Why I’m Writing 40s Style Pulp

by James Scott Bell

Bill Armbrewster, Hollywood Troubleshooter (Illustration by Josh Kenfield)

In the comments to last Tuesday’s post, Kris asked me about the series of pulp-style stories I’m doing for my Patreon community. It doesn’t take much prompting to get a writer to talk about his work, now does it? So here I go.

My parents were friends with one of the most prolific pulp writers of his day, W. T. Ballard (who also had several pseudonyms). I was too young to realize how cool that was. I wish I’d been aware enough to ask him some intelligent questions about writing! (I’ve blogged about Ballard before.) Fortunately, I was the recipient of many of his paperback books and a collection of his stories for Black Mask about a Hollywood troubleshooter named Bill Lennox. Lennox was like a PI, but did his work for a studio. I thought that was a nice departure from pure detective.

So I decided to create a troubleshooter of my own. The first thing I did was write up a backstory for him:

WILLIAM “WILD BILL” ARMBREWSTER was born in 1899 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up on a farm and had a troubled relationship with his father, which led to Armbrewster dropping out of high school and riding the rails as a hobo. He was nabbed by yard bulls in Chicago in 1917 and given a choice: go to jail or join the Marines. He chose the Marines and saw action in France during World War I, most notably at the Battle of Belleau Wood, for which he won the Silver Star. After the war he took up residence in Los Angeles and drove a delivery van for the Broadway Department Store. At night he worked on stories for the pulp magazines, gathering a trunk full of rejection letters.

In 1923 a chance meeting with Dashiell Hammett in a Hollywood haberdashery led to a lifelong friendship between the two. Hammett asked to see one of Armbrewster’s stories, liked it, and personally recommended it to George W. Sutton, editor of Black Mask. The story, for which Armbrewster received $15, was “Murder in the Yard.” After that Armbrewster became a staple of the pulps and was never out print again. Between 1923 and 1940 he averaged a million words a year.

In 1941, after the outbreak of World War II, Armbrewster tried to re-enlist but was turned down due to his age. Instead he went to work for National-Consolidated Pictures, writing short films to inspire the troops. When one of the studio’s young stars was the victim of blackmail, Armbrewster tracked down the perpetrator and dragged him to the Hollywood Police Station. Morton Milder, head of the studio, immediately put Armbrewster on retainer as a troubleshooter.

Known as the man with the red-hot typewriter, Armbrewster wrote many of his stories at a corner table at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood. He was granted this favor by the owners, for reasons that remain mysterious to this day (some Armbrewster scholars believe he rescued the daughter of one of the owners from a sexual assault under the 3d Street bridge).

He Lives at the Alto-Nido apartment building, 1851 N. Ivar Avenue, Hollywood.

What is it that I love about pulp writing? Part of it is what Kris called “the streamlined locomotive style.” These stories move. There’s no time for fluff or meandering. Pulp stories were entertainments for people who needed some good old-fashioned escapism from time to time. (That hasn’t change, has it?)

There was also a nobility to the best pulp characters. They had a professional code. Even the most cynical of the lot, Sam Spade, throws over the woman he loves because, “When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

I have set my Armbrewster stories in post-war Los Angeles. What a noir town it was then, full of sunlight and shadow, dreamers and drifters, cops and conmen. And, of course, Hollywood.

I’ve now done four Armbrewster stories (which run between 7k-10k words). The fifth is due to be published soon. They aren’t published anywhere but on Patreon, so if you’d like read them you can jump aboard my fiction train for just a couple of berries ($2 in pulp lingo). Go here to find out more.

And thank you, Kris, for asking.

Is there a particular style of writing you warm to? What books or authors do you turn to for pure escapism?

32 thoughts on “Why I’m Writing 40s Style Pulp

  1. Pulp fascinates me, too. As you say, pulp moves and entertains. And a number of scholars now recognize Pulp as not only a legitimate art form, but as a profound commentary on modernism. Michel Houellebecq has explored the deeper issues Lovecraft brought to his horror stories. Jason Ray Carney argues in Weird Tales of Modernity that Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith were true artists who filled readers with wonder, horror, and excitement not just to entertain, but to make them consider the challenging ideas and worldviews that animated their stories.

