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Profiles

Web Noir

When writing for online magazines, crime doesn’t always pay—but it can earn you a fashionable T-shirt. Investigating the current era of crime fiction on the web and the magazines that are making new voices heard.

Since its inception in 1999, the Best American Mystery Stories series has featured everything from extortion to embezzlement, drug running to murder. But, while reading the 2006 installment, I came across something I had never before seen in the body of BAMS: a URL.

Web addresses had appeared in prior volumes, tucked away in the author bios, but this particular one—thuglit.com—was in a peculiar location. Below the title of the story (“McHenry’s Gift”), and immediately following the word “From,” the URL had usurped the real estate typically occupied by Harper’s, Playboy, or the name of another periodical from which BAMS typically draws its material.

A quick trip to the website, and I learned why no print periodical was specified: None exists. Thuglit eschews the bookstore and the newsstand, instead circulating its content via HTML and PDF.

Curious how this came about, I contacted Otto Penzler, series editor for BAMS. “The source of the story does not matter to me and is not a factor in selecting stories,” he told me, when asked if the origins of “McHenry’s Gift” were a factor in its inclusion. I thought it was perhaps intended as a counterweight to the preponderance of selections from established print magazines, but Penzler quickly disabused me of that notion. “It’s only about the quality of the story. I am not interested in diversity. If the 18 best mystery stories of the year were all printed in The New Yorker, or on Thuglit, those are the stories that would appear in the book.”

It seems the Best American Mystery Stories series is a true meritocracy—one in which online magazines can stand toe-to-toe with the heavy-hitters in the field of crime fiction.

 

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As it turns out, Thuglit wasn’t the first online magazine whose material was later featured in BAMS. The 2002 collection included a story called “The Copper Kings,” attributed to Plots With Guns. At the time I assumed it was the title of an anthology. Not so; in fact, plotswithguns.com—now defunct, but viewable at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine—is often regarded as the godfather of online crime magazines.

“We started PWG because we were frustrated that there seemed to be few easily available short story outlets for noir fiction,” says Anthony Neil Smith, who along with Hunter Hayes and Victor Gischler founded the site in 1999.

“We’re proud to say that we’ve done some stories that nobody else would have touched with a 10-foot pole dipped in Purell.” It was a frustration felt by many. At the time of PWG’s inception, the market for short crime fiction was down to a handful of professional periodicals: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand Mystery Magazine, and those literary journals that publish genre fiction. Mystery anthologies had become an increasingly popular repository for short mysteries, but were generally limited to established authors who had been invited to participate. The outlets available to fledging crime writers were few, and established print titles often balked at excessive violence, sex, or profanity.

By contrast, Plots With Guns gave neophytes both the opportunity to see their work published and the freedom to make their stories as rough-and-tumble as they liked, serving as a springboard for many aspiring authors. After striking gold with “The Copper Kings,” Scott Wolven went on to place stories in six consecutive editions of BAMS and released his own collection of short fiction through Scribner in 2005.

Smith shuttered Plots With Guns in 2003, but keeps his eye on the next generation of online heirs to PWG’s legacy. “The quality is growing,” he says. “Like any area, it’s still a mixed bag… but when I see places making great leaps and bounds, like Thuglit, I’m right there with ‘em.”

 

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Thuglit—whose tagline is “Writing About Wrongs”—dwells in the Bad Part of Town, the seedy neighborhood you find yourself in after taking the wrong exit off the Information Superhighway. They specialize in “hardcore hardboiled,” something they make clear to prospective writers. The submission guidelines, in reference to the stories they’ll accept, state: “PLEASE have violence, crime, murder, mayhem and chaos.”

“We’re proud to say that we’ve done some stories that nobody else would have touched with a 10-foot pole dipped in Purell,” boasts Todd Robinson, aka Big Daddy Thug, founder and chief editor of the site. “We’ve done a contemporary noir piece where the deus ex machina was pubic hair. Another was a brilliant heist story where one of the thieves was suffering some graphic food poisoning. Last but not least, we did a wickedly funny story called ‘A Flood of Mexican Porn Star Tits.’ See? Can you even print that title?”

But Thuglit’s reputation isn’t limited to its predilection for depravity. It’s also known as one of the most professional of the amateur online magazines, with a monthly publishing schedule, slick presentation, and focus on top-notch writing. Taken together, Thuglit has become a popular venue for new and established authors—despite the lack of compensation (though Robinson is quick to point out that contributors receive “a pretty fashionable T-shirt”).

“We’ve become something of a destination zine for some writers,” Robinson acknowledges. “We’ve got the street cred due to our cavalier regard towards restricting sex and violence and the overall quality of the stories that our authors have blessed us with. The writers love that they can cut loose with us.”

