Dossier LELE- The writer in his century – Pulp magazines and Hard boiled fiction

KEY QUESTION: From Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe or how did the detective become an anti hero?

Analyze popular fiction of the 1920s-1930’s with these stories from the pulp magazine Black Mask and hard-boiled novels . What do they say about society and era of the time?

AT A GLANCE: What the world was like in the 1930’s- 1950’s America

Ideologies of the society in which hard-boiled fiction was created

  • Prohibition was “the prevention by law of the manufacture and sale of alcohol, in the US between 1920 and 1933.
  • Large crime syndicates use and abuse ordinary men to increase their wealth. Nothing/no one will stand in their way (even the police)
  • Ready access to firearms reinforces American freedom to carry and use firearms
  • The protagonist has few ties to others, so that no one can get hurt, symbolises the shifting loyalty of a society and radical individualism.
  • Reinforce middle/working class values and make supremacy in a male-dominated world.

Pulp fiction


Femmes fatales were standard fare in hardboiled fiction.

From its earliest days, hardboiled fiction was published in and closely associated with so-called pulp magazines, most famously Black Mask. In its earliest uses in the late 1920s, « hardboiled » didn’t refer to a type of crime fiction; it meant the tough (cynical) attitude towards emotions triggered by violence.

Hardboiled writing is also associated with « noir fiction« .

Pulp historian Robert Sampson argues that Gordon Young‘s « Don Everhard » stories (which appeared in Adventure magazine from 1917 onwards), about an « extremely tough, unsentimental, and lethal » gun-toting urban gambler, anticipated the hardboiled detective stories.[7]

Black Mask moved exclusively to publishing detective stories in 1933, and pulp’s exclusive reference to crime fiction probably became fixed around that time, although it’s impossible to pin down with precision. The hardboiled crime story became a staple of several pulp magazines in the 1930s; in addition to Black Mask, hardboiled crime fiction appeared in Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly.Later, many hardboiled novels were published by houses specializing in paperback originals, also colloquially known as « pulps ».

The cover of seminal hardboiled magazine Black Mask, September 1929, featuring part 1 of its serialization of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Illustration of private eye Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy, Jr

Pulp magazines – Interesting facts

What it’s about: In the first half of the 20th century, fiction magazines were popular, and were typically printed on cheap paper made from wood pulp (as opposed to the glossy, high-quality paper used in traditional magazines). “Pulp” became shorthand for an often lurid and lowbrow style of writing that could include all manner of genre fiction—romance, mystery, horror, sci-fi, Westerns, and even softcore porn were all pulp mainstays.

So, what is this pulp style of writing? What makes literature snobs turn up their noses at the mention of pulp?

First and foremost, pulp storytelling is for the masses. It is accessible, not particularly deep or thought provoking, and gets to the heart of a tale with simple, descriptive, action filled words. It is storytelling at its purest, capturing the imagination, taking the reader outside of themselves and dropping them into a world of fantastic slightly larger than life characters.

A lot of what passes for thriller writing today, even those on the bestseller list, are pulp inspired, yet for me they miss the point as most consist of bloated filler designed to turn books into 400 — 700 page doorstops under the false assumption more is better. If you’re like me, you don’t have the time or patience to plow through 700 pages to read a story better served in 300 pages — or far less.

The writers who wrote for the pulp magazines back in the day understood this. Their audience wanted stripped down yarns filled with action, twists and turns, all with the point of providing reader satisfaction.

Strangest fact: The pulps were put out of business by Hitler! A paper shortage during the WWII made production costs untenable for most publishers of pulps, and most of the magazines either folded or switched formats. Some sci-fi and mystery titles switched to a smaller digest format, but most other titles—including well-known series like The ShadowDoc Savage, and Weird Tales—simply disappeared. After the war, the economy rebounded, but pulps didn’t. Genre fiction and its readers had moved on to comic books, book-length short story collections, and the nascent medium of television.

Thing we were happiest to learn: The pulps attracted some top-notch authors. While pulps paid less than books or glossy magazines, they could be a stepping stone to better work. They also paid in advance, so many authors used them as a means to supplement their income, or buoy a flagging career. At one point, Upton Sinclair wrote 8,000 words a day for pulps, often writing under multiple aliases so the magazines could run several stories by the same author without seeming monotonous. Unsurprisingly, an A-to-Z of sci-fi writers appeared in the pulps—AsimovBesterClarke—but you could also read work by Agatha ChristieWilliam S. BurroughsC.S. ForesterF. Scott FitzgeraldRudyard Kipling, and even Mark Twain. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sinclair Lewis, got his start editing and writing filler material for a pulp called Adventure.

