Tag Archives: fiction

Pulp Pictures: Guy Ritchie & “Sherlock Holmes” Detective Fever!

21 Dec

When Sherlock Holmes comes to the silver screen this Christmas, brace yourself for howls of protest. Guy Ritchie’s revisionist Holmes will no doubt unearth a school of Arthur Conan Doyle enthusiasts happy bemoan both the homoerotic subtext and the protagonist’s anachronistic headgear. But, trilbies and sex aside, this particular detective is the most portrayed movie character and is clearly an icon as durable as they come.

PULPable‘s previous forays into the icon of the detective placed the real-life detective police of Victorian England at the beginning of a pulp time line. Scotland Yard’s finest fascinated Charles Dickens, who described them as “respectable-looking men of unusual intelligence”. From their inception in 1843, the detectives employed phrenology, physiognomy and psychology to reconstruct crimes, foreshadowing Darwin’s belief that “every complex structure [is] the summing up of many contrivances”. For more on the original gumshoes, read PULP Precedents: Putting the Detective into Detective Fiction here.

“Eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s protagonist was the maestro of summing up contrivances and reaching a natural conclusion.

Original illustration for the death of Holmes, by Sidney Paget

Conan Doyle had begun writing in the Pulp magazines of the late 19th Century, and in 1887 readers first picked up The Strand Magazine to read his Holmes and Watson stories. The good Doctor related Holmes’ tales, while the detective strung together in turn his own narrative from the smallest deductions. Illustrations breathed life into an icon and created the archetypical sleuth. What Guy Ritchie’s detractors may be forgetting is that Dime Magazines and Penny Dreadfuls were very much the mindless action movies of their day.

The 20th Century embraced the detective zeal: Pulps such as The Strand and The Argosy blended familiarity and exoticism in the name of entertainment, inventing genres in just about every issue. Dashiell Hammett became the dean of hard-boiled noir in Black Mask and “gave murder back to the people who do it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse”, while Philip Marlowe slummed it with ne’er-do-wells and strutted with Hollywood actresses while exposing the underside of L.A. in the early 20th Century.

In his original issue trenchcoat, the noir detective brought to the cinema aisles a black and white moral certitude. As much as Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant might bring stylised masculinity and self-conscious hamminess to their films, the Holmesian mechanics of mystery made their way onto television in the form of classic whodunits and scene-of-the-crime detection shows ranging from Columbo to CSI. Forensics and post-Freudian psychology had grown in importance and while the 1940s heydey of detective noir had waned, Conan Doyle’s sense of “eliminate the impossible…” had become accepted science, bolstered as it was by forensic evidence and the discovery of DNA. Bringing justice to an increasingly anarchic world, all in the name of entertainment, the detective had survived.

In the first true detective novel, The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins asked his readers, “do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?… I call it the detective-fever.” No matter how bad the movie may (and almost certainly will be), who in all honesty could object to Robert Downey, Jr. playing himself, playing a movie producer’s comic book version of Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s Victorian London? The fever, it seems, has yet to be fully extinguished.

A PULP Manifesto, Version 2.0

2 Nov

Go to A Pulp Manifesto, Version 1.0 to see how it all started.

LIKE THE BEST LITERARY FICTION, THE BEST PULP FICTION has had a profound impact on both the content and the texture of the arts in the Twentieth Century and beyond. The original Pulps grew out of their Nineteenth Century predecessors, converging at the peak of their popularity in the 1920s and 1930s with both a new direction in ‘high’ culture and arts, and with new technologies allowing for the replication and national distribution of media.

Unwittingly, Pulp took its first lungfuls of air as both Modernism and Popular Culture came to define the century. But what was the original Pulp? And how did it go on to impact ‘high’ art and become a part of the Modernist and Post-Modernist ethos? And how does “PULPable” material survive in the creative consciousness today?

Though the term “mass media” was coined in 1920, the previous century had seen technological leaps allowing communication, production and distribution to become cheaper and easier than ever. Photography, telegraphy and telephony, audio and visual recording technologies: all of these were in their infancy but clearly pointing the way forward. And alongside technological developments, the intelligentsia was beginning to question the social model that had held together for so long.

Where Realpolitik and the Realist movements were once the benchmarks for pragmatic thinking, now proto-Modernists like Flaubert, Manet and Baudelaire were moving into more subjective territory, presenting a more fragmented, fractured human experience.

