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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

SHOCK TROOPS OF JUSTICE

SHOCK TROOPS OF JUSTICE
PULPS VS. REALITY

As the 1930s progressed, pulp magazines exploded in popularity. The demand for stories of all kinds was voracious. Each month hundreds, if not thousands, of tales were needed to fill the harsh, wood-chipped, pages behind the pulp magazine’s lurid cover paintings. 

Paid a cent a word or often less, the top pulpsters knew they needed to keep throwing one word after another in order to keep whiskey in their bottles and, perhaps, food on their family’s tables. Less experienced wordsmiths realized their chances of making a living increased with every story they pounded out on letter-sticking typewriters. 

Although there were a handful of pulp writers who were both fast and entertaining, for lesser writers being fast more often took precedent over being good. The demand for product thrived on creativity—purple prose, imagination, and character drove the action in order to overcome plot holes and realism. 

Obviously, there was no Internet for quick fact checks. If a writer didn’t know what procedures were used in the real world or how scientific principals actually worked, he made something up to fit the needs of the story. Time to research stories meant less time for writing, missed deadlines, and missed pay checks. The writing itself became the be all and end all of the pulp writer’s life.

Robert Mill, however, saw things differently. Mill saw the intrepid values imbued upon fictional pulp heroes in the reality of a group of real life men—the special agents of J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation. 

Mill’s enthusiasm for these new paragons of justice was unfettered by his need to simply tell stories to get paid. He was moved to tell real stories (or as real as the pulp market would allow) using the real techniques developing in law enforcement, which enraptured his imagination.

Mill’s believed his idolization of the bravery of those true-life individuals in the service of their country should, and would, be shared by his readers. He recognized the fascination the everyman had, and still has today, with the gritty realism of real law enforcement.

In a time when the techniques of fingerprinting, criminal profiling, and crime scene investigation were in their infancy, Mill found his pulp niche. He researched not only the techniques, but also the methods, personal lives, and stresses faced by real special agents taking on criminal gangs of kidnappers, robbers, and thieves. The fascinating world he discovered fueled his creation of square-jawed Special Agent James Ashby and the behind-the-scenes characters who worked to help him be successful. 

Mill’s stories collected within the pages of Shock Troops Of Justice are a delight to read. Presented in the order in which they were written, it’s interesting to see how Mill learns to blend his enthusiasm for realistic police work while still maintaining the pulp stylings appropriate to his markets—purple prose and criminal argot garnishing the real world research, giving authority to Mill’s storytelling so lacking in the frippery of his contemporaries.

From the workings of the newly established crime labs to the techniques of information gathering, to the dangers of being deep undercover, Mill researched it in-depth. He then wrote his tales with the confidence of a man passionate and knowledgeable about his subject. Hoover’s schoolboys couldn’t have had a more ardent proponent.

Because of Mill’s skill at imparting his real world knowledge of law enforcement procedure, these tales hold up remarkably well when compared to the more fanciful tales of Mill’s contemporaries.

In the preface to Shock Troops Of Justice, Mill tells us about crime and society:

The police of the cities were powerless to combat the monster. Some were honest, but incompetent. Others were efficient, but dishonest. Still others, both honest and efficient, were made impotent by grafting politicians. But whatever the case may have been, it is an unchallenged fact that for long months and years, the underworld held a decided advantage in the constant war between police and evildoers.

Having had a thirty-five career as a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department (honest and—hopefully—efficient), I can reliably say not much has changed. The criminal argot is different, gangs and cons have come and gone, technology has advanced, but the underworld still appears to have a decided advantage in the constant war between police and evildoers. We need Special Agent James Ashby and men and women like him today more than ever.

 

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