Cheaters And Their Readers

By 1944 Raymond Chandler had written The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely and the line “She had eyes like strange sins” and he was accordingly at the top of his game when he wrote “The Simple Art of Murder” for Atlantic Monthly and sank the sturdiest and most explicit signpost at a major turning point for pulp fiction.

Since then the essay has held its ground as an important and seminal summary of what’s good and bad in fiction in general and detective fiction in particular, at least from the perspective of one of the genre’s recognised greats. It amounts to a declaration of victory for a certain type of rigorous realism and American-style iconoclasm, especially with regards to the insufferably mannered, formulaic and imperious English forbears of detective fiction. Chandler takes on Dorothy L. Sayers and an editorial he describes as an “essay in futility” as representative of the pompous view that detective fiction can never be real fiction.

There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.

Chandler also takes issue with E.C. Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case” and condemns Freeman Wills Crofts, S.S. Van Dine and, naturally, Agatha Christie for the lead-handed cop-out that is “Murder On The Orient Express”.

They do not come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction.

And he’s particularly merciless with the progenitor of Winnie The Pooh, AA Milne, for his crime against fiction “The Red House Mystery”. The problem with the Milne Story is that it’s implausible and relies on far too many very unlikely or unnatural or irregular occurrences. Chandler picks the story to pieces, in fact, and the best he can say about it is that it’s “not a deliberate fraud”.

In short, Chandler dislikes a cheat. And this is the meat of the essay for any writer who cares about adding to the modern canon as begun by Hammett and sustained by Chandler and MacDonald (but clearly not Spillane). It needs to be realistic. This doesn’t mean that mad things can’t happen and that character and morality can’t be tested to limits beyond that which most readers will ever see, but it has to be logically consistent and you can never go back and try to fill in a litany of plot-holes with the cheap pitch of coincidence and oversight and the assumption that your readers are lazy or stupid.

That means no deus ex machina, no sending Hastings down to London in chapter three to return at the denouement with evidence of a secret twin or a second will or true likeness of the deceased, no squadrons of policemen too stupid to notice that which the amateur detective picks up on instantly. It means, simply, that your reader has to stand a chance to solve the problem with the evidence presented. You can misdirect your reader, as Hammett does so originally in the Maltese Falcon, or shock him as Chandler does so cynically in the Little Sister, but you can’t lie and you can’t cheat and you can’t deprive the reader of a fighting chance.

You don’t need to like the advice or follow it to be a good writer unless part of your take on that means being a good writer according to the harsh and authoritative definition of Raymond Chandler. Or if you simply agree with the hypothesis that rigour in writing inevitably surfaces as quality then you could certainly choose a worse measure than an obligation to reward your readers for their attention all the way through to the end.

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.

The Strange Case of Klinger v Doyle


On December 23rd a federal court in Chicago declared Sherlock Holmes public domain in America, striking down the last obstacle to my dream of writing my contribution to the canon in which Holmes teams up with Dr Who to recover powerful scriptures which have been stolen from the library of St John the Beheaded only to discover that the fiend behind the plot is his own brother, Sherrinford, who is in fact a member of a cult led by a telepathic slug whose plan is to turn all its followers into insect people. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it had been done.

Holmes fell into the Swiss ravine of public domain in the UK in 1997 with the death of Conan-Doyle’s last remaining direct descendent, the accomplished air force commander Dame Jean Conan-Doyle, who had employed her last years and remaining influence on the Sherlock Holmes industry in the UK to encourage quality world-wide. Now U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo has opened the floodgates entirely to the sea of untreated fan-fic that will doubtless follow his ruling.

And what dross there’ll be. We’ll probably see modernizations about a mental patient who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes being treated by a psychiatrist named Watson, except that, too, was done in the 1971 play and film, They Might Be Giants. And of course the series Elementary, in which Holmes is a recovering drug addict in current-day New York has been in production for several seasons before Justice Castillo’s landmark decision. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as a Holmes who relies on text messaging and Youtube has somehow found audiences in the US under the dark restrictions of pre-Castillo era.

So it’ll be in the wild-west frontier of electronic publishing where most of the offenses will multiply like rats with no regard to the canon, unlike considered homages like A Time For Sherlock Holmes (1983) in which Holmes and Watson are able to battle Moriarity into infinity thanks to a youth serum. There’ll be no way, now, to distinguish the strictly compliant pastiches that pit Holmes against Dr. Jekyll (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, 1979) and Fu Manchu (Ten Years Beyond Baker Street, 1984) and Jack the Ripper (The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, 1978) and, of course, Dracula (Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, 1978).