A Bar at the Folies - Edouard Manet

A Bar at the Folies - Edouard Manet

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution began to undermine religious faith; Marx proposed that the capitalist doctrine was untenable; and Nietzsche’s Übermensch (Superman) in 1883 predated Hitler’s birth by six years and Clark Kent’s by 55. Man’s faith in religion, literature, and philosophy was increasingly decentred.

As the Twentieth Century got into full swing, mass media bloomed. By 1927 we had the world’s first ‘talkie’ in The Jazz Singer, and commercial radio and television was broadcasting from New York and London by the ‘30s and ‘40s. A simultaneous explosion in disruptive counter-realism paved the way in ‘high’ culture: Picasso’s Cubism and Mondrian’s lines and squares, Schoenberg’s atonal codas and Eliot’s Wastelands were all modern and Modernist by being contrary, and anti-progressive by being counter-historical. At the same time, half a century of disruption and worldwide violence were going to be made both more distant and more shocking via radio, newspapers and television.

Whilst ‘high’ culture disseminated this social upheaval and turned political, mass entertainment and the Pulps were born. Duplication and linear production methods had finally made it cheap and easy to print books and newspapers, and by the 1830s pulp predecessors were already providing for the masses.

Victorian ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ usually focused on lurid, sensational news stories or took Gothic novels such as The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and rewrote them for the semi-literate.

Sweeney Todd & his fellow Penny Dreadfuls

Sweeney Todd & his fellow Penny Dreadfuls

The upper classes saw them as subversive, ‘low’ nonsense, but they introduced the likes of Sweeney Todd and Dick Turpin to the general public and in pulping ‘high’ art—both literally and literarily—they predated pulp’s tendency to mix and match literature and entertainment. On the other side of the Atlantic, Beadle’s ‘Dime Novels’ appeared in 1860. Their articles were soon replaced by fictionalised accounts of frontiersmen migrating into the Wild West, though the Buffalo Bill ‘cowboy’ archetype eventually gave way to the first pulp ‘detective’ characters and ‘sleuths’.

One of the first Pulp magazines, The Argosy began in 1882 and ran until 1978. Native Mainer Frank Munsey had moved to New York City and, despite financial difficulties, managed to get his Boy’s Own rag off the ground; by 1894 it was publishing solely pulp fiction written by authors more eager to get published than to get paid. Munsey’s innovation was in combining cheap production and distribution methods to provide affordable mass entertainment, and at its peak each issue reached one million readers.

The Argosy, at its peak Pulp power

The Argosy, at its peak Pulp power

But a move in the late ‘40s from pulped to glossy paper was as symbolic as it was financial—The Argosy had gone back to its roots and was once more a non-fiction title.

Perhaps the most famous Pulp magazine (and the inspiration for Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction), Black Mask ran from 1920 to 1951 alongside a burgeoning Modernist movement and through World War II. But it was the Great War which may truly have shaped it: industrialisation and mass production had simply made it easier to kill more people more quickly, and Modernists felt that the War was an indictment against those who had advocated the cultural ‘progress’ of the Nineteenth Century. In an age before the media could define the course or motivations of a war, it was also much simpler to define the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’, and these fictional archetypes of heroism were soon transposed into the Pulps.

Black Mask, in grand pulp tradition, was started in order to cover losses for another magazine: editors H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan also published The Smart Set, whose contributors were paid much more, and which sold far fewer copies.

on the back row, Chandler is second from left, Hammett is far right

Black Mask staff & writers: on the back row, Chandler is second from left, Hammett is far right

After eight issues, Joseph Shaw took the editorial reins and the era of hard-boiled detective fiction began. Carroll John Daly’s story Three Gun Terry is widely considered the first in the genre, but Dashiell Hammett’s Arson Plus came in 1923 and Raymond Chandler was a late starter with Blackmailers Don’t Shoot in 1933.

One thing that Joseph Shaw shared with his authors was a past in the armed services. They had worn their uniforms during World War I—Shaw as an officer, Chandler in the Canadian services, and Hammett as a medic—and they now wrote of urban soldiers back from battle, wearing a trench coat in place of fatigues and a fedora in place of a helmet. “Once you have led a platoon of men into machine gun fire, nothing is ever the same again,” said Chandler; Marlowe and his contemporaries were lucky enough to be up against mere gangsters and femme fatales. “Having seen atom bombs go off, [people] were ready for something a little stiffer than drawing room mysteries.”

