PULP Fictions: Crafting the Perfect Pulp

8 Dec

he tropes and types of pulp fiction still populate our pages and screens: femmes fatales emerge from shadows, gangsters claim lone guns on mantelpieces, and gumshoes crack wise on the mean city streets. In his treatise on mystery fiction, The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler advised his correspondents:

When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.

Today, PULPable is going to teach you how to craft the perfect pulp. What you need first is:

A Title to Die For

Pulp titles fall into surprisingly few categories, and the best are a form of melodramatic poetry.

1.  A pun based on an idiom or phrase:
My Kingdom for a Hearse (reproduced below in all its glorious technicolor) provides a classic example. Rhyming puns are also popular. If you’re interested in some seasonal pulp, check out my very own guest post over at Darby O’Shea entitled Slay Bells Ring.

2. The classic formulation: The Adjective Noun
Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon are perhaps the most famous of any pulp novels, and inspired countless imitators and hangers-on. The Gentle Hangman is a personal favourite, and is featured in PULPable’s header (look up).

3. A variation on the format, The Man/Woman Who Did Something
Also spearheaded by Chandler with The Man Who Liked Dogs, this has provided some Western-style retribution in The Man Who Got Even With God as well as some variations of my own, including The Woman Whose Chihuahua Blew Away.

4. And if you’re lost as to a pun or a simple formulation, just ensure that your title includes the words “murder”, “death”, “kill”, or any other pulpable term that takes your fancy.
Try:

A Dame Called Murder
Kill Now, Pay Later

Love Me To Death, or
Suddenly A Corpse
.

My favourite might be Death Wore an Astrakhan Hat.

 

A Simile as Sharp as Paper Dart

Turning a phrase like no other, Chandler unwittingly created pulp cliches like no other. In The High Window, he crafts a perfect paragraph hooked around a simile fully aware of its cheesiness:

 

Raymond Thornton Chandler

The heart-rending dialogue of some love serial came out of the room behind her and hit me in the face like a wet dishtowel. The bright-eyed woman said: ‘You a friend of theirs?’ In her voice, suspicion was as thick as the ham in her radio.

If in doubt, make a statement and then qualify it with a simile: He was tough. As tough as nails, and half as charismatic. And yes, you can have that example free of charge. Even the best parodists have come up with some classics. On A Prairie Home Companion, one of Guy Noir’s dolls is described by Garrison Keilor:

She wore a knit sweater and jeans so tight it looked as if she’d been poured into them and forgot to say When.

So what’s left? Well, don’t forget to commission:

An Exploitative, Technicolor Pulp Cover

The great pulp artists are no longer with us. Though hipster irony might bring us McSweeney’s anthologies of Thrilling Tales, the unironic, sexually provocative pulp book cover is long gone. Last time at PULPable, we took a look at a classic, Visa To Death, that featured all the classic elements of pulpdom: gangsters, dames, and death!

The original detective novels spawned a plethora of niche pulps.  And these niche pulps have provided some of he best by way of exploitative femmes fatales and sexy gun molls. A damsel in distress evades a bullet; a square-jawed hero, comes to the rescue; and you have (drum roll, please) Romantic Detective magazine.

The angles of the language and the painted lines of the cover art have, inevitably, been lampooned and pastiched into oblivion. But some of the most melodramatic and nonetheless appealing graphic design graced the covers of the original pulp magazines and paperbacks. For all the knowing nods and winks, what pulp did best, and can still do, is pull us out of the humdrum and into the high-stakes, and in doing so, entertain and amuse.

As usual, Ray said it best in The Simple Art of Murder:

The mystery story is a kind of writing that need not dwell in the shadow of the past and owes little if any allegiance to the cult of the classics. It is a good deal more than unlikely that any writer now living will produce a better historical novel than Henry Esmond, […] a sharper social vignette than Madame Bovary, […] a wider and richer canvas than War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. But to devise a more plausible mystery than The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Purloined Letter should not be too difficult. Nowadays it would be rather more difficult not to.

DLR 12.09.10

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One Response to “PULP Fictions: Crafting the Perfect Pulp”

  1. Darby O'Shea December 9, 2010 at 10:50 am #

    “In her voice, suspicion was as thick as the ham in her radio.”

    This is amazing.

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