting impression as the unlucky guy ultimately tracked down by gumshoe Regis Toomey.

   Don’t get me wrong. This is still a B-Movie programmer, with most of the faults attendant on that art form. But it’s interesting and entertaining to see everyone giving it so much.


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.

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