A quarter past eleven, and he was having breakfast over the Monday paper when the phone rang. He didn't know anyone up so early. Nightside reporters didn't start work till five. No one called unless a calamity required his attention, usually a boardwalk fire or drowning worth a few paragraphs on the local page. A fire at a crowded restaurant, a hotel robbery, another killing would be a welcome change of pace --any story that didn't involve the Coast Guard. November was too cold to go out in the cutter, and get sick to his stomach chasing after fishermen who'd been caught overnight in strong currents.
But the voice on the other end wasn't from the paper. "Adam Jordan, this is Ed Pelfrey."
"Do I know you?"
"I'd like to talk to you about something that ran under your name in the Press."
Jordan had been meaning to remove his number from the phone book. Press readers weren't shy about bothering him at home to ask what right he had to put something they didn't like in his paper. He'd point out that it wasn't his paper, and that Thomas Jefferson had given him the right, but Press readers weren't listeners. Rather than continue the civics lessons, he'd change to an unlisted number.
"I was out late, Ed, tracking down more stories for you, so if you'll excuse me I'll be getting back to my Rice Krispies."
"Don't hang up. There are a couple of articles we need to discuss."
Only two? Readers who didn't appreciate his reporting normally had a gripe with every word he wrote.
"One," Pelfrey said, "is the execution of Conrad Palmer. The other is the body on the beach."
"What didn't you like about them?"
"There was nothing I didn't like. They were excellent accounts with lively writing, and good insights into the thinking of a pathetic killer, and the detectives hunting the murderer of a beautiful girl."
"Thanks for the kind words, Ed. I really do have to get off the phone."
"I haven't told you who I am," Pelfrey said. "I'm the editor of Real Detective magazine at Turner Men's Group in Manhattan."
"You're calling from New York?"
"To say you like my writing?"
"To ask if you'll do some work for us."
Jordan pushed away his breakfast. He reached for his cigarettes.
"Real Detective is Turner Men's lead title. We publish four fact detective magazines a month. Ever read us?"
"I don't look at pulp -- don't get to read many magazines. You were big before the war."
"We're still big," Pelfrey said. "Circulation is over a million for each title. Four books a month, twelve stories in each issue, eat up close to six hundred homicides a year. We're starved for copy."
"What's six hundred murders in a country of a hundred-fifty million people?"
"Six hundred too many," Pelfrey said. "That's one way of looking at it. For us it's barely enough. We can't use just any case. The old man comes home with a load on, the wife kicks him out of bed, and he slaps her around till she stops breathing, our readers aren't interested. Ditto for any murderer who's not smart enough to keep out of the hands of the police for three days, the time it takes to get a good homicide probe working. We want stories with good dick-work, and sympathetic victims. Young, nubile, and attractive don't disqualify them either. We can't be picky with our killers. Maybe one in a thousand is an appealing character. Conrad Palmer, for instance. We'd like you to do his story for us."
"I've never done magazine work."
"Pick up a stack of dick books at a cigar store, and study the formula. Begin at the beginning with the victim gone missing, and the discovery of the body, and proceed through the investigation, arrest, and legal process. Our readers aren't fans of literary experimentation. Tell the story in short, declarative sentences. They'll think you're Hemingway."
"I don't know," Jordan said. "I'm pretty busy."
"We pay fast, Mr. Jordan."
"So does the Press. Every Friday."
"We also pay well."
"What do you call well?"
"A nickel a word. Five thousand word stories are the norm. Six or seven thousand well-chosen ones are okay, if the case merits it. What do you make on the Press?"
"That's not any of your business."
"We pay better than the papers, because good crime writers are harder to find than inventive killers. We don't want just one story from you. Keep an eye on every promising murder in your neck of the woods. The first story or two will take most of a week to write, and give you fits. After you get the hang, you'll knock them out in no time. Our best regulars pull down two, three thousand a month."
"Where did you get my name?"
"People send us clips on potential stories. It surprised me I'd never seen your byline before. Can I count on you for the Palmer case?"
Jordan was slow with an answer because he was doing math in his head. At a nickel a word he figured on a four-hundred dollar payday. How could a novice who hadn't learned the formula tell Con Palmer's story in fewer than eight thousand words?
"Did I mention that we also need photos?" Pelfrey asked. "The victim, of course, and the crime scene, and investigating officers digging up evidence. Gruesome is okay, but no close-ups of a morgue slab. We want pictures of the suspect when he's apprehended, and another on his way to court or behind bars. Payment is ten dollars for every one we use. Shoot them yourself, make a deal with a staff photographer, or steal them from the police like most of our writers do. It can add another hundred or two hundred dollars to your fee."
"When do you need the Palmer story?" Jordan asked."Yesterday."
"I think I can give you what you want."
"Some very fine reporters can't," Pelfrey said. "They look down their nose at the pulps. It shows in their writing."
"How will I know if you like my story?"
"There'll be a check in your mailbox."
At a candy store on his corner the pulps were racked with slick girlie magazines away from Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post. A dozen or so detective titles all seemed the same. On the cover of each one was a tough guy and/or babe with a gun, or a doe-eyed innocent in the clutches of a fiend. Easy to snicker at, but he'd never look down his nose at five cents a word, or a formula that for all he knew was as difficult to master as Professor Einstein's.
Real Detective readers did not like being teased with red herrings. They did not want policemen who were conflicted about sending killers to the death house. Investigators were not deductive geniuses, but bulldogs who fastened on a suspect and didn't let up till they had a confession. The victims of murder were naive and trusting -- in particular those with money -- unless they were prostitutes, strippers, or wayward youngsters asking for trouble. Lawyers were not mentioned by name, which was how the Press also tried to cut down on lawsuits. Killers were irredeemable monsters. Those who cheated the electric chair cheated justice.
Not every murder victim Jordan had written about for the Press was as uncomplicated as she would be portrayed in the pulps. He knew killers who were worse than others. On the Jersey Shore homicide came in various gradations of gray. Real Detective paid better than newspapers because there was an art to telling a story in just two colors -- black and white -- and keeping readers riveted for five thousand words.
Jordan read three magazines from cover to cover before sitting down at the typewriter. Color and authenticity were essentials of the formula. Invention was not. Pelfrey didn't want literature, but morality tales, and maybe that wasn't a bad thing. Real Detective's grit was lacking from Jordan's sensitive death house piece for the Press.
By 4:00 he'd completed three and a half pages. He could have written two long Sunday features in that time, and knocked out a couple of obituaries. He wanted to count the words, to know to the penny how well he'd spent the afternoon, but he had to leave for work.
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Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects