Search This Blog

Sunday 4 October 2015

Pulp Sleaze

A few weeks ago I received a gift code to spend on the U.S. Amazon site, so I decided to buy something archetypally American in the form of a replica edition of Vice Squad Detective from 1935. This is arguably the sleaziest pulp magazine ever published. According to the FictionMags database, “it is believed that most copies were seized by police prior to distribution” (I assume this was the work of the vice squad, operating with or without deliberate irony). There’s nothing Fortean about the magazine’s contents, but since I’ve run out of blog ideas and it’s definitely retro, I’ll go ahead with a brief review of it.

The archetypal sleazy pulps were Spicy Detective, Spicy Adventure and Spicy Mystery (as you can see from the photo above, I’ve already got replica editions of one issue of each of these). The basic concept was to combine traditional pulp genres with large quantities of female nudity (or near nudity) – on the covers, in the interior artwork (of which there was a generous amount) and in the stories themselves. Spicy Detective first appeared in April 1934, and the formula proved so popular with readers that it was soon followed by other Spicy titles from the same publisher (aptly known as Culture Publications), as well as competitors with titles like Sizzling Detective Mysteries. As the popularity of such magazines grew, they inevitably came to the attention of people who hate to see other people enjoying themselves – resulting in police raids, prosecutions and calls for increased censorship. As Peter Haining wrote in The Classic Era of the American Pulp Magazine, by 1938 “nudity was being cut out and the bras were going back on”.

Reading Vice Squad Detective today it’s not obvious where all the moral outrage came from. The police are always portrayed as heroes, while drug dealers, pimps and gangsters are portrayed as villains. Descriptions of female nudity tend to be short and vague, not long and detailed. Descriptions of sexual intercourse are likewise brief, and only ever a background activity observed by a POV character. Protagonists do their fair share of kissing and anatomy-squeezing, but they never get as far as actual shagging. Characters who indulge in violence against women invariably end up dead. Women are never portrayed as nymphomaniacs – all the villains, whether male or female, are motivated by greed rather than lust. Two of the stories contain seemingly “sinister” ethnic stereotypes, but in both cases the character in question turns out to be one of the good guys, and the real villain is a white male. Vice Squad Detective may not be Sunday School material, but it’s a lot less morally objectionable than a lot of low-end fiction today.

The magazine contains 12 short stories, all about 10 pages long. In terms of quality, it’s comparable to any other pulp of this period – approximately a third of the stories are really quite good, a third are OK and a third are pretty awful. My favourite story also happens to have the best title – “The Amazing Case of the Blonde Dope Queen”, by J. P. Carroll. It’s a well written story, with interesting characters and a nice twist at the end. Other decent stories (also with good titles!) are “The Nudist Gym Death Riddle” by Jack Gray, “The Call Girl Murder Mystery” by Peter Abbott and “Marijuana Vice Trap” by L. S. Worth. This last one is rather clunkily written, but makes a very strong point. The rich college kids who indulge in all-night sex and drug orgies may be doing it for kicks, but the middle-aged men who sell them the drugs, photograph them in compromising situations and blackmail them into stealing from their parents aren’t interested in kicks at all – just in making money.

Possibly “Marijuana Vice Trap” wasn’t considered a particularly offensive story anyway, because it was reprinted as the cover story of another magazine, Pep Tec Tales, in April 1937. The following issue of that magazine has another of the Vice Squad Detective stories on the cover – “The Pajama Party Killer” by Don Lawrence.

The last story in Vice Squad Detective is “The Beach Racket Murder” by Tom Pennell. On the penultimate page of that story, I was interested to see the hero refer to the villain as “deader than the Republican party”. In hindsight that’s not a particularly good choice of simile, but it does provide food for thought. Wouldn’t the world be a different place if Nixon, Reagan and the two Bushes had never made it into the White House?

No comments: