Archive | October, 2010

PULP Paperbacks: “Visa To Death”

29 Oct

A typically dangerous trip to the Brattle Book Shop earlier this summer ended with a slew of original pulp paperbacks gracing our bookshelves, many of which are now part of PULPable‘s primary-colour header (just look up).

In a new series of posts, and in honour of my upcoming, though final, Green Card paperwork, today we celebrate Visa to Death.


A bargain at twenty-five cents, any pulp cover needed to stand out from the crowd, and Robert Maguire’s cover art certainly helps. A mysterious figure bearing an uncanny resemblance to Cary Grant merges into the titular visa, while a somewhat befuddled-looking version of Brando hovers just over the author’s name, as though he would rather be associated with Marlon than Cary (clearly the wrong choice). Throw in some femmes fatales and a common or garden detective, and you’ve got yourself a pulp masterpiece.

Over the years, if you care to click here, it seems that Perma Books cornered the market on schlock cover art. But as important as the illustration is the jacket copy. “The juiciest racket in town needed too many MURDERS!” screams the front cover, as though including both “death” and “murder” at the top of the cover converted always into better sales.

But the back cover, as with most pulps, delivers the goods.

Cary Grant’s double appears again, mirroring his position on the front cover, and introducing a series of non-sequiturs that would be too cliche-ridden even for a Muppets film noir parody. Perhaps it was written by “a real nothing guy who just won a thousand bucks in a slogan contest.” In any case, our colour scheme reverts to a deliciously pulpy yellow, red, and black and white.

Stay tuned for more pulp paperback covers coming soon.

DLR

PULP: “Sherlock”, House & Holmes

27 Oct

Hugh Laurie, House and Holmes

n a season five episode of House, Hugh Laurie is presented with a birthday present: a copy of the Manual Of the Operations of Surgery by one Dr. Joseph Bell. A medical lecturer at Edinburgh University during the late 19th Century, Bell was most famously the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes; Gregory House is, in turn, based on Holmes, down to his apartment number (221B) and his on-again off-again roommate (Dr. James Wilson instead of Dr. John Watson).

While House is just a riff on Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective, there have been plenty of faithful adaptations, and Holmes remains the most frequently portrayed character on screen. So escaping the shadow of previous Holmeses – from the gentlemanly Basil Rathbone to the restrained lunacy of Jeremy Brett – has always been an issue for any new actor taking on Sherlock.

A new BBC adaptation gets around this problem, in part, by transplanting Holmes to contemporary London. Featuring the wonderfully-monikered Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, Sherlock stays close to the original stories in tone, and Cumberbatch is adept at channeling the mania of Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey, Jr.


But Sherlock’s cool, deductive mind, in the 21st Century, has become tech-obsessed, cold, and sociopathic by comparison to Conan Doyle’s original. He prefers to text than to talk, the abstraction of texting allowing Holmes to perform his “thinking-out-loud” deduction without having to enter a dialogue with Watson, and he solicits business as a “consulting detective” via a personal website. Though technology plays a role in solving the mystery in “A Study in Pink” – the first episode of this debut season – its role is more important in its relation to Holmes the man. As is the case in most recent adaptations, Holmes’ Asperger’s-like symptoms of social maladjustment are tempered only by his brilliance.

This isn’t to say that Sherlock is no fun. On the contrary, the writing team comes from prime pulp entertainment stock – Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have both written for, and Moffat now runs, the BBC’s Doctor Who. In places, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes,

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, and Martin Freeman as John

though not as dark as other incarnations (he is addicted to nicotine patches, not to Conan Doyle’s cocaine or House‘s painkillers), seeme like a more nuanced version of Who‘s saturnine genius. In terms of both appearance and manner, Cumberbatch would have made a good Doctor, but it is perhaps more interesting to see play up the darker facets of a character such as Holmes. If he had played the Doctor, he would have been constrained by Doctor Who‘s family entertainment label.

