John Helfers, the editor of Fiction River #15: Recycled Pulp, and series editors Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, have come up with a twist on an old pulp idea. Pulp writers sometimes wrote to order. The editor would show them a cover, and they’d write a story based on the picture. John Helfers gave writers three pulpish titles (not covers) each and had them write stories for one of those titles, such as “Crypt of the Metal Ghouls,” by Angela Penrose, “Swamp of the Prehistoric Clan,” by Christy Fifield, and “Prism of the Crab Gods,” by Kelly Washington. That should give you an idea. But only an idea, since I suspect that the stories these writers came up with will surprise you and touch you in a number of different ways. There are crime stories here, but also superhero stories, mainstream stories, science fiction stories, and some that are hard to pin down. They’re all well worth your time, though, and Helfers provides insightful introductions to each.
The author is archivist of the Detection Club, that exclusive organization of British writers which elected its first members in 1930. Within the framework of the organization’s early history and collective biography, personal as well as professional, of its most influential members, Martin Edwards refutes some of the reductive generalizations that have been applied to Golden Age detection, not only the British version, but more briefly the undervalued American equivalent. The focus is on the three most important figures of the British Golden Age, two written about extensively in other sources, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but the third woefully neglected in recent decades: Anthony Berkeley, who also wrote as Francis Iles. Other subjects include Margery Allingham, E.C. Bentley, John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton, G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, Clemence Dane, Anthony Gilbert, Milward Kennedy, Ronald A. Knox, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, E.R. Punshon, John Rhode, Helen Simpson, and Henry Wade. Among the surprising revelations, in 1926, Father Knox livened up the BBC with a satirical newscast that included the toppling of Big Ben’s clock tower and the hanging of a cabinet minister. Some listeners took the broadcast seriously and panic spread, foreshadowing the reaction to Orson Welles’ dramatization of War of the Worlds 12 years later.
Edwards also summarizes some of the true-crime cases that inspired these writers, adding to the value of one of the most important contributions to mystery fiction history in recent memory.
Robert Crafton focuses on several significant African-American writers: pioneers Pauline Hopkins and Rudolph Fisher, transitional figures Chester Himes and Ishmael Reed, and contemporaries Colson Whitehead, Walter Mosley, and Stephen F. Carter. Close readings of selected works are bolstered by historical, scientific, legal, and sociological background that adds richness to the commentary, e.g. marriage laws central to Hopkins’ Hagar’s Daughter (1901-02), and medical issues in physician Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies (1932).
There are some errors and questionable assertions. The surnames of Himes’ Harlem cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones are reversed, an easy mistake to make. Barbara Hambly is included in a list of African-American authors, I think mistakenly. The attitude to genre is sometimes patronizing, and the generalizations too sweeping. But quality writing and critical acumen outweigh minor quibbles. Another highlight in a great year for books about crime fiction.
The author of the Edgar-nominated Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing (2013) surpasses that excellent work with a thorough, well-documented, and intensely readable account of the life of Robert Beck (1918-1992), the reformed pimp whose writings as Iceberg Slim jump-started the outpouring of African American street literature beginning in the late 1960s, most from the Los Angeles paperback publisher Holloway House. The events of his life are put in historical context, including an interesting tour of the prisons (good and bad) where he was incarcerated and the various inner-city neighborhoods where he practiced his misogynistic profession. Beck, bad as he was, claimed not to be as evil as other pimps because he didn’t hate his mother quite as much—in fact, by the evidence of this book, he didn’t hate her at all. There’s no question that in his late years he did a great deal of good, sounding a cautionary note for black youth who might be tempted to follow his path. Whether or not you buy Justin Gifford’s claims for his subject’s importance (“more than any other cultural figure of the past fifty years, Beck transformed American culture and black literature”; his Pimp: The Story of My Life was “one of the most important pieces of American literature of the twentieth century”), his life makes a captivating story.
The quotations from Slim’s books, interviews, and other writings demonstrate his immense writing talent and verbal flair. For more evidence, see Shetani’s Sister, a previously unpublished late novel that Beck instructed his wife to keep out of the clutches of Holloway House, which he believed cheated him out of the royalties he earned. (Reviewed from advance uncorrected proof; index not seen.)
Given the quality of his prolific output, his biographical interest, and his niche specialty of locked rooms and impossible crimes, no mystery writer is more worthy of the companion treatment than John Dickson Carr, and few writers are as qualified to do the job as longtime Carr scholar James E. Keirans. Entries include characters major and minor; book, story, and essay titles; place names and allusions; and broad topics. For example, ten full pages cover alcoholic beverages in the works of Carr, 18 on London locations and institutions. The alphabetical arrangement is easy to navigate except when a long entry (such as Chronology for the Dr. Gideon Fell Mysteries) runs for several pages without running heads to tell you where you are. The 50-page index to names and titles is very useful.
This fine work of scholarship can stand beside Douglas G. Greene’s biography John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995) and S. T. Joshi’s John Dickson Carr: A Critical Study (1990).