Brackett, Leigh (pulp fiction writer)


A born writer who is said to have scribbled stories since infancy, Brackett was particularly enamored of the swashbuckling fantasies and space operas she read in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. She devoured the stories of such imaginative authors as Edgar Rice burroughs, Robert E. howard, and C. L. moore (Brackett’s direct predecessor as a major female presence in the almost exclusively male bastion of science fiction adventure stories). She sold her first science fiction tale at age 25 to Astounding Science Fiction. It was a red-planet adventure called “Martian Quest.”

Brackett soon became a regular contributor to Planet Stories, the popular pulp devoted almost exclusively to stories of interplanetary adventure. Most of her stories were exciting sword-and-sorcery swashbucklers in the vein of Burroughs’s “John Carter on Mars” series and similar works by her other mentors. They were set on the familiar planets, but these were strictly “soft science” settings, without atmospheric or geographic realities. Planet Stories readers cared about action and color, not text topic data or authentic geography. Trying to avoid two stories set on the same planet in the same issue, for example, Brackett’s editors once simply changed the title of Brackett’s piece from “The Dragon Queen of Venus” to “The Dragon Queen of Jupiter” and did a quick copy-edit to switch the planet names in the story.

Space opera specialist Leigh Brackett as a teenager, c.1930 (Brackett estate)

Space opera specialist Leigh Brackett as a teenager, c.1930 (Brackett estate)

Leigh Brackett with the writer Robert Bloch in New York, 1956 (Brackett estate)

Leigh Brackett with the writer Robert Bloch in New York, 1956 (Brackett estate)

Brackett also had a feel for the hot new type of hard-boiled mystery fiction and wrote a novel, No Good from a Corpse, that was one of the better emulations and amalgams of the Dashiell ham-mett and Raymond chandler styles. It had a Hollywood setting and a tough private eye hero named Ed Clive. When a beautiful ex-girlfriend of the detective’s is murdered he goes on the killer’s trail, uncovering the lost love’s sordid past and meeting an assortment of likely suspects, getting painfully bashed and knocked out by most of them during his investigation. The prose was lean and sharp, the dialogue brutally colorful. It wasn’t Chandler—there was no poetry, no vision—just good, readable pulp with a little extra flair. Working in what was considered male writers’ territory, Brackett overcompensated, if anything, for potential gender bias in the blunt (for 1944 and for a “lady writer”) dialogue, and in a cast of female characters at least as tough as the guys: “The blonde’s fist caught him on the side of the head. Clive turned over three times and hit a table, causing a crash and an explosion of splinters . . . ‘Now,’ she roared, ‘he busts my furnicha.’”

At times, Brackett’s interplanetary tales also employed the hard-boiled style, as in these opening lines (written with Ray bradbury) from “Lorelei of the Mist,” printed in Planet Stories’ summer 1946 issue:

The Company dicks were good. They were plenty good. Hugh Starke began to think maybe this time he wasn’t going to get away with it.

His small stringy body hunched over the control bank, nursing the last ounce of power out of the Kallman. The hot night sky of Venus fled past the ports in tattered veils of indigo. Starke wasn’t sure where he was anymore. Venus was a frontier planet, and still mostly a big X, except to the Venu-tians—who weren’t sending out any maps.

In her hometown of Los Angeles there was much socializing among the West Coast-based science fiction writers, who often felt exiled, thousands of miles from the publishing houses back east. Brackett met and befriended many of her fellow pulpsters, including Bradbury. She married one of them, Edmond Hamilton, in 1946, and they were together until his death, a year before her own in 1978.

