The Non-Fiction Novelist

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Pulpster Robert Leslie Bellem: Doing What He Had to Do

By Larry Kahaner 

First, a half-hearted apology. I haven’t blogged in a long time, but I’m not that sorry. I’ve been working on a new novel, a detective yarn in the pulpster style, and as a writer you gotta spend your time where it gives you the most payback. I enjoy blogging and hearing from my fans, but the book took precedence. george-reeves-superman


While I’m taking a short hiatus from my novelwriting, however, I’ve been reading the works of Robert Leslie Bellem. For those of you not familiar with him, he was a pulpster, and like his ilk he wrote as much as he could and as fast as he could.

For me, a guy who has been a working writer, author and journalist all of my adult life, I’ve always admired these scribblers. There’s no waiting for their muse, no complaining, no being a whiny baby (Oh, yeah, they often got loaded and complained plenty about low pay and crazy publishers but that’s not complaining. That’s getting your anger up so you can write some more.) and moving where the markets are buying. Like other pulpsters, when the pulp magazine market ebbed, he moved into TV, writing a bunch of episodes of The Lone Ranger, Adventures of Superman, the Perry Mason show, 77 Sunset Strip, Charlie Chan, Dick Tracy and Wanted: Dead or Alive. Check IMDB for an elephant-sized list of writing credits.


lonerangBellem wrote in a variety of genres for many pulp magazines, (He also wrote a few novels) but my favorite works of Bellem are the Dan Turner: Hollywood Detective mysteries. They first appeared in Spicy Detective magazine in the 1930s and the rag was called spicy because they required sexy action between consenting adults. What’s so amusing to me is that these risqué sections seem shoe-horned in, and I’m sure it’s because they were a requirement. I know that because a) I’ve been a writer for decades, trust me; I can tell, and b) they’re all essentially the same. You can tell that Bellem pulled them off a stack of index cards to satisfy the Spicy Detective rubric. His short stories are peppered with these scenes at regular intervals with overuse of the words bodice, breasts (which are often heaving), lace and peek-a-boo. Unlike his usual clever use of words and phrases in the rest of a story, these spicy scenes are mundane, overworked and clearly written just to get the manuscript past the editor.

Here’s a typical one:

“I danced my fingers over her shoulders; dislodged the negligee. Her skin was golden, like rich cream. Her breast looked taut and palpitant under a peek-a-boo lace; I began to enjoy my work. After all, I’m not a wooden Indian.” (Cat Act)

Feel free to recombine the words in a different order, and you have another scene that Bellem could insert as needed.

Besides these scenes, Bellem possessed the clever wordage, style and cadence of the pulpster’s meal ticket. They’re funny, some might argue overwritten, and clearly of their time.

“It was the brand of scream that turned your ear-drums grey around the temples: high in a feminine register, penetrating as a buzz saw, harsher than a jolt of prohibition gin. The minute I heard it I started running hellity-slash across the vast, barnlike sound stage building. I smelled trouble. Damned bad trouble. A private snoop gets hunches sometimes.” (Cat Act).

And another:

“She tried to stop me with a slug from her fowling piece. Lanza snapped out of his trance in the nick of time, though, and lashed upward with his right brogan; kicked her full on the gun-wrist. It was damned accurate kicking. You could hear her arm bone snapping. She screamed, and the Bankers’ Special went sailing in a lazy arc; clattered into a far corner.” (Cat Act)

Here’s one of my favorites because it’s funny and not funny at the same time:

“And the fettered blonde lovely looked as panic stricken as a Czechoslovakian statesman in a room full of Hitlers.” (Cat Act)

And here’s one with the classic pulpster words and rhythm:

“So I had to get hold of some geetus to keep Gertie from throwing me in the soup.” (Blue Murder)

Of all the pulpsters I’ve enjoyed and written about (See my blog entry Writing Lessons from a Pulpster) Bellem appears to have been having a lot more fun. He wrote for the lettuce, the moolah, the folding green, no doubt about it, but he appeared to be having a bit of a laugh at –  and with – the reader.

