Dope, smack, heroin, cocaine, the evils of narcotics have always been a central pre-occupation of pulp fiction, as can be seen by the selection of paperback covers below.
In Second Ending the victim in question was one of pulp’s favourite characters, a way ward jazz musician who starts taking drugs for kicks, “small time stuff at first”, Benzedrine, then marijuana, “and soon graduates to the killer drug – heroin.”
The main character in Nelson Algren’s classic, The Man With the Golden Arm, is a card shark and former heroin addict fresh out of jail who fights find a new life and avoid slipping back into his habit.
Open Your Hand and Close Your Eyes is a story of drug use and crime amid “a terrifying world where the razor gang rules and a teenage girl will do unspeakable things to get the drug she craves.”
Pulp’s obsession with drugs and their link with crime and changing sexual standards was often thinly dressed as sociological inquiry. A classic example is Drug Scene Kings Cross by Robert Connell, which promises to unveil the real drug scene in Sydney’s Kings Cross, including the aphrodisiac powers of marijuana or “‘pot’ as it is termed by its devotees”.
Better known is Go Ask Alice by Anonymous, an anti-drug propaganda tale about a teenage girls descent into junkie hell. I’ve heard this book was on some high school syllabuses in Australia in the seventies and eighties, although it is so unrealistic it’s doubtful it persuaded anyone not to use drugs.
Another variation on the theme is Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, a tale of teenage drug use and rebellion. And The Shame of a City purports to be a “probing look beneath the surface of a jungle of sin where perversion and crime thrive and human beings are exploited by ruthless men. Here are the facts in all their shocking truth about the new world of vice which flourishes amid the neon prosperity that is London by night.”
Other pulps dealt with the evil criminals behind the drug trade. In the 1958 edition of Christie’s Appointment With Death, the masterminds are Arabs (although it’s doubtful the cover had much to do with the original story). In North from Rome, the bad guys are the mafia. The Destroyers sees a group of cops got to Mexico to take on drug lords based in the foothills of the Sierra Madre, “where poppy fields and processing labs abounded and a handful of families controlled the profitable heroin trade.”