Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Harry Whittington by Jason Starr

Harry Whittington: The King of Pulp Originals
by Jason Starr

from Pulp Originals
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.

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Mathew Paust said...

...or, more appropriately, tongue-tied.

Brian said...

I'm getting ready to write about one of Whittington's books for my Lost Classics of Noir series for MacMillan's Criminal Element blog.