Margie Harris: Queen of the Gangsters

An illustration from a Margie Harris story in Gangster Stories magazine

Read a Margie Harris story in our fiction pages

John Locke is the editor of Queen of the Gangsters: Stories by Marie Harris (published 2011, by Off-Trail Publications)

In the 1930, when the United States was in the grip of the Great Depression, pulp magazines became immensely popular. The country had just been through the age of prohibition, and these were the days of Capone and Dillinger. In the 1910s, magazines had started to publish stories like Boston Blackie, an early gangster favorite. Later, pulp magazines that focused specifically on criminals emerged. One of these was Gangster Stories, Mobs was another. Among the most prominent pulp authors at the time was an individual writing under the name «Margie Harris». Little is known about her life, so we contacted the editor of a collection of her stories, John Locke, to find out more. What do we know about the life of Margie Harris?

John Locke: Most of what we know about her came from a letter published in the June 1931 Gangster Stories. Readers had been speculating that the stories with her byline were so tough they had to have been written by a man. She put that rumor to rest, explaining how her career as a newspaper reporter introduced her to many criminals and underworld figures. She cited a number of notorious names which allows us to establish her career in two locales: the San Francisco Bay Area from about the turn of the century to the early 1910s, and Chicago in the early 1920s. Dovetailing with her reportorial background, in the mid-1930s, she wrote articles for a true-crime magazine. All were set within either Houston or a 250-mile radius.

If she had been born circa 1880, then she would have been about fifty in 1930 when she started her fiction-writing career, an opportunity afforded by the sudden emergence of the gang pulps, magazines which presented a gangster-centric view of society.

Beyond that, her identity couldn’t be independently identified. “Margie Harris” may have been a pseudonym. None of her newspaper reportage has thus far been found, which is not terribly unusual. Many reporters never see their bylines in print. Was she a prolific writer, how many stories did she write?

John Locke: She published almost ninety stories in her ten-year fiction career from 1930-39. In the beginning, all were gangster tales. As that genre quickly faded from popularity, she turned to action-detective stories. Most of her stories ranged from 10-25 pages in the magazines. About ten were in the 40-50-page range. Her first published story was 39 pages, so she didn’t exactly ease into the pulp scene. Her only novel-length story was “Little Big Shot,” published in full in the May 1932 Gangster Stories.

In the 1930s, pulp fiction was a penny-a-word business for most freelance writers. A 20-page story would run about 10,000 words, for which the author received $100. Margie’s best year may have been 1932, during which she published 14 stories, or about 500 pages of fiction, for which she would have received $2,500. That was at the very depths of the Depression. In 1932, the average hourly wage dropped from 50 to 40 cents an hour, or from $1,000 to $800 a year. How does she compare with Hammett, Chandler and the hard-boiled school of noir fiction?

John Locke: She’s definitely hardboiled. Her stories are plenty violent, generally centering around gangland wars, police brutality, etc. She’s not shy about describing society’s soiled undersides. I wouldn’t label her noir since all of her fiction was published in the 1930s, and I associate noir with a post-WWII sense of traditional morality in decay. Gang-pulp stories didn’t show good people falling from grace. They immersed the reader in that depraved world from the outset.

Front page of Black Mask magazine. Image credit: wikipedia

Hammett and Chandler are more polished, which is a function of time—and talent. Margie probably wrote her fiction like a reporter writes news stories, i.e. meet the editor’s expectations and move on to the next thing. That was the general approach for a pulp writer. The editors wanted genre thrills, not literature. They weren’t interested in detailed descriptions of settings, complex characters, or intricate plots. They wanted rapidly paced stories of action. Some writers discovered, to their chagrin, that the editors would strip the artful descriptions out of the text; the average reader didn’t want it so the editor wasn’t going to pay a penny a word for it. The seasoned pulp-writer learned the lesson.

Hammett and Chandler were pulp writers, too, before they were considered better than that. But they had the advantage of writing for Black Mask which, unlike the majority of pulp magazines, encouraged a higher level of style. The editor of Black Mask, Joseph Shaw, flattered his contributors’ ambitions. Margie may simply have been writing for a living, the way she had in the newspaper business. How would you characterize her prose. It is quite good, isn’t it?

John Locke: Yes, she’s a clever wordsmith. She’s writes in a near-steady stream of gangland lingo, most of which is very colorful, but some of which can be challenging to interpret today. She drops artful innuendo into her prose on occasion, as in one of my favorite gags from “Cougar Kitty.” Kitty is the hostess of a speakeasy who greets two mobsters with: “Come on in, both of you. The water’s wet—and we haven’t any.” That one stopped me short.

She’s also frequently betrays her insider newspaper knowledge with details like this:

“The afternoon papers had extras on the street when Gimpy went underground at a nearby subway station. The Journal’s headlines shrieked: ‘Vice King Sought for Death of Slum Worker.’ Monk Diller was named in the secondary headline. A two-column cut of his features centered the first page. The caption read: ‘$5000 Reward,’ while below it was an accurate police description.” [“Twisted Vengeance,” Greater Gangster Stories, January 1934]

Indeed, her working writer sensibilities seep into her prose in interesting ways:

“Tac-tac-tac-tac-tac-tac-tac!” The “typewriter” in the street outside wrote its lethal message in seven stuttering blasts—with dead silence for the final period. [“Understudy From Hell,” Gangster Stories, July 1931]

She’s referring, of course, to the weapon of choice: a machine-gun. She is entertaining, why do think she has fallen into obscurity the way she did?