Elsewhere, another type of uniform was being donned by altruistic detective characters turned supernatural: Doc Savage, the Phantom and the Shadow sprung from the pages of Pulp magazines into comic books.

Superman launches a wave of superhero tales

Action Comics #1: Superman launches a wave of superhero tales

In 1938, an old strip created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster made the front cover of Action Comics, and Superman launched superheroes worldwide.

But as television, movies, radio and paperbacks took over in the 1940s, Pulps and comic books waned, while authors moved on to screenplays, long form fiction or journalism. Started in 1941, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine survived only by attempting to combine the literary tendencies of some Black Mask authors with the need for pulp entertainment. As Modernism began to fuse with popular culture, so Ellery Queen fused ‘high’ art with the Pulps’ sense of fun.

As the Second World War drew to a close, reality began to determine modern innovation: rations continued through the ‘40s, whilst mass production helped to rebuild ruined cities. Paper shortages during the War, coupled with the growth of television and the bankruptcy of major Pulp publisher the American News Company, brought Pulp’s heyday to an end in the late ‘50s.

But their cultural echoes—and the evolution of “PULPable” material—were near at hand. What was modern was now also popular. British ‘Mods’ listened to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones or the Who referencing Modernist poets and poetry in their lyrics. In the United States, ‘high’ art fused with popular culture as a young Andy Warhol exhibited mass-produced,

Dylan at Warhols Factory

High & low converge: Dylan at Warhol's "Factory"

multiple images of consumer items and consumed celebrities, Warhol—like Lichtenstein—using the dot-printing method that comic books and the illustrated Pulps had used.

Vietnam also became the first ‘living room war’ and paved the way for a darker, more cynical view of the black and white heroism of the Pulps. Where comic books had once been the domain of supernatural detectives, they now became more complex or more issue-driven—Stan Lee’s X-Men were a thinly-veiled allegory for the civil rights movement—whilst on television pulp echoes were similarly felt—Star Trek went boldly, and Batman went camply.

Those working in the popular spheres drew on both the new mythology of Pulp entertainment and the ‘high’ culture preceding them to create a cut-up view of the world. Central to this became self-conscious referentiality: on the one hand, Warhol’s pointillised Marilyns referenced popular culture in ‘high’ art, whilst Dylan’s lyrics about Eliot and Pound referenced ‘high’ culture in popular music. Modernism had flourished in consumer and capitalist societies, and the Warhols and Dylans were the beginning of “PULPable” artists.

The fusion of ‘high’ and pop culture brought a new, post-modernist creative philosophy: a lack of objectivity, complex and inter-referential texts and an undermining of one’s own authority via parody, pastiche and irony did away with Modernism’s central ethos. But where the Post-Modern and the “PULPable” differed was the choice of cultural yardsticks. “PULPable” creators took the comic books, movies, television shows and mass entertainment of the last half-century and jumped right in:

a post-satire world?

The Onion magazine: a post-satire world?

as David Foster Wallace put it, “about the time television first gasped and sucked air, mass popular US culture seemed to become High-Art viable as a collection of symbols and myths.”

As artists became “products of more than just one region, heritage and theory, citizens of a culture that said its most important stuff about itself via mass media,” a reference to Superman or Jimmy Stewart bore as much endowed meaning as a reference to anything predating them. And as mass media reached even more people, it became inevitable that these references would form the basis for an important arm of the creative arts.

As the original Pulps had come of age against the cultural and technological developments of the Nineteenth Century, so their “PULPable” influence has lived on in the nexus between ‘high’ and popular culture. Pulp magazines and comic books saw many ‘literary’ writers producing Pulp fiction—Tennessee Williams, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, and Rudyard Kipling—but also saw those such as Raymond Chandler, Isaac Asimov, William S. Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle move out of the popular and onto the periphery of the literary canon.

Mass production and distribution turned those authors, but also their characters, into modern-day icons, and as Modernism twisted into Post-Modernism, they became a recognisable frame of reference for the disjointed narratives presented by their successors. Though the direct descendants of the Pulps live on in the form of unironic comic books or adventure films such as Star Wars, it is the “PULPable” philosophy—Post-Modernism with a popular twist—which fuels much of the creative arts and remains most fascinating.

