By Larry Kahaner
First, a half-hearted apology. I haven’t blogged in a long time, but I’m not that sorry. I’ve been working on a new novel, a detective yarn in the pulpster style, and as a writer you gotta spend your time where it gives you the most payback. I enjoy blogging and hearing from my fans, but the book took precedence.
While I’m taking a short hiatus from my novelwriting, however, I’ve been reading the works of Robert Leslie Bellem. For those of you not familiar with him, he was a pulpster, and like his ilk he wrote as much as he could and as fast as he could.
For me, a guy who has been a working writer, author and journalist all of my adult life, I’ve always admired these scribblers. There’s no waiting for their muse, no complaining, no being a whiny baby (Oh, yeah, they often got loaded and complained plenty about low pay and crazy publishers but that’s not complaining. That’s getting your anger up so you can write some more.) and moving where the markets are buying. Like other pulpsters, when the pulp magazine market ebbed, he moved into TV, writing a bunch of episodes of The Lone Ranger, Adventures of Superman, the Perry Mason show, 77 Sunset Strip, Charlie Chan, Dick Tracy and Wanted: Dead or Alive. Check IMDB for an elephant-sized list of writing credits.
Bellem wrote in a variety of genres for many pulp magazines, (He also wrote a few novels) but my favorite works of Bellem are the Dan Turner: Hollywood Detective mysteries. They first appeared in Spicy Detective magazine in the 1930s and the rag was called spicy because they required sexy action between consenting adults. What’s so amusing to me is that these risqué sections seem shoe-horned in, and I’m sure it’s because they were a requirement. I know that because a) I’ve been a writer for decades, trust me; I can tell, and b) they’re all essentially the same. You can tell that Bellem pulled them off a stack of index cards to satisfy the Spicy Detective rubric. His short stories are peppered with these scenes at regular intervals with overuse of the words bodice, breasts (which are often heaving), lace and peek-a-boo. Unlike his usual clever use of words and phrases in the rest of a story, these spicy scenes are mundane, overworked and clearly written just to get the manuscript past the editor.
Here’s a typical one:
“I danced my fingers over her shoulders; dislodged the negligee. Her skin was golden, like rich cream. Her breast looked taut and palpitant under a peek-a-boo lace; I began to enjoy my work. After all, I’m not a wooden Indian.” (Cat Act)
Feel free to recombine the words in a different order, and you have another scene that Bellem could insert as needed.
Besides these scenes, Bellem possessed the clever wordage, style and cadence of the pulpster’s meal ticket. They’re funny, some might argue overwritten, and clearly of their time.
“It was the brand of scream that turned your ear-drums grey around the temples: high in a feminine register, penetrating as a buzz saw, harsher than a jolt of prohibition gin. The minute I heard it I started running hellity-slash across the vast, barnlike sound stage building. I smelled trouble. Damned bad trouble. A private snoop gets hunches sometimes.” (Cat Act).
“She tried to stop me with a slug from her fowling piece. Lanza snapped out of his trance in the nick of time, though, and lashed upward with his right brogan; kicked her full on the gun-wrist. It was damned accurate kicking. You could hear her arm bone snapping. She screamed, and the Bankers’ Special went sailing in a lazy arc; clattered into a far corner.” (Cat Act)
Here’s one of my favorites because it’s funny and not funny at the same time:
“And the fettered blonde lovely looked as panic stricken as a Czechoslovakian statesman in a room full of Hitlers.” (Cat Act)
And here’s one with the classic pulpster words and rhythm:
“So I had to get hold of some geetus to keep Gertie from throwing me in the soup.” (Blue Murder)
Of all the pulpsters I’ve enjoyed and written about (See my blog entry Writing Lessons from a Pulpster) Bellem appears to have been having a lot more fun. He wrote for the lettuce, the moolah, the folding green, no doubt about it, but he appeared to be having a bit of a laugh at – and with – the reader.
If you doubt me, the humorist S.J. Perelman noticed this, too. In a 1938 piece in The New York titled “Somewhere a Roscoe…” he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about how much he loved the fictional dick Dan Turner and the magazine group that published the character. Perelman wrote: “I hope nobody minds my making love in public, but if Culture Publications, Inc., 900 Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware will have me, I’d like to marry them… And I love them because their prose is so soft and warm.” Perelman went on to offer examples of Bellem’s Dan Turner prose. Perelman was having some fun, too, just like Bellem, but you could tell that he truly appreciated the words for what they were: Prose that was hitting on all eight.
Larry Kahaner is the author of the thriller USA, Inc.