    • Indeed, Mike. There is much of historical and popular cultural interest to mine in these stories. I’m especially fascinated by the femme fatale, who came into existence in the 1920s. The sexual power of the “flappers” matured and got put to use by characters like Brigid O’Shaughnessy. What was going on in the culture? Men nervous about women who now had real power, i.e., the vote…

  2. I too love noir. Raymond Chandler is my literary comfort food.

    In noir, doing the right thing is rarely rewarded yet the protagonist still keeps doing it. Even the most cynical character who adheres to the “code” must hope it’s making a positive difference somehow, somewhere.

    Really enjoy your Armbrewster stories, Jim.

    • Thanks, Debbie. I’m with you. If I ever need to a break one thing I know I can do is pull out a Chandler and open at random and read a few pages. Never fails to comfort and amuse….and instruct!

      • Nice article, James.
        Would love to see you do an article on noir vs. hard boiled detective fiction.

  3. Good morning, Jim. And first of all – Happy Father’s Day.

    Other participants have commented before about how timely your posts (and other TKZers’ posts) have been in terms of things we were struggling with in our writing. And today’s is exactly that for me. I read Kris’s post on Tuesday, and I’ve been enjoying your Patreon stories, especially the Bill Armbrewster stories.

    My comment and question is about “style.” I love Kris’s description of pulp style as “streamlined locomotive style.” I’ve been exploring different authors, trying to decide what “style” I should use for middle-grade fantasy. And that has made me interested in how that property of writing could be used intentionally. It seems that “style” is part voice, part pacing, part style. And it seems that it is often used consistently by an author – That’s their “style” of writing.

    Is there any other name for that quality of writing – the balance of action and lean dialogue vs. description, beats, and internal monologue? If this subject has been discussed here previously, I apologize. I would love to see a discussion of that quality of writing – which “style” is best for each genre, how we can learn to vary it, within the story for optimum results, etc.

    Your stories in Patreon (and writing short stories) would seem to be a good way to experiment and intentionally “try” different styles.

    Thanks for all your teaching!

    Have a great Father’s Day!

    • And Happy Father’s Day back atcha, Steve (and to all dads dropping by TKZ today).

      You ask a great question—which style is “best” for each genre. Part of the answer is in genre conventions. Someone picking up a pulp-style detective story isn’t looking for pages of interior monologue. But there is room for slight expansion if done well. The super hardboiled prose of Spillane’s Mike Hammer books has, on occasion, some lengthy, hardboiled interior reflection by Hammer. Similarly, MacDonald’s Travis McGee will sometimes pause in the action to let the reader know what he really thinks about this or that. The key to making those moments work is the confident voice given to the character by the author.

      There’s a fuzzy border between slight expansion of and experiment with genre style, and complete spurning of same. The latter leaves the genre and becomes a new kind of work for the author, which may or may not succeed in the marketplace.

      Good question that deserves more thought down the line!

  4. Happy Father’s Day, Jim

    A very fun post! I enjoy the punchy writing style and voice of hard-boiled fiction, both pulp and modern. I recall reading Red Harvest many years ago and being stunned that the novel came out in in 1929–it felt much more modern to me in it’s propulsive narrative.

    For escape, there’s nothing better than a compelling 1st person narrative. I recently returned to Robert Parker’s Spenser series, reading Early Autumn in just a few days, and was struck again by the way Parker, a master of dialogue, keeps it snappy and uses it to move the plot forward in that same propulsive fashion that the best pulp hard boiled fiction writers did.

    • Right on, Dale. Early Autumn is one of the best Spensers…I prefer the early ones. The dialogue is always entertaining and, as you say, moves the plot forward.

      Happy Father’s Day to you, too!

