All Hail The New Pulp:
A Tribute To Blue Murder
by Kevin Burton Smith

This piece was originally commissioned to be the introduction for the first collection from Blue Murder Magazine, the late, great on-line crime pulp. It's essentially unaltered from when I first wrote it, so a few words of explanation may be necessary.

Blue Murder and The Thrilling Detective Web Site share a peculiar, linked history. Both sites started at about the same time, way back in 1998 -- within days of each other, in fact -- and at the time we were two of the few regularly-updated sites devoted to our particular brand of hard-boiled crime fiction.

Blue Murder's editor David Firks and I, busy as we were, may have at first been blissfully unaware of each other, but that soon changed -- we soon became regular correspondents, pen pals linked by a common love of crime writing, particularly the harder stuff.

And in a way, our sites always complemented each other -- I was non-fiction, he was fiction. But almost instantly, it seemed, I was publishing fiction, and Blue Murder was moving ever deeper into the realm of non-fiction essays and reviews. In fact, by Blue Murder's second issue, I was writing a column on private eyes. It was the start of a long and rewarding cyber-friendship. We had big plans, both on our own and together. The future seemed wide open -- I was set to speak at Blue Murder's first-ever convention to be held in Chicago; Dave was to be part my panel on "Crime Fiction on the Internet" to be held at Bouchercon 2001 in Washington, D.C.

So, in 2000, when Dave decided to finally offer a hard-copy collection of stories previously published on-line, he invited me to write the intro. I was flattered, and promptly set about re-reading those tales he had selected for what he envisioned as the first of a long line of books, that we were both convinced would have taken us all to the next level.

Unfortunately, Blue Murder crashed and burned in the summer of 2001, before that book ever saw print, and before all those other great plans came to be realized. All the kings horses and all the king's men (and all the considerable efforts and talents of Dave) just couldn't put Blue Murder together again.

It was while re-reading those stories that I realized just how special and important Blue Murder was, and how much gratitude all of us who work out here in the cyber-fields of crime fiction owe David and Blue Murder.

And how much I miss my pal.

"...and if you're in the crown tonight,have a drink on me
But go easy...step lightly...stay free..."

Yeah, the New Pulp. You're soaking in it. In fact, you're holding it in your hands right now. And you're in it for a treat.

The first Great Pulp Era lasted from about the early 1900's until about the mid-fifties. The pulps were cheaply-produced magazines of mostly short fiction, with colourful, even garish covers, measuring 7 by 10 inches and costing a dime or so. They were printed on cheap paper, and that's where they got their name. Pulp was about the lowest grade of paper you could get - printers actually used to crack wise about pulp so cheap there were still wood splinters right in the pages! (The opposite of the pulps were the "slicks," such as The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers, which paid writers much better - and cost more -- featured far more consistent material, and were printed on glossy or "slick" paper).

There were pulps dedicated to science fiction, westerns, romance, airplanes, sports, costumed crimefighters, sailors, fantasy, horror, nurses, even Mounties, - just about anything, in fact. But one of the most popular genres, by far, was crime and mystery, where Black Mask, and Dime Detective ruled the roost. And there were a couple of hundred other crime pulps to keep them company, including Detective Fiction Weekly, Spicy Detective and Thrilling Detective. Such major and influential crime writers as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and John D. MacDonald all got their start in those magazines.

But it wasn't just the paper that was rough. Let's face it, a lot of pulp fiction, with its emphasis on fast-moving plots, sex and violence, often at the expense of logic or characterization, just wasn't that polished. Hell, at a cent or less a word, who had time for polishing? But hell, it sure was fun to read. Things happened in those stories. And the action took place in a world the readers could recognize.

But tastes change. By the fifties, people had stopped reading the pulps, and a lot of the writers, geniuses and hacks alike, moved on, following the money, to write for television and film, or for the booming paperback market. The slicks also tumbled.

In their wake, a smaller type of short fiction mag that had been around since the forties filled the gap - the digests. The digests were printed on better quality paper, and were generally smaller in size than the pulps. There were even a few attempts at hard-boiled digests (the great Manhunt, the almost-great Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine), but more often, the digests went for slightly more sophisticated, or at least politer, fare. The major digests were (and still are) Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. And they do a great job, make no mistake. But they're the only two real survivors, and the type of hard-boiled crime and detective stuff that turns the cranks of many of us rarely  gets past the editor's desks at either magazine these days.

Which is where Blue Murder comes in. When it burst on the scene back in the spring of 1998, offering bi-monthly blasts of short crime fiction, and promising "Fresh pulp on the web," it was a shot heard around the world of crime fiction. This is what a lot of us had been waiting for.

Of course, any good revolution is fought on a lot of fronts, and there are plenty of others out there on the web who have subsequently joined the ranks, to fight the good fight alongside Blue Murder. Plots With Gun (editor Neil Anthony Smith has a story here, in fact), Nefarious, HandHeldCrime, Hugh Lessig's The Pulp Foil, new kid on the block Judas and even my own Thrilling Detective Web Site all carry the torch proudly, in their own way. And there are more coming all the time, literary barbarians ready to storm the palace.

What we, as editors, all share is a belief in good old-fashioned story-telling. We may not always succeed, but when we get it right, I think we and our writers get it very right. And Dave Firks has been getting it right longer than any of us. The proof of that is in the pages that follow.

In a story by Paul Duncan published back in the summer of 1999 (not included here, alas), a disillusioned private eye bitches that "Raymond Chandler's Dead." But don't you believe it! The writers in these pages carry on Chandler's legacy proudly, going down his fabled mean streets, daring to tell their own tales "with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness."

Make no mistake --- these aren't always nice stories. They're often rather nasty, unflinching looks at life, peopled by battered spouses, abused children, failed writers, corrupt cops, cynical reporters, bored juvenile delinquents and shady private eyes, all walking wounded, all itching for something, even if it's only escape. This is not a nice world, and bad things don't happen politely, conveniently offstage. Yet there's an energy and vitality in the best of these ragged, jagged tales that will haunt you.

What Blue Murder and the rest of us offer (or at least hope to offer) isn't necessarily better than other magazines (and most of us pay even less -- if anything at all -- than the pulps did 90 years ago) but at our best, I think we offer a viable alternative for writers and readers who like their crime a little on the rough side.

Now if only we could figure out how to embed html files with splinters...


R.I.P.

Kevin Burton Smith is a Montreal crime fiction writer and reviewer, currently living in the Los Angeles area. He's also the editor for The Thrilling Detective Web Site, and wrote a column about private eyes for Blue Murder. Lyrics swiped from "Stay Free," written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.

One final note: this piece was originally slated for another site, as part of what was announced as a Blue Murder tribute, but repeated attempts to contact the editor have failed. I suspect foul play.


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