By Rick Ollerman

Stark House Press. 295 pages. $17.95. ISBN 978-1-94452-0-328

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Pulp fiction. What exactly is it? And what is the difference between “hardboiled” and “noir?” I’m not sure that Rick Ollerman ever really clarifies what it is that distinguishes the two genres, though in a way it doesn’t really matter. A hardboiled novel can often have a hero who, in the end, turns out to be bigger than expected and reaches a satisfactory conclusion, whether of a problem he has to resolve or a relationship with a woman he has fallen for. The noir “hero”, on the other hand, may start off thinking himself big but is likely to fall prey to a variety of temptations that will break down his resistance in various ways, The femme fatale is usually the main one. It’s little wonder that pulp fiction paperback covers often featured a semi-clothed female vamping a worried-looking man. But that’s a loose distinction I’m making and easily shown to be not all that accurate. Things are often not as they seem

I’m not sure that, over the years, I’ve ever bothered too much about whether or not a book falls into the hardboiled or noir category. Likewise with the question of its “pulp” status. Pulp usually suggests something printed on cheap paper and sold mainly in small shops, or on newsstands, as opposed to big bookstores. Many pulp writers only ever went directly into paperbacks, but some others did make a breakthrough to hardbacks with major publishers. It perhaps gave them a status never likely to accrue to the hard-pressed novelists who turned out twenty or thirty paperback books in as many years, and often even less time. Their books rarely, if ever, got reviewed, and few, if any, critics bothered to even acknowledge their existence, let alone wrote about them. Anthony Boucher may have been a rare exception.

Ollerman reminisces about the time when he could browse through the paperback racks in the local store and decide which of the latest novels he could afford. I had similar experiences myself, albeit in Britain rather than America, but I’d guess the results were much the same. Without any kind of guide as to which writers might be worth reading it was a case of trial and error. Sometimes a book would attract not because the cover featured a beautiful blonde posed seductively, but when the subject-matter might seem interesting. I recall picking up Malcolm Braly’s Shake Him Till He Rattles because it appeared to have some jazz connections. Ollerman is informative about Braly, who had spent years in prison before he became a reformed character and wrote several novels. His On the Yard is considered a brilliant portrayal of prison life.

I suppose there is some irony in the fact that all those paperbacks which were looked down on by the literary establishment, and were often condemned by moralists, sometimes on the basis of their covers rather than their contents, are now collectors’ material. At one time it was possible to still find them (I’m talking about the original editions) in odd places at low prices. They weren’t always in good condition, but that didn’t matter too much if all the pages were there. Pulp publications weren’t meant to last. The rise of the Internet, coupled with re-assessments of their qualities, has meant that it’s now difficult to easily obtain them without paying too much. And they’re often more difficult to find. Nostalgia can take over when I think about the books I picked up from market-stalls and second-hand bookshops.

This is where the reprint houses have stepped in to save the day. Stark House is probably the key player in the field, but others, such as Hard Case Crime, are also active. The problem is that reprints aren’t always reviewed widely, and bookshops don’t always stock them unless the writer has a name the public will recognise. Jim Thompson’s books, or certain of them, at least, sometimes creep onto the shelves of Waterstone’s. There’s occasionally a chance that David Goodis will be seen.  And there’s a major snag. In most British cities and towns these days there is only a Waterstone’s.

There used to be a very good crime bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London, but it went under some years ago. I miss it because I could always find both new and old editions of books by Gil Brewer, William P. McGivern, Benjamin Appel, Steve Fisher, Ed Lacy, and many others, on its packed shelves. It was always a pleasure to come across an old book in the Gold Medal series. Or a reprint from Stark House. I’m talking about writers from the 1940s and 1950s, which is where my personal interests are, but more-contemporary writers that I read, such as John Harvey and Lawrence Block, were also very much in evidence.

Rick Ollerman clearly has his favourites among the older pulp, hardboiled, noir, call them what you will, writers. Charles Williams is one of them, and Ollerman writes at length about him. It’s only fair to say that he’s fully aware that the kind of writing life that pulp authors often led didn’t always make for consistency in the quality of their work. Even the best writers produced books that were routinely plotted and showed evidence of haste in their composition. Reading them I sometimes have the feeling that publishers may have been applying the, “We don’t want a masterpiece, we want it Tuesday”, maxim to their demands for manuscripts to be delivered with speed. The writers  themselves also needed to turn out books regularly in order to maintain some sort of steady income. It’s easy to see why a writer like Jada M. Davies, who wrote the classic (of its type), One for Hell, preferred to make a living as a businessman. He had known extreme poverty as a child, had a family to support, and published only two novels in his lifetime.

Discussing Charles Williams, Ollerman rightly refers to his Hell Hath No Fury as one of his best books. It was made into a film, The Hot Spot, starring Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen, and directed by Dennis Hopper, and perhaps was an example of how sometimes a cinematic version of a book can be its equal in terms of effectiveness. Quite a few pulp novels provided the inspiration for noir films, usually in the “B” category, but they didn’t necessarily always turn out for the best. I recently caught Guilty Bystander, featuring Zachary Scott as the alcoholic private detective, Max Thursday, on YouTube, and thought it a poor version of the novel of the same name by Wade Miller. That was the pen-name of Bill Miller and Robert Wade, two writers who had a successful partnership for many years. On the other hand, Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil became the highly-rated (by the critics) Touch of Evil, though with some substantial changes. But that’s Hollywood. Fans enthuse about the famous long tracking shot that opens the film. And about the performance by Orson Welles as the corrupt policeman.

