Why I’m Writing 40s Style Pulp

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

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?

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Why I Love Going Back in Time

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m about to begin a series of short stories featuring a Hollywood studio troubleshooter in the 1940s, as part of my Patreon project (see “Escapism Rocks!” from a couple of weeks ago). Technically, this qualifies as historical fiction, and I find something very comforting about the genre, namely: things don’t change!

With contemporary thrillers, you have to keep up with technology, forensics, communications, law, weapons and so on—knowing there’s always the possibility that some radical innovation that would solve one of your plot problems may occur between the time you finish your manuscript and when it hits a bookstore shelf!

Further, a reference you make to contemporary culture might be turned on its head shortly after your book appears. I recall a thriller from the mid-90s that made favorable references to one O. J. Simpson. The book had been out only a few months when Simpson was arrested for those brutal murders.

With historical fiction, everything like that is frozen. You can concentrate on the story. And best of all, you’re free to choose a period you love. Which is what I did twenty years ago.

Contemporary legal thrillers were hot then, and it seemed like every lawyer and retired judge was writing one. I’d done a couple myself, but wanted to find a market distinction. So I came up with the idea of mixing legal thriller with historical. And I had the perfect setting, too, one virtually unexplored in fiction—turn-of-the-century Los Angeles. (For you youngsters out there, “turn-of-the-century” refers to 1900, not 2000!) L.A. was in transition then, growing up into a major city. It was an exciting time for the practice of law. The man whom many consider the greatest trial lawyer of all time—Earl Rogers—had recently hung his shingle. And women were just beginning to be allowed in the courtroom.

So, I thought, what if we went back to 1903 and a young woman arrives in Los Angeles determined to become a trial lawyer? That became the genesis of a six-book series called The Trials of Kit Shannon.

I loved doing the research for that series, most of it in the bowels of the downtown Los Angeles library going over microfiche of the Times and the Hearst-owned Examiner. I got so into the research that I began to have dreams I was walking along on the sidewalks of 1903 L.A., passing women in their dresses and hats, hearing the ding of a trolley bell, catching a whiff of the corner cigar stand.

Another L.A. period I love is 1945 to 1955, the classic decade of film noir. America had won the war and was strutting her stuff, building the most powerful nation on Earth. Babies were booming. But the criminal element, always crawling along the underbelly of society, was also hard at work in areas like vice, bunco, murder, and police and political corruption. What’s not to like?

My folks had a family friend who was one of the steady pulp writers for Black Mask, W. T. Ballard (I profiled him for TKZ here). He had a series character named Bill Lennox, a “Hollywood troubleshooter” who worked for a studio getting stars and other associated folk out of sticky situations—like murder raps.

So I decided to create my own series featuring a Hollywood troubleshooter, written in the classic hardboiled style I love (Chandler, Hammett, etc.) The first story in this series, “Blonde Bombshell,” is set to appear on June 1. These stories are exclusively for my patrons on Patreon. (The details can be found here.)

Here’s a preview:

So…for you historical fiction authors out there, why did you select the particular period of which you write?  

For the rest of you, if you were ever to write a historical, what period would you choose, and why?

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