James Desborough returns to his vision of pulp fiction with Stain – Dead and Gone, the story of a hard boiled detective called up from “administrative duty” to work a murder case that nobody wants solved. Stane, the drunk with a disturbing tendency to wind up as the partner of a dead cop, is your typical hard case detective. He’s crude, vulgar, and so cynical he makes nihilists look like Polly-Annas. He doesn’t get into any fights or chases or even any dangerous situations at all. He just does a little detectiving, solves the mystery, then goes along his bleak and pointless way.
Which means this really needs to be two reviews. One for the story as noir, which was great, and one for the story as pulp, which was complete pants.
As a piece of noir, this nails the feeling. From the first page, when Stane deals with a hapless burglar through intimidation and a little light torture, to the last, when he blackmails his boss and violently assaults him, Stane is hard bitten, cold, callous, and utterly ruthless. He’s only half way to being an anti-hero, and not the good half, either. Desborough writes with the clipped and callous style of the classic noir stories. He shifts seamlessly between the first person musings, giving us a glimpse into Stane’s outlook, and the third person limited omniscience that keeps us from getting too comfortable inside the head of this completely reprehensible cop. As a noir story, it hits all the important beats – crooked cops, gritty city streets, explicitly gory murder scenes, you name it.
Which leads to the obvious question: What’s all this Noir doing inside a Pulp collection?
There is some overlap between the genres. One might even say there’s some gray between the ebon style of Noir and the brighter and cheerier style of Pulp, but this story doesn’t live there. Desborough goes full on nihilist, bringing every ounce of hopelessness to bear in this story. Stane doesn’t engage in any of the standard pulp traditions. He doesn’t get into a shoot-out or a fist fight. He doesn’t save any dames. He doesn’t even meet up with a femme fatale. He flat-out tells us that police work is like any other job – mostly routine paperwork and trying to keep the boss off your back.
One thing that Stane does engage in is interesting dialogue. Desborough manages to use conversations both to reveal character and to drive the plot forward, but that’s damning with faint praise. He clears a much higher bar in making the dialog snappy, and in giving each character a unique voice. This is one of those stories that could get away without using the phrase “X said”, after the first conversation with a character, because the reader can infer who is talking at any given moment based solely on the voice of the character. That’s a lot hard to pull off, but Desborough manages it here.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the first two stories in Pulp Nova (this one and Chicol’s Children) are both dark and dreary affairs. The author’s nickname is “Grim” after all. While no surprise, it is a shame that this collection of pulps has so far missed out on the free-wheeling fun, the sense of adventure, and the call to heroism that the pulps embodied. As it stands, this collection owes far more to the modern post-Christian tales of the meaninglessness of life than it does to the past masters of story-telling that made the pulps so much fun to read. The first two stories are well written affairs, but they owe less to the pulps than they do to authors working in the late 70s through the Current Year.
Which leads us to the real difference between Pulp and other styles of writing. It isn’t setting. It isn’t subject. It isn’t style. It’s mindset.
The Pulp mindset is one that embraces the glories of Americana past. It looks to the future with a positivity borne out of a love of virtue. It’s heroes are unabashed do-gooders who struggle to overcome the evil in other men and in their own hearts. They respect the fairer sex by showing proper deference to femininity and proper disrespect to viperous women. They are the kind of men who inspire you to be better, to look up, to strive and to struggle for a better world.
If an author can’t accept these simple truths, if he feels the need to ‘deconstruct’ pulp or to ‘update’ pulp to fit a more modern zeitgeist…then maybe that author doesn’t really understand what the pulps were, where they came from, or how to recapture the magic.
Stain – Dead and Gone fails by presenting a point-of-view character who relishes his decision to live as one. While it’s a fine story for those who love dark nihilism, Stain just isn’t very good pulp, new or otherwise.
Just a test of an idea, here, but was there an action concept here?
This reminds me of another writer who doesn’t know the difference between pulp and noir. They came up with an elaborate bio for “Henry Abner” including a fake Wikipedia page, but they couldn’t be bothered to get the decade right.
Posting this and then gotta run…
Desborough continues as I thought he would judging from his youtube channel. He’s no SJW, but his worldview tends to nihilism.
Noir is not really pulp — having come along after WWII and inspired partially by French filmmakers — but hardboiled fiction is definitely pulp. Hammett’s hardboiled tales hit the pulp world like a bombshell in the ’20s. CL Moore’s and Brackett’s storytelling was obviously influenced by it. REH’s Conan has been compared to Hammett’s grim, sardonic, flawed heroes for decades and with good reason. Hell, one could look upon “Red Nails” as a fantasy version of Hammett’s “Red Harvest”. Howard probably didn’t read it, but the similarities are there. If Howard didn’t read “Red Harvest”, it’s very likely that Kurosawa, Leone and Walter Hill did:
Hardboiled heroes aren’t Boy Scouts. They’re honorable men — to one extent or another — who operate in a corrupt and dishonorable world. The America of the 1920, tainted by Prohibition, was like that in many places, and not always just in the cities. I know, I’ve talked to people who lived through it.
There is a place for hardboiled in pulp, just not noir. Noir, the overwhelming percentage of the time, is nihilistic, sordid, tawdry crap. Don’t throw hardboiled out with the filthy noir bathwater.
Actually, I really like that. “Hardboiled fantasy” is as good a description of original Conan stories as any. Heck, you even have stuff like “The God in the Bowl”, which is basically hardboiled murder mystery transplanted into sword and sorcery surroundings.
Right on, Keith. TGitB is totally a “hardboiled meets locked room mystery” fantasy yarn.
Getting back to what I said about Prohibition tainting even rural areas… REH sent a letter to HPL several months before he wrote TGitB. In that letter, Bob tells Lovecraft about a couple incidents of Texan police brutality/corruption. What do we see in TGitB? I’ve always thought that yarn was better than some give it credit for. Not a classic, but it has things going for it.
Don Herron is considered THE world authority on Dashiell Hammett. Not coincidentally, Don’s also, arguably, considered the greatest living literary critic on Robert E. Howard. He published the first scholarly volume on REH — THE DARK BARBARIAN — and has been given the lifetime achievement award in Howard Studies. Among his many highly-respected essays is “Robert E. Howard: Hard-Boiled Fantasist” which he wrote in the early ’70s. Here’s his website:
Any idea if Hammett was familiar with any of REH’s writing? He seems to have read read a fair amount of weird fiction, tho it looks like his tastes leaned towards horror territory.
I’ve known Don Herron for over a decade and he thinks there’s a decent chance Hammett read REH at some point. Hammett had an interest in fantasy/weird fiction. We know that from various sources like his Continental Op story, “The King in Yellow.” However, keep in mind that REH was just barely getting going when Hammett was exploding. Hammett already had his thing goin’ on by the time he could’ve read REH. Plus, the first half of Howard’s literary career was less hardboiled, style-wise, than the second half.
Whoops. Just realized “The King in Yellow” — in this instance — was written by Chandler. He was riffing on THE KING IN YELLOW by Chambers, of course. Hammett DID have a liking for weird lit, though.
Frederick Nebel, like REH, was a pulp fiction prodigy who had no problem writing dynamic, two-fisted tales. Here’s one of his early stories:
Even more than Mike Hammer, I think Nebel’s “Jack Cardigan” stories read alot like what REH might’ve written in the ’50s. Cardigan’s a badass and the stories are excellent. Here’s a great collection from Altus:
I’m enjoying your reviews. I can’t wait for your takes on his SF stories.