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THINGS ARE NOT AS THEY SEEM

Jay Burnett      

I have, over the years, been a casual fan of crime novels. Not the kind beloved of English readers, with elderly ladies solving mysteries in quiet villages, but rather the American variety, with hard-boiled private eyes walking down some mean streets. But even that description doesn't really say what I like, the private eye novel being almost a genre in itself. I suppose what I'm mostly talking about are the so-called "pulp" novels, largely produced in the 1940's and 1950's (though with their antecedents in the 1930's) in response to the demand by paperback publishers for books which could be cheaply produced and mostly sold outside normal bookshop outlets. Some authors in this field did, it's true, cross boundaries and their works were seen as literature by literary people. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald spring to mind in this respect, but I doubt that most of the other writers, usually publishing directly into gaudy paperbacks, were ever written about by "serious" critics. One of the few early attempts by a well-known critic to look at some of the hard-boiled, tough-guy, call them what you will, novelists was Edmund Wilson's "The Boys in the Back Room," published in 1941, and dealing, in part, with James M. Cain, who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice. Horace McCoy, author of I Should Have Stayed Home, and Richard Hallas, whose You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up has one of the most evocative titles there is. It almost sums up what happens in a lot of the books and, also, in the films which later became categorised as film noir. Wilson referred to such writers as "the poets of the tabloid murder," and they did seem to be re-shaping the kind of stories that cropped up most days in newspapers. There were others like them, most of them now forgotten and sometimes unfairly so. James Ross wrote a bleak novel called They Don't Dance Much, which is not only about crime but presents as well a picture of Depression days in small-town America. And Edward Anderson's Thieves Like Us has much to recommend it for its portrayal of 1930's situations.

       Edmund Wilson clearly selected a few of the better writers when writing his essay, and much the same has happened when critics have turned their attention to the "pulp" novelists of the late 1940's and the 1950's. A few names crop up regularly and it's difficult to locate information about the lesser-known (though not necessarily lesser-talented) writers, which is why Woody Haut's Pulp Culture and the Cold War (Serpent's Tail, 1995) is such a valuable book. It doesn't try to be all-inclusive, and its title indicates a specific period (roughly 1945 to 1960) that engages the author's attention, but it is well-documented and deals with writers mostly outside the standard framework of literary criticism. I'm not reviewing Haut's book, simply drawing attention to it as a useful and provocative source of information.

       I said earlier that many "pulp" novels were produced to meet a demand for cheap paperbacks but, as Haut makes clear, quite a few of the writers tried to create something worthwhile when dealing with description, character-development, suspense, and psychological depth. They also, whether by accident or design, often reflected the mood of the times. Not too many dealt directly with politics, though Mickey Spillane's One Lonely Night stands out as a bizarre exception ("They were Red sons-of-bitches who should have died long ago ....."), if not a particularly well-written one. William McGivern's Margin of Terror also touches on anticommunist paranoia, and he may well have been genuinely anticommunist himself but, as a "pulp" writer, he also knew how to ride on the 50's Cold War bandwagon. Margin of Terror is not one of his best books, with its stereotypical American hero saving a beautiful girl from the dastardly Reds, but it reflected (and perhaps also fed) the unease of the period. Uneasiness is a key factor in many "pulp" novels, just as it is in more literary novels. (Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit is an example) and in sociological studies (see David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd) from the 1950's. There is a constant feeling that all is not well and that, below the surface of "normality," lies the possibility of breakdown. People are trapped in cobwebs of intrigue, middle-class respectability is threatened, and assumed values soon break down under pressure. "Pulp" novelists were not the only ones to see things this way, and studies of Hollywood films of the postwar year's frequently point out how they often involve similar ideas.

       As an aside, one of the fascinating things about more than a few of the writers (of both "pulp" novels and movies of the film noir style) was their link to the political left. A glance through the credits of classic film noir productions will bring to light names such as Albert Maltz, Abraham Polonsky, Clifford Odets, and Robert Rossen, all of them with one-time membership of the Communist Party noted in their FBI files. As for the "pulp" writers (and some of them worked in Hollywood, as well as writing novels), Jim Thompson had been a Party member in the 1930's and Vera Caspary, author of Laura, a classic crime novel and film, had also belonged somewhere along the line. William Lindsay Gresham, who wrote the weird Nightmare Alley, had served with the International Brigades in Spain, and Dorothy B. Hughes, whilst not a communist, was sympathetic to left-liberal causes. Her novel The Fallen Sparrow has a Spanish Civil War veteran at its centre. There may be nothing highly significant in all this, though I suspect that, for some of the writers, the world of the crime novel was not only a way of earning a living but also allowed them to offer a critique of society at a time when they sometimes found it difficult to get more orthodox socially-observant books published. Ed Lacy's books often seem to me to make social commentary a part of the story, especially in a book like Harlem Underground, where references to race politics and general social trends are worked into the text.

       Left-wing or not (and I'm not claiming that most of them were) these writers knew how to tell a story. Gil Brewer wrote over fifty novels and around five hundred short stores, with admittedly variable results. But the short, but effective 13 French Street deserves to be remembered. A middle-class man, with a good job in a museum and a safe marriage about to take place, goes to visit an old war-buddy and finds himself sucked into a whirlpool of murder as his friend's wife exerts her baleful influence. Women, it needs to be said, mostly represented two basic types in "pulp" fiction. They were either faithful and true or they were femme fatales. Again, there is a parallel with film noir, and it says something about the uneasiness that men felt about the place of women in postwar society. They were threatened by their growing assertiveness, which, in books and films, often came out as negative in intent and result. But leaving this aside, what is impressive about Brewer's book is its compulsiveness as matters build to their inevitable climax. And Brewer could also write short, but highly effective passages which set the scene for what was about to happen and highlighted the contrast between the surface calm and the storm that was brewing:

"Church bells tolled a solemn recollection of timeless Sundays spent in an apathy of occasional prayer tokening an afterward of roast chicken and mashed potatoes, stuffed stomachs and shirts, groaning couches and the geometric disarray of thick newspapers among the wailing havoc of snores, wet diapers, clanking kitchen sink, or the shade-drawn sedate parlours where through rich cigar smoke they mumbled ritualistic weekly histories of business and how Oscar got drunk last night at the hotel bar. As I drove up Main Street people were congregating in front of the churches and it was a nice autumn Sunday for death."

