The Pulp Writer’s Insurance Policy

by James Scott Bell

People want stories. I would argue people need stories. That’s how the great pulp writers made their living—providing fast-moving tales for readers who longed for escapism, especially during the Great Depression.

Pulp fiction, like jazz, is an American phenomenon. Pulp refers to the cheaper paper (wood pulp) that these magazines used to save money. The mags came out every month, stuffed with new stories for a voracious reading public. The golden age was between the World Wars. Dozens of magazines offered crime, detective, fantasy, action, sports, and Western fiction, with eye-catching and often lurid covers to tantalize the harried businessman as he walked by the newsstand.

To make a living in the pulps, which paid on average a penny a word, you had to be prolific. That meant several stories flying through the postal system, and when one came back rejected, slapped in another envelope and sent off to another editor.

The best of the pulpsters quickly figured out that a great series character was, in the words of Erle Stanley Gardner, the “pulp writer’s insurance policy.” When a character caught on, subsequent issues of the magazine could advertise “a new Doc Savage story” thus guaranteeing sales.

After trying out several series characters in Black Mask, Gardner hit on Perry Mason, who became not just his insurance policy but his lifetime annuity as well.

As you may know, I run my own personal pulp fiction “magazine.” It was here I developed a series character in classic pulp style—a troubleshooter for a Hollywood studio in 1940s Hollywood named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster.

Armbrewster solves problems for National-Consolidated Pictures. That means getting leading men out of the drunk tank … or a murder rap. It means keeping wolves away from starlets and dancers away from temptation. Once it even means helping Bette Davis out of a jam.

His beat is trouble and his fists are ready.

He’s got some Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in him, and a bit of Bill Lennox, the character created by W. T. Ballard for Black Mask. My collection of six Bill Armbrewster novelettes is up for pre-sale at the deal price of $2.99 (it goes up to $4.99 after launch week). You can snag your copy here. Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B09V1RLXDM

There will be a print version, too.

As an added feature, I’ve put together an extensive glossary of 1940s pulp slang. This will be a good education for the kids who want to read and understand classic crime fiction, and enjoy film noir to the full.

So how about a quiz? Here are a few terms from the glossary. How many can you translate? (Keep score, then see my answers in the comments section. No peeking!)

Adam and Eve on a Raft
Bunk, The
Chicago overcoat
Clip joint
Educated puppies
T’aint funny, McGee

Thanks for letting me toot my own horn today. Enjoy the book. After all, entertainment is my beat.

47 thoughts on “The Pulp Writer’s Insurance Policy

  1. Here are the quiz answers:

    Adam and Eve on a Raft – two eggs on toast. “Wreck ’em” means scrambled.
    Ameche – telephone. So named because Don Ameche starred in the biographical film The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939).
    Bunk, The – a ridiculous lie.
    Chicago overcoat – coffin
    Clip joint – a night-club with inflated prices and crooked gambling.
    Educated puppies – a skilled dancer’s feet.
    Palooka – a run-of-the-mill boxer, derived from the popular comic strip about a boxer named Joe Palooka.
    Pan – face.
    Roscoe – handgun.
    Sawbuck – $10 bill.
    T’aint funny, McGee – a phrase used by Molly on the radio program Fibber McGee and Molly (1935–1959). It caught on as a popular way to tell someone that something they said wasn’t, well, funny.

    • “Bunk” has lost the “the” in current parlance. “That political speech was bunk.”

      I got 3/4 right, more from my love of old movies than pulp novels. I’ve heard “Chicago overcoat” as a variation of “cement shoes,” and Wikipedia agrees with me. It can also mean a coffin.

      • Yes, but back then it was always “the bunk.” There’s a great Preston Sturges comedy, Christmas in July (1940) where a guy tries to win a contest for the best ad copy for a coffee brand. His idea: “If you can’t sleep at night it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk.” He keeps insisting that his play on words (bunk as bed and a lie) is oh so clever. Nobody else thinks so.

        Re: Chicago overcoat, it doesn’t derive from cement shoes, or vice versa. The illustration is that a coffin covers the body like an overcoat. Cement shoes just drop you into the drink. (Note: Wikipedia is not infallible!)