Things we were unhappiest to learn: PULPS and gender, race and war

Like pretty much everything in the first half of the 20th century, the pulps could be pretty racist. The Yellow Peril was a persistent theme in adventure stories, typified by villains like Fu Manchu, a series that was actually halted by the U.S. State Department during WWII for fear of alienating China, an important ally in the fight against Japan. (The Chinese embassy had also complained about the 1932 film The Mask Of Fu Manchu, which includes a scene of pan-Asian stereotypes plotting to “kill the white men and take their women.”

One area where the pulps were ahead of their time, socially, was in publishing gay-themed fiction. Because pulps weren’t considered “serious” literature, they escaped censorship to some degree, as their content was expected to be lurid. As a result, pulps were one of the only places you could read about gay and lesbian characters in pre-war America. To satisfy the censors, and the era’s cultural mores, the stories were almost universally cautionary—the heroes either ended up committed or dead (or magically turned straight) by story’s end. Still, pulp publishers churned out gay-themed stories, less out of altruism than because there was money to be made from a market that most of the country refused to acknowledge.

Also noteworthy: While the pulps themselves didn’t survive past the 1940s, many of their characters have. As 21st-century culture seems to be devoted almost solely to remaking things from the 20th, pulp staples like Conan The Barbarian, John Carter Of Mars, Tarzan, and Zorro have all seen recent updates.

Hardboiled (or hard-boiled) fiction is a literary genre that shares some of its characters and settings with crime fiction (especially detective stories). 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 fiction are often antiheroes. Notable hardboiled detectives include Philip MarloweMike HammerSam SpadeLew Archer, and The Continental Op.

The Hard-boiled detective  (from website : Crime culture)

-tough, unsentimental style (more realistic than classical detective fiction)

-often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue

1920s and 1930s was the tough guy crime fiction of the hard-boiled tradition that started with the stories of ‘the Black Mask boys’. These ‘noir thrillers’ are stories that can be seen as very directly related to the socio-economic circumstances of the time.


The sense of disillusionment in the years between the wars was heightened by political and economic disasters for which people were wholly unprepared: there was the folly of Prohibition and its attendant gangsterism, as well as growing evidence of illicit connections between crime, business and politics in American cities. Crises afflicted both American and European economies, bringing the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, which Keynes saw as the worst catastrophe of modern times. In the ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ fiction of this period, the anxious sense of fatality is usually attached to a pessimistic conviction that economic and socio-political circumstances will deprive people of control over their lives by destroying their hopes and by creating in them the weaknesses of character that turn them into transgressors or mark them out On the question of historical origin, I understand « hard-boiled » to originate in the twenties, while « noir » follows in the thirties, developing out of Cornell Woolrich and elements of Dashiell Hammettt and James Cain. Noir encompasses a wider, more flexible range ofplots, types, and themes than the hardboiled detective story, and is the inspiration for the film noir in the post WW2, Cold War period.

The private eye is 1) dedicated to the client, 2) economical, if not thrifty, in his expenses and personal habits, 3) loyal to his profession, 4) cooperative, to some degree, with the police, 4) concerned with self-survival, and 5) unwilling to be duped by anyone 6) vulnerable

Femme Fatale

irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into danger. In hard-boiled fiction, she is usually the protagonist’s romantic interest. The protagonist’s involvement with her may range from mild flirtation to passionate sex, but in the denouement he must reject or leave her, for the revealed plot shows her to be one of the causes A good example of how the femme fatale is used creatively is Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. There Sam Spade is attracted to three women, He is involved in an adulterous affair with his partner’s wife, Iva Archer. His secretary, Effie Perrine, is a tom-boyish, competent girl-next-door who would make the perfect spouse. Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale, seems to promise sensuality and wealth, but Spade sees through her – and uses her when she thinks she is using him

These detectives were obviously different from Sherlock Holmes or other English detectives of the same period; they were also different from Poe’s Dupin. They saw the world from the perspective of the average citizen, the « man on the street, » rather than from an educated, aristocratic one.

