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Harry Whittington: The King of Pulp Originals
by Jason Starr

Harry Whittington was one of the most prolific writers in the history of fiction. From 1946 to 1984 he produced over 150 novels. At his peak he was, for twenty years (in the 50s and 60s), writing on average about seven novels a year. In today's era, where novelists, aided by computers, struggle to compete one book a year, Whittington's achievement was truly superhuman, never to be surpassed, the literary equivalent of DiMaggio's 52-game hitting streak.

One of the true work-horse writers of the pulp era, Whittington wrote in multiple genres and published additional books under such pseudonyms as Whit Harrison, Ashley Carter, Blaine Stevens, Tabor Evans and Robert Hart Davis. He also wrote screenplays and had a long relationship with Hollywood. While Whittington must have written very quickly to maintain his output, this wasn't a case of quantity over quality. While some of his books were more successful than others and some of his titles began to sound alike--they often contained the words "sin," "murder," and "hell"--he maintained an astounding integrity to his work throughout his career, spinning imaginative plots with crisp dialogue and clearly drawn, unforgettable characters. Maybe his writing wasn't as stylized as Thompson's, Goodis's or Cain's, but his plotting and dialogue was as great, or better.

Born in 1915 in Ocala, Florida, Whittington worked in government jobs before he started writing. He sold his first novel, Vengeance Valley, a western, in 1945. In the fifties, he turned his attention primarily to crime fiction, producing books for Fawcett. Crowned "the king of the paperback originals" by Bill Pronzini, he was the major pioneer of the pulp novel of the fifties, forging a path for writers such as Jim Thompson, Gil Brewer, Lionel White, Vin Packer, James McKimmey, John D. MacDonald and Lawrence Block.

Sadly, only seven of Whittington's novels are in print today, and several of these are as parts of expensive anthologies. Compared to other pulp writers from his era, Whittington's doing well. The overwhelming majority of novels written during "the golden age of the crime novel" are out of print and all but forgotten. While everyone has heard of Cain, Thompson, Goodis, and Willeford, many devoted fans of pulp fiction know nothing about the other great crime writers of the fifties and sixties. Of course not all of these out-of-print books are forgotten classics--some were written quickly for fast paychecks and read that way--but there are hundreds of thrilling crime novels by great authors that have been undeservedly ignored.

Publishers are not at fault for this. The economics in the publishing world are such that the bottom line rules and producing books that may sell only several hundred copies is a losing proposition. The only recourse for fans of these great classic crime novels has been to trudge through used bookstores, or search on the Advance Book Exchange, sometimes having to pay large sums for old paperbacks, often in poor condition.

But now, thanks to e-publishing and Pulp Originals, there is new hope for the pulp novel. Previously out-of-print crime classics will be available twenty-four hours a day, at your fingertips, for a nominal sum. This e-publishing of pulp novels may in fact be the next step in the natural evolution of the pulp novel. The word "pulp" refers to the cheap paper these novels were typically printed on in order to keep costs down and make them highly affordable for the mass market, so perhaps the next step is for them to be published on no paper at all.

For their first offering, Pulp Originals has chosen Whittington's The Devil Wears Wings, a terrific heist novel, and a superb introduction to Whittington's ouvre. The novel chronicles the descent of former World War Two pilot, Buz Johnson. A classic noir prototype, Johnson is a washed-up alcoholic, a failure by his own doing, now working as a flight instructor at a Florida flight school for a boss he despises. When fellow drunkard Sid Coates comes along and presents one last chance to make it big via an airplane heist of a small town bank, Johnson seizes the chance to redeem his life and maybe give him a shadow of a chance to win the girl of his dreams. Aspects of the plot are ironically newsworthy--the concept of stolen airplanes and crime at a Florida flight school would certainly raise eyebrows from conventional publishers today--and the plot, in typical Whittington fashion, is wildly inventive, filled with surprising twists and great action sequences.

One would imagine that if Harry Whittington had lived during Internet era he would've fallen in love with the prospect of e-publishing. A true mass market writer if there ever was one, Whittington would have been intrigued by the concept of reaching millions of readers around the world via the Internet. So let's all hope that this electronic edition of The Devil Wears Wings is a rousing success and sets a trend, exposing dozens of other classic crime novels to a wide audience and ushering in a new golden age for the pulp novel.

 

 

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