PULP Pictures: Sometimes, Judge a Book by its Cover

23 Feb

Pulp is, if nothing else, all about style. Though the writers who came to be to pulp’s  greatest stars – Chandler, Conan Doyle and Hammett among others – paid their dues at Black Mask, The Strand, The Argosy or Ellery Queen, their subsequent success was borne as much of pulp stylings as of their own literary abilities.

Today PULPable is taking a look at some of pulp’s progenitors and at some unliterary, lurid, and outright entertaining pulp books found in the PULPable library.

The Crime of  the Century, or the Assassination of Dr Patrick Henry Cronin

The Crime of the Century

A definite predecessor to pulp magazines and a testament to the fascination with both detective and criminal (think Les Miserables and the Jack the Ripper fever gripping London), The Crime of the Century is the true story of Dr Patrick Henry Cronin, an Irish immigrant to late 19th Century Chicago, who was murdered and found stuffed into a trunk abandoned at the side of a dirt road.

Published in 1889, the inside front cover of the book has a testament from an official as to its accuracy as a record of the crime and trial of the Cronin case, however the official is never identified and the reader is not informed just how official our official is. As the front pages tell us (see the picture below),

Frontispiece for The Crime of the Century. Click to enlarge.

Apart from its value as a history of a celebrated case, the story itself is of thrilling and fascinating interest.

There is so little documentation on this book that it must be a one-off record by a no-name journalist (though author Henry Hunt is “A noted journalist” according to the inside cover). But the lurid descriptions and intimations of Chicago mob involvement do make this an enjoyable case of “A Crime That Shocked a Civilized World”!

Man’s Grim Justice: my life outside the law, by James Callahan

Less rare than noted journalist Henry Hunt’s book is Man’s Grim Justice,

Man's Grim Justice: My Life Outside the Law

which may win the award for best pulp book title of the 20th Century. Published in 1928 by Kingsport Press in Tennessee, there is once again a preface by an official, namely Ex-Governor and D.A. for New York state, Charles S. Whitman, attempting to affirm the validity of the tale.

However, Whitman seems less interested in the truthfulness of Jack Callahan’s story of gang-crime spreading across the US than in what the tale might tell us about criminal prosecution:

I have never met the author and have never before heard of him. The book itself is by no means a literary production. The narration of very dramatic incidents may seem to some at times unconvincing… Disagreeable as the narrative is, I hope that this book will be widely read.

If you only read one chapter of one quasi-true pulp biography this year, make it chapter 6 of Man’s Grim Justice, niftily titled “Nitroglycerine comes into Vogue”.

The G-String Murders

Purportedly written by infamous burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee (though, once again, this is an issue up for debate),

The G-String Murders

The G-String Murders was published at the height of pulp magazines’ popularity in 1941. Backstage at the Old Opera burlesque club, strippers are being murdered, strangled with their own g-strings, left hanging from the theatre’s rafters. The lurid cover speaks to the lurid, hilarious and surprisingly graphic descriptions of bumping, grinding, and dying found throughout Gypsy’s pages.

The story starts as it means to go on:

Finding dead bodies scattered all over a burlesque theater isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to forget. Not quickly, anyway… As long as I live, I’ll remember seeing that bloated, bluish face, the twisted, naked body, and the glitter of a G string

Gypsy Rose Lee

hanging like an earring from the swollen neck.

Whether our burlesque beauty was indeed the writer of The G-String Murders, the book is a much more entertaining piece of pulp fiction that it has any right to be.

Death of a Doxy

Though he never ascended to the heights of Hammett or Chandler, Rex Stout’s writing spanned a period from the early 1930s to the mid-1970s and as such lived through and beyond the era of pulp magazines and schlock short stories that had been the birth of his genre. His protagonist, Nero Wolfe,

Death of a Doxy

was a detective as much of the mind as of the fist, and Wolfe almost exclusively conducted his investigations from within his own house, leaving the legwork to his assistant (and narrator) Archie Goodwin. But Wolfe could still crack wise like his predecessors:

“My sister was a what?”
“D,O,X,Y, doxy. I happen to like that better than concubine or paramour or mistress. I don’t —”
“I stopped because I had to, to protect my face.”

Published in 1966 – a late Wolfe novel – Death of a Doxy displays proudly its ’60s origins in boxy, colour-blocked, square-lettered design. The thoroughly modern PI, Wolfe used books and his well-read, well-mannered style to detect the killers.

And, like Wolfe, even the best detectives know that, sometimes, you have to judge a book by its cover.

DLR 2.23.10


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