If you doubt me, the humorist S.J. Perelman noticed this, too. In a 1938 piece in The New York titled “Somewhere a Roscoe…” he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about how much he loved the fictional dick Dan Turner and the magazine group that published the character. Perelman wrote: “I hope nobody minds my making love in public, but if Culture Publications, Inc., 900 Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware will have me, I’d like to marry them… And I love them because their prose is so soft and warm.” Perelman went on to offer examples of Bellem’s Dan Turner prose. Perelman was having some fun, too, just like Bellem, but you could tell that he truly appreciated the words for what they were: Prose that was hitting on all eight.


Larry Kahaner is the author of the thriller USA, Inc. 





Writing Lessons from a Pulpster

By Larry Kahaner

I just read The Pulp Jungle, the autobiography of author Frank Gruber.

Who?terror by night.jpg

Unless you’re a fan of pulp authors like me, you might not know the name or any of his pseudonyms like Stephen Acre, Charles K. Boston and John K. Vedder.

Gruber died in 1969 at the age of 65 and during his lifetime he was one of the world’s most prolific writers. He wrote more than 300 short stories for over 40 magazines, more than  sixty novels, and over 200 screenplays and television scripts.

His books have sold over 90 million copies and translated into scores of languages.

During his prime, he wrote more than 800,000 words a year. He worked in the morning; he worked at night. He wrote on weekends. He typed away on a manual typewriter for most of it.

By his own admission, some of his work was excellent. Some of it less so. But still he wrote.

He was driven to succeed as a writer, which to him meant he made a decent living for him, his wife and son despite receiving rejection after rejection. He never gave up and submitted his work sometimes retyping stories if the manuscript became dirty or torn from the overhandling of editors who refused them.

He mainly lived in New York with other pulp writers who were his friends, people you may have heard of like L. Ron Hubbard (Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard), Max Brand, Carroll John Daly and Cornell Woolrich. Like them, he started out working for ¼ of a cent per word until he broke into the ‘big’ magazines like Argosy, Field & Stream, Black Mask and Thrilling Detective. They would live in tenements, shimmy around landlords to whom they owed back rent, and made meals of ‘tomato’ soup which they fashioned from automat ketchup, hot water and free crackers that were meant for customers actually buying soup.

In case you were wondering, the name pulp was taken from the cheap paper pulp used in these magazines. When your writing took off, you would work for the more expensive glossy paper magazines that the writers called “slicks.”

It was an age, during and after the great Depression, when publishing houses came and went, producing hundreds of monthly or weekly pulp magazines for a population for whom reading lurid and exciting tales was solid entertainment and an escape from the economic horrors around them.

Next came dime paperbacks and Gruber and his fellow ‘pulpsters,’ as they called themselves, toiled to fill pages of these paperbacks that were tucked into back pockets and purses. It was the beginning of publishing houses that you probably have heard of like Dell, Penguin and Farrar & Rinehart.

It was a rough life, living hand to mouth, but they enjoyed whatever money they made (they usually picked up their paychecks in person on Fridays) and would get together for parties that evening. There was no food, just gin and some lemonade or seltzer as mixers. Gruber tells the story of one party at the temporary apartment of writer George Bruce that brings home the idea of what it meant to be a pulp writer.


“It was a rather small apartment and thirty-something guests were jammed into the place so that you could hardly move around. About ten o’clock in the evening George announced that he had a deadline for a twelve-thousand word story the following morning and had to get at it. I assumed that it was a hint for the guests to leave, but such was not the case at all. George merely went to his desk in the one corner of the room and began to bang his electric typewriter. George sat at that typewriter for four solid hours, completely oblivious to the brawl going on around him. At two o’clock in the morning, he finished his twelve-thousand words and had a drink of gin.”


Gruber and his fellow writers went where the money was. He wrote Westerns when they were in vogue, detective stories when they were big and horror stories when readers couldn’t get enough of the genre. Gruber went to Hollywood on and off where he wrote scripts and later TV shows. You might know some of his novels or short stories, that that were turned into movies, his original screenplays or his early TV shows: Zane Grey Theater, Death Valley Days, 77 Sunset Strip, Dressed to Kill, Terror by Night, The Kansan, The French Key and Shotgun Slade.

Towards the end of his career, Gruber made a good living but it took years for him to get there. Now, along with many other writers of his era, he is enjoying a resurgence among readers.

For today’s writers, his career offers many lessons.

First, never give up. The pulpsters understood that to be successful in the long run, to actually make a living as a writer, they needed quantity and quality. Competition among writers was fierce and editors were picky. You had to deliver good product and lots of it.

