Pulp Magazines Analysis

Pulp Origins, 1890’s to 1918

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Theories on the origins of the pulps differ. According to some scholars, the magazines originated in the United States when Frank A. Munsey, a publisher of stories about idealistic juveniles, transformed Argosy from a magazine designed for adolescent boys to one specializing in adventure stories for adults. Other scholars claim that the pulps owed their origin to nineteenth century dime novels, which were printed on wood-pulp paper and antedated Argosy. Most dime novels were Western stories, but stories about detective heroes were also popular. For example, a character named Old Cap Collier appeared in a series of detective stories that numbered more than seven hundred titles by 1900. His spirited individuality, skill in fisticuffs, and penchant for disguises made him especially popular among young male readers.

By the turn of the twentieth century, dime novelists had created such new urban detectives as Old Sleuth, Nick Carter, and Frank Merriwell. Popular during the 1880’s and 1890’s, stories in the Old Sleuth series were often set in such New York City locales as Broadway and the Bowery, where a young detective, disguised as an old man, solved a variety of crimes. The Nick Carter stories also reached their peak of popularity around the same time. Thousands of these stories, written by Eugene T. Sawyer, Frederick van Rensselaer Dey, and many other authors, appeared in such publications as the Nick Carter Library, which...

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Proliferation of the Pulps, 1918-1929

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the two decades following the end of World War I, the number of pulp magazines grew exponentially as various publishers launched hundreds of specialized titles to satisfy the public’s accelerating appetite for Westerns and romances as well as adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery and detective stories. As many as seventeen hundred new writers may have contributed mystery and detective stories to pulp magazines during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Some of the magazines were monthlies containing more than two hundred pages. More common, however, were 128-page weeklies. Two publishers, Frank A. Munsey and Street & Smith, dominated the pulp field during the 1920’s, but their success inspired many competitors, from established publishing houses to hole-in-the-wall operations. Detective pulps contained both factual and fictional stories. For example, Bernard Macfadden, a health crusader, published True Detective Mysteries, which some saw as related to his “true-confessions” pulps, as both genres exploited sin.

The most famous and influential of the fictional detective pulps was Black Mask, the creation of the magazine editor and poet Henry L. Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan. Mencken was aware of the success of Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine magazine, and his own high-quality lifestyle magazine, Smart Set, was in financial difficulty. In 1919, Mencken got the idea of publishing a pulp magazine modeled on Argosy that would serve as what he called “boob bait” and generate the profits that would return Smart Set to fiscal health.

When the first issue of Black Mask appeared in April, 1920, editors Mencken and Nathan promised to publish the best stories in a variety of genres, including adventure, romance, and the occult, along with mystery and detective fiction. Despite the broad variety and generally low quality of most of the magazine’s stories, Black Mask was a success. In November, 1920, after publishing only eight issues of the magazine, Mencken and Nathan sold it to Eltinge (“Pop”) Warner and Eugene Crowe, a paper manufacturer. Some scholars put the sales figure at $12,500, others at $7,500. In either case, the selling price represented a substantial profit because Black Mask’s launching cost had been only $500.

Over the next five years, with the capable guidance of such editors as Phil Cody and Harry North, Black Mask began to publish more crime and detective stories with individualistic heroes whose use of violence grew out of personal codes of ethics. Early issues of Black Mask contained stories in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, that is, tales of ratiocination. However, the United States of the 1920’s was vastly different from the worlds of Poe and Doyle. Passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, a situation that led to the multiplication of gangsters willing to break the law to sate the thirsts of millions of Americans. With the rise of violence and lawlessness in American society during the 1920’s, millions of World War I veterans, cynical citizens, flappers, and others were attracted to magazines offering reasonably realistic explorations of crime and social changes.

One of the writers who helped create this new kind of detective fiction was Carroll John Daly, whose earlier career was in managing theaters in New Jersey. He began publishing stories in Black Mask in 1922, and some scholars consider his “The False Burton Combs” the first true hard-boiled story, even though its nameless hero is not a detective. Nevertheless, Daly’s unsentimental gentleman adventurer proved willing to serve as a bridge between the world of law-enforcers and law-breakers. “Three Gun Terry,” which Daly published in the May 15, 1923, issue of Black Mask, developed his tough-talking protagonist by making him a detective and even giving him a name, Terry Mack. Daly’s hero saw himself at the center of a triangle whose corners were the police, the criminals, and the victims. Novelist and critic William F. Nolan...