Note that there’s one caveat to the ruling and it’s to be the foundation of the appeal to be launched later this month — US copyright has yet to expire on the entirety of the original Sherlock Holmes library. There remain ten final stories released in the US after 1922 which still belong to the remaining Doyle estate. For those planning their own take on the great detective, this means that only features and characteristics established before then are fair game. So you can refer to Watson and Holmes, of course, and 221B Baker Street and Mrs. Hudson and Moriarty and LeStrade and Mycroft and Toby the crime-fighting Spaniel/Lurcher mutt, but you’ll have to craft a plot that somehow steers clear of Watson’s second wife.

So if you’ve been waiting for the legal all-clear to write your Sherlock Holmes/Captain Nemo mashup now you have it. Just try to take an original perspective, if you can find one remaining, and show a little respect for the time-travelling monster-fighting detective who’s kept us safe from the evil machinery of Dr. Moriarty and his space-invaders.

Indefensible Publi…

redhandWe weren’t initially going to do Twitter. Not because Twitter’s not the state-of-the-art in delivering pointlessly curt messages to people who don’t care what you think, but because it feels a little late in the game. There are zoo animals with over 100 000 Twitter followers and as much as we might like a piece of that pie we don’t know that we’re prepared to do what it takes to get it.

But the age of Twitter, for better or worse, is still upon our throats like a career oriented jackal and we’re led to understand that it can get you a few extra sales on Amazon which, in the future, is all anyone will care about and it’ll probably be the only way to get a desirable mate.

So please follow us on Twitter. In return we’ll follow you, of course, but we’ll also only tweet things which are relevant and helpful – specifically we’re going to tweet when we publish a new blog or book and whenever we find a clever bit of pulp fiction writing that we think isn’t already widely known.

A McGuffin For The Age Of The Anti-Hero


Fiction tends to wear its age either poorly, as does science fiction predicated on the assumption that by the 1990s we’d have achieved faster-than-light space travel and racial harmony — or well, as is the case of the best of hard-boiled detective fiction which grows over the years to be more representational of its era, more evocative and less self-conscious.

And then there’s the rare third way of novels that would be arguably better books if they were written today, like The Maltese Falcon.

Dashiell Hammett produced in 1931 a book that, when initially serialized in the Mask, probably struck readers as a particularly good and remarkably original example of the genre and I’m guessing when I say that most probably didn’t realize just how much harder the author had to work to so quietly and thoroughly evolve the medium.

It could be argued that the anti-hero dates back to at least Don Quixote — so some 400 years before Sam Spade — and the concept is probably appreciably older than that but as a staple of American fiction it was unheard of before the 50s. And this was the uniqueness of the challenge facing Hammett — Spade’s no anti-hero but to make the revolutionary plot work the reader needs to be convinced that’s exactly what he is twenty years before anyone’s heard of such a thing.

Hammett wasn’t inventing the anti-hero, he was moving the utility of misdirection in detective fiction onto a whole new plane. He was preoccupying the reader with a McGuffin and a colorful cast of self-serving characters and a multi-threaded plot about the Knights Templar and Spanish Kings when the real crime takes place on page 11. And to pull it off he had to convincingly present his main character, who would have been universally expected to be law-abiding and moral and chivalrous, as corrupt and mercenary and lascivious.

And he certainly succeeded but a lot of readers probably instinctively saw justice coming, one way or the other. The plot twist as it would be received in the context of today’s books and movies about happy and successful crooks and murderers is that the main character is in fact strictly, selflessly and, indeed, heroically moral.

Writing today, Hammett wouldn’t have to work quite so hard to convince us that Spade is looking out for his own best interests and a modern reader has the luxury of focusing on just how blithely cold-blooded the detective apparently is as he removes his partner’s name from the door the day after his brutal murder and scoffs at the man’s widow. None of that would strike us as strange or suspicious or misleading, all of which it turns out to be, so it would be merely entertaining and we’d fall much more easily for the trick than would have Hammett’s initial audience.

So apart from the obvious handicap of being universal common knowledge the plot twist at the end of the Maltese Falcon works better now than it did in its own day.

Then or now or a hundred years from now The Maltese Falcon will always have been the first detective book to present a narrative that’s mostly one extended charade meant to distract the reader and, for that matter, most of the characters, from the real story, and to teach us to love being fooled.

The Record of Currupira, Robert Abernathy

When a writer comes up with a single genuinely good idea, be it for science fiction or detective fiction or high concept fiction or wedding invitations or whatever else, the temptation is to stick with it. To expand on that idea and make it pay and should another idea join the first, as it inevitably will, to save that one for another pay-off sometime in the future.