Second, accept that writing is hard work. It’s physically hard on the body and the mind. It’s not easy to sit for hours on end when it’s much more fun to go out.

Third, learn to live with all of this plus the loneliness.

He writes: “Only a writer who has endured the writing of a dozen stories, of a hundred, of four hundred, understands the agony that went along with those countless hours of mental aberration.

“And only a writer who has endured all of it knows about the terrible loneliness.

“A writer is truly alone. He sits and thinks, works and reworks his ideas, his thoughts. And then he writes and rewrites. And while he is doing all of this, he is utterly alone.”

Takeaway: If you can’t be alone for long periods of time, seek another line of work.

Fourth, write what sells. I know that many writers want to write what they want to write. Fine, maybe you’ll get lucky, but writing is a business and the customer wants what the customer wants. It doesn’t mean to pander, but it does mean to fulfill a current need.

Fifth, and last, understand that your stories must be, as Gruber put it, “unusual.” Heroes must be colorful, different, unique. His series characters were certainly that. There was a crime-solving encyclopedia salesman named Oliver Quade, Shotgun Slade who was a wild West private eye and the private eye team of Otis Beagle and Joe Peel who alternated between being legit detectives and swindlers depending upon if they got caught in the act of larceny.

The same ‘unusual’ tag applies to backgrounds themes, motives and murder methods. “The streets of the big city are not necessarily, colorful. If they’re not, make them so,” he wrote in his 11-points that all mysteries must contain. On the Thrilling Detective website you will find Gruber’s 11-points taken from The Pulp Jungle.

Gruber never forget what readers really want above everything else. They crave to be transported away from their lives to a more ‘unusual’ place than where they’re living now. It may sound obvious but it ain’t easy to do.

It requires imagination, hard work and guts to write ‘unusual.’



A New Era of Pulp Fiction?

A New Era of Pulp Fiction?

By Larry Kahaner

I have been waiting for an announcement like James Patterson’s “Book Shots” to cement my ongoing belief that the modern age of pulp fiction is upon shots cover

Patterson’s new book machine is producing novels “under 150 pages for under $5.” It promises: “Life moves fast – books should too… Impossible to put down. Read on any device.” The website also touts: “All Thriller. No Filler.”

Swell, baby.

The reason for this foray into modern pulp with their short-page count and compelling covers is obvious. Our attention spans are shorter, and we all carry our phones and devices around with us. But the idea is cleverer than that. These books are first focusing on thrillers and romances therefore adhering to the top two reasons why people read novels: entertainment and escape. These genres offer both – in spades, sweetheart.

spicy detective - Copy           As many of you know, I’m a fan of pulp novels. I relish the fast pace, the vivid language and colorful characters. These pulps (named for the cheap paper they were printed on) spawned a stable of fast-writing authors who were paid miserly and, in order to make a living, churned out books by the cartful. In between books they wrote serials and short stories for magazines like Black Mask and Argosy. They moved back and forth with ease.

The books were short, cheap, (yes, I mean inexpensive) engaging, had tons of action, and their lurid covers promised titillation. Ditto for the pulp magazines.

From these pulpster ranks came great writers like Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, L. Sprague de Camp, John D. MacDonald and Robert Heinlein. They honed their skills by writing fast and hooking readers even faster.

What I see now mimics the age of pulps. Online magazines have taken the place of physical magazines along with lots of writers who are writing lots of books. I especially see this in the indie book explosion where many authors produce books by the score charging low prices and even giving away free copies to entice readers to their later works.

But here’s the killer difference. Most of the modern-day pulpsters are not working for  publishers who pay them a pittance. (I don’t know what Book Shots pays.) They’re taking a flyer on themselves, paying their own way into the self-publishing game and ginning up their own covers. They no longer need a jamoke with a printing press.USA Inc 25 May 2016 KINDLE

What happens next? Will we see world-class writers emerge from this burgeoning sea of modern pulp authors? Will publishing history repeat itself?

I certainly hope so. Between prolific indie authors and commercial powerhouses like Patterson’s Book Shots, everything is in place for a new generation of writers to pay their dues and take their place with the break-out pulpsters of the past.

Shameless plug: To read an excerpt from my Kindle Scout book “USA, Inc.” click here. If it is nominated, you get a free e-book and my appreciation.

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