John Locke: The gang pulps weren’t mainstream when she wrote for them, so the problem starts there. And they only had a few years of success, from 1930 through the end of Prohibition, about 1933. Virtually no authors used their success in the gang pulps as a springboard to something greater. It was a specialized field and, when the gang pulps faded, the careers of most of the authors withered with them. Margie fared better than most through the rest of the decade, but was only one author among many hundreds supplying short stories and novelettes to the detective and crime pulps.

Additionally, popular culture is bolstered by a huge industry that constantly churns out new product. Most of the past gets buried in the avalanche. Only a small handful of things remain popular or get rediscovered. There seem to have been a huge number of very substantial writers who have emerged from these pulp magazines. Do you know of other writers whom you feel have been neglected?

John Locke: In the gangster field, Anatole Feldman stands out. Like Margie, he had a knack for the underworld lingo, some of which was probably authentic, and some of which he probably invented, but you can’t tell the difference. What sort of circulation did Gangster Stories and Mobs have?

John Locke: Most publishers held these numbers close and precise circulation figures for the pulps are hard to obtain. Most pulps were sold on newsstands and very few through mail subscriptions, so the national magazine distributors set the terms. There were about 100,000 newsstands in the country, in railway stations, on busy street corners, in drugstores, etc. Publisher Harold Hersey, who was most responsible the gang-pulp boom, probably had as many copies of an issue printed, hoping to sell at least half the run, which he probably did when the magazines were at their peak of popularity. The minimum circulation to be viable was probably about 30,000. I read once that the lone gunman of the old west was the literary precursor to the noir detective. Why do you think people are so fascinated by the lives of gangsters?

John Locke: I think that gang life is a perversion of self-government. We all chafe to one degree or another at being directed, boxed in, or otherwise told what to do, and the man with the gun or, better still, the gang armed like an army, represents a twisted form of freedom. In the old west, we can imagine that protecting one’s prerogatives with a well-oiled six-shooter was actually virtuous, a necessary survival skill in a somewhat lawless frontier.

Prohibition (1920-33) violated the social contract of the Constitution by trespassing into what most people considered a valid use of freedom: drinking. Instead of eliminating booze, what the law actually did was to create a set of shadow governments—the mob—organizations who, on one level of interpretation, defended freedom against its oppressors, law enforcement. It was as if the old west view of virtuous self-defense had been appropriated by vast criminal enterprises.

For the reader, it’s wish-fulfillment to experience characters controlling their individual destinies through force of arms. The gang pulps emerged in the final years of Prohibition, after the unintended and shocking consequences of the law had become apparent. Many of the fans of gangland fiction, I believe, read the stories as a parody of American society. Reading them was an act of rebellion—they were undoubtedly popular with teenagers and other cynics—a way to say: Our wise elders have been exposed as fools.

In that respect, Prohibition parallels the experience of World War I, another noble cause that quickly turned into human disaster on an epic scale. Indeed, the imagery of the gangland story draws upon that conflict, still fresh in the mind in the early ’30s: batteries of soldiers armed with machine-guns facing off in a ruthless fight to the death. It’s probably no coincidence that the gang pulps immediately followed a wave of popularity for pulps featuring WWI fiction, a trend that started in 1926. While the United States in the 20s and 30s turned to the noir and hard-boiled school of mystery, the UK produced writers like Agatha Christie who favored plot over style. Why do you think the two traditions became so different?

John Locke: It might be as simple as manners, that is, the British have better manners and thus their crime fiction reflects that. It might be the long shadow of the frontier, as we explored above. Or perhaps it’s the influence of Hollywood on the broader American culture. The movies—especially the silents—favored action over the subtleties of human behavior, things in physical motion over things in thought. In a silent movie, it’s easier to show a conflict resolved by violence than one solved by deduction. Indeed, the gang pulps were clearly influenced by Hollywood. Films like Underworld (1927) and The Dragnet (1928) heightened interest in gangland, which the pulps were all too happy to capitalize on. The introduction of sound into film significantly altered the equation, but the idea of action remains at the core of cinema. What do you think has been the legacy of the gangster stories?

John Locke: I think that they helped solidify the mythology of Prohibition: racketeers and gangsters, speakeasies, Tommy-guns, hoodlums shooting out of the windows of their speeding Packards, and so forth. I’m not sure the gang pulps had much of a literary legacy; their flavor is very much wedded to their brief window of time. The pulps returned to gang-fiction magazines at various times, but never with the same vigor. Later, interest in organized crime moved more into the nonfiction domain as awareness of the Mafia grew. In film and television, though, organized crime has remained a popular theme. For my tastes, the closest production to capture the spirit of the gang pulps was the great TV series The Untouchables (1959-63). If you were to recommend a Margie Harris story from your collection, which one would it be, and why? 

John Locke: She was remarkably consistent in quality, so you can pick up any of her stories for a good read. I’m partial to the ones with female protagonists, as they break the mold. Most gang-pulp stories—and most of Margie’s—feature male protagonists, as we would expect. But occasionally, like in “Cougar Kitty,” it’s time for a woman to take the ultimate revenge on the men who have wronged her. Another heroine featured in our collection was Lota Remsden, the so-called Black Moll (she’s white), in “Understudy From Hell.” She gets ahead by being smarter than the dumb hoods who populate her mob.

There actually was a pulp featuring gang-fiction with female leads, called Gun Molls Magazine. It lasted for nineteen issues from 1930-32 and is quite a scarce collectible today.

Queen of the Gangsters: Stories by by Margie Harris is available from Amazon
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