  2. Clearly I’ve led a sheltered life. I thought a clip joint was a barber shop. I had Adam and Eve in a time warp washing up on Gilligan’s Island.

    I love hearing about writers of that era. They didn’t need MFAs. They just jumped in and did the work.

    Happy Sunday – and stay out of Chicago (or at least their wardrobe).

  3. Jim—thanks, lovelovelove this!

    How about—

    • Thanks, Ruth. I have stogie.

      Interesting about Benny. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia: Benny is a pejorative term used by year-round residents of the Jersey Shore to describe stereotypically rude, flashy, loud tourists from North Jersey and New York.

      Who woulda thought?

      • That’s interesting. I spent the first thirty years of my life in central Jersey and I always thought bennies were benzedrine pills, which of course I never encountered.

        Maybe it was a shore thing.

        Course we called all those folk from south Jersey Pineys. I think David Goodis even spun a few tales about people in the Pine Barrens.

        Nobody ever said they were going to the Jersey Shore. It was ‘down the shore’.

        I think someone mentioned something about the regionalisms of Texas and it was noted in comments nobody in Texas ever said “yeehaw!”

        Things to be careful of.

        Pulps are wonderful, and I bought a thumb drive with 90 issues of Dime Detective for about 12 bucks on fleabay the why pay more store.

  4. Except for Chicago overcoat and sawbuck, my quiz answers were a bust. LOL!

    RE: Readers need escapism–one of the questions I’ve been wondering with all the stress of the world right now–when we see some relative stability return to life, I wonder, will readers look to escapism in the future (i.e. even more popular sci-fi/fantasy) or escapism through history & times past? Neither one? Any and all? Anybody care to speculate?

    Have a peaceful Sunday, all.

    • Romances, the fictional home of happy places and people, has had its sales numbers skyrocket during the Pandemic, and it’s always been the biggest selling popular genre. My science fiction and fantasy buddies want happy and non-violent suggestions from me, right now, too. So, yes, to RESIDENT ALIEN and, no, to THE BOYS. We still aren’t far enough away from the worst of the pandemic to see if that will change.

  5. Jim, I’m enjoying Wild Bill’s adventures.

    A couple more additions to the glossary:

    Gat = gun, revolver
    Sh*t on a shingle = creamed chipped beef on toast
    Cement shoes = accessories to the Chicago overcoat 😉

  6. Great post, Jim. Thanks for the pulp education. I struck out on the pulp terms. I thought Adam and Eve on a Raft might be two pieces of bare meat with two small pieces of lettuce (leaves), the rest, I had no idea. And what’s a fin?

    Thanks for the preorder link to the Bill Armbrewster Novelettes. I look forward to reading them.

    Have a great day!

  7. Happy Release. The Hubster’s ‘what should we watch tonight’ choice gravitates to Perry Mason reruns. I keep getting distracted by Raymond Burr’s eyelashes.
    I recognized most of the terms but only knew 5 of them.

    • Did you know that Burr was originally supposed to play Hamilton Burger, the DA? That’s because Burr was known as a B movie heavy. But his natural camera presence made him the perfect Perry. Another B villain, William Talman, got the part of Burger, forever consigned to lose in court to Perry.

  8. For fun, I went to the Consumer Price Index calculator and ran the numbers. One cent in 1940 was equivalent to 20 cents today. The few big time story magazines left today only pay about 8 cents per word. So, a sale of a 5,000-word story netted the pulpster a cool G ($1,000 for the uninitiated). Not a bad living at all.

  9. What fun, Jim! I blew it on the slang. I thought clip joint had to be a barber shop; and I thought Chicago overcoat, was, well, one of those black jobs that could conceal a sawed off.

    And, why was a handgun called a Roscoe? (Just to further my education a bit.)

    Thanks for a fun Sunday read.

    And who caught Garry’s fascinating blog post yesterday? I was mesmerized by those brave, foolhardy inventors. My husband even read it, start to finish.

    May we all be so passionate about our creations.

    • The term Roscoe is shrouded in mystery. It started appearing in 20s detective fiction, but no one seems to know why. There are those who suspect Dashiell Hammett coined the term. But why?