  5. These days, I seem to have eclectic tastes. I’ve said before that I gravitate toward espionage/spy stuff. Have a couple of fave authors-Ken Follett, Joel Rosenberg, Jack Higgins, and more whose names escape me. Fast-paced, pulled from the headlines, or those set in WWII are the best.

    But, I also have discovered the slower pace of Charles Martin. Rich prose, but pared down to lift me up and drop me right down into the character’s heart. Nothing over-explained.

    Excerpt from “Wrapped in Rain” by Martin: “‘Matthew? Matthew, can you hear me, sweet boy?’ Mutt nodded and the shivering slowed. Miss Ella’s voice was like that.”

    I read that sentence last night and camped on it for awhile. The more I thought about it, the more brilliant it was. If that had been my writing, I’d probably have screwed it up by describing her voice the way I heard it in my head-using about quadruple the words. Martin knows enough to spit out a short “was like that”, and let his readers imagine her voice.

    And then there’s Patreon… 🙂 Way different than I’m used to, but it sure is growin’ on me.

    • Deb, one great quality of voice is the ability to say so much in so few words. Hemingway was like that. I’ve never forgotten his story “Soldier’s Home,” which I first read in college. The interior life of the main character, Krebs, a young man coming home after WWI, was captured by: Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

      Nothing more was needed. Indeed, anything more would have lessened the impact.

      We are all always learning!

  6. Just for giggles. A lesson in one of my writing courses involved finding the right voice for your book. I had a great deal of fun writing in different styles as examples. Here’s a romance written as a noir novel.

    I can say this for Lord Garven, he was built, built like Cleopatra’s Needle, but I walked away alone into the dark, dank London fog. I had my partner to avenge, and he had a date with Lord Southby.

  7. I want to echo Steve’s post above about how timely TKZ contributor posts are. But I have to go a bit off the rails because my reason isn’t the discussion of writing style, pulp or otherwise, but because I so appreciate you sharing your character summary of Armbrewster.

    When I read it, my impressions were that it was a clear, concise and confident summary of the character and that the author had the essence of his fictional character firmly in hand.

    I’m currently brainstorming a character for a book(s) and chasing myself in circles. Part of the problem are circumstances out of my control–it’s simply very hard for me to concentrate when everything is in chaos. But part of it is having too many ideas and I don’t think I’ve yet discovered exactly what it is that makes my character tick in a real and tangible way.

    I’m curious–how much time does it take before you nail down a confident character summary like that (i.e. do you do pre-writing or research for a few months, just get a flash one day and boom it’s there?)

    Thanks, as always, for the great posts.

    • BK, in this case Armbrewster came to me almost fully formed. So writing his bio did not take long. And it was fun.

      For a novel-length character, the process is more complex. Before I set anything down “in stone” I do a voice journal, a free-form doc of the character talking to me, like I’m interviewing him. Only when it starts to sound like a unique voice in my head do I begin to visualize the character.

      Only then do I begin to piece together a backstory.

  8. Happy Fathers Day to all the dads.

    I finished “The Lady in the Lake” yesterday, the fourth Raymond Chandler book I’ve read in the last month or so. Yes, I’m addicted. I haven’t read much noir, but Chandler’s style and descriptive talents are mesmerizing.

    Question: is the noir genre always written in first person?

    • Thanks, Kay. Glad you liked Lady in the Lake (but then again, what’s not to like?) You might be interested in watching the movie version sometime. It was directed by the star, Robert Montgomery, and tried something wild: a completely subjective camera. That is, the camera is the “eyes” of Marlowe in every scene. Curious, not always successful, experiment. But Montgomery is a good Marlowe. He has the voice for it.

      No, noir is not always 1st person. Seems so in the detective neighborhood, but over on the crime beat 3d is more common, e.g., David Goodis.

  9. One fiction style I like is found in Mark Twain’s putative nonfiction works like Roughing It, with a confident yet playful first-person narrator who’ll toss in a good yarn on the flimsiest of pretexts, like the tale of the camel in Syria who ate some of his dispatches to newspapers in the States. This absolutely doesn’t belong in a tale of the Nevada Silver Rush! And yet it does, somehow.