       Now it's obviously true that for every 13 French Street there were twenty and more "pulp" novels that were thoroughly routine when it came to dialogue, character-development, and anything else you care to mention. A reader wanting to find decent writing in this field had to be prepared to pick and choose carefully. Even an interesting writer, such as Gil Brewer or William McGivern, had his off-days. But it is worth looking for the good stuff. McGivern's excellent The Crooked Frame, to pick out one book from his output, has much to recommend it. Set in the world of "pulp" magazines it adroitly exploits the standard plot of a man waking up from a binge to find blood on his clothes and a dawning suspicion in his mind that he may have killed someone in an alcoholic blackout. McGivern manages to sustain the tension with a neat mixture of little twists in the plot and wicked office politics, showing his skill as a writer as he does so. It's noticeable how many of these books involve characters with a drink problem. Fredric Brown's The Screaming Mimi kicks off with a broken-down reporter stumbling drunkenly through the night and finding himself caught up in a murder hunt. And Kenneth Fearing's Dagger of the Mind, set out in an artists' colony and with some sly references to artistic manners and morals, also has a drunk as its central character. Fearing was himself an alcoholic, as was Jim Thompson, whose books are awash with booze.

       Thompson was, incidentally, a fascinating character. He had belonged to the IWW and, later, the Communist Party, and had worked at a variety of jobs, as well as turning out a string of novels, several of which are not easily categorized as crime stories, though that's the way they were published and are described in bookshops. Thompson drew on his own experiences for background material, as in South of Heaven which is set in the Texas oil field of the 1920's. He had worked there and amongst his acquaintances had been Harry "haywire" McClintock, an IWW organiser and singer who later worked in radio and was reputed to be the composer of hobo songs such as "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Thompson told friends that reading Marx while working in the oil fields had been a turning point in his life, and some of his early writings, in a 30's proletarian style, revolved around the exploitation of labour. By the time he came to write South of Heaven in the 1960's, he had severed his links with organized politics, but his still had an edge when it came to describing conditions amongst the transient workers hired to lay gas pipe-lines and brutalised by their struggle to stay alive. Thompson's books have attracted some interest in recent years, partly thanks to film-makers who have seen his work as suitable for adaptation to the screen, so The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me, and many of the other novels he produced for the "pulp" market of the 1950's are easily available. The revival of interest had also brought about the re-publication of his earlier novels, Now and on Earth (1942) and Heed The Thunder (1946), neither of which is a crime book. If anything, they reflect his roots in the Depression years.

       I mentioned Ed Lacy and Harlem Underground, which is about a black cop struggling to defuse tension created by both white racists and black militant. A previous Lacy book, Room to Swing had featured a black private detective and was thought to be one of the first to do so. And Lacy, whose work was included in an anthology of short stories by Afro-American writers, was described as black, but was, in fact, Jewish American.    Under his real name, Len Zinberg, he had written radical novels in the 1930's and early 1940's. His awareness of the problems faced by blacks comes through in his books, and Room To Swing is prefaced with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favoured few-booted and spurred ........"   The point is, though, that Lacy worked within the "pulp" framework, whatever social comments he made in passing, and he was good at what he did. Like Gil Brewer he knew how to set a scene:

        "It was just another ordinary and dreary bar on Amsterdam Avenue in that part of New York City called Washington Heights. Why it was named Grand Cafe, nobody seems to know. It had neither gaudy neon lights nor air-conditioning, and the small screen TV perched in one corner was the same set it had been when TV was a novelty."

       That's the opening of Visa to Death, and Lacy carries on documenting the ordinariness of the place and its clientele and then introduces a double killing. The main story itself is interesting and involves some shady wartime deals which corrupt their protagonists and follow them into civilian life. Lacy was another writer who had been a Communist Party member, so his crime novels may well have allowed him to continue earning a living while offering at least some observations on the way that money, power, and the pressures of capitalism affected people. And he did without preaching.

       I am conscious that I have been jumping around with what I've said in this piece and I've certainly not tried to assess the books concerned in a systematic way. As I've said at the beginning, I am a casual fan of crime novels and I just keep an eye open for "pulp" novels as I browse in second hand bookshops and pause at market bookstalls. Picking them up cheap is part of the fun. And I make mistakes and realize I have started reading a dud. But they can yield up good writing and stories that grip the imagination. Charles Williams's The Hotspot (originally called Hell Hath No Fury) has a terrific twist in its tale with the "hero" caught in a web that will enable him to live in material comfort but will also involve him in a totally soulless existence. William McGivern's The Big Heat and Odds Against Tomorrow are well written and both play on 50's problems and paranoias (crime creeping into the suburbs, racism, etc.) and Steve Fisher's  I Wake Up Screaming concerns a Hollywood writer accused of murder and hounded by a slightly insane policeman. Fisher worked in Hollywood and the book has some sharp things to say about the studio system and its injustices. I make no claims for these books being great literature, but it seems to me that quite a few of them are much better written than many "literary " novels which were coming out in hardbacks and being reviewed in the right places. It's rather like Jim Thompson said when asked about writing: "There is only one plot - things are not as they seem. " Or, to put It another way, you can't judge a book by its cover.