6 Novelists Who Started In the Pulps…Or Are Still There.

Classic pulp stories are often decried for their simplicity and dependence upon erotic elements to move copies.  The criticism overlooks one of the primary functions of pulp stories:  They were written to entertain.

And my god, they did that in spades.

At their peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, the most successful pulps could sell up to one million copies per issue. In 1934, Frank Gruber (writer) said there were some 150 pulp titles.*


Because they were successful at entertaining, many stories and writers who started in the pulps went on to become “classic” novels and authors.

The authors who “broke out” did so across the fiction genres, but I will stick to detective/adventure/thrillers:

Dashiell Hammett — The Thin Man

Dashiell Hammett started in the pulps and never really left them–his stories were pure hardboiled entertainment that was packaged as novels that sold as well as the pulps.

Raymond Chandler — The Long Goodbye

No list of pulp-to-mainstream could be complete without Chandler in it.

Patricia Highsmith — Strangers On A Train

This one tends to raise brows.  Not many people realize the novel is pure pulp–sexy, scandalous and pure entertainment.

Elmore Leonard — all his work

Elmore Leonard is one of the more contemporary authors who have made entertaining via fiction their primary goal and succeeded brilliantly.

The dialogue between his characters is enough to keep you reading, but then he throws in violence, sex and plot twists worthy of pretzels.

Michael Crichton writing as John Lange

There’s not a lot of readers who realize that Jurassic Park creator Michael Crichton got his start writing pulp novels.

It shows in his later novels, though.  He mastered the gripping plot well.

Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark — The Hunter

Originally published under The Hunter, Westlake admits that it was written purely for money for the month.  Yet the movie rights were picked up, the story retitled as Point Blank, and the resulting movie is considered classic cinema.



Is it Noir? Or Hard-Boiled? There is a difference!

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but recently was prompted yet again to get it in writing, by another well-meaning but inaccurate post that casually mixed noir with hard-boiled.

The two sub-sub-genres of the mystery-thriller-suspense categories in fiction are not actually interchangeable, although they do often intersect.

Wikipedia defines Noir fiction as:

“…the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator.  Other common characteristics include a self-destructive protagonist.”

I have to disagree with one splinter of this definition;  Noir fiction can have detectives as the protagonist.

One of the perfect examples of this is The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett–arguably one of the original noir novels.

(Given Sam Spade’s wise-crack comebacks, I do wonder if George Lucas named Han Solo’s ship the Millennium Falcon as an homage to this novel.)

No one in this novel wins anything.  No one is a victor.  And no one has any sterling qualities, including the protagonist, Sam Spade.

At a  noir thriller panel I attended recently, the panelists described noir as “losers losing.”

I love that definition.

Sam Spade and his cast of seedy characters fits right in there.

Also, just about any psychological thriller that Ewan McGregor has appeared in is noir to its toes.  None of his characters end up happy.

Hard-boiled has a major difference to noir.

Wikipedia again:

“The genre’s typical protagonist is a detective who witnesses the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition (1920–1933) and its aftermath, while dealing with a legal system that has become as corrupt as the organized crime itself. Rendered cynical by this cycle of violence, the detectives of hardboiled [sic] fiction are often antiheroes.”

Hard-boiled fiction came to the fore in the classic pulp era, but it is still alive and kicking today–more than ever.

And it does not necessarily feature a detective working during the Prohibition.

In fact, one of the classic hard-boiled characters who is not a detective is Rick Blain, from Casablanca.

That word-weary cynicism of Rick’s is a key marker of a hard-boiled character, especially if during the process of the story, he is kicked around by the system and authorities.

A difference between a hard-boiled hero and a noir hero is that the hard-boiled hero can win despite the odds.  He maybe bitter, cynical, mistrusting and inclined to break rules, but he can also be a good guy who makes the right decision in the end.

If he does not, if he loses, then you’re standing upon the intersection of noir and hard-boiled.

So, Sam Spade is both a hard-boiled character and a noir character.

There is a lot of detective fiction that features cynical, world-weary characters.  Their intentions, though, separate the noir from the hard-boiled.

There is also a lot of fiction that is not detective mysteries that can also be categorized as noir or hard-boiled.

There is an excellent 1999 essay by Eddie Duggan, “Writing in the Darkness: The World of Cornell Woolrich”, from  Crimetime, that breaks down the differences perfectly:

The main difference between the “classic” hard-boiled writers and the “noir writers”–although James M. Cain has a foot in each camp–can probably be characterised by two tendencies: a tendency in hard-boiled writing to point a backdrop of institutionalized social corruption; and a tendency in noir writing to focus on personal psychology, whether it is despair, paranoia or some other psychological crisis. The two schools–if we can call these tendencies “schools”–are by no means mutually exclusive: hard boiled writing can display elements of noir, and noir writing can be hard-boiled.

