Most mainstream readers who were familiar with the phrase “pulp fiction” prior to Quentin Tarantino’s critically and commercially acclaimed film associated it with hard-boiled detective fiction. While this association only captured part of the eclectic spectrum of genres represented in pulp magazines in the first half of the last century, it must be noted that the documented evolution of the western gunfighter into the hardboiled detective hero was crucial to the proliferation of twentieth century popular culture.
Dashiell Hammett’s seminal hardboiled thriller Red Harvest could just as easily have been transferred from a mining town to a western setting. This flexibility is what allowed the story to be adapted so effectively decades after the fact by Akira Kurosawa as Yojimbo and by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars with equally trendsetting results.
Most people today best understand the ethos of pulp fiction from the 1981 blockbuster hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg perfectly encapsulated the archetypal pulp hero in the form of Indiana Jones, an original character who revived the cheap thrills and spills of pulp magazines and Saturday matinee serials and transformed them into box office gold.
Pulp fiction is alive and well in the new millennium as a niche market fed by reprints of classic pulps, revivals of countless public domain properties, licensed continuations that protect aging copyright claims, and even new pulp fiction cut from the cloth of the classic originals. The evolution of western hero to an archetypal pulp hero has happened once more in this fringe market in the case of western author Thomas McNulty.
A veteran western writer in the Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour tradition, McNulty has made the transition from cowboy hero to pulp hero with his latest novel, Jack Ripcord. The title character for a planned trilogy of books, there is no mistaking that Jack Ripcord is an alter ego of the author from the cover character portrait to the way that the story functions as a synthesis of all of McNulty’s interests.
Apart from his western novels, McNulty has also authored a biography of swashbuckler Errol Flynn and a comprehensive history of werewolves. Both are evident in the pages of Jack Ripcord. The late 1930s setting is perfect for capturing the feel of a vintage chapter-play. Ripcord is a globe-trotting government operative, an adventurer, and the only hope against a secret Nazi occult cabal ready to unleash a bloodthirsty demon that could wipe out all life on the planet. If this sounds like Indiana Jones has wandered into the Cthulu mythos, that’s because I’ve failed to mention that Ripcord is ably assisted on his mission by a seductive witch and a savage werewolf. Imagine if Hammer Films had optioned a Doc Savage movie and you might have a better idea of how this plays out.
The great problem is that genre fans are often reluctant to venture outside of their comfort zones. Many western devotees would never pick up a Race Williams, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe mystery. Many art film buffs would turn up their noses at vulgar spaghetti westerns. The many millions who love Star Wars and Indiana Jones far outnumber those among their ranks who would venture to read or watch the works that inspired them, despite Lucas and Spielberg’s willingness to cite sources.
Even in the so-called geek subculture that has taken hold in the present day, there is a reluctance to experiment and break down biases that existed against the new, the old, the low budget, or the obscure. Elitism deprives us of not only broadening our tastes, but of experiencing countless pleasures. So it is that I challenge each of you to pick up Jack Ripcord, a book that deliberately blends genres as it seeks to defy easy categorization, and see if it doesn’t stand up on its own merits. Wounded Outlaw Books doesn’t have a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to back it, nor does McNulty offer name recognition to insure shelf space in brick and mortar stores. If your instinct is to look at the ingredients and dismiss this concoction without first sampling, think again. This particular Mulligan’s stew is delicious and I suspect those who are willing to try something new will be back for the second installment in the trilogy. I know I will.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press) and The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). The Triumph of Fu Manchu is scheduled for publication in April 2014.