That Thuglit doesn’t pay cash is not unusual; few online crime magazines do. But then again, money is probably not the motivating factor for many novice crime writers—and is no assurance of quality, anyway. “Just because a magazine pays money doesn’t guarantee the best product,” Robinson points out. “Ask George Steinbrenner.”

Robinson sees it as more of a quid pro quo arrangement. “We donate our time and finances [to maintaining the site], the writers donate their stories to the effort.” Plus, a story that is “given away” to a site like Thuglit could wind up garnering royalties if reprinted in an anthology. As Thuglit recently entered into an agreement with Kensington Books to produce an annual Best of Thuglit compendium, it’s a scenario that will play out often in the coming years. “It’s a great feeling to be able to contact writers—some of whom ‘gave’ us their stories as far back as 2005—and tell them that we are now able to retroactively throw them a little bit of cash.”




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“The more people who read you, the more likely you’ll climb the ladder of publishing into paying gigs,” says PWG’s Smith, on the question of authors “giving away” their stories to online crime magazines. “It’s like an apprenticeship, I say, getting your name out there. Plus, on the web, you’ve got the whole wide world as a potential audience at a keystroke, whereas with the print mags, only those who know about it, pay for it, or read it at a library will see it.”

That sentiment is echoed by Sandra Ruttan, editor for Spinetingler Magazine—which provides all its issues as free PDF downloads—and webmaster of Crime Zine Report, a portal and news site for over a dozen of the most popular online crime magazines. “A print credit is nice,” she says, “but often what matters more is being read.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, pulps were the cheap alternative to the “glossies.” That has some calling online crime magazines “the pulps of the web.” “When you’re trying to raise your profile and get an agent or publisher, having work in ezines can be very helpful. In our case, the average issue of Spinetingler is downloaded more than 10,000 times. Writers know they’ll get a lot of exposure, and if they’re an author that may draw readers to their work, or help them attract interest in their manuscripts.”

And while it’s true that online publication does not carry the same cachet as appearing in print, that may change when internet magazines are viewed as alternatives to—rather than second-rate versions of—their dead tree brethren.

“Clearly the quality is there,” Ruttan says. “I personally believe ezines such as Shots, Thuglit, Hardluck Stories, Crime Scene Scotland, and Pulp Pusher are providing consistent, quality material for readers that matches the caliber of material found in print magazines.”

 

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This is not the first time the appearance of a new form of media filled a void in the crime story market. In the 1920s and ‘30s, pulp magazines served as the cheaper alternative to the “glossies,” delivering double-fisted tales to the masses on the cheap. The parallels to the current internet era have some calling online crime magazines “the pulps of the web.”

I asked Charles Ardai, an editor at Hard Case Crime, a publishing house that specializes in hardboiled fiction steeped in the aesthetic of the pulp era, about the comparison. “[Online crime magazines have] a certain rawness and willingness to take chances and experiment that I believe you saw in the pulps, so in some ways perhaps the answer is yes,” he said. “But there isn’t anything like the enormous, mass-market readership that the pulps had—reading crime fiction online is still very much a novelty enjoyed by a tiny fraction of the reading public—nor is there anything like the visual art that was such a big part of the pulps’ appeal. I do love the opening screen of Thrilling Detective, but by and large there’s no visual arts element to these sites, or at most a very cursory one.”

Spinetingler’s Ruttan points out another crucial distinction between online crime magazines and the pulps: “I’m proud to be published online,” she says, “and pleased that we’ve published so many fine writers ourselves. However, I still prefer to read from the printed page. I think this is true for many people, even if there’s a cost involved.”

Otto Penzler at Best American Mystery Stories is more blunt: “I read a great deal, but cannot imagine reading for pleasure online. I’d rather chew on my foot than have to read anything of length on a screen.”

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, many of the more popular online crime magazines offer their stories in PDF format, ready to be sent to any computer’s printer. And as more bound anthologies draw from online sources, the profile of these sites may eventually reach the tipping point.

“99.99 percent of readers don’t have a clue that these crime fiction web-zines exist,” says Dave Zeltserman, whose Hardluck Stories celebrates its fifth birthday this fall. “It would take a monumental event to change that—something like USA Today or CNN doing a story championing these sites. But something like that would trigger a chain of events that would make these zines the new pulps. Readership would increase to the point where web-zines could charge for advertising and then be able to pay a good rate for stories.

But, even now, Zeltserman acknowledges that online crime magazines are like the pulps in one vital respect: “They’re a breeding ground for some very talented and newer writers,” he says, “who will someday take the world by storm.”