The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age – The ’20s, ’30s & ’40s by Otto Penzler
Holy Toledo, after living with The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps for nearly three months I finally made it to the end!!!
It’s tempting to give this beast of a book five stars for sheer volume alone. Containing two full-length novels alongside dozens of novellas and short stories (53 tales in all!), it’s a wide-ranging survey of the taut, gritty style of hard-boiled crime story pioneered by Black Mask magazine in the 1920s and ’30s. All the greats are here: Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, along with many other penny-a-word writers, famous and obscure.
Honestly, it’s too much. I reached the saturation point twice while reading and had to put the book away for a few weeks. And with so many writers represented, the contents are very much a mixed bag. There were a few smoothly written, deeply haunting stories that I really loved and will certainly read again. But there were also a large number that were entertaining but forgettable, several others I couldn’t finish quickly enough, and a few I gave up on completely. The Kindle edition also suffers from some annoying OCR errors, on some stories more than others.
Pulp (the name comes from the cheap woodpulp paper the original magazines were printed on) isn’t for everybody. These are tough-guy stories from another era, and they had no literary pretensions. They were meant to be candy for the masses, completely disposable — after all, a whole new crop of stories would be out in a few weeks. So modern readers may find it cheap, cliched, or hackneyed (or blatantly sexist and racist). But if you enjoy noir movies and other early 20th century entertainment, you’ll find the pulps easy to love despite their many flaws.
Many of the stories here were first published in Black Mask, then and now regarded as the pinnacle of the crime pulps, although editor Otto Penzler also dredges the archives of seedier titles like Gun Molls and Spicy Detective. Compared to those half-cent-a-word rags, the Black Mask stories read like Shakespeare.
Of course, there was a lot more to the pulp phenomenon than crime stories. Nearly all of what we today call “genre fiction” was nurtured in the pages of pulp magazines, from high adventure to horror, sci-fi to westerns to romance. But no aspect of the pulps endures quite like the hard-boiled world of private dicks, gangsters, and murderous mayhem explored here. So The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps is a wonderful sampler to get lost in, for veteran pulp fans and neophyte readers alike. Just don’t try to consume it all at once.
My story-by-story ratings follow… Continue reading