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Pulp Culture and the Cold War
Woody Haut

Pulp Culture and the Cold War
Woody Haut
Serpent’s Tail
London 1995

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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


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