The Roots of American & British Crime Fiction

British and American detective fiction share a common origin in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but by the time they were enjoying their respective Golden Ages in the early twentieth century they had already become quite distinct from the other, with each possessing its own unique tropes and clichés. This article will look at the development of the hard-boiled and ‘soft-boiled’ genres, and provide an explanation for the British preference for the countryside and the American predilection for stories set in the ‘mean streets’ of L.A., San Francisco, etc. It will demonstrate that the differences between British and American crime fiction can be attributed not only to obvious matters of geography but also their social milieus, and that both the British and American detective were designed to fulfil very different purposes: stability and the preservation of the status quo in the case of the former, and a study into moral complexity and blue-collar sympathy regarding the latter.

The first literary detective was Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. Poe is the font from which all future crime writers drew their inspiration, but Dupin has more in common with British creations like Hercule Poirot than he does Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Dupin is European, eccentric, aristocratic, arcane in his pursuits and, like Sherlock Holmes, is best characterised as a ‘consulting detective’. Unlike later American detective stories, whenever Poe utilised miasmic streets and labyrinthine alleys he turned to London (The Man of the Crowd) or Paris (Murders in the Rue Morgue) as backdrop. Mid-to-late nineteenth century American fiction, when dealing with their own cities, tended to portray them as “urban-pastoral world[s] of primeval novelty” rather than “a city anyone ever inhabited.” The “mean streets” of Chandler and Hammett had yet to emerge from the turmoil of the new century.

The classic British detective story, according to P.D. James, was concerned with “bringing order out of disorder” and was typically “a genre of reconciliation and social healing”. Though detectives like Poirot sometimes found themselves jaunting between Britain, Egypt, Iraq and the Continent, the typical location for these stories was the countryside, often represented as “an ordered society in which virtue was regarded as normal, crime an aberration”. Readers could be assured that whenever a story’s mystery was resolved the countryside would be restored to its tranquillit by an omnisciently-observant gentleman detective.

These detectives were typically aristocratic and included doctors, solicitors, spinsters, and pastime sleuths. They were “never frightened or appalled, never himself (and occasionally herself) a victim of events, never outwitted or daunted” and their ultimate purpose was “to build and uphold a firm structure of social and moral values.” ……. The idealised British detective therefore was a paragon, especially equipped to remove crime from the countryside.

British crime fiction’s predilection for posing murder and mystery in the countryside rather than the city are manifold. Firstly, the early detective novels sprang from the country-house genre. ……..” ‘Country house’ novels typically explored small, interlocked communities where social and personal familiarity were key themes. …..Secondly, English rural writers and poets had long denigrated London and its “insolent rabble” and the “idle, profligate and debauched” therein. They came from a tradition that insisted upon the “very powerful myth of modern England in which the transition from a rural to an industrial society is seen as a kind of fall, the true cause and origin of our social suffering and disorder.” That cities were chaotic and polluted was a given, that they were troubled by incessant crime a certainty. For many intellectual and refined detectives the criminals in England’s cities were too common and their crimes too conventional. Crime fiction put knives and poisons in the hands of zealous parlour maids, butlers, housekeepers, fortune hunters etc… It took the strange and terrible and transposed it into the mundane and ordinary.

In Agatha Christie’s short story collection The Thirteen Problems a writer, a clergyman, a solicitor and a former police commissioner all debate on whose profession and “what class of brain” is best suited for solving mysteries. ……..

In true parlour fashion, the mysteries in The Thirteen Problems are merely mental exercises, solved from the comfort of an armchair, the stakes no higher than the loss of face during a guessing game. The book’s main device is what Poe called “ratiocination” (and what Christie’s own Poirot would refer to as his ‘little grey cells’); it is the unique ability to soak up details and turn out precise observations that reveal deeper or hidden truths.

….. This assumption highlights why the countryside was the perfect environment for a mystery story: the notion that a butler, vicar or maid could be a murderer is more likely to surprise a reader than if the suspects were a pickpocket, a burglar or any other felon. The detective novel’s purpose was to provide the stimulant of a puzzle and the thrill of revelation. It was not designed to remind readers of the squalor of the inner cities, but tease them with the exciting prospect that there was something hidden amongst the picket fences and cropped grass and familiar and genteel smiles of their neighbours. “Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes,” Miss Marple teases in The Thirteen Problems.

