Just Another Twist

GangsterStories193112Margie Harris might on her own represent two or three of the most intriguing unsolved mysteries in pulp fiction.

The first and most confounding is simply this — why is Margie Harris not an icon of pulp fiction? And indeed why did her entire share of the genre — gangster fiction — have such a short and incandescent golden age before dying out altogether?

Harris wrote prolifically for shamelessly and deliberately provocative monthlies with names like Gangster Stories and Gangland Stories and Racketeer Stories and Conflict, many of which regularly fell foul of government censors and had to be reminded that crime doesn’t pay or at any rate must never be shown to. Her career paralleled these pioneering anthologies and she contributed to them from their start in 1930 to their demise in the middle of the decade and short-lived comeback in 1939 and she was a natural:

Jimmy should have remembered that Smooth, before going to Ossining for a ten spot jolt, had been known as being stingy with words, lavish with action.

The crater made by the heavy slug gave him the look of some particularly obscene and horrible monster in human form; one possessed of three eyes, all leering with a hellish tolerance on the combined sins of the world.

Margie Harris, Facing the Mob, Gangland Stories, February 1931

Thematically, Harris’ specialty was the over-the-top mob thriller with quick tempers and quicker justice. Stylistically her specialty was the idiom. She employed what may or may not have been legitimate street jargon lavishly and yet somehow accessibly — you just know without ever before seeing it in this context that a yard is a hundred dollars and a ten spot jolt is a ten year sentence in Sing Sing (the idiomatic name, incidentally, for Ossining State Prison in upstate New York).

Harris deployed her gats and gunsels and molls and meat wagons with an unselfconscious fluency in much the same way that Hammett and Chandler would employ the hard-boiled simile and to similar effect. Her narrative has a lyricism and tempo that accompany the high-octane, revenge-driven plots like a saxophone.

The second great mystery of Margie Harris is who was Margie Harris? All that’s known of her for sure is that she didn’t exist. Margie Harris was the pseudonym of someone who almost certainly wrote gangland stories as an aside to another, possibly more prominent career as a journalist and/or police officer and/or gangster. And the closest thing we have to a clue is a letter Harris wrote to pulp innovator Harold Hersey, publisher of Gangster Stories, in response to the growing curiosity of his readership and their doubts that a woman could write such gritty material.

A biographical sketch of Margie Harris?
Scram, Baby; whaddyuh think I am, a canary —yelpin’ on myself?
I got your slant, though, somebody’s maybe asked “Who’s this frail who cracks wise from the inside?”
Just another twist, sisters and brothers — maybe, but look out for my lipstick. You know some of the sugar Molls carry one for their own use, one for “the other Jane” — and that one has cyanide in it. So look out for my lipstick, too.
How did I get that way? Maybe newspaper work; maybe just associates…

Gangster Stories, June 1931

The complete letter can be found in in City of Numbered Men, the Best of Prison Stories and Queen of the Gangsters: Vol 1: Broadwalk Empire (sic: yes, Broadwalk) along with author John Locke’s compelling and convincing analysis implying that Harris acquired at least some of her facility with gangland culture by association with genuine mobsters.

Harris wrote her last story under the name in 1939 and then left us forever. Maybe she went on the lam or took a powder. I sure hope she wasn’t deep-sixed and I like to assume that we continue to admire her work under her other aliases.

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