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Pulp Fiction: Hardboiled Thrills, Chills & Murder

  • By Lee Barwood
  • Published 04/4/2012
  • Fiction

During the Roaring Twenties it was a time when crime actually did pay; its influence was everywhere, and the life of a rival was worth as much as Confederate currency. Good intentions notwithstanding, it took more than a concerned citizen or a local cop to save the day from criminals run amok. You needed everyone with a just heart and a hard-boiled exterior-private eyes, G-men, cops and vigilantes-to restore order and balance the scales of justice. Luckily you could find those heroes at the corner newsstand every month for just two slim dimes, in the latest issue of an array of detective magazines. During the Roaring Twenties and lingering on into the 1930s and the Great Depression, America was a turbulent society, exploding with excitement, desperation and crime. True-life tragedies and the highest murder rate of the century were fueling a new brand of fiction peopled by tough investigators and relentless heroes who were somehow bulletproof and unstoppable in their quests for justice. THE BUSINESS OF BOOTLEGGING The most likely cause of the elevated crime rate was that it was an unexpected consequence of Prohibition, the national constitutional ban on alcohol, and its transportation or sale in commerce, sometimes called bootlegging. It is undeniable that Prohibition paved the way for organized crime, as the profits from illegal trafficking in liquor and the extreme difficulty in enforcing the national law made the business high profit and low risk. Run by organized crime, the growth of the illegal liquor enterprise paralleled the rise of the industrial corporation. Contracts between producers, distributors and sellers could not be enforced through any courts-and the market was murderously competitive. In that climate, unwelcome competitors were eliminated, often at the business end of a Smith & Wesson revolver or a Thompson submachine gun. That provocation for criminal mayhem persisted until 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt put an abrupt end to it by signing the constitutional amendment that repealed Prohibition. By that time, however, the illegal industry of producing, transporting and selling alcohol was up to $2 billion annually. MOBSTERS & MURDERERS

Sister to the misery of Prohibition was the Great Depression, which

started on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929, when the stock market crashed. Poverty and the social dislocation of the era gave rise to infamous criminals-not only tough Chicago mobsters like Al Capone, Dean O’Banion and Bugs Moran, but outright thieves and killers such as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the dapper “Pretty Boy” Floyd and the legendary Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger. These and many other brutal and larger-than-life figures captured newspaper headlines and became immortalized in tales loosely based on their exploits in movies, radio dramas and America’s favorite form of entertainment at the time-the pulp fiction magazines. THE CRIME-FIGHTERS To combat the criminal elements of the day, fiction writers conjured up larger-than-life characters-such as the first genuine superhero of the twentieth century, Walter B. Gibson’s “The Shadow.” Clad in black, with a secret identity, superpowers and sidekicks, The Shadow had ample supervillains to slay and subdue. Then there was Doc Savage, the crime-fighting adventurer who was to inspire the Indiana Jones franchise, and the very first tough private eye, Race Williams, who also emerged to immediate fame in the 1930s. These and other famous crime-fighters were born in the pages of the pulp fiction magazines that were devoured by millions of Americans each month, including Detective Fiction Weekly, Thrilling Detective, Popular Detective and Black Mask. It was in the pages of these rough, inexpensive pulps that now-famous names were first able to display the mastery of their craft-Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Norvell W. Page and L. Ron Hubbard. L. Ron Hubbard was a unique voice among mystery and crime fiction writers because he could not be pegged just into one genre. Just as he had lived a varied life full of adventure, so had he filled the pages of a variety of genre pulp magazines-with tales spanning the genres of science fiction, fantasy, western, and yes, even the occasional romance-publishing over two hundred short stories, novelettes and novels.

But Hubbard’s stories of mystery and investigative procedure reflected his keen mind and strong intellect as his characters set out upon their crime-solving path, a skill which he once characterized as “the art of observation.” Whether it was sending a detective after killers who were already dead, or chasing down headhunters, Ron knew how to thrill readers, how to scare readers and how to keep them guessing until the end.



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