Even the most famous city detective found the demure countryside landscape chilling. Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, utters that “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” And we must remember that London, as Watson tells us in A Study in Scarlet, is “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”

WHY DO WE LIKE ANTI-HEROES?  (see previous post)

Hard boiled detective in the mean streets of LA  (you tube video)

Hard Boiled Detective in the Pulps (

Started in the 1920s and perfected in the 1930s, the hard boiled detective was one of the most popular forms to arise from the pulp fiction magazines.

The hard boiled detective was a character who had to live on the mean streets of the city where fighting, drinking, swearing, poverty and death were all part of life. This new type of detective had to balance the day to day needs of survival against the desire to uphold the law and assist justice. Living in the toughest of environments, and required to be tougher than the evil surrounding him, our new heroes had to become « hard boiled ».

In this new world, the hard boiled detective began to administer a new form of justice where if need be, he himself would cross the line and break the law, to insure that justice was done. Our hero was thrust into a world where he had to choose between different levels of evil and no one was truly on the side of good. His survival often depended upon a shoot first, ask questions later approach where the ability to reason out a murder is less important than the ability to fight one’s way out of a jam.

This ushered in a new era of action packed detective stories where the murder no longer took place off stage and instead took place all around our hero on an ongoing basis. In some respects, the hard boiled detective was in response to the rising crime and gangster activity caused by Prohibition and then the Great Depression.

Hard-Boiled Fiction -American Hard-Boiled Crime Writing, 1920s-1940s  -From Crime Culture website

Early twentieth-century American crime fiction wasn’t entirely ‘hard-boiled’. America also produced its share of classic Golden Age whodunits, written in the 20s, for example, by S. S. Van Dine, and in the 30s by Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. But the distinctively American contribution of the 1920s and 1930s was the tough guy crime fiction of the hard-boiled tradition that started with the stories of ‘the Black Mask boys’. These ‘noir thrillers’ are stories that can be seen as very directly related to the socio-economic circumstances of the time. Raymond Chandler wrote that the ‘smell of fear’ generated by such stories was evidence of their serious response to the modern condition: ‘Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine-gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night.’

This type of crime fiction, then, began to develop as a popular form in the aftermath of one devastating war and came to maturity in the two decades that terminate in a second world war. In its most characteristic narratives, some traumatic event irretrievably alters the conditions of life and creates for its characters an absolute experiential divide between their dependence on stable, predictable patterns and the recognition that life is, in truth, morally chaotic, subject to randomness and total dislocation. In the best-known parable of ordinary life disrupted, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (Maltese Flacon) tells the story of Flitcraft, who comes to realise life’s arbitrariness and absurdity when he is nearly killed by a falling beam. The American thrillers of the period repeatedly represent the sort of transformation that leaves the protagonist feeling, as Flitcraft does, that ‘someone had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.’ The sense of disillusionment in the years between the wars was heightened by political and economic disasters for which people were wholly unprepared: there was the folly of Prohibition and its attendant gangsterism, as well as growing evidence of illicit connections between crime, business and politics in American cities. Crises afflicted both American and European economies, bringing the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, which Keynes saw as the worst catastrophe of modern times. In the ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ fiction of this period, the anxious sense of fatality is usually attached to a pessimistic conviction that economic and socio-political circumstances will deprive people of control over their lives by destroying their hopes and by creating in them the weaknesses of character that turn them into transgressors or mark them out as victims.

The Black Mask Boys

The most important publication of the 20s in encouraging and marketing the new kind of hard-boiled crime story was Black Mask. The magazine was founded in 1920 by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan; in the early 1920s, Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly began writing for Black Mask, and the identity of the magazine became more sharply defined when the editorship was taken over in 1926 by Captain Joseph T. Shaw. Shaw encouraged a high standard of colloquial, racy writing, favouring ‘economy of expression’ and ‘authenticity in character and action’, all of which are important features of the hard-boiled style. Shaw greatly increased the circulation of Black Mask, and other pulp magazines (for example, Dime DetectiveDetective Fiction WeeklyBlack Aces) were soon competing in some numbers. Amongst the regular contributors to Black Mask, in addition to Daly and Hammett, were Paul Cain (George Sims), Raymond Chandler and Horace McCoy.

