Friday, November 25, 2016

The Hardboiled Dicks, edited by Ron Goulart

 There was a dark and gloomy era before the advent of radio, film, television, VCRs, laser discs, the internet, DVDs, blu rays, and streaming video. In that age, people read. Serialized dramas took the form of printed documents called “books,” “dime novels,” “fiction weeklies,” etc. From the end of World   War I through end of the 1940s, roughly four million pulp magazine titles had appeared on the newsstand, having published more than a septrillion stories and novels.*

*These statistics are made up, and I don’t even think “septrillion” is a real word. But if it were to turn out that these statistics were true, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. A LOT of pulp magazines appeared, some of which lasted only one or two issues, and they published A LOT of stories, often paying minuscule rates—if they paid at all.

Not to brag, but I’ve experienced the joys of writing crime fiction for little or no money. As a result, I feel a special kinship with the pulp writers of that bygone era, and I love reading the breathless, action-packed stories they produced. But with so many stories produced it’s very difficult to find the cream of the crop. As Theodore Sturgeon once said, “90% of everything is crap” (at least, he said something like that anyway); that goes double for pulp fiction.

Since their first appearances in print in the 1920s and 1930s, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler have been acknowledged as influential masters of hardboiled detective fiction. But neither of them invented the form—they only perfected it, creating their own unique influential styles that every single subsequent author would emulate. And there were many writers from that era who, while perhaps not as talented as these two, were at least as entertaining.

Ron Goulart is an historian, editor, and writer of great taste, wit, and skill. In 1965 he produced an invaluable introduction to hardboiled detective fiction outside that of Hammett and Chandler, called The Hardboiled Dicks. While not as exhaustive as Otto Penzler’s 2007 Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, you can actually hold it in your hands and read it without causing permanent injury to your first dorsal interossei.

Goulart’s introduction provides helpful historical context and gives a brief overview of the period. He also explains the book’s raison d'être:

“This book is an attempt to reduce at least a few of the hardboiled detectives from oblivion. Several thousand pulp detective stories were printed. The work of Hammett, Chandler and a handful of others has been preserved and made available. It is hoped that The Hardboiled Dicks will fill in some more of the gaps. And give you an idea of what the pulps were like.”

Then, in the very next paragraph, Goulart states that the stories were “Taken from the best of the detective pulps, Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly.” Which means that the book will actually give the reader an IDEALIZED idea of what the pulps were like. Seriously, you’ll come away from this book thinking that the pulps published nothing but pure gold. But who would want to buy a collection of “the worst pulp detective stories”? Actually, that might be a funny idea for an anthology, with commentary a la Bill Pronzini’s in the classic Gun in Cheek.

Anyway, The Hardboiled Dicks starts out with a real winner from one of my favorite writers of the era, Norbert Davis. “Don’t Give Your Right Name” features wise cracking Max Latin in a story that starts out with a man who claims to be an “autograph collector” who specializes “in celebrities who aren’t in the theater or on radio or in the movies or like that.” In other words, he specializes in celebrities who aren’t really celebrities, by which I mean he’s not an “autograph collector” at all— he’s a private eye trying to get a signature on documents. He winds up dead in the alley behind the restaurant that Latin either owns or doesn’t, but in which he keeps office hours. Meanwhile, a very, very minor celebrity asks Latin to spread the word that some of her jewels have been stolen, for publicity. From there become ever more complicated, strange, and funny.

The next story, “The Saint in Silver,” features a taxi driver/gumshoe called Steve Midnight. The author John K. Butler, does a good job setting the scene with authentic descriptions of Los Angeles circa 1941 (I know because I was there—okay, his writing feel AUTHENTIC, within hardboiled crime parameters). The story starts with Midnight picking up a fare— a “determined blonde” who walked “rapidly and aggressively on high spiked heels.” Her boyfriend, she explains, is “too tight to drive.” He is in fact so drunk that he can’t even move on his own, and Midnight and the blonde have to carry him from his car and deposit him in the cab. The two are participants in a treasure (scavenger) hunt for bored, wealthy high society types, and their latest clue leads them to a crypt in a cemetery. Midnight breaks into the crypt where he’s attacked and beaten by someone holding an ax handle. Midnight regains consciousness and picks up the next clue, but by the time he makes it out, the blonde and her boyfriend have left. Midnight goes back to work because he can’t afford to take any time off, despite the fact he’s bleeding and probably has a concussion. He’s ready to let it go, but it turns out the drunk has been killed at the freight yards near the cemetery, which means that, obviously, Midnight feels compelled to find out who killed him and why. Plus, they owe him thirty bucks. The story is packed with murder, adultery, religious fundamentalism, and drug dealing.

