Monday, 18 February 2008

Southern Pulp Part Two

Southerners played a pivotal role in the Golden Age of the Pulps. H. L. Mencken co-founded Black Mask, the classic magazine where hard boiled detectives were introduced. Lester Dent realised Doc Savage, one of the most important pulp heroes who would have an impact on both Superman and Batman. Norvell Page created The Spider, one of the most beloved pulp heroes of all time. Robert E. Howard popularised the genre of sword and sorcery and created some of the most memorable heroes from the pulps--Solomon Kane, King Kull, and Conan the Barbarian. The influence of Southerners would not only be felt on the Heroic Pulps, however, as they would also have an impact on the detective genre as well.

In fact, one of the most popular detectives of the era emerged from the pen of a man who could possibly be considered a Southerner. Seabury Quinn was born and raised in Washington D.C. He graduated with a degree in law from National University and was admitted to the District of Columbia bar. Arguably, being the capital of the United States, Washington D.C. could be said to be as much a Northern city as a Southern city. That having been said, it is bordered by Maryland on the north and Virginia on the south. It should not be surprising, then, that Washington has long been Southern in both its culture and its atmosphere. Even the architecture of its older buildings owe more to the South than the North. Perhaps Seabury Quinn was not a Southerner in quite the same way that Norvell Page and Robert E. Howard were, but he would seem to be a Southerner nonetheless.

Seabury Quinn was first published in The Motion Picture Magazine, December 1917, with the article"The Law of the Movies." Over the next few years he would be published in pulp magazines ranging from Detective Story Magazine to The Thrill Book. It was in 1923 that he would first be published in the magazine that would become his literary home. It was with Weird Tales, October 1923 that he first saw print in that classic pulp with the story "The Phantom Farmhouse." Not only was Quinn perhaps the most prolific contributor to Weird Tales, but he was also arguably its most popular writer at the time--more than even H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

His lasting fame was guaranteed when he introduced the occult detective Jules de Grandin in the story "Terror on the Links," published in Weird Tales, October 1925. To a degree de Grandin was a stereotypical Frenchman, complete with pencil thin moustache and verbal outbursts (often in French). That having been said, de Grandin was far more than a stereotype. He was brilliant, very well educated, and a skilled combatant. Not only was de Grandin skilled with guns, but also knives, stakes, swords, and several other weapons. His knowledge extended from hypnosis even to rudimentary magic. In his struggles against the forces of evil de Grandin was assisted by Dr. Trowbridge (who, like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, narrated their adventures) and Detective Sergeant Costello. Located in Harrisonville, New Jersey, de Grandin battled everything from vampires to mad scientists to devil worshippers. Jules de Grandin proved to be very popular, ultimately appearing in 93 stories from 1925 to 1951. While largely forgotten by the public at large, de Grandin would have a lasting influence on the horror genre, pre-dating both The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer by decades.

Jules de Grandin was largely modelled after Sherlock Holmes, but in the pages of Black Mask a new sort of detective was emerging. Contrary to popular belief, Dashiell Hammett did not invent the hard boiled detective. That honour instead goes to a New Yorker, Carroll John Daly. Daly's "The False Burton Combs" would be the first hard boiled detective story, published in Black Mask, December 1922. Daly's most popular character would be Race Williams, who first appeared in the story "Knights of the Open Palm" from Black Mask, June 1923. Williams was a tough private eye with a tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. It can be argued that Williams had to be the way he was, as he existed in a world where danger and betrayal lurked around every corner. Mickey Spillaine freely admitted that Race Williams was an influence in the creation of Mike Hammer.

While the hard boiled detective genre was invented by a Yankee, it would be up to a Southerner to refine it. Dashiell Hammett was born in St. Mary's County, Maryland. His mother's family, the Dashiells, were one of the oldest in Maryland. Among his relatives were Revolutionary War soldier Colonel George Dashiell and Congressman Isaac Dashiell Jones. Hammett's family moved from their tobacco farm in Maryland to Philadelphia where they spent a short time before moving to Baltimore. Hammett left school at the age of 14, working a number of odd jobs before being employed by the Pinkerton Agency. After serving in World War I, Hammett turned to writing. His first story, "The Parthian Shot," was published in The Smart Set, October 1922. He would make his debut in Black Mask with the story "The Road Home" in that magazine's December 1922 issue.

It was in Black Mask, October 1923 that the first of Hammett's major characters was introduced, the Continental Op, in the story "Arson Plus." The Continental Op was a nameless detective for the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco. While Caroll John Daly's detective stories always had an element of exaggeration to them (particularly those featuring Race Williams), Hammett's stories were more grounded in reality, largely drawing upon his experiences with the Pinkertons. The Continental Op was short, gruff, stubborn, and largely unsympathetic to the plight of his fellow man. Like Race Williams, the Continental Op is the consummate tough guy. And like Race Williams, the Continental Op exists in a world where murder and mayhem are par for the course. But Hammett brought a sophistication to his stories that Carroll John Daly never did to his. Quite simply, Daly wrote good pulp stories. Hammett wrote great literature.

