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Pulp Fiction by Otto Penzier

Pulp Fiction (edition 2007)

by Otto Penzier

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Title:Pulp Fiction
Authors:Otto Penzier
Info:Quercus (2007), Paperback, 528 pages

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Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters by Otto Penzler



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IT IS all too easy for reviewers to get cheap laughs by pouring sarcastic scorn on books: what is a critic after all but a failed and frustrated writer?

Pulp Fiction has a foreword by Harlan Coben, arguably the brightest and wittiest crime writer in America.

For readers under the age of 40, Pulp Fiction is the title of rather a good film in which a gorgeous Uma Thurman and a tubby John Travolta dance across the screen, and it looks nothing like Grease.

Forget drugs, sex and rock ’n roll as recreational pleasures, forget Samuel L Jackson in an afro, and forget especially all those four-letter words and blasphemy: literary pulp fiction is as far removed from all these late 20th-century necessities as the film Pulp Fiction is from Grease.

Although it was certainly regarded as distinctly adult and mainly masculine fodder, the term pulp fiction relates originally to stories that would be regarded today as strictly A-rated. (A for Abysmal, maybe?)

These are the early examples of “hard-boiled” detective stories that were published in the popular pulped wood paper magazines: the journals were cheap, ubiquitous, disposable and designed for a fairly uneducated target market who sought their thrills in short spurts of blood and guts rather than in the much longer, more prim and proper tales that appeared in books.

The golden age of the “pulps” occurred in America between the two world wars last century, and featured a plethora of titles — True Detective Stories, Weird Tales, to name just two — although this anthology has been garnered exclusively from just the one, Black Mask Magazine.

To quote editor Otto Penzler’s introduction: “The hard-boiled private detective is entirely an American invention, and it was given life in the pages of pulp magazines.” But how to define “hard boiled” to the pulp virgin? Well, imagine the opposite of Sherlock Holmes; imagine Father Brown tut-tutting in sorrow at the spectacle of the hard-drinking private dick, and saying a quick prayer. Imagine Hercule Poirot drawing himself up to his full height of five foot four inches, his magnificent pomaded moustache bristling in indignation at the bottom-drawer gum-shoe’s disrespectful tone; imagine Lord Peter Whimsey blanching — but enough: you get the idea.

Despite some misgivings, the cognoscenti of today will be drawn to this collection as Coben’s name is on the cover, and his foreword is full of the hyperbole that, in retrospect, can be bought only with lashings of cash, over-consumption of booze and judicious administration of informal pharmaceuticals and “herbal” cigarettes.

In short, despite the laudatory and over-the-top foreword and introduction, the content of Pulp Fiction is mediocre in the same way a six-year-old’s sonnet is mediocre in comparison with a masterpiece by Shakespeare. We are given 14 short stories, from Norbert Davis’s The Price of a Pearl (12 pages) to Carroll John Daly’s 137-page The Third Murderer, almost all of which were published from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s.

The only writer of any substance is Raymond Chandler, whose work is still in print today because he transcends the “hard boiled” genre rather than typifying it: most of the others have sunk in a mire of well-deserved oblivion.

Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade) and Earle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason) are also vaguely familiar names to the crime story buff, but who actually reads them today?

Pulp fiction is a literary form as dated as any Victorian Penny Dreadful, but without the linguistic standards or the author’s negligible literary or artistic merit.

As an easily digestible, inconsequential and inexpensive diversion for the socioeconomically “less privileged classes”, it fulfilled its function admirably.

Undoubtedly groundbreaking in its time, stripped of sentiment, sensibility and purple prose, pulp fiction may well have laid the foundation for many of the best American writers of today, but while the Chrysler Building is certainly an awe-inspiring structure, could the same be said of its foundations? Can the same be said of the foundations of modern American crime fiction?

Penzler has made a careful choice, geared to today’s sensitivities — given the racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and rampant xenophobia that was pretty standard 80 years ago.

His selection is relatively inoffensive to the PC standards of today, and probably a less than accurate reflection of the sentiments expressed in the original stories.

Given the social changes of the past few generations, today’s reader will fail to recognise many of the character clues embedded in the dated text.

In these stories, most of which were written during the years of the American Prohibition, warning bells would have rung loud and clear for any woman who smoked and drank.

As for a brazen hussy who in 1926 appeared before strange men in a “fur-trimmed dressing gown” — well … enuff said.

In his introduction, Coben states: “Reading pulp fiction is a bit like, uh, something else. Ninety percent of the writers out there admit they do it. Ten percent lie about it.”

Which makes me wonder if, after all, the Victorians were on the right track in their fanatical condemnation of “self-abuse”? ( )
  adpaton | Nov 22, 2007 |
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Otto Penzler introduces a selection of stories from the golden age of pulp fiction. Follow hardened detectives as they manhandle witnesses and battle villains, not to mention the cops, to get to the truth any way they can.

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