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Summit of Detective Pulps During the 1930’s

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Surprising though it may seem, pulp detective fiction flourished during the darkest days of the Depression. Black Mask continued to sell well during the early years of the 1930’s. Many Americans had to live on radically reduced incomes, and the hard-boiled stories of the pulps emphasized the gloomy side of life and human nature. Nevertheless, in most pulp stories, no matter how grim the problems were, they were eventually solved by the clever actions of astute individuals. The stories thus helped readers escape from a world in which the problems of the Depression were not so easily solved.

Meanwhile, Hammett published his last story in Black Mask in November, 1930, but other writers emerged to replace him. The most popular writer after Hammett was Erle Stanley Gardner, who, under the pseudonym Charles M. Green, began writing pulp stories during the 1920’s. However, his popularity was principally due to his Perry Mason novels, the first of which, The Case of the Velvet Claws, was published in 1933. Rex Stout is an unusual example of an important mystery writer of that era who bypassed an apprenticeship in the pulps. His successful series of novels centering on the fat, orchid-raising Nero Wolfe began with publication of Fer-de-Lance in 1934.

The greatest of Hammett’s successors was Raymond Chandler. Although born in Chicago, he was raised and educated in England, and after serving in the Canadian army during World War I, he moved to California, where he had a series of jobs and married. After being fired from his position with an oil company, Chandler took up writing. In 1933, at a penny per word, he sold his first story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” to Black Mask for $180. Shaw continued to publish Chandler’s carefully crafted stories throughout the decade. Because Chandler was a slow and meticulous writer, he sold only four or five stories per year. He introduced his most famous detective, Philip Marlowe, in 1939, but Marlowe had predecessors in the twenty stories that Chandler published earlier. The hard-boiled heroes in those stories are often private detectives, but others include an undercover operative in a narcotics squad and even a hotel detective. Chandler was sympathetic to Hammett and other hard-boiled writers. He praised this new type of detective fiction for rescuing the genre from genteel English writers who often depicted murders occurring in vicarages with such weapons as “duelling pistols, curare or tropical fish.” Americans had given murder back to the gangsters and racketeers who commit it for good reasons and who really know how to do it.

While writing short stories for the pulps, Chandler began writing a novel, which was published as The Big Sleep in 1939. Its success led to his concentrating on novel writing, and his last pulp magazine story was published in 1941. By that time he had published his second novel, Farewell, My Lovely (1940). He would continue to publish novels into the 1960’s, but his early pulp stories already contained the essence of his later achievements. His heroes, Marlowe and his antecedents, have often been described as...

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Problems During the 1940’s

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Americans continued to buy pulp magazines in large numbers during the World War II years, an astute critic would have seen the signs that the days of pulp magazines were numbered. Two factors that would play a role in the demise of the pulps during the 1950’s had already surfaced in the 1940’s. The first was the rise of comic books, which, by the early 1940’s, already had combined monthly sales in the tens of millions. Two comic book titles, alone, Action Comics and Superman, sold more than two million copies per month. By the end of the war, the circulation of comic books was four times that of the pulps.

The other factor was the development of the paperback, or “pocket-sized,”...

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Decline of the Pulps During the 1950’s

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1950’s, pulp magazines were no longer a major source of entertaining stories for the American public. By then, detective, crime, and mystery stories were increasingly being told in other forms, from comic books and inexpensive paperbacks to slick magazines, films, and television. In the culture that arose from the Cold War, spy stories became an ever more important genre. Many authors who would have published in the pulp magazines, had they written during the 1930’s, were publishing in other places. Such writers included Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Chester Himes, and Patricia Highsmith. Like their pulp predecessors, these authors were criticized for writing stories that corrupted traditional human values, but...

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Legacy of the Pulps

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As with so much else in American cultural history, the detective, crime, and mystery pulps were born, flourished, and died in response to the demands of the marketplace. Through several decades in the twentieth century pulp magazines constituted a major means of entertainment for millions of Americans, ranging from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the callow Kansas adolescent. Several explanations can be advanced to account for the magazines’ success. Pulp fiction writers produced stories with heroes to whom ordinary people could relate. Crime and detective stories also had an appealing dialectic of innocence and guilt through which writers tried to make sense of seemingly random events. In this way some of the best stories...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Delamater, Jerome H., and Ruth Prigozy, eds. The Detective in American Fiction, Film, and Television. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. The first section of this collection of articles, “Raymond Chandler and American Detective Fiction,” has some analysis of Chandler’s work for pulp fiction magazines. The second section, “The Detective in Film and Television,” contains an article on Perry Mason, the Erle Stanley Gardner character who first made his appearance in the pulps. References at the ends of some articles. Index.

Goldstone, Tony. The Pulps: Fifty Years of American Pop Culture. New York: Bonanza Books, 1970....

(The entire section is 512 words.)