Editor Otto Penzler, Edgar-winning proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop and founder of Mysterious Press, has picked out fourteen fast-paced and tightly-written tales (mostly from Black Mask magazine) from 1928 to 1942: an era of diamond-studded gangsters and glittering gun molls, a time long before political correctness.
There are tough private eyes a-plenty, armloads of femmes fatales (a surprisingly large number of them redheads), honest "harness bulls" and corrupt cops, criminal lawyers as well as virtuous ones, even an heroic newspaper photographer.
There's a Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe story, `Red Wind', which alone is worth the price of the book. On a night when the Santa Ana is blowing and "Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.", Chandler's world-weary knight-errant witnesses a murder in a bar, and finds himself trying to sort through the mess created by an over-ambitious blackmailer in a way that will spare the innocent.
It's a beautifully written short piece, not just for its dialogue and prose, but for its characterization, its wonderfully tight little plot, and Marlowe's personal code of honor.
Similar in tone, if less polished, is Erle Stanley Gardner's `Honest Money', the tale of a young attorney's first case. Ken Corning accepts the job of defending a woman arrested for bootlegging and attempted bribery. Almost instantly, he's visited by a cop from the liquor detail, then by the man who tells New York's mayor what to do.
Corning soon discovers what "the ring" is prepared to do to defend one of its own - and not in a courtroom. It's a cynical but oddly pleasing tale from the writer who'd later become famous as the creator of Perry Mason.
Even more darkly cynical is Cornell Woolrich's `Two Murders, One Crime', a story of a detective who realizes that the police and eyewitnesses have sent an innocent man to the gallows. When the real murderer is caught, too late, the D.A. refuses to prosecute for fear of making the system seem fallible. The detective refuses to accept this, and begins a campaign of psychological warfare against the murderer.
Leslie T. White's `The City of Hell!' also features crusading off-duty cops; it's much less subtle in its plot, characterization, police procedures and ethics, or prose style than Woolrich's (White used exclamation marks the way many modern writers use four-letter words), but it's undeniably action-packed and exciting.
`The Creeping Siamese' is a Continental Op story by Dashiell Hammett, written immediately before he started work on the superb Red Harvest. It begins with a man walking into Continental's offices and dropping dead on the floor, and doesn't slow down much after that.
While all of the stories are readable and entertaining, not all of them are gems. `Frost Rides Alone' is lightweight and rather disappointing, considering that it came from Horace McCoy, author of the brilliant (though very depressing) They Shoot Horses, Don't They? And Penzler admits to having chosen the closing piece, Carroll John Daly's `The Third Murderer' purely because of Daly's role in inventing the prototype of the hard-boiled, wise-cracking P.I. in 1923.
Penzler describes Daly rather unkindly as "truly a hack writer, devoid of literary pretension, aspiration and ability", but while `The Third Murderer' is perhaps the only story in the anthology that tends to ramble (at 136 pages, it's also by far the longest), it is also one of the few that tries to give the reader some insight into the villain and the femme fatale. Some of the twists may seem clichéd now, but that can happen when you're the pioneer in a field. It's an interesting story rather than a completely successful one, but I think Penzler was right to include it.
This book (previously released as Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters) will not suit everyone's tastes. The world of the pulps was a simpler one, but that doesn't mean their simple answers were always good ones, and some readers may find some of these crimefighters difficult to warm to, or even tolerate.
If you dislike fiction by dead white males with few roles for women except as victims or vamps; if you're offended by stereotypes or epithets such as "good wop"; or even if you can't help giggling at the phrase "private dick", this book probably isn't for you. For fans of the genre and the era, though, it's a must-read. That's a lead-pipe cinch.