Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, Edited by Otto Penzler
During the Great Depression, many authors wrote stories at a penny a word to make ends meet. Some of these authors wrote up to a million words a year, usually in the form of detective stories, mysteries and thrillers. A lot of these stories, featuring smart, cynical but brave detectives, were first printed in the wildly popular fiction magazines of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s such as Black Mask, Dime Detective, Gangster Stories, and Gun Molls, printed on incredibly cheap pulp paper and were the medium for popular stories during the period between the world wars, through the great depression. This was the start of the fiction genre known as Pulp fiction
With the popularity of comics, cheap paperback novels, radio and television, the popularity of pulp magazines declined, eventually shutting many of them down for good, and thus depriving many of our generation of the guilty pleasure of this writing style. Yes guilty pleasure since the rate at which the authors churned out these stories did not allow them to write elegant prose or proofread and rewrite these stories. In a way, this actually established the form and style of writing, making them more gritty and identifiable with the populace in a period when earning a livelihood was tough and money was short.
The decline of the pulp magazines however, has not entirely deprived us of this genre of fiction. The Black Lizard has released a huge compendium of pulp stories collected in a single anthology called The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. Edited by Otto Penzler, one of the most authoritative sources on pulp fiction, owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, the book is telephone directory sized tome at over 1,000 pages contains 52 crime stories from the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s with their original artwork and also features two full novels. The book is printed in the two-column format as the old magazines were printed. Penzler provides the foreword to the book and has written notes before each of the stories, usually about the author and his other works.
Featured in this book are some of the best stories and every major writer who ever appeared in the popular pulp magazines of the time. The book contains three stories by Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Dashiell Hammett, the masters of the pulp genre and many other lesser-known authors of the time. The featured novels are by Carroll John Daly, the man who invented the hard-boiled detective, and Fredrick Nebel. These are the classic tales that created the pulp fiction genre and started the trend of the hard-boiled detectives.
However, the stories are not collected by authors but are instead divided into three sections – Crime Fighters, Villains, and Dames with the stories in each section following that theme. The Crime Fighters are the quintessential cynical, honest hard-boiled detectives who are either saving a damsel in distress or setting right wrongs perpetrated on the innocent. These detectives were so popular that they became iconic thanks to this genre. Some of the characters include Sam Spade, Captain Jerry Frost of the Texas Air Rangers, Phillipe Marlowe and others. The Villains section is interesting because many of the stories featured Robin Hood’esque characters who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. There were exceptions of course, like the unrepentant sociopath teenager in “You’ll always remember me” or the precious stone smugglers from The Monkey Murder.
In the age when these stories were written, there were not many women (outside of the movies) who accomplished a lot in the public eye. And this is reflected in these stories. The women in pulp fiction were usually secretaries, damsels in distress or in many cases, femme fatale on the arms of a crime boss. But a good many stories featured them in the role of the protagonist who used their beauty and brains to solve crime and save the day.
For pulp fiction fans, this book is a collector’s edition. While not all stories are great (or equally good to the others) the vast collection will ensure that almost all fans will find a lot to enjoy the book. Each of the stories are prefaced by Penzler’s editorial notes; especially helpful in putting the author, the stories and the heroes in perspective as well as serving as a background for readers who have not read pulp stories before. A highly recommended book for entertainment for many a days, this collectors edition is a must have.