Mysteries During the Golden Age of Pulps

The Strand

Thomas McNulty

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“Pulp paper never dreamed of posterity and most of it must be a dirty brown color by now.” Raymond Chandler wrote in his introduction to The Simple Art of Murder (1950), a collection of his early pulp stories. Those dirty brown pages have also metamorphosed into brittle sheets of crisp fiction, beautiful to look at, fun to read, but crumbling to dust upon contact with human hands. The pulps are disintegrating at an astonishing rate and the once collectible issues of magazines like Black Mask now possess a value that cannot be measured in monetary terms. They represent a slice of American literary history, and their value is immeasurable.

Simple Art of Murder book cover

The pulps, as they were known, derived their name from the cheap pulp paper on which these magazines were printed. The pulps flourished for three remarkable decades and helped make Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, L. Ron Hubbard, Walter B. Gibson, and Lester Dent into popular professional writers.

The pulps specialized in genre tales and quite naturally mysteries were immensely popular. Over time the pulp writers learned to fuse genres which created a host of sub-genres. This fusion of traditional mysteries with crime stories, detective fiction, and adventures tales opened the floodgates for magazines like Dime Mystery, Five Novels Monthly, Vice Squad Detective, Spicy Mystery and many others.

Black Mask magazine cover

Private Detectives were especially popular thanks to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, perhaps the two more famous gumshoes in pulp history. They inspired countless imitators and detective stories became a staple of the pulp market. Between them, Hammett and Chandler helped create a fluid, imagistic and terse style known as “hard-boiled” fiction. It would be Humphrey Bogart’s good fortune to play both Spade and Marlowe in the respective film versions of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946). Bogart’s personification of the wisecracking tough guy exemplified the American hero; often a loner but holding steadfast to a code of honor.

“Bogart can be tough without a gun.” Chandler said of Bogart. “He has a sense of humor that contains the grating undertone of contempt. Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.” The Bogart personification of Spade and Marlowe is iconic and its tough and determined style was very much a part of the era’s pulp stories.

The Maltese Falcon book cover

At their best the pulp writers defined a generation and set the tone for magazine writing that remains unsurpassed in literary history. There isn’t a composition teacher today that wouldn’t love to find students that could write like Robert E. Howard, Walter B. Gibson or L. Ron Hubbard.

“The fog was thick at the center of the bridge where the man stood leaning against the rail.” wrote Walter B. Gibson (under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant) in the very first Shadow story, “The Living Shadow,” in 1931. Direct and to the point, perhaps even simple, but in the span of eighteen words Gibson sets the scene and plunges his readers into the action. Pulp writers were at the mercy of editors who demanded exact word counts and tight, action-packed tales with a beginning, middle and ending that would not only satisfy readers, but keep them coming back for more.

The Big Sleep book cover

In L. Ron Hubbard’s Spy Killer, a 1936 espionage thriller, he introduces the mysterious Russian woman Varinka Savischna with this line: “The steam that rose from her cup of tea was not less elusive than the quality of her eyes.”

Writing like this has a cadence, a lilting quality that not only establishes characterization but engages the reader. We learn more about Varinka Savischna in those nineteen words than if Hubbard had written a full page of prose.

Mystery stories were a natural extension of crime stories and subsequently the detective story made popular by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The pulp writers took advantage of this literary fusion and Depression era audiences hungry for entertainment made the pulps a lucrative market. In addition to Gibson and Hubbard, writers like Carroll John Daly (who had a positive influence on Mickey Spillane), James M. Cain, Hugh B. Cave, Lester Dent, Earle Stanley Gardner and Robert Leslie Bellem all created atmospheric tales that depicted America’s mean streets as a corrupt, often nightmarish landscape where even honorable men were hard-pressed to survive.

Spy Killer book cover

This gritty realism would have its influence on films as well. Quite often the screenwriters in the ’30s and ’40s took their ideas directly from the pulps. And just as often the pulp writers were asked by Hollywood to draft screenplays that matched their success in pulp magazines. Chandler wrote the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia (1946) and Hubbard wrote the 1937 serial Secret of Treasure Island. Even mainstream writers such as Aldous Huxley and William Faulkner were called upon to lend their talents to various projects.

In the first half of the last century nearly 200 pulp magazines devoted their contents to mystery and detective stories. By the late ’40s science fiction and fantasy magazines had blossomed as a fan favorite genre, but even then mysteries were still in vogue. They have never really gone out of fashion although the genre today is unrecognizable from the classic tales of the Golden Age.

Argosy magazine featuring Lester Dent

John Cheever once described his own stories as being from “a long lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river of light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationary store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” The pulps certainly belong to that era as well.

The pulps may be credited with popularizing the mystery story and all of its sub-genres. Detective stories, police procedurals, cozy drawing room mysteries (in the traditional British style), and even that odd fusion of mystery-supernatural horror all thrived during the heyday of the pulps.

The pulps are the antithesis to today’s gore-filled, splatterpunk blood baths where the focus is shock rather than characterization and plotting. Their popularity has endured a century, and not even the crucial paper-drives of World War II could stop collectors and fans from secreting away a box of their favorite pulp magazines. The current pulp revival can be attributed to a fan base that has never waned in its enthusiasm for quality entertainment.

Shadow from Sanctum Books

Sanctum Books is currently republishing the entire Shadow series written by Walter B. Gibson in addition to Lester Dent’s legendary Doc Savage novels. Black Dog Books and Adventure House are enjoying success reprinting westerns, crime thrillers and science fiction tales from the 30s and 40s. Black Dog’s roster of mystery and crime reprints includes the work of Sax Rohmer, Laurence Donovan, Cary Moran, Norvelle Page and Arthur B. Reeve.

L. Ron Hubbard’s stories are being reprinted by Galaxy Press. This ambitious project will reprint 153 of Hubbard’s tales in 80 volumes accompanied by state-of-the-art audiobooks that emulate the Golden Age of Radio for both CD and iTunes. Most of these have never been reprinted since their original publication and titles include Cargo of Coffins, Brass Keys to Murder, Killer’s Law and Dead Men Kill.

This is escapism at its finest, validated by generations of readers, and against all plausible odds finding an audience again amongst both the literati and general public.

Dead Men Kill book cover

Or, in the words of L. Ron Hubbard: “In writing an adventure story a writer has to know that he is adventuring for a lot of people who cannot. The writer has to take them here and there about the globe and show them excitement and love and realism. As long as that writer is living the part of an adventurer when he is hammering the keys, he is succeeding with his story.”

Thomas McNulty is the author of Errol Flynn, a critically acclaimed biography, and the novels Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, and Death Rides a Palomino. Visit him online at