The big guns

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps brings back the dames, the dicks, and the dirty deeds of a bygone era
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REVIEW Over the past 15 years, a steady stream of good, bad, and indifferent anthologies has promised to deliver the thrills of pulp fiction. But for all the retro cover art, melodramatic blurb copy, and Quentin Tarantino allusions, their contents have been shockingly deficient in what aficionados consider to be the real pulp fiction: stories that originally appeared in the luridly covered popular fiction magazines — printed on incredibly cheap pulp paper — that were the medium for popular and genre fiction during the period between the two world wars.

Even the staunchest purist, however, will be pleased with The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. No false advertising here. The Big Book is big, roughly the size of the San Francisco yellow pages. And it offers up nothing but the purest in pulp mystery fiction. Save for one story by the iconic James M. Cain, every one of the 45-odd full-length novels, novelettes, and short stories here originally appeared in the pages of long-gone pulps such as Black Mask, Clues, Detective Story, Gun Molls, and Detective Fiction Weekly.

The Big Book is packed with appearances by what is arguably the pulps' greatest contribution to posterity: the hard-boiled private eye. Excellent, seldom-reprinted stories by Raymond Chandler ("Red Wind," "Fingerman") and Dashiell Hammett ("The Creeping Siamese," "Faith") are joined by clipped-prose gems such as Paul Cain's ultra-hard-boiled exercise in blackmail, "One, Two, Three," and Frederick Nebel's tough tale of nightclub murder, "Wise Guy," along with a bevy of unsentimental gumshoe stories by unfortunately lesser-known writers, among them Roger Torrey, Stewart Sterling, and Leslie White.

The pulps weren't all about tough-talking dicks, though. In a section titled "The Villains," the Big Book focuses on the "bad" guys who often weren't that bad. In one typical story, Raoul Whitfield's "About Kid Deth," a sympathetic racketeer beats a bum murder rap with a few of his less-savory fellows. And rounding out the volume is "The Dames," a selection of stories featuring strong female characters. While there were no women PIs in the pulps, there were plenty of broads like the chorine protagonist of Cornell Woolrich's "Angel Face," who could out-wisecrack the sharpest-tongued gumshoe.

Of course, picture-perfect prose is in short supply. The bulk of the material in the Big Book was written by poor bastards trying to make a living pounding out stories at a penny a word. At that rate, experimentation was idiotic and rewriting a rare luxury. But these strictures guaranteed that the stories would be relentlessly paced and action packed. Someone's getting knocked over the head, if not shot or stabbed, on every other page.

And even in these bullet-riddled sagas, there is no shortage of rough-hewn beauty. In Steve Fisher's "You'll Always Remember Me," the psychopathic protagonist concludes that "one person more or less isn't so important in the world anyway, no matter how good a guy he is." In Frank Gruber's "The Sad Serbian," a skip tracer notes, "The noise she makes when she hits the floor reminds me of the time I got drunk at a dance and fell into the bass drum." And the opening line of Woolrich's "Angel Face"? "I had on my best hat and warpaint when I dug into her bell." Well, who can resist?

After a thousand pages of this, you'll never want to go back to the fake stuff. The Black Lizard Big Book puts the pulp back into pulp fiction. *

THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF PULPS

Edited by Otto Penzler

Vintage Books

1,168 pages

$25