    As far as avowed pulp fiction is concerned, I’m still a big fan of Robert A. Heinlein’s juivie stories, first published in Boy’s Life and featuring (of course) resourceful boys. Instead of true cynics, who’d be unsuited to his task, he was good at portraying the starry-eyed pragmatist (or is it the practical romantic?).

    • Good choices, Robert. I especially enjoy Twain. I remember reading Roughing It and thinking how it still holds up. He was like a Robert Benchley of his time, and I love Benchley.

  10. One of my favorite all-time TV shows came right out of 40’s pulp–even the theme song conveyed the rock-solid chin and hard-boiled frown of a gumshoe, whether private or public.

    Dum-da-DUM-DUM. Dum-da-DUM-DUM. DAAAA.

    “This is the city,” in the toe-nail clipper, hard, snipped tones of Joe Friday.

  11. I’ve never had the good fortune to get my hands on a Bill Lennox story. I have a few of Ballard’s stories, but no Lennox. But this character – a PI working for a studio, sounds a bit like Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner. I’ve heard the Dan Turner stories described as “hack work”, but they became wildly popular, always featuring dangerous dames, gunfights, fisticuffs and snappy, overdone dialogue. I will start looking Ballard’s Lennox tales.
    Just today I started reading Black Wings Has My Angel, by Elliot Chaze. It’s a noir novel from 1953. I never heard of this author but I bought it on a recommendation from a writer friend. Loving it so far. Pulp and noir – no such thing as enough.

  12. It’s me, posting again. I do apologize.
    I wanted to mention the tragedy it seems that there is no real sizeable market for this stuff in 2020. People will read a story from time to time, say, “That’s interesting”, then go back to their Lee Child, John Gilstrap and James Patterson books (that was intended as a compliment to Mr. Gilstrap). I try to pay attention to what sells and sadly, noir/pulp is pretty far down the list – these genres don’t even qualify for a sub-category on Amazon. There are authors writing pulp and noir today, but not selling anything near enough to quit their day jobs.
    I’m all for the, “write what you enjoy” school of thought, but I’m busy chasing that dream – get good enough and sell enough to go full-time. It saddens me to realize that my genre choices are rather limited if I am to have any shot at success.
    Again, apologies. Thank you.

    • I have no idea how late I am to the party here. (I have yet to figure out the time stamps on the posts.) Carl, rest assured that I’m humbled by the compliment.

      I think one of the problems with converting noir/pulp into modern times is the advent of technology and the growing sophistication of the audience. The CSI television series, as outrageous as they are, have harmed storytelling for pulpists. (If that’s not a word, it should be.) If you need to know who was at the corner of First and Main, you just tap into the security video. Want a picture of the crime? Check YouTube, where it’s probably already been posted.

      Sam Spade wore out his shoes in a much simpler storytelling time.

    • Urban fantasy has a whole subgenre that’s essentially noir that started with Jim Butcher’s STORM FRONT. Paranormal mystery plays with noir by having a ghost from that period who has viewpoint. For example, Alice Kimberly’s “Haunted Bookstore” mystery series has PI Jack.

      Self-publishing has allowed a number of authors to make a living writing various niche subgenres like noir, too.

  13. I’m a fan of the late Elmore :Leonard, esp. his ability to fire our imagination with few words. Also liked his neutrality or blurred lines on the morality of criminals with a range of offenses from shop lifting to murder.

  14. Really enjoyed this post, having been reminded of the blog (where have I been???) after hearing an interview of you on an indie podcast today where you mentioned it.

    I loved this description in particular: “known as the man with the red-hot typewriter.” Isn’t that how we writers should all be known? Now I can use this image to motivate myself on my less-than-stellar writing days.

    Looking forward to reading more of the archives and catching up on all I’ve missed. Thanks again for all you do for writers, James, through your books, interviews, speaking engagements, videos, and more. I love your down-to-earth style and the un-frantic way you accomplish so much with your days. It’s inspiring!

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