Monday, March 24, 2008


The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage, 2007)

One of the first things you learn as a writer is to write for your intended audience, especially if you're getting paid for it. Thus, when I reviewed The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps here a few months ago, I felt the need to assume I was advising naifs for whom John Travolta epitomizes pulp fiction.

Now I don't.

The Big Book is not a great anthology--it's a great package. It's so god damned big (1,100+ pages), authentic (the stories, cover art, and interior illustrations all from real pulps!) and, like the pulps themselves, cheap (only $25!), it's hard not to get your money's worth.

But I do need to bitch about the editing. Otto Penzler may be Mr. Mysterious Press, but he's pretty far down on my list of potential pulp anthology editors. (I bet he doesn't even trail bits of pulp paper behind him when he walks.) Despite the 1,100 pages, there a surprising lack of variety on the contributor's list. While plenty of big names are missing, several authors are represented by two stories, and Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and Erle Stanley Gardner have three each! And not one by Robert Leslie Bellem? It's just not right.

My biggest gripe, however, is the inclusion of an entire damned novel by Carroll John Daly. As Penzler points out, you can't not include Daly in this sort of anthology. He literally wrote the first hardboiled detective story, and was as big as Hammett back in the day. But the years have not been kind to him. His stuff is virtually unreadable today. (Not surprisingly, his biggest fan was the equally talented Mickey Spillane.) A short story (and yes, he wrote many) would have been painful enough. A full novel is not only sadistic, it takes up space that could have been enjoyably devoted to any one of a dozen writers.

But even after you skip the Chandler stories you already read, skim the second-rate Hammett stuff, and carefully avoid soiling yourself with the Daly novel, you're still left with more than 700 pages of some pretty good pulp fiction. If my copy hadn't been free, I would have bought one.


All the Way by Charles Williams (Dell, 1958)

Books have always come first with me. Much of the film portion of my media diet consists of movies adapted from favored books. No matter how many print silk purses I’ve seen rendered as cinematic sows’ ears, I can’t resist reading the book and seeing the movie.

Thus, when I saw The Third Voice on the schedule for last January’s Noir City Festival, I immediately brushed off my copy of the book it was based on, Charles William’s All the Way. For those yet to be initiated into the dusty world of mid-20th century paperback originals, Williams was one of the big names, penning a an excellent series of tough, literate suspense novels (mostly set in south Florida) that ultimately made it into hard covers. If he’d had a series character he could have been John D. MacDonald; if he’d gone crazy, he could have been Jim Thompson. Instead, he’s forever doomed to be on the verge of “rediscovery.”

All the Way is vintage Williams. Secretary Marian Forsyth built her boss/lover Harris Chapman into a big shot. Unfortunately, once he’s in the chips, Chapman signs his death warrant by throwing her over for a younger “professional virgin.” Forsyth goes shopping for an accomplice and winds up with the narrator, Jerry Forbes. But unlike every other “woman scorned” noir you’ve read, she’s ready, even eager to do the big job herself. Forbes’s part is to pose as Chapman. He’s supposed to drain the bank and brokerage accounts and make it look like Chapman had gone nuts and taken a one way rowboat trip with a concrete flamingo (metaphor alert!) and a dead call girl. And it works! They get away with the money, not that they live happily ever after, but heck, that’s noir for you.

It plays equally well on the big screen. The only black & white Cinescope movie I’ve ever seen, The Third Voice is great movie and an amazingly faithful adaptation—up to a point. For the 77 minutes, it’s All the Way on the screen. The action’s been relocated from south Florida to Mexico and some sub-plots and scenes steam-lined out, but it’s essentially the same. Even a lot of the dialog originated at William’s typewriter, not the screenwriter’s. Unfortunately, it’s a 79-minute film. It slams you over the head with a hackneyed ending that comes up so suddenly it’s like they ran out of film.

Hell. At least they got it 95% right.