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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Hardboiled Dolls

Never trust a dame, beware the broad - they'll turn on you when the chips are down, twist the knife when it's well and truly sunk in your back - least according to the pulps and I use the term, pulp in its broadest sense to include the cheap, slim paperbacks that filled the shops for years, published by the likes of Dell, Gold Medal, Ace and Lancer. In the true sense they were not pulps but they most certainly carried the pulp spirit.

A femme fatale tries to achieve her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm, and sexual allure. The phrase translated from the French means deadly woman.

"She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don't care much about kittens." Raymond Chandler

In the pulps women always had a hidden agenda - at first they would appear weak and in need of protection but as the story unfolds they would inevitably show their true colours. The kitten would display her claws. The women of the pulp were built strictly for titillation - they were not the type of girls you'd feel comfortable bringing home to meet your mum, least not if you wanted to hang on to your inheritance.

A really good detective never gets married. " Raymond Chandler

"She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. " Raymond Chandler

"Friendships, like marriages, are dependent on avoiding the unforgivable. " John D. McDonald

Women in the pulps would often appear sweet and innocent but as the reader learned more she would transform from damsel in distress to a psychopath, always willing to use her nubile pink body (nubile pink body, or variation of such, seems to be a description favoured by pulp writers) to get what she wanted. To the pulp babe the body was as much a weapon as the snub nosed revolver she kept hidden in her purse. Or, for that matter, the sticks of TNT disguised as a lipstick.

Female protagonists were rare in the pulps but that's not to say they didn't exist - Cornell Woolrich wrote a story called Angel Face which was about a women on the vengeance trail that was published in Dime Detective in 1935 with its title changed to Murder in Wax. The story is collected in The Big Book of Pulps edited by Otto Penzler which has an entire section devoted to the pulp babes. Here you will find stories by Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett and a host of less remembered luminaries of the pulp years.

Later as the cheap mass market paperbacks started to replace the pulps there were scores upon scores of exploitative fiction hitting the shelves. These books, pornography really, took the exploitation of women to a degree the original pulps would never have dared.

Lesbian thrillers were hugely popular and numbered in their hundreds. And if women weren't engaged in lesbian acts it was only because they were otherwise busy killing, lying, stealing, drugging, drinking or swinging . Much of this was due to the fact that almost exclusively it was men writing for the pulps and the cheap mass market paperbacks. Of course there were some women writers but these were few and far between.

During the Sixties and Seventies, the height of the sexual revolution, it was the age of crude exploitative fictions. Where in the past it had been mystery and murder, with a subtle hint of sex, that had driven the industry it was now very much sex pushed to the forefront bringing everything else with it. And whilst the covers of these books displayed more nudity than the early pulps and paperbacks the artwork was very much in the same style. Some of the writing though was positively pornographic.

"One moment I'd be drawing a dame with a gun in her hand and the next project I'd do the same dame with her tits out.' Steve Bilkins, pulp artist, told Pulp Collector in an interview in 1973.

This was a world away from the 1950's when the Hank Janson books were accused of obscenity.

Ironically these lesbian thrillers, written one handed with young male readers very much in mind, were popular with a large gay female readership.

Stephanie Foote, from the University of Illinois commented on the importance of lesbian pulp novels to the lesbian identity prior to feminism.

"Pulps have been understood as signs of a secret history of readers, and they have been valued because they have been read. The more they are read, the more they are valued, and the more they are read, the closer the relationship between the very act of circulation and reading and the construction of a lesbian community becomes...Characters use the reading of novels as a way to understand that they are not alone."

These days we've moved on both in society and in our reading and women in fiction are much more rounded, real people than they were in the days of the pulps and mass market paperback nasties.

Indeed in the modern world many of the truly great writers are women and the exploitative paperbacks are merely relics of less enlightened times. The pulps live on though and authors like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Paul M. Cain and Mickey Spillane are immortal and the concept of the femme fatale they helped shape is very much a part of the modern psyche. The Hard Case Crime series continues the long tradition of the femme fatale though and she's just as tough as ever.

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