There’s an image I get when people say pulp fiction (not the movie). It’s tough talking private dicks. It’s dark streets filled with potential danger. It’s tall, leggy blondes who pull gats out of their purses. There’s a tautness of language that allows you to picture exactly where the action takes places, down to the dry, desert wind or the dirty streets with danger in every doorway. As one website states, it’s “…the one-two punch of dialogue and the action…”
The two Otto Penzler Black Lizard Big Book anthologies of pulp mysteries take the best stories of the 1920s through 1950s and jam them into two 1,100 double columned paged books. These are the crème de la crème of pulp writing with top of the line authors such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Earle Stanley Gardner, Carroll John Daly and James M. Cain.
The New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, originally compiled in 1996 and recently revised and reissued contains 33 stories ranging from 1929 to 1987, with most of them written in the 1950s. Unfortunately it doesn’t contain stories from top of the line pulp authors. As a result, the stories, though most of them are interesting and fun reading, don’t have that certain something that defines it as pulp fiction. They don’t have that darkness, the grittiness of, what in my mind, is a true pulp story. Jakubowsky should really have just called the book a collection of mystery stories but that, ovbiously, doesn’t have the same impact as saying pulp mystery.
Other things lacking in the book: there are no author bios so that you can get a feeling for the lives of the authors. Many of them had quite interesting lives. (These are included in the Penzler anthologies.) Additionally, there seems to be no rational order to the stories. Not alphabetical by title or author. Not chronological by date of issue. It seems totally random which makes it difficult to see how pulp fiction might have changed over the decades.
Because I was under a review deadline, I put together an Excel spreadsheet and ordered the stories chronologically and then read one from the beginning, one from the middle and one from the end of my list, so that if I couldn’t finish reading before deadline, I’d have a sampling from each time period. To be quite honest, I’m not sure if that made a difference.
I guess, like Jakubowsky, you could make the claim that pulp mysteries never left. They’ve always been around and have changed with the times. And that may be so. If that is the case, though, based on the stories in the New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction they’ve softened over the years. There’s nothing in the language to distinguish them. It’s not hard-driving. It’s not period driven. It’s bland. There is no “…one-two punch of dialogue and … action…”
So, if you’re looking for an anthology of good mystery stories, then I’d certainly give the New Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction a try. If you’re looking for great pulp mysteries, check out Otto Penzler’s anthologies.