Hard-boiled protagonists

The most immediately recognisable iconic figure to emerge in the crime stories of this period is the hard-boiled investigatora tough, independent, often solitary figure, a descendant of the frontier hero and cowboy but, as re-imagined in the 1920s, a cynical city-dweller: ‘He finds no way out. And so he is slugged, shot at, choked, doped, yet he survives because it is in his nature to survive’ (Herbert Ruhm, The Hard-Boiled Detective). He can achieve a degree of control, but, unlike the classic Holmesian detective, he cannot restore order and set all to rights. The basic narrative pattern pits this lone investigator against brutal criminals, often in league with a corrupt power structure.

One finds, in the hard-boiled stories and novels of this period, two main types of investigators: on the one hand, those who possess some form of moral superiority (like Chandler’s Marlowe); on the other, those who are more implicated in the world of corruption, depicted as entering into a scene of disorder and acknowledging their own anarchic tendencies and capacity for violence (as in the novels of Hammett). These ‘compromised’ investigators are key figures in the evolution of literary noir, which, as it develops in the late 1920s and the 1930s, turns to the portrayal of deeply flawed, transgressive, often criminal protagonists.

The unsettling manipulation of point of view and the unstable position of the protagonist are key characteristics of the darker (more ‘noir’) types of hard-boiled crime story. We are often brought close to the mind of a protagonist whose position vis a vis other characters is not fixed; we see treacherous confusions of his role and the movement of the protagonist from one role to another. The victim might, for example, become the aggressor; the hunter might turn into the hunted or vice versa; the investigator might double as either the victim or the perpetrator. Whereas the traditional mystery story, with its stable triangle of detective, victim and murderer, is reasonably certain to have the detective as the protagonist, much of the crime fiction of this period deliberately violates this convention. Victim, criminal and investigator can all act as protagonists. An exploration of guilt is fundamental, and there can be no clear distinction between guilt and innocence.

Hammett and Chandler
Hammett’s output was surprisingly small: he wrote all of his novels between 1929 and 1934. His influence, however, has been enormous. He introduced characters who often quite closely conform to the description of the private eye as ‘half gangster’ – a man whose innocence has become so tarnished as to be no longer visible. Hammett’s impact was due in part to his ability in creating a distinctive voice, a true ‘hard-boiled’ style that is in itself an implicit rejection of bourgeois hypocrisy and conventional values. His spare, unembellished prose is appropriate to his no-nonsense protagonists. Hammett’s flawed, vulnerable narrators and his hard, direct representation of contemporary material give him an ability to lay bare the ‘heart, soul, skin and guts’ of a corrupt town (Red Harvest).

Hammett’s most famous successor, Raymond Chandler, started writing for Black Maskin December 1933. Chandler’s work is characterised by a much more consistent lightness of tone, combining witty detachment with an underlying sentimentality and romanticism. When Marlowe develops beyond the sketchily realised narrator of early stories like ‘Finger Man’, the fictional world created is always reliably mediated by the voice of a protagonist who unfailingly combines honourable conduct with penetrating judgement and self-mocking humour. Though Marlowe is caught up in plots of notorious complexity (and is significantly less in control than, say, the figure of the classic detective) he continues to provide the reassurance of a stable and trustworthy perspective. His detachment places him much closer to the masculine competence and ‘rightness’ of traditional detective fiction, and so moves him away from a noir sense of uncertainty.

The protective presence that Marlowe establishes is above all stylistic. The witty, ironic aloofness of his narrative acts to evaluate and to contain the moral disorder of the society he investigates. Marlowe’s self-ironising manner simultaneously acknowledges his limitations and draws attention to his separateness: ‘”Don’t make me get tough,” I whined. “Don’t make me lose my beautiful manners and my flawless English”‘ (Farewell, My Lovely). Marlowe’s superiority to his environment is not, though he is resilient, a matter of physical prowess but of a subtle intellect that can manage a self-deprecating joke even when he’s been sapped and imprisoned and ‘shot full of dope and locked in a barred room’. Unlike Hammett’s Op, Marlowe would never ‘go blood-simple’. As critics have often observed, when Marlowe does enter into conflict with the depraved society around him, his preferred role is that of the questing knight.