Archive for the ‘Pulp Mystery’ Category

When the wealthy Mrs. Atterby walks into Bertha Cool’s detective agency with her daughter, Mrs. Cunner, to discuss Mrs. Cunner’s wayward husband, Bertha is all ears. Although most detective agencies don’t handle domestic cases, Cool is not above airing someone else’s dirty linen and she’s got just the agent for the case, Donald Lam. Of course, as Lam investigates, he discovers Mr. Cunner is involved in more than just stepping out on his wife…and Lam has the bruises to prove it.


The Knife Slipped, a long lost manuscript (there seem to be a lot of them cropping up nowadays) in Erle Stanley Gardner’s Cool and Lam series, apparently was supposed to be the second book in the series. I forgot that I had read another book in the series and wasn’t overly impressed.

Bertha Cool is a smart talking, obese broad who pretty much has no scruples. Unfortunately, she is way over the top, so if you’re into the believable, you’d be hard pressed to believe any of this.

Donald Lam appears to fall hard and fast for anything in a skirt. He doesn’t have much brain power, but for a skinny guy seems to take his beatings in stride.


The plot is totally outdated, as it deals with cheating on police and fireman civil service exams, which is not something I’ve heard much about recently.

Gardner was a prolific pulp mystery writer, but he wasn’t one of the best. He created unique characters for the times, but I can’t say that I really like Bertha Cool or Donald Lam. I wouldn’t go out of my way to read more of the series.

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If you’re looking for a good, general, all around anthology of short story detective fiction then I’d recommend the Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction edited by Deane Mansfield-Kelley and Lois A. Marchino. It will give novice and experienced mystery readers a good foothold into detective fiction.


The book is divided into three sections: The Amateur Detective, The Private Investigator and The Police. Each section begins with  a critical essay and commentary (which I skipped). There are also two appendices: Notable Annual Awards for Mystery and Detective Fiction and a Bibliography of Critical Essays and Commentaries.

But the heart of the book is stories. Each section contains stories by some of best authors, classical authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe, pulp authors of the 1930s-1950s such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ed McBain and current authors such as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Peter Robinson.

There is a short author bio before each story, suggested books by the author and suggested read-alike authors. Granted, there are some great mystery authors not included in the anthology, but if all the greats were included it would be a thousand pages, just like Otto Penzler’s Black Lizard books.

The Longman Anthology of Detective Fiction is an entertaining way for mystery fans to spend some time. It also makes readers appreciate the art of the short story. Go for it.

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There’s a reason that Black Mask is/was the premier pulp mystery magazine for so long. It had the best. In the introduction to A Cent A Story! The Best from Ten Detective Aces, editor Garyn G. Roberts makes the case that Ten Detective Aces magazine was cutting edge at the time. Well, based on the 10 stories in this anthology, it is nowhere near cutting edge.


Debuting in 1928 and originally entitled The Dragnet and changed to Detective-Dragnet Magazine and ultimately to Ten Detective Aces in 1933, Roberts states that “…a small detective pulp debuted which would in its own way substantially mold the form for detectives to come.” “…and for his dime, the reader got ten fast-paced mysteries, complete in each issue.” Only a cent a story!

True, the anthology does contain stories by some of the pulp greats: Norvell Page, Lester Dent, Frederick C. Davis. However, if you are looking for hard boiled mystery, gritty, noir, the stuff of Hammett and Chandler, you won’t find it in A Cent A Story! The stories are strange, off beat, which is OK. It just isn’t my cup of tea.

I love everything mystery pulp and am glad I read this, but if you’re a novice in the pulp mystery genre and want to start slow, I’d suggest The Black Mask Boys: Masters in the Hard-Boiled School of Detective Fiction edited by William F. Nolan with eight great stories or The Hardboiled Dicks edited by Ron Goulart.

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The Continental Ops stories by Dashiell Hammett, originally published in the various pulp mystery magazines of the 1920s through 1950s, are collected in four different books, with some overlap. There is The Continental Op, The Return of the Continental Op, Nightmare Town and this volume, The Big Knockover.


Having read the first, I stumbled across the last at The Strand bookstore and decided it was worth a try since I liked the stories I’ve read. But I agree with Lillian Hellman’s comment in the introduction to the extent that some of the writing is good and some not so good. The good thing about the book is Hellman’s introduction from which we learn a bit about their relationship.

