Books, Culture and Society

The Hard-Boiled Pulp Renaissance

It was a time of tough guys and dangerous dames. Fedoras, bootleggers, jazz clubs, and organized crime were the keywords to a way of life that was at once titillating and repugnant. The era was as hard-boiled as the tough, unsentimental and gritty prose that graced popular magazines like Black Mask.

The Hard-Boiled Pulp Renaissance

Thomas McNulty is the author of Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, and Death Rides a Palomino. Visit him online at thomasmcnulty.com. He is also an avid Pulp Fiction fan of audio books on cd. http://www.goldenagestories.com/audiobooks

With rampant unemployment and the lingering after-effects of the First World War, Depression era audiences were eager to be entertained. The motion picture industry responded to that demand with dramatic sound pictures that reflected our recent turbulent past with morality plays that struck a chord with audiences in search of escapism. Edward G. Robinson was Little Caesar (1931), and a young actor named Humphrey Bogart was featured in a string of successful gangster films: The Petrified Forest (1936), Dead End (1937), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939) all captured the angst, apathy and seamy underbelly of America’s mean streets. Robinson, Bogart, James Cagney and George Raft embodied the tough no-nonsense gangster lacking in morals and intent on crime.

The publishing industry responded with a smorgasbord of pulp magazines that became instant collector’s items. Black Mask, True Detective Stories, Five Novels Monthly, Ten Detective Aces and Thrilling Adventures flourished with stories by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, L. Ron Hubbard, Walter B. Gibson, Lester Dent, Carroll John Daly, Earle Stanley Gardner, Robert Leslie Bellem and Norvell Page, to name but a few.

The staccato rat-a-tat-tat of a Thompson sub-machine gun was as vital a part of the era as the clackety-clack rhythm of a pulp maestro’s typewriter. These stories and the popular films of the era were grim, hard-boiled depictions of a ruthless and often heartbreaking underworld. But they were not stories without hope. In fact, the pulp writers infused their heroes with All-American qualities of intelligence, compassion, and an underlying sense of justice.

While the film industry has long been eager to recycle its classic film libraries with VHS and DVD restorations, the pulp collector has long anguished at the disintegrating state of America’s classic pulp stories. But technological advances and the print-on-demand industry have helped make it possible for widespread re-publication of these action- packed gems.

These stories and these authors don’t simply represent yesteryear’s action stories, but they constitute a slice of American cultural history. These are the stories that entertained a nation on the brink of the Second World War and the ushering in of the Atomic Age. It was an era of great uncertainty, massive global conflict, and political upheaval. Perhaps its similarity to our era is part of the allure, but no matter the reason the preservation of these pulp stories is being hailed with widespread acclaim, extraordinary fan interest, and positive scholarly evaluation.

Hard-boiled writing has never really gone out of style, and each generation reinvents the genres of the past, but those originals, those legion of pulp writers that hacked out stories at a breakneck speed to make a living, possessed a quality of talent that remains unsurpassed in American letters.

With the original pulp magazines crumbling into brown dust, these modern editions ensure that future generations will enjoy the best of the pulps for many years to come.

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