18 February 2008

Cheesy Honey

So-called noir or pulp fiction can, at times, seem elusively easy to write. Tips: Make your sentences short, declarative, and firm. Compare vanquished goons to gorillas, and villains to, er, villains. Use words like “vanquished” at exactly the wrong literary moment. Call things by slang terms, and don’t be afraid of contractions. Make sure most scenarios stretch to the absurd, and involve violence, suggestions of nudity, and implied sex.

And make sure the names are absurd. Like “Honey West,” the much-banged-around-but-never-knocked-up heroine of a series of pulp novels from the late-1950s to the 1960s by the couple who wrote as “G.G. Fickling.” In Kiss For A Killer (originally published in 1960, and reissued in 2006 by Overlook Press, along with another in the series) Honey finds herself being framed for a series of murders she didn’t commit, in a tale that is laughable even within this often-ridiculous genre.

Honey describes herself as “...a hundred and twenty pounds... Thirty-eight, twenty-two, thirty-six. Something wrong with that?” (P. 32) If one asks the men in the story, the answer is clearly “No!” The women, however, are less taken. A case in point is “Toy Tunny,” a short, slightly pudgy oft-nudist, daughter of a cult leader named “Thor Tunny,” who seeks to thwart Honey at every turn – including Honey’s attempt get out of a jam by seducing Toy’s beau, Ray Spensor. “No nonsense, Miss West,” says Toy. “Lover is a sensitive guy. You’re liable to shake up his molecules. Down, girl.” (P. 77)

I think “Down, book,” is more like it. Fortunately this one didn’t take much time to read, even if it was a less-engaging literary palate cleanser after my last literary adventure than I had hoped. Still, I like books like this, in part because of their absurdity and artifice, whether the authors wrote them on a drunk, thought they’d be easy money, or invested all of their psychic energy and literary wit. Or all three, as is sometimes clearly the case. Novels like these can reveal a lot at both their best and their worst, about their time, social perceptions across different class and race lines, and about the cities in which they are set.

If Kiss For A Killer is on the latter end of the best-to-worst spectrum, bookstore owner and anthology editor Otto Penzler has been getting a lot of attention for his recent compilation The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During Their Golden Age--The '20s, '30s & '40s. NPR’s Morning Edition ran a nice feature on the book, while the New York Times decided that there might be a literary trend worth exploring and mentioned it, too. Go forth, and read.


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