Mentioning Max Thursday points to the fact that more than a few pulp writers created a character who was the centre of attention in a series of books. There were, perhaps, practical reasons for this. People who read crime novels like to follow the adventures of a detective, usually a private investigator but sometimes an official policeman. Need I say more than Sherlock Holmes? Publishers have a useful selling point when they advertise the latest novel featuring a specifically named person. And it may be that the writer knows that readers will be drawn into the story automatically when they recognise the name. That’s the “hook”, the device which creative writing tutors will tell you is essential to interest readers enough to make them want to carry on. Did any of those early pulp writers ever attend a creative writing class? Or teach one? Somehow I doubt it, though I’m more than ready to be corrected. Ollerman says that when it was suggested that Charles Williams write about a “series character” he “thought that would be boring for him”.

Peter Rabe is another writer who Ollerman favours. And I want to use something that he says when writing about Rabe, though it’s not necessarily directly in connection with him: “The point is anyone can write a bad review just like anyone can repeat a dirty joke. Both can make you laugh. But how many critics or reviewers can make you see the good in something that may not be wholly good? Or the good in spite of the overall bad”. Reading that I thought of lots of critics and reviewers I’ve read who just haven’t done what Ollerman suggests and I’ve wondered whether it’s worth taking the trouble to ever read them again. Lots of people condemning pulp fiction simply fail to note its virtues and see only its faults. I prefer to read reviewers who respond rather than ridicule.

Writing about Rabe, Ollerman refers to his Kill the Boss Good-by (a title I like alongside Fredric Brown’s We All Killed Grandma, but a whole essay could be written about the titles of pulp novels, which can admittedly vary from the interesting to the ridiculous). Rabe “never wrote the same book twice………He didn’t follow the same formula book after book, he didn’t use the same plot over and over again”. He did write novels which had “series characters”, in one case a gangster named Daniel Port, in another a lawyer who gets involved In espionage.

Ollerman’s focus is mostly on crime, but the pulp writers often turned their hands to other genres, like westerns. Not all pulp was about murders and mayhem, though the most popular books largely concerned themselves with those subjects. And sex, but it had to be inferred or hinted at in the 1940s and 1950s. Was that necessarily a bad thing? I hate to think what Steve Fisher’s Sheltering Night, originally published by Gold Medal in 1952, might have been like had it been written twenty years later. Fisher had to suggest rather than state in his story of a girl who likes sex too much.

I referred earlier to some films based on pulp novels, and Ollerman has a good chapter on Lionel White who wrote a book called Clean Break. This was turned into The Killing, a film beloved of fans of film noir. It starred, among others, Sterling Hayden, playing the “muscle man” taking part in a robbery. He played a somewhat similar role in The Asphalt Jungle, based on W.R. Burnett’s novel of the same name. Ollerman writes about Burnett in a useful essay.

It’s when writing about Lionel White that Ollerman tries to clarify the difference between “hardboiled” and “noir”.  He makes a distinction between “most of Chandler’s and Hammett’s novels”, which he says are “examples of hardboiled writing”, and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which he thinks is “as good an example of noir that’s ever been written”. The private eyes in Chandler and Hammett survive, whereas the poor drifter who falls for the femme fatale in Cain’s book is certain to end badly.

Just going back to titles, there may be a case for claiming that You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (a 1938 novel by Richard Hallas, or Eric Knight, to give him his real name), is the classic noir title, though some might argue that it more likely fits into the hardboiled category. The roots of the hardboiled, and perhaps of noir also, can be located in Depression America. And corruption and crime could be found in small towns and rural areas as much as in the big cities. As well as writers like Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and the Black Mask bunch, think of Erskine Caldwell, Horace McCoy. James T. Farrell, Nelson Algren, and James Ross. The latter’s They Don’t Dance Much, a “sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town” (Raymond Chandler’s words) is little-known but well worth reading.

Eric Knight was English, but moved to America and worked in Hollywood, and it’s interesting that Ollerman has a chapter about James Hadley Chase, author of No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a book considered quite scandalous in its day. It was George Orwell who described it as not “the product of an illiterate hack, but a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere”. But Ollerman does note that Orwell also described it as “American” fiction and consequently not really acceptable from a British writer. Chase’s proper name was René Brabazon Raymond and he was born in London in 1906. He wrote ninety books, but sometimes had problems when he “borrowed” plots from other writers’ novels. Ollerman says that No Orchids for Miss Blandish obviously took a great deal from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, with details about the “kidnapping, holding and corruption of a society girl”.

Ollerman is good when analysing various novels, and he can be thought-provoking, as when he says that Lionel White, unlike other writers, doesn’t often describe people “through dialogue”. Instead, he “defines his characters mostly through exposition”. It may seem that Ollerman is sometimes repetitious because he has more than one piece each about Charles Williams, Peter Rabe, Ed Gorman, and James Hadley Chase. But he usually manages to come up with fresh information and insights in each short or long essay.

Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals ought to be read by anyone wanting to know more about the world of pulp writers, and can be usefully placed alongside another Stark House publication, Brian Ritt’s Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era, as a guide to what is brightest in the world of hardboiled and noir writing. No sensible claim can be made for every pulp writer being of interest. There were hundreds of forgotten paperback novels produced during the heyday of the pulps, and many don’t deserve to be revived or reprinted, but a discerning reader can find some worthwhile writing in the best of them.