So somewhere in a self-conscious nexus between ‘high’ and popular culture, Alan Moore is writing a comic book about an un-hero, David Bowie is writing a song about a sci-fi novel, and Joseph Heller is writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel about a novelist. So sit back and realise that—no matter how hard you pray to Superman—there is no certainty, that—unless you are man from Mars—Pulp is your most handy frame of reference and that—if you were in a Tarantino film—this would be the beginning of article again.

DLR 02.11.08

PULP Precedents: Putting the Detective into Detective Fiction

10 Sep

Part psychoanalyst and part physical detection, part author of his own tale and part a product of his own time, the Detective has long been a symbol for the modern era of science, justice and the search for meaning in an increasingly anarchic world.

Old Scotland Yard

The Detective archetype also plays a pivotal role in some of the most famous Pulp fiction, from the original Bat-Man in Detective Comics and the first mention of the Continental Op in a 1923 issue of Black Mask magazine to The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and Polanski’s Chinatown, through to its numerous incarnations on the CSIs and investigation shows enthralling audiences worldwide. From their inception in England in 1843, the literati were already ascribing a specific character to the “detective police”; Andrew Wynter:

Stiff, calm and inexorable, an institution rather than a man… a machine, moving, thinking and speaking only as his instruction book directs… He seems… to have neither hopes nor fears.

Illustrations from a physiognomy text book: how to assess despair from appearance alone.

And more than this, they were the height of modernity. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was yet to be published, but it was only the centre of a storm of scientific curiosity and academia; phrenology – the study of the human skull to determine the facets of the individual’s mind – had become an almost-accepted science; and physiognomy told the intelligentsia that character could be assessed from outward appearance alone. The original detectives, with little recourse to forensic science, had quickly to learn how to be both physiognomist and phrenologist. In 1860, Darwin predicted a time

when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor.

Summing up with science and pseudo-science could have been a job description for the original detective police officers. Of the eight men who were initially assigned to the group, the most convincing case for the origin of an archetype has come in Detective Inspector Jonathan ‘Jack’ Whicher, whose profile in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is as compelling as those of his fictional counterparts. Whicher was described by his colleagues as intelligent, quiet, of a perfectly ordinary stature and appearance, but full of the gall required to bluff out pickpockets and con artists. To Whicher, “finding out” a murderer was all about the “summing up of many contrivances”.

Constance Kent, prime suspect in the Road Hill murder case investigated by Whicher

Constance Kent, prime suspect in the Road Hill murder case investigated by Whicher.

The case that Summerscale covers involved an unsolved child murder at a country house in Road – a town near Bath – and the various family secrets and psyches that came to light during the investigation. Whicher was, at the time, in correspondence with Charles Dickens, whose interest in the detective phenomenon had begun almost as soon as their existence was made public. He eulogised them in an 1850 magazine piece as

respectable-looking men of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence… with an air of keen observation and quick perception when addressed.

But his primary fascination was with their psychological make up – what made them so effective at their jobs and why they above all others could ‘find out’ a suspect and convict them on the basis of nothing more than “keen observation”. Whicher reportedly told Dickens the tale of his apprehending a horse-thief on the basis of appearance alone. Whicher, alone in a country pub, told the man:

It’s no use. I know you. I’m an officer from London and I take you into custody for felony. I’m not alone here, whatever you may think. You mind your business, and keep yourselves to yourselves. It’ll be better for you.

Dickens’ Bleak House featured Inspector Bucket, a character based on Whicher’s colleague Charles Frederick Field; the first fictional police detective, he was a “sparkling stranger”. Though, like Whicher or Field, Dickens focussed on outward appearance and physical attributes (as well as names) to determine character, he also acknowledged in the unfinished Edwin Drood that “circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him”.

The Whitechapel murders launched detective fever which surpassed even the tale of Road Hill. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone pitted detectives and local investigators against a country house theft of a precious gemstone, and protagonist Sergeant Cuff’s investigation turns on psychology. He asks a suspect:

Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?… I call it the detective-fever.

But Collins also wrote in 1860 in high praise of Eugene Vidocq, a French master criminal turned detective, who was “impudent, ingenious and daring”, and who went on to be the basis for Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean. As in the Jack the Ripper case, the alluring detective had to share the stage with the equally intriguing criminal whose ingenuity kept his crimes under wraps.