The frenzied mind of pulp great Robert Abernathy either suffered no such sense of economy or was so overwhelmed with great ideas that he just didn’t have the bandwidth for it. Either way this now largely forgotten master of the genre advanced science fiction in a way that has yet to be fully embraced by his successors both great and otherwise.

Abernathy subscribed quite evidently to the school of fiction writing that holds that a good story has a good backbone, a subtext or philosophy upon which to hang the actual narrative. His stories appeared mostly in Planet Stories and Astounding and similar anthology magazines in the forties and fifties and like the best of the science and speculative fiction of the time they were founded on well-researched and/or well-considered philosophies. Among his more well-known works is a musing on the single most important geo-political conflict of his era which ostensibly kept the world on the brink of nuclear war for decades and, in Heirs Apparent, eventually destroyed everything and reduced the ideologies to their fundamental pointlessness in the face of more immediately existential disputes. It’s a good read, too, which showcases Abernathy’s keen and Harvard-educated mind and knack for positing original ideas in an original manner.

But it’s in the The Record of Currupira that Abernathy strikes his zenith as a craftsman of stories built on a reverse-pyramid of progressively bigger ideas. The initial proposal, on its own, is manifestly one of the most original and fertile ideas in short science fiction – humanity, finally exploring Mars, discovers that tens of thousands of years earlier Martians explored earth and what’s more they brought home and preserved records of mankind’s past that had been long lost to earth science. That’s already a sufficiently compelling idea from which Abernathy could have easily woven a thrilling tale but it is, in fact, the introduction. This intriguing concept is just the platform on which he presents his next theme, the origin of language (the subject of the author’s PhD).

And the alluring and instructional treatise on the respective theories of the foundations of human language is, too, just the next of what turn out to be several more layers of device and guile, each more bold and ambitious and terrifying than the last. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment that the initial notion, as brilliant and self-contained as it first appears, is eventually thoroughly overshadowed by what turns out to be an almost entirely unrelated and much bigger and better and more absorbing idea for a story.

How is this not a movie?

The Record of Currupira is a short and thrilling and high-velocity story set in distant 2001, after man has begun exploring Mars (so not actually that far off) and the rich plot dashes from the red planet to an archeological museum in New York to the Amazon jungle and leverages a fascinating theory of the origin of human language and obscure Brazilian mythology and in spite of it all is an accessible and simple story of man confronting a mystery from his own past. This is a pulp fiction masterpiece and available from the fine people of the Gutenberg Project.

Chester Himes’ Wild Ride

The Harlem Cycle, Chester Himes


Chester Himes was born in Missouri in 1909 and began writing during an excessive prison sentence for armed robbery in 1928 and hit his stride in the mid-fifties as a giant of hard-boiled detective fiction with a series of books now called The Harlem Cycle. And if he had written any of the nine novels in the cycle today they’d still be revolutionary.

The books of the Harlem Cycle, starting with A Rage In Harlem, are classic examples of the genre – there are hard-bitten characters in extreme circumstances, vain and bloody murder and reluctant witnesses, twisted and arbitrary morality, vested interests corrupting the unfolding of justice and above all there’s Himes’ particular take on the poetry of pulp fiction. The effusive metaphor is a staple of the genre and the evocative analogies drawn by Himes are so rich they elevate the very concept:

Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of a sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.

                A Rage In Harlem, 1957

It’s pretty much all like that and that should be all the recommendation anyone needs to read at least A Rage In Harlem. But it’s not the main way in which The Harlem Cycle goes from thoroughly satisfying and entertaining to genuinely great. The main way is pacing and anyone who picks up the first book in the series will know exactly what that means as they’re nearing the end of the last and wondering where the time went.

The events of the series follow one another with subplots often overlapping from one book to the next and they occur in real time. In fact they occasionally occur faster than real time as time folds into itself in a manner that would be awkward and oblique handled any less deftly but in The Harlem Cycle the trick either dazzles with its simplicity or passes unnoticed altogether.

Among other consequences of this unique pacing, such as a feral drive to know what’s on the next page, is the slightly surreal sensation that this is all actually happening – as though Himes has squealed up next to you on the street and given you a single second to jump on the running board before tearing off into the night pursued by sirens and mobs and gunfire and something intangible and foreboding. Hence the story structure is unorthodox and unpredictable and you’re not quite sure if the homicidal detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are on your side or the side of the law or even how long they’ll last as main characters.

Doubtless when these books were first published they were revolutionary for other reasons related to Himes’ race and background and of course they still bear this legacy with pride and poise, but they’ve nevertheless emerged from that dark era of American history as sui generis classics.