Of course, the Continental Op was not the only contribution Hammett made to detective fiction. He would write what may be the greatest hard boiled detective novel of all time, The Maltese Falcon, first serialised in Black Mask starting with its September 1929 issue. Indeed, the novel introduced Hammett's most famous character, detective Sam Spade. In many respects Spade had much in common with the other hard boiled detectives. He observed the world with cold detachment, acted with his own code of honour, and avoided emotional ties for the most part. He departed from other hard boiled detectives in not being quite so blood thirsty. In fact, Spade generally did not carry a gun! While he is undoubtedly Hammett's most famous creation, Spade only appeared in the novel The Maltese Falcon and three short stories.

While Sam Spade may be Hammett's most famous creation, arguably his most lasting creations were Nick and Nora Charles. Nick was a retired private eye who had worked for the Trans-American Detective Agency. Nora was his wealthy, brilliant, and somewhat independent wife. Urbane and sophisticated, Nick and Nora often engage each other in exchanges of verbal wit. Their only appearance in print would be in the novel The Thin Man, but they would go on to appear in a successful series of movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, a radio show, a television series, and even a Broadway musical. Their influence would be felt on couples ranging from John Steed and Emma Peel of The Avengers to Hitchcock's Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Dashiell Hammett was by no means the only Southerner writing mysteries. "Carl Buchanan" was the pen name of James Robert Peery, who was born in Mississippi in 1900. Using the name "Carl Buchanan," Peery sold mystery stories to Five-Novels Monthly, Super Detective, and Clues and science fiction stories to Astounding. Buchanan would go onto write three novels (The Black Cloak Murders, Night of Horror, and The Red Scorpion. Sadly, today Carl Buchanan is largely forgotten.

This is not the case with author Talmage Powell. Powell was born in Hendersonville, North Carolina in 1920. He was actually a latecomer to pulp magazines--his first story was published in 1942. Powell would make up for this by being amazingly prolific. Ultimately, he would write over 200 stories for the pulps. In fact, while he is now best known as a mystery writer, he wrote in nearly every genre for the pulps, writing everything from Westerns to horror stories. Powell would be published in a diverse number of pulp magazines, including The Shadow, Dime Mystery, Black Mask, Romances, and Fifteen Western Tales. He would later become one of the many men to write under the pen name "Ellery Queen." His series of novels featuring Ed Rivers published in the Fifties and Sixties are often considered among the best of the private eye genre. Powell would also write episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Over the years he wrote hard boiled detective stories, crime fiction, and traditional whodunits.

Of course, there were other pulp writers from the South. From the Twenties to the Forties pulp magazines were a dominant force in American pop culture. It was not unusual for the most successful pulps to sell anywhere from a million to twenty million copies.of any given issue. With the demand for pulp magazines so great there also came the demand for stories to fill those pulp magazines. Quite naturally, for there to be stories there has to be someone to write them. Pulp writers then came from literally everywhere. H. P. Lovecraft was from Rhode Island. Raymond Chandler was from Chicago. Other pulp writers came from further afield. D. L. Champion, who wrote most of The Phantom Detective, was born in Australia. Prolific pulp writer Hugh B. Cave was born in England, but grew up in Massachusetts. That many pulp writers came from the South is then hardly surprising.

What is surprising is the impact that writers from the South had on the pulps, an industry largely based out of New York City. Out of the four greatest pulp heroes (The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Spider from the Heroic Pulps, Conan the Barbarian from Weird Tales), three of them were created by Southerners. And it was a Southerner, Dashiell Hammett, who refined the hard boiled detective genre. Of course, it must be kept in mind that Southerners were not the only ones to play important roles in the history of the pulp magazine. Robert J. Hogan, who wrote most of the novels G-8 and His Battle Aces, was from New York. Walter Gibson, the creator of The Shadow, hailed from Germantown, Pennsylvania. E. E. "Doc" Smith, creator of Skylark and the Lensmen, was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Clearly, Southerners did not have a monopoly on pulp heroes.

That having been said, it does seem that Southerners had an undue influence on the Heroic Pulps. Are there any pulp heroes greater than The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider, and Conan? Three of those four were created by Southerners. The reasons that Southerners had such a great impact on the Heroic Pulps could simply rest with the character of the South itself. Settled by aristocrats in its earliest years, the South evolved its own code of honour, largely derived from the English, Scots, and Welsh who settled the region. Naturally, where there exists a code of honour, there is also bound to be a profound emphasis on heroes and heroism. From Light Horse Harry Lee to Davy Crockett to Jesse James, the South has always relished its heroes. When it came to writing for pulp magazines, then, it would be quite natural for Southerners to be drawn to tales of heroes. Indeed, it is worth noting that while neither Doc Savage nor The Spider speak of honour very often, they each have their own personal codes they live by. The same can be said of Dashiell Hammett's characters, even the Continental Op (whose foremost loyalty seems to be to the Continental Detective Agency). If Southerners were responsible for some of the greatest pulp heroes in the history of the medium, it is perhaps because heroes have been so much a part of Southern culture. While many, perhaps most of the heroes of the pulps were not created by Southerners, it is perhaps significant that the greatest among them were. While the pulp magazine industry was based in New York City, it owed a great deal to writers from the South.


Stephen Lucchetti said...

Doc Smith was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, not Illinois.

Mercurie said...

Thanks for the correction. I know where Sheboygan is, but for some reason my mind was stuck on Illinois. Happens on sinus medication, I guess. Anyway, it's been corrected.

d. chedwick bryant said...

I have always wanted to name a kitten--Irving Shulman-- after the author of the pulp novel "The Amboy Dukes"
but my family always put the kibosh on the idea.
I have enjoyed these pulp posts.