I am not a fan of noir fiction, but I do enjoy a good hard-boiled tale.


Short Stories for Pennies (Literally)

Some of the very best thrillers and suspense stories come in short form.

I’m thinking of classic pulp writers such as Raymond Chandler, who used the taut and truncated limitations of the short form to perfection.

Short form thrillers are coming back into vogue now ereading and indie publishing allows authors to release stories of any length.  The story is told in the length it takes instead of padding the story to meet an arbitrary traditional publication length.

Penpee, a UK startup, is offering short fiction for sale for a few pennies per read.  They don’t have a lot of fiction there yet, but if you like short stories, and you’re in the UK, you might want to keep an eye on the site.

PS:  Happy Independence Day to US readers! – cc.

Historical Espionage Series Exploring Canadian History.

There’s lots of TV series featuring spies, but very few with Canadian spies with historical settings.

I’ve reached the third and last season of X Company, a CBC production that is surprisingly good.  The writing is very strong and as far as I can tell, the historical accuracy is excellent.

The betrayals, double-crossing, spies, informants and heart-rending murders are as good as anything out there, too.

Check it out.  It’s on Netflix.  Don’t let the rosy-cheeked show poster fool you.  This is good story-telling.

Bosch — A Great Example of a Solid Police Thriller

Amazon has released Bosch from the confines of their Prime program, out into the streaming/download wilderness.  I’m currently working my way through the four seasons already available.

Michael Connelly is the author of the Harry Bosch series of books the TV show is based upon.  It’s hardly a surprise that he’s executive producer of the show, too.  He also co-wrote the launch episode.

Because he has some input into the series, it is a faithful adaptation of the novels, and I started watching with my confidence high that I wouldn’t be let down.

I especially like the homage toward the books themselves–in the TV series, Bosch is living comfortably thanks to royalties from a movie made of “one of his cases”, and the movie poster on the wall that he nods to is the very first Harry Bosch novel by Connelly, The Black Echo.

Titus Welliver seems to be the ideal casting choice for Bosch.  He has perfected the self-contained loner attitude of hard-boiled heroes everywhere.

Bosch is a well-crafted police procedural.  It meets the genre expectations at every point, and delivers entertaining stories.  If you like the genre, give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.

Cold War Feel, Modern Day Treatment

I recently started watching Counterpart, the new Starz TV series, which was haphazard of me, as I generally prefer to wait until a season is over before starting to watch it.

I was thoroughly engrossed by the end of the first episode, despite the science-fiction-y concept of the show, because the alternative worlds premise is really a great substitute for Berlin during the Cold War.

The antics each side goes through, spying on each other, brings Berlin sharply to mind, too.

So does does the art and design of the series.  Clothe are subdued, sets are dark, and there are interesting touches, like throw-back computer monitors and clunky reel-to-reel mag tapes.

The homage is deliberate:  part of the series is filmed in Berlin.

If you like Le Carré, you’ll likely enjoy Counterpart.

Good Thriller, Not Such A Hot Gumshoe Story

I started hearing the rumbles about the “don’t-miss” new Netflix series, Altered Carbon, almost as soon as it dropped on Netflix, and checked it out with some degree of curiosity because everyone was raving about how it was Blade Runner meets Sam Spade.

Yeah…not so much.

I was intrigued by the first episode which set up a neat little murder mystery, complete with femme fatales and dodgy characters galore, set in a grimly advanced future.  The hero even had a personal stake in solving the murder.

So far, so good.

I’m only a couple of episodes from the end of the first season (I believe there are two more seasons in the making), and can say with a fair amount of confidence about the season overall that:

1.  It’s a brilliant thriller.

The layered and complex future setting doesn’t overtake the story.  There are some great characters mixing it up in unexpected ways, and the hero is constantly barely a step ahead of murderous trouble.

The series is certainly compelling.


2.  It forgot it was a hard-boiled murder mystery.

The hard-boiled characters are still there, because it is a dystopian setting, so they get to come along for the ride.

Unfortunately, the massive back story the series must go through to explain the present day story overwhelms the mystery.  (The book the series is based upon is over 500 pages, and it shows.) There has been very little movement on the mystery itself for a few episodes.

If you don’t mind pure thrills and chills, then you may enjoy this futuristic thriller.   It’s damn fine viewing, within that perspective.

Just don’t hold your breath waiting for a mystery to unravel.