Regarding the 10 stories in the book, however, one in particular, Tulip, was indeed strange. Tulip, is actually an unfinished novella to which Hammett apparently wrote the last paragraph but left a big gap in the middle. A rambling conversation between two ‘friends’, it goes nowhere.  If it’s a Continental Op story (which I thought all the stories were going to be), I’m stymied, since detecting is not mentioned once.. It sounds more like a semi-autobiographical story aimed at the glossy, ‘literary’ magazines to which Hammett aspired, than a mystery.ContinentalOps

The namesake story, The Big Knockover is an imaginative, intricate story about a huge, coordinated bank heist. It contains Hammett’s typical, descriptive prose and a gaggle of gangster names reminiscent of the era. The story merits kudos. However, the followup story, $106,000 Blood Money, seems like an afterthought, with a strange ending that comes out of nowhere. It’s almost like nowadays when sequel upon sequel is issued to squeeze every last nickel out of a story.TheLostDetective

There’s Corkscrew, a ‘western’ in which the Continental Op is hired as sheriff of a small desert town. The story has horses and shoot ’em ups. The Scorched Face, which I read before and liked, is about two missing daughters, and This King Business is an odd story taking place in a foreign land. The remaining stories are relatively ‘normal’ Continental Op stories.

If you’re a Dashiell Hammett fan or a Continental Op fan, be sure to read both books, The Continental Op and The Big Knockover. If you have to choose one, or you want to whet your teeth and get a taste, The Continental Op is the better book.

Other good books on the subject of Hammett include The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett (which is up for an Edgar Award this year) and The Hunter and Other Stories, which tends more towards his literary writings. The first is definitely worth the read as it goes into Hammett’s days as a Pinkerton Detective and how it might have influenced his works, especially the Continental Op writings.

And of course, you can always fall back on Hammett’s classics, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man series.

In conclusion, you can’t go wrong reading Hammett. It’s that simple.





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The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words is a TheWorldOfRaymondChandlermust read for pulp mystery fans in general and Raymond Chandler fans specifically. Anyone who reads this blog knows I love pulp mystery fiction and one of its icons is Raymond Chandler. Barry Day does an excellent job of synthesizing Chandler’s life and thoughts through his writing, both published output as well as letters. I’ll try to use Chandler’s own words in this review.

Dashiell Hammett certainly was the father of the hard-boiled mystery. “Hammett took the murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley…He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”  But Chandler “…concentrated on the detective story because it was a popular form and I thought the right and lucky man might finally make it into literature.” And he did!!!!!

For instance, “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edges of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” Literature!

Or, of Miss Morny in The High Window: “The mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings.”

Or, more sparingly: “…a shaft of sunlight tickled one of my ankles.”

Chandler was a big fan of Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Houseman and Shakespeare, not so much of Hemingway, mystery writer James M. Cain and playwright Eugene O’Neill. Included are many excerpts of letters to Gardner, Chandler’s publishers and friends.

Using both photos and words, Day tackles many of the things that Chandler (and his alter ego Philip Marlowe) liked and disliked:

L.A.: “Los Angeles…a city where pretty faces are as common as runs in dollar stockings.”

Veronica Lake (or Miss Moronica Lake, as he liked to call her) in The Blue Dahlia: “The only times she’s good is when she keeps her mouth shut and looks mysterious.”

Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep: “Her eyes were pools of darkness, much emptier than darkness.”

By the way, he always pictured Cary Grant as Philip Marlowe but agreed that Humphrey Bogart was a natural for the part.

Day follows Chandler’s descriptions of Marlowe’s various offices and apartments in earlier and later works and how they changed…or in some cases how he described the same scene in different words. He follows Chandler’s and Marlowe’s thoughts on women, big business, homosexuality and Hollywood. He enumerates Chandler’s preoccupation with hairlines, eyes, people’s figures, and faces, such as: “He was a tall man with glasses and a high-domed head that made his ears look as if they had slipped down his head” or his face was “…like a gnawed bone…”, “…as intelligent as the bottom of a shoe box…” or my favorite “…a great deal of domed brown forehead that might at a careless glance have seemed a dwelling place for brains.”

Marlowe was always wisecracking, such as “Take your ears out of the way and I’ll leave.”

Chandler’s thoughts on mystery writing include: “I really don’t seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously as I should…the mind which can produce a cooly-thought-out puzzle can’t, as a rule, develop the fire and dash necessary for vivid writing.” He certainly didn’t want to be lumped in with the Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts of the mystery genre. “Very likely they write better mysteries than I do, but their words don’t get up and walk. Mine do.” (Very modest, wasn’t he?)

Throughout most of Chandler’s troubled life, there was one constant, Cissy, his wife of over 30 years (who was 18 years his senior): “She was the beat of my heart for thirty years. She was the music heard faintly at the edge of sound.”

While The World of Raymond Chandler is somewhat of a biography, it is really a tribute to Chandler’s words. So, in conclusion, to quote the London Times in its obituary to Chandler, “In working the common vein of crime fiction he mined the gold of literature.”

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