Pulp fiction has always been concerned with the relationship between
capital and crime, corruption and power. It can be construed
as political but never proselytizing. Moreover it is a literature
written by the proletariat for the proletariat. Several leading
pulp novelists of the Post-War years were former employees in
the aerospace and oil industries of Southern California and paid-up
members of the Communist Party. Why else would the Committee
of Un-American activities take such an interest in what was seen
as lowbrow art form? Happily for the Committee, the authors may
have had critical dissenting voices, but their characters were
sick. In the hard-boiled crime novel of the Forties and Fifties,
politics is invariably investigated by the alienated or the psychotic.
Ideas were just as easily pulped as the characters. Hollywood
had far more interest in such writers of disposable entertainment
than McCarthy, in the end.
As Haut says "taking the genre too seriously can be as much
of a literary crime as not taking it seriously enough". Although
critics, including Haut, are now in fact treating the genre with
a reverence hitherto unfound. Meanwhile, a new generation of
crime novelists have once again taken up the mantle to examine
corruption and power in the American city, while their English
counterparts pen their apolitical drawing room mysteries. Which
suggests that the crime genre is an American genre.
The hard-boiled crime novel went into decline in the 1960s, killed
off by the pop culture, Haut argues. Even though the Cold War
was to continue for another thirty years, crime fiction became
a specialized interest and was pushed into the margins by the
heat writers, TV, consumerism.
Pulp Culture serves as a good compendium guide to the seminal
crime novels of the Forties and Fifties, featuring the work of
two dozen or so pulp novelists, including Raymond Chandler, Jim
Thompson and Charles Willeford, whose dicks decode the culture
as well as investigate the crime. Haut’s premise, that the Cold
War engendered the atmosphere as well as the material for most
of the works in discussion is, I think, sound, if a little laboured.
He uses the word paranoia several hundred times and keeps grafting
back on to the text the Cold War connection long after it seems
necessary, as if trying to justify his title. And I would take
issue with his taking Chandler to task for allegedly peddling
clichés to boot. If that were the case then it is hard
to understand why LA crime writers of today have failed to upstage
Chandler. You can update Philip Marlow’s racial and sexual politics
certainly, but that voice of his is inimitable.
Reviewed by Russell Celyn Jones