Pulp and Hard Case Crime
The always politically correct literary police may not agree but I believe that some of the best fiction writing in America, and in the world for that matter, came from the writers of the paperback novels of the 1950s and 60s. The stuff people used to call pocket books. The ones with the vividly lurid covers that sold in newsstands, drug stores, truck stops, soda fountains and even in some liquor stores. Written by guys like Michael Avallone, Gil Brewer, David Dodge, Steve Fisher, David Goodis, Day Keene, John D. MacDonald, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Charles Williams ,Cornell Woolwrich and a host of others. Guys whose names or works never appear on the “required reading lists” of most college or university literature courses. Yet these guys and a few gals , Patricia Highsmith among them, are the real thing. The central core of top notch American fiction writing of the mid 20th Century. They are the ones who knocked the ball out of the field almost every time they stepped up to the plate which was quick and often. These guys were pros who didn’t sit around too much pondering and meditating on what the right word was or how pretty each sentenced should be. Their business was to punch you in the gut in the first or second chapter. Preferably the first. Then move the plot along and you the reader with it. Somewhere in the middle you would get some sharp characterizations comprised mostly of terse dialogue, brief descriptive passages and some nifty action and sex scenes that made your eyes widen and heart beat faster. The sex was never explicit but lively enough to get the blood pounding through your veins. And they wrote fast, these guys. Generally it took them 3 to 5 weeks to come up with a novel of approximately 180 pages. Some, according to their financial needs would write them in a week. While there were still others who, with a clanky, broken down typewriter, a gallon of coffee or several bottles of booze could knock them out in 24 to 36 hour marathon sessions. The editors of imprints like Dell, Signet, Gold Medal, Ace, Lancer and others accepted the books quickly and maybe gave them the once over before sending them off to the printer because these books rarely needed any kind of fussy editing. More often than not the biggest editorial change came at the title. The author’s title might be Running with a Bad Crowd and the editor might change it to Kiss Me Hard Before I Die or some such thing. The editors knew their stuff. These books were never advertised or reviewed so their major selling point was the catch penny title and the cover art. What we need to remember is that these books generally displayed on rotary wire stands close to where the potential buyer is buying a stick of gum or a pack of cigarettes, listening for the announcement of their bus departure gate. Casually they might spin the book stand and quickly glance at the covers to see if anything might catch their eye. Something that might occupy their 3 or 4 hour travelling time.
The covers of these books became an art form unto themselves. The artists who painted them rarely ever read the novels. There was no time. They had to produce the work too quickly so they usually painted a series of stuff depicting a woman in some provocative outfit be it a tight dress or a bikini, with a man next to her holding a gun. Sometimes it was the woman holding the gun or a knife. And sometimes there might be an explosion in the background. The editor would select the one he felt was appropriate to the novel and that would be it. The turnaround time for these books from the acceptance of the manuscript to the printed book being delivered to the newsstand or bookstore was a little over a month in most cases. Thousands and thousands of these books would be distributed and sold and then disappear while another would take its place. Most of the titles were never reprinted. They just went to the elephant graveyard of forgotten books never to be seen again. Yet, despite their fleeting appearance, these writers and these books, due to the excellence of the writing and craftsmanship of the characterization and plotting influenced a generation of readers and writers along with some filmmakers as well. Virtually everything we read today or see on the screen that’s any good is a result of that kind of writing whether they know it or not. They are a part of America’s literary heritage that has gone unnoticed in many areas. And they are rarely on display anywhere for new readers to discover and enjoy them.
Forty years ago writer Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) and an editor Don Ellis founded Black Lizard Books which reprinted many of those titles in their original paperback format and interesting covers mostly painted by Jim Kirwan. Some years later the imprint was purchased by Random House who thus far has only reprinted the Jim Thompson titles in large format trade paperbacks.
Luckily in 2006 Charles Ardai and Max Phillips founded Hard Case Crimes which publishes many of the novels from that golden era with several new titles from contemporary authors like Stephen King (The Colorado Kid) and Christa Faust (The Money Shot) adding their voices to that wonderful tradition. I see this as a heroic effort and a labor of love on the part of the publishers who obviously don’t have the money or the distribution clout of the big publishing companies. But they are fighting the good fight on behalf of the genre they love and we the readers who hunger for them.
I am especially thrilled that they have retained the idea of vivid cover art and have commissioned some splendid painters to provide them. The way I see it is these guys deserve our respect, our support and our patronage. So the next time you’re in a bookstore go to the mystery section and pick up a Hard Case Crime book. Any title will suffice because they all will occupy, and thrill as well as amuse you in ways that only a good piece of fiction can.