Balancing out the abnormal Sherlock is an actor who has specialized in paragons of British normalcy, Martin Freeman. As John Watson, a military doctor recently returned from service in Afghanistan, Freeman helps ground both Watson and Holmes in their new, contemporary setting. And Watson’s blog – set up as a form of therapy for PTSD – ties contemporary technology into the original Conan Doyle stories: Watson blogs in order to document his adventures with Holmes.

Afghanistan is the most startlingly contemporary reference in the show, and might come to play a bigger role when the writers have the chance at a full series (so far, only three movie-length episodes have been produced). Watson is warned by a police officer that Sherlock is one step away from psychopathy, that he “gets off” on murder, violence, and the dark underbelly of crime that still thrives in London.

Watsons: Martin Freeman & Jude Law compare notes

But the most novel aspect of Sherlock is how this dark side of Homes is mirrored in Watson: the doctor is already missing the adrenaline rush of war, and he seems to be as fascinated with their investigations of gruesome crime as Holmes is.

But Sherlock Holmes has a long-standing pedigree when it comes to gruesome crime. Conan Doyle’s inspiration, Dr. Joseph Bell, was consulted by the Metropolitan Police during the Jack the Ripper murders. According to hearsay, Bell claimed to have identified the Ripper, and submitted the name of his suspect to Scotland Yard. Though the name he submitted has never been revealed, the murders stopped as soon as the police had received Bell’s letter.

It seems that Bell’s deductive powers may have been just as legendary as Conan Doyle led us to believe.

DLR

Why PULP? Why PULPable?

25 Oct

pulp (n.) […]
1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter.

pulp (n.)
7. A publication, such as a magazine or book, containing lurid subject matter.

PULPable has written elsewhere about the original Pulp magazines and paperbacks, and about the world that gave birth to them. But why, I hear you cry, is pulp still relevant? How does it fit into daily life, and why on Earth should you read this humble blog?

These are good questions, so hold on to your fedoras.

More important than the Pulps themselves is their legacy, a legacy of 3D movies and wizarding academies, of Dragon Tattoos and vampire novels. Whether you bought a romance paperback for 25 cents, or subscribed to Black Mask magazine to read about PIs and femmes fatales, you did so because Pulps offered the comfort of familiar, escapist entertainment. And they achieved this by being generic. Put succinctly, the Pulps gave birth to genre fiction and genre film.

At their worst, detective fiction, science fiction, romance, fantasy or westerns were a “soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter” both figurativelyand literally: lacking focus or depth, they were lowest common denominator fun packaged in affordable, mass market form. But their popularity set the bar for the burgeoning entertainment industries, who recognised that, if you wanted it to be successful, it had to be generic.

For better or worse, this is still used a yardstick in the entertainment industries. Of the current top 5 hardcover and paperback books, there are arguably only a couple of titles that are not genre fiction, and half of the top ten are crime fiction. The highest grossing movies of this year tend toward fantasy, and the highest grossing movie of all time – Avatar – is a distinctly ‘soft, moist, shapeless’ heap of science fiction. But literary fiction or film doesn’t sell. To be successful, a movie or novel needs a hook, and more often than not that hook is genre.

So the Pulps gave birth to popular entertainment, and thus to pop culture. A catch-all term for a collection of modern, mass media myths and symbols – TV characters, artworks, and commercial logos, of movie quotes, video game franchises, and theme tunes – pop culture has become a short-hand for communicating about ourselves. One reference to a pop culture phenomenon immediately connects you to someone else, sets a common frame of reference, all thanks to pulp.

Why should you read PULPable? Well, because we run the gamut, from the original Pulps to politics, from art to comic books (sometimes in the same post), and from pop music to Shakespeare. If you’re new to pulp, why not check out some of our greatest hits:

And stay tuned for features on some original Pulp paperbacks, coming up later this week.

DLR

The legacy of pulp is difficult to escape: movie franchises breath new and popular life into vampires and wizards, 3D glasses return to cinemas, and bestseller lists swarm with Hornets’ Nests and Dragon Tattoos.