It was the mystery fiction, not the science fiction, that gave Brackett a second and equally significant career in motion pictures. Producer-director Howard Hawks had read and liked No Good from a Corpse, and thought the author would be a good—and inexpensive—choice to write a screenplay out of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, which Hawks was going to film with Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe. Hawks was reportedly shocked when Brackett arrived at the studio and he discovered that the hard-boiled author was a woman. But Hawks’s movies were distinguished by their many tough-talking dames, and he put her to work on the script with a surprising collaborator: William Faulkner. Brackett and company made Chandler’s complex story into a relatively lucid, smooth screenplay which then became a near perfect motion picture—witty and tough, yet sophisticated, cynical, and intriguing. Brackett would continue to take screenwriting assignments for the rest of her life, but she would never give herself over to the profession. The movies would be a lucrative break in her preferred endeavor, writing novels and stories. Her first Hollywood patron remained her most devoted Hollywood employer. She wrote or cowrote for Hawks the scripts to the John Wayne western Rio Bravo, the African adventure comedy Hatari! (Wayne again), El Dorado (with Wayne and Robert Mitchum), and more. In the ’70s she was hired to adapt another Chandler novel, The Long Goodbye. Her last movie job before her death was the screenplay for George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Brackett continued to write swashbuckling space operas long after the pulps folded and the paperbacks took up the slack. Some of her more popular titles included The Sword of Rhiannon, The Secret of Sinharat, The Starmen, and a more serious, allegorical novel, The Long Tomorrow, about a fascistic, postapocalyptic America. Her returns to crime fiction were rarer: a few short stories and two novels, Silent Partner (1969) and a gripping tale of vigilante justice, The Tiger Among Us (1957).



  • “Ark of Mars, The” (1953);
  • “Beast, The” (1948);
  • “Black Amazon of Mars” (1951);
  • “Blue Behemoth, The” (1943);
  • “Case of the Wandering Redhead, The” (1943);
  • “Child of the Green Light” (1942);
  • “Child of the Sun” (1942);
  • “Citadel of Lost Ages” (1950);
  • “Citadel of Lost Ships”
  • (1943); “City of the Lost Ones” (1949);
  • “Dancing Girl of Ganymede, The” (1950);
  • “Death Dealer, The” (1943);
  • “Demons of Darkside, The” (1941);
  • “Design for Dying”
  • (1944); “Dragon-Queen of Jupiter, The” (1941);
  • “Enchantress of Venus” (1949);
  • “Halfling, The” (1943);
  • “I Feel Bad Killing You” (1944);
  • “Interplanetary Reporter” (1941);
  • “Jewel of Bas, The” (1944);
  • “Lake of Gone Forever, The” (1949);
  • “Last Call for Sector 9G” (1955);
  • “Lord of the Earthquake” (1941);
  • “Lorelei of the Red Mist”
  • (1946); “Mars Minus Bisha” (1954);
  • “Martian Quest, The” (1940);
  • “Moon That Vanished, The” (1948);
  • “Murder in the Family” (1943);
  • “Murder Is Bigamy” (1945);
  • “No Man’s Land in Space” (1941);
  • “No Star Is Lost” (1944);
  • “Other People, The” (1957);
  • “Out of the Sea” (1942);
  • “Outpost on Io” (1942);
  • “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” (1949);
  • “Queer Ones, The” (1957);
  • “Retreat to the Stars” (1941);
  • “Sea King of Mars” (1949);
  • “Shadow over Mars” (1944);
  • “Shadows, The” (1952);
  • “Shannach of the Last” (1952);
  • “So Pale, So Cold, So Fair” (1957);
  • “Sorcerer of Rhiannon, The” (1942);
  • “Starman of Llyrdis, The” (1951);
  • “Stellar Legion, The” (1940);
  • “Sword of Rhiannon, The” (1949);
  • “Terror Out of Space” (1944);
  • “Thralls of the Endless Night” (1943);
  • “Truants, The” (1950);
  • “Vanishing Venutians, The” (1945);
  • “Veil of Astellar, The” (1944);
  • “Woman from Altair, The” (1951);
  • “World Is Born, A” (1941)


  • Alpha Centauri or Die! (1963);
  • Big Jump, The (1955);
  • Coming of the Terrans (1967);
  • Eye for an Eye, An (1957);
  • Follow the Free Wind (1963);
  • Ginger Star, The (1974);
  • Halfling and Other Stories, The (1973);
  • Hounds of Skaith, The (1974);
  • Jewel of Bas, The (1990);
  • Long Tomorrow, The (1955);
  • No Good from a Corpse (1944);
  • People of the Talisman (1964);
  • Reavers of Skaith, The (1976);
  • Rio Bravo (1959);
  • Secret of Sinharat, The (1964);
  • Shadow Over Mars (1951);
  • Silent Partner (1969);
  • Starmen, The (1952);
  • Stranger at Home (1946);
  • Sword of Rhiannon, The (1953);
  • Tiger Among Us (1957)

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