The Detective had, in the minds of Dickens, Collins and many more authors, become one of the most interesting ‘metatypes’ that they had encountered. Their primary function echoed that of the authors they intrigued – creating a plot from nothing, following the clues that were laid out for them until they could string together what had happened, until they could introduce a coherent narrative.

Holmes in "Scandal in Bohemia", Strand Magazine, 1891

A Holmes illustration, Strand Magazine 1891

The concept of ‘detective as author’, perhaps most evident in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, brought the archetype into the public consciousness, made it fascinating, and dropped it into popular pulp fiction. The metatype went on to find its way, via Doyle and other writers, into the Pulp magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The very British institution of the closed-house murder or theft (a la Road Hill or Collins) hit its peak with the Hound of the Baskervilles tale, but Doyle’s stories sat alongside those of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse. The psychological elements of the type did also find their way into American adventure periodicals such as the Argosy.

It is not surprising that tales of the stoic, observant Victorian police officer might merge into the mythos of the lone, law-keeping sheriff in the new West of the United States. Fanciful Dime Magazine tales of those heading in a westerly direction played up the same sense of mingled familiarity and exoticism which attracted the British public to horrific murders resolved by ordinary, plain-clothed men. And like the Penny Dreadfuls in England, Dime Magazines exalted in the tales regardless of their accuracy. Amidst Westerns and Detectives, others such as HG Wells were exploiting this

Beadles Dime Novels, the origin of a name

Beadle's Dime Novels, the origin of a name

familiar/exotic fascination with ‘speculative fiction’, the precursor to sci-fi.

Born in 1888 in Chicago, Raymond Chandler started out writing (by his own admission) terrible poetry in British literary magazines. But after his move back to post-World War I North America, he moved into the Pulp realm with stories in Black Mask magazine. Uniquely situated as a trans-Atlantic Pulpist, his Philip Marlowe embodied the very essence of the original detective police with an American twist. The thoroughly modern city-dweller, the lone sheriff, but also an aspirant criminal psychologist and complex character.

What is more, Marlowe – and by extension Chandler – also used a very Dickensian method of character assessment: physiognomy is alive and well in the wealthy world of 1930s LA. In The Big Sleep, he describes General Sterwood:

an old and obviously dying man watched us come and go with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago.  His long narrow body was wrapped… in a travelling rug and a faded red bath robe.

Basing his summing up on both outward appearance and assessment of inward character, Chandler echoes – albeit less directly – Dickens’ style. Miss Havisham had

bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white… I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes.

Marlowe is both a detective like Whicher and Field, and a Pulp hero interacting with outlaws and bandits in a new world. Chandler’s strength as a detective writer was in his balancing the depressing realism of a Whicher (taking on the tawdry characters in LA, the vicious killings, the adultery and indiscriminate relationships) with the romantic magic of Pulp westerns and superheroics (the style he employed in describing Marlowe’s world.)

But it was only with movies such as The Big Sleep that the detective became entrenched in the public consciousness.

Humphrey, in a shot from The Big Sleep

Humphrey, in a shot from The Big Sleep.

In turn, the tropes of film noir – stark chiaroscuro, stock types (gangster, detective, PI, femme fatale) and convoluted plot – came directly from the fusion of expressionism and Pulp stories. The archetype that leading men such as Humphrey Bogart embodied almost became the standard for generations of quiet-but-tough title characters. The style also played into a greater interest in the underlying psyches of the detective characters. Post-Freud, the eroticism and repressed violence often bubbled over into the action. Freud compared his role to that of the detective:

the task of the therapist is… the same as that of the examining magistrate. We have to uncover the hidden psychic material; and in order to do this we have invented a number of detective devices.

From phrenology to physiognomy to psychoanalysis, the modern Pulp Detective was born. In reality a complex character, but also an archetype appropriated by Victorian authors. Like Dickens and Wilkie Collins, the “detective police” had to be great readers of men. Post-Darwin, post-modern and post-science, their task was to find out the culprits on the basis that everyone was a product of their own character and experience, that personalities were cut-ups. Author of their own work, the detective remains one of the most important – and most modern – Pulp icons, from Jonathan Whicher and Darwin to Philip Marlowe and Freud, all by way of Pulp fiction.

DLR 10.09.08