In the pulps, find kernel of truth

Anthology | The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, edited by Otto Penzler, Random House, $25, 1,128 pages

The book thudded on my desk like a bum fighter hitting the canvas. "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps" it says, right above the picture of the dame. I drained a shot of rye and got to thinking about those thrilling days between the world wars, when the hard-boiled American private eye was created. Men who beat the typewriter like a percussion instrument hacked out an entire genre of literature.

It was the golden age of pulp magazines, when 500 fiction magazines flooded newsstands. They were weeklies or monthlies whose literary merit was so low they were printed on flimsy paper made from pulpwood.

The pulps covered everything from romance to westerns, but in long-defunct magazines such as Black Mask, Dime Detective or below-the-counter sleazoids like Spicy Detective, the hard-boiled American crime story and the entire noir movement was born. Their primarily blue-collar male readers understood certain truths: bad things should happen to bad people; beautiful women are a problem; sex is dirty; violent crime can be funny; and whiskey is our friend.

The gods of this mean universe were Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who wrote stories like "The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon." Erle Stanley Gardner created Perry Mason and sold more than 300 million books. James Cain wrote "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity."

These stories were entirely new and entirely American. Most were terribly written, misogynistic and racist, churned out by men who worked for a penny a word or less. Nearly all the pulps slid beneath the pop culture waves after World War II, done in by cheap paperbacks and TV.

But now, a large chunk of this text is available in "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps." At 1,150 double-columned pages, it's the most complete anthology of the golden age of pulp detective fiction. It was put together by the legendary Otto Penzler, proprietor of New York's Mysterious Bookshop.

There are 53 stories here, and every one will smack you in the mouth: "Two Murders, One Crime." "Pigeon Blood." "He Got What He Asked For." "Killer in the Rain." Typical are hammer-fisted beginnings like "I didn't like his face and told him so."

"Ninety percent of the writing was really bad," says Penzler, who tracked down titles for this volume (printed, of course, on pulp paper). "But Americans tend to have that frontier mentality -- the lone gunslinger walks into town to clean up Dodge City. ... You're more interested in justice than the law, and these stories really resonated with readers."

"These guys unknowingly created art out of poverty," best-selling crime novelist George Pelecanos says. "They weren't trying to be artists, just to make a living. In some shape or form, a lot of them lived the lives that found their way onto the page."

Cain, married four times, wrote about adultery and dames so desirable that men would kill to get them. Cornell Woolrich was a closeted gay man who lived in a seedy Harlem hotel with his mother. Roger Torrey and his girlfriend wrote stories side by side with a bottle of whiskey between them; the first one to finish got to start drinking first. Other writers hid behind pen names, and Penzler could not discover anything about them.

Maybe some of these stories ring true and maybe some of them don't. But the best of them get at something there in the American void, something true about late nights and lost men and bare bulbs in apartment hallways and, under it all, the taste of cigarette smoke, like regret, lingering on the tip of the tongue.