Mini-Review: The Hardboiled Old Boy’s Club

Pulp Fiction: the Crimefighters is a compilation of hardboiled detective stories, overwhelmingly from the 1930s and almost all from the classic Black Mask magazine which in retrospect is considered the most important magazine in the genre, much as Weird Tales is regarded in the sword and sorcery and cosmic horror fields these days. Compiled by Otto Penzler, it’s pitched as an introduction to the genre – if not the first stop you make, perhaps the first thing you look into after you’ve covered the obvious bases (say, a Raymond Chandler collection and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon).

The anthology leads off with One, Two, Three by Paul Cain, which showcases most of the salient features of hardboiled detective fiction – from the classic first-person narrative packed with terse witticisms to the tawdry view of human nature, in which few people are innocent and nobody is infallible. It’s the flawed fallibility of hardboiled detective fiction protagonists which in some respects have saved stories like this from aging even more poorly than they already have. Sure, the protagonist doesn’t meet a significant woman in the story who isn’t working an angle – but the same is true of the men he interacts with. Sure, he uses a now-dated racial term at one point, but it’s easier to accept this as part of the characterisation of a flawed man in a realistic depiction of the seedier side of the era. Racism lazily ported into fantasy or science fiction is galling in part because it suggests that the author cannot imagine a world without it. A contemporary depiction of the 1930s which did not include some racism or misogyny on the part of characters is engaged in whitewashing.

That said, seeing pulp-era authors calling out the era’s own racism is endearing. A collection like this wouldn’t be complete without a pinch of Dashiell Hammett, and the chosen story is The Creeping Siamese. That title might put you in mind of a racist narrative steeped in orientalist nonsense, but it isn’t – it’s a story of how someone who’s too used to clichéd crime plots of the era tries to spin such a story for the Continental Op, only for the Op to see through their shit. (As far as the other big name of the hardboiled era, Ray Chandler goes, he’s represented here by Red Wind – but that’s in The Simple Art of Murder, and if you’re exploring pulp crime fiction you’ve probably already read that.)

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