The Family Corleone, Ed Falco, 2013

Some people call me a Godfather purist because I refuse to recognize that a part III was ever made. Well, I’m not a purist and it’s important to settle that issue before reviewing Ed Falco’s prequel novel, The Family Corleone.

But I’m not a fantasist either. I know that a film was made by Francis Ford Coppola and several other whores  with some connection to the original two movies and that they called it Godfather III but it’s no more part of the original canon than David Soul’s ill-advised eighties television series Casablanca was a prequel to the other greatest movie ever made.

Now that’s settled, the Family Corleone takes place roughly ten years before the first Godfather begins and tells the story of Vito Corleone’s rise from a middle-level capo to the powerful don of the original book and movie. It’s based, if you choose to believe it, on an unproduced screenplay by Mario Puzo but if I were trying to give credibility to a new contribution to such an entrenched legacy that’s exactly the sort of story I’d make up.

America is in the grips of the Depression, Prohibition is coming to an end and Sonny Corleone is a 17 year old hothead as the action opens on a story which draws heavily from the historical events which ended the reign of “boss of bosses” Salvatore Maranzano and facilitated the rise of the Genovese crime family, in much the same way that the original Godfather borrows from the rise of the Gambino mob. This adds a degree of predictability to the story but that’s rather in the nature of a prequel. In any case the historical inevitability detracts not even a little from a book so self-aware that it reads like devoted fan-fic. Sonny even at one point says “bada-bing” with reference to shooting someone in the head and, frankly, I cringed.

And the book is mostly like that. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that Falco was under contract to include a minimum number of references to Michael’s quiet intelligence and Fredo’s weak stupidity and there are aspects that appear to betray the heavy involvement of a committee of stake-holders and accountants and lawyers. Which of course means that there’s little controversial in the Family Corleone. There’s not a lot to quibble about for purists and that means, sadly, that there’s not a lot recommend it to anyone else.

This narrow path charted by Falco also means that there are few unfamiliar characters or motivations and almost no surprises. The story manages to revolve mainly and improbably around Sonny, Tom Hagen and Luca Brasi and the few risks the plot does take only serve, for me at least, to undermine aspects of the original book which are better left alone and aloof from explanation and exploitation.

Stylistically Falco hits the nail directly on the head and reproduces the hurried, under-edited prose of Puzo to a nicety. He switches with blind ease between conversational and formal, misuses words and even in one instance refers to the reader as “you”. Like Puzo’s watershed work, details are selected for inclusion randomly rather than by measure of relevance and everyone speaks perfect English but resorts to the most popular Italian expletives from the film. And I’m going to say that this is the most authentic aspect of the book because as important as it is and as excellent a foundation as it served for a great movie, the Godfather is not a good book. In many ways, chiefly the absence of any bizarre subplot concerning the unique medical complaint of one of Sonny’s many lovers, The Family Corleone is the better book.

And it’s satisfying. Much like reading the decidedly imperfect novel by Mario Puzo is a pleasant manner in which to revisit the Godfather without abusing the movie, this faithful homage is simple and satisfying and safe.

The Cherry Tree Genre

Chandler? Of course we have Chandler. He's on the top shelf, between Bronte and Dostoyevsky.

Chandler? Of course we have Chandler. He’s on the top shelf, between Bronte and Dostoyevsky.

It’s been decades now since Chandler and Hammett and, to a lesser degree, Spillane were elevated in the gallery of American letters to a level similar to the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and so one could be forgiven for assuming these days that categorizations like pulp fiction would be merely that – categorizations – and no longer pejoratives.

But of course that’s not the case and the pioneers of pulp fiction weren’t so much recognized for their contribution to their genre as co-opted by the gatekeepers of high literature who recategorized them into the unfamiliar halls of academia by virtue of some arbitrary measure of staying power in much the same way that populist mainstream movies like Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon are now art because they’re in black and white and we’ve still heard of them.

And of course this heartless appropriation occurred post-mortem because no Spillanes nor Himes nor Chandlers would have otherwise gone without a very entertaining and unequal fight. Particularly when they came to get the resolute everyman Chandler, who once wrote in a letter to the editor of The Fortnightly Intruder:

The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them.

And nobody doubts that. The debate isn’t over whether or not Chandler and his contemporaries are giants of American literature but whether they rose above their genre or are simply very good examples of it. Academia at some point cast an imperious eye over pulp fiction, saw an untapped source of overlooked genius and selected a few authors from the ranks for icon status. Well you know what? You can’t have them. They started as pulp fiction writers and they’ll remain pulp fiction writers and what’s more you missed a few. Rather a lot, in fact, and we’re not telling you where they are.