      Interestingly, Hammett was hired to do some real detective work on behalf of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle during his infamous trial over the alleged sexual assault and subsequent death of Virginia Rappe. Thus, could this have been an inside “joke” by Hammett? Did he determine Arbuckle did kill Rappe? Thus “Roscoe” as an instrument of death. I think there may be something to this….

  10. Fun post, Jim! I knew sawbuck, Ameche and palooka. Love the pulp lingo. We watched the first four Thin Man films recently, and Sam Levene’s Lieutenant Abrams in particular rattles off pulp slang at every turn.

    Like Terry above, we’ve also been watching Perry Mason reruns, in our case, the uncut originals on Paramount+. I hadn’t seen these since I was a teen. The noir vibe is strong in these, and Perry’s willing to risk his license to save his client. The cut to the court room duel between Mason and Burger is always dramatic. What I didn’t remember, possibly because I was watching episodes cut down for syndication, were scenes where Perry and Hamilton are being collegial and even friendly with each other (usually after the case), and that the final scene of episodes was usually light in tone, almost cozy, with a joke to round out the episode.

    Congratulations on the new Armbrewster collection–I’ve pre-ordered it. Looking forward to reading the stories!

    Have a great Sunday!

    • Thanks for the order, Dale!

      You’re right to tap into the collegiality of Mason and Burger. That was back in the day when my own dad was practicing criminal law, and there really was a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” of civility among the defenders, prosecutors and judges. That’s all pretty much gone now, unfortunately.

  11. Wonderful post. I think interest in pulps comes from the natural desire to read gripping tales of genuine heroes taking a stand for their principles — something sorely needed in these chaotic, aimless, and fearful times.

    • Perfectly stated, Mike. That is really the “secret” of Perry Mason’s popularity. He wasn’t just a lawyer. Once committed, he would never desert a client. He wasn’t above pulling a few “shenanigans” to gain justice. Of course, it helped that all his clients were innocent!

  12. This was fun, Jim, but I flunked the quiz. I did know what a sawbuck was, though, and I love “Adam and Eve on a Raft,” but I prefer a sinker.

    The Armbrewster stories are great, and I like the custom scene separators you added to the book. Good luck with the release. Hope it generates plenty of lettuce.

  13. As I don’t read much pulp fiction, I only knew four:
    Chicago overcoat
    Clip joint
    T’aint funny, McGee
    The last one I guessed, because I vaguely remember you including it in a post a while back.

    I admire pulp writers. They busted their behinds to crank out books at record speed. The sheer volume of quality work with fast pacing and beloved characters is truly inspiring (as you are, Jim). And all for one penny per word? Wow.

    • Sue, when you read Erle Stanley Gardner’s stuff you will find he uses both names in the dialogue attribution, e.g. Perry Mason said or Della Street said. Because he knew that meant an easy extra penny!

    • I used to listen to the Fibber McGee & Molly show, which was famous for his closet. About once every other show, he’d open the closet and you’d hear an avalanche as all the stuff tumbled out. Humor was simpler in those days.

  14. Question for you, Jim. If you had to pick one overall quality/characteristic of a hardboiled protagonist, what would it be?

    And while we’re kicking Chicago around, how many out there know what a Chicago Typewriter is?

    • Oh yeah, the Tommy gun. Short for Thompson submachine gun.

      Also known as the Trench Broom, as it was designed for trench warfare in WWI but, I don’t believe, made it into the war. The God-awful machine guns used by the Hun in that war were called The Devil’s Paintbrush.

  15. One of interesting things about self-publishing is the return of earlier popular mystery types. Everything from the classic murder mystery of Christie to pulp detectives to the screwball romantic comedy that the traditional publishers won’t touch. Also, the novella pulp-length story which allows an author to produce more stories per year which improves their bottom line.

  16. My impression is that the word palooka or paluka was already in use before the comic strip, beginning sometime ~1910–1930, as a synonym for the equally dismissive “polak.” I read that strip as a kid and I seem to remember Joe being described once therein as “just a palooka.”

  17. I didn’t know the first 3 but did the rest. I don’t think I read many of the Perry Mason books but I did watch the TV show. And I watched Ironside. Loving Trouble is My Beat.

    • Interesting one, David. I don’t think pay phones cost a dime until the 50s, so this would be a good one for research. Thanks for “dropping” the idea here.

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