“Winter Kill” by Frederick Nebel features police detective MacBride and Kennedy of the Free Press, investigating the death of a drunk called Parcell, whose body is found underneath a pile of plowed snow. MacBride is a real hardass about it, at one point saying, “You got admit Parcell was a heel. There ought to be some distinction between when you kill a heel and when you kill a good guy.”

The next story, “China Man,” is by Raoul Whitfield and features his Filipino detective Jo Gar (“the Island detective”). Early in the story Gar goes back to his office to meet a client, where he’s met by a stranger who throws a knife at him and runs off. As Gar observes, “He had thrown like a Filipino would shoot, missing at even a short distance.” Whitfield does a good job of sketching out the locations with only a few words, setting his scenes quickly and moving right into the action. There’s so much action, in fact, that the last few pages are taken up with a lot of explication of the smuggling/murder plot.

“Death on Eagle’s Crag” features Frank Gruber’s Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia. Quade is an almost lovable know-it-all, who’s read the encyclopedias he sells multiple times, and retained the information. That information gets him out of jams. He ends up on Eagle’s Crag attempting to sell an encyclopedia set to the proprietor of the vacation lodge, or perhaps some of the lodge’s guests. Unfortunately there’s been a murder at the lodge— the body is discovered while Quade is going through his sales spiel. Then, a group of escaped convicts show up looking to hide out from the police, and find the money that one of the guests stole and has apparently hidden somewhere on Eagle’s Crag. As you can probably tell from this description, the story is crammed to bursting and is a lot of fun besides.

“A Nose for News” by Richard Sale features his character “Daffy” Dill a reporter with the New York Chronicle whose professional rivalry with “Harry Lyons, the rat of our sheet, who had been sore at me since I got his job” leads to serious professional and personal problems. One of Dill’s stories features a typo in which a chef at a high-class restaurant is described as having once been known as one of the “most famous of all the crooks of Vienna.” You see, it should have read “cooks of Vienna.” Dill loses his job over the libel, but he makes a deal with a “gel” called Claire Gordon— if he can get the owner of an illegal gambling den to tear up her brother’s $5,000 I.O.U., she’ll help him get his job back with a sensational story. She wants to stage her own kidnapping. Dill gets the I.O.U. forgiven, but he rightly calls foul on the cockamamie phony kidnapping job. Unfortunately and not all that surprisingly, Claire is actually kidnapped, and Dill finds himself in even worse shape than before— out of a job and arrested.

Next is “Angelfish” by Lester Dent. The story begins with detective Oscar Sail helping a woman named Nan Moberly stage a fake robbery/attack, in an attempt to put an end to an ongoing harassment campaign against her. Moberly works for an oil company, and has photos that show the possibility of an oil strike somewhere off the coast of Miami. She is the only person who knows where the photos were taken, and as such has been targeted by investigators working for a rival company. As things get complicated for Sail and Moberly a hurricane is bearing down on the coast. Sail is forced to take his boat out on the churning water, with disastrous results.

The final story is “Bird in the Hand,” by Erle Stanley Gardner, featuring the gentleman thief Lester Leith. It’s a complicated, absurd, and ultimately hilarious “impossible crime” type story in which Leith helps the police discover how the contents of a large trunk made their way out of a hotel without anyone finding out. As Goulart says in his introduction to this story, “In the Lester Leith stories there is a fusion of hardboiled writing and the Raffles tradition, with maybe a touch of Rube Goldberg.” That’s a pretty decent description of what happens here.

Each story has a brief introduction with a few details about each writer and the characters. There’s also an “informal reading list” at the end, with suggestions for further reading. Many of the books suggested were out of print in 1965 and, it seems, remained out of print. Some others are back, though. This volume, apparently, is out of print today. However, the stories do appear in collections that are currently in print. For instance, you can get all the Max Latin stories in one volume. The same is true of the Oliver Quade, the Human Encyclopedia stories. I recommend that you do!

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