The Paperback Revolution of the 1940s and 1950s
Tom Milne built up an extensive library of popular fiction during a lifetime of collecting. His collection contains nearly three thousand vintage novels and is particularly strong on the hard-boiled crime fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. This body of fiction was extensively represented in the Preview Exhibition of the Archive.
By the mid-1940s, American publishing was being transformed by the introduction of the paperback. By 1946 there were over 350 softcover titles in print (three times as many as in 1945), with Pocket Books, Avon, Popular Library, Dell and Bantam all publishing in the paperback format and replacing the pulp magazines on the newsstands. Several of the best postwar crime novelists (David Goodis, Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, Charles Williams, Gil Brewer) were about to begin writing paperback originals, though, as is usual in noir narratives, some of the characters were confronted with failure and many were in the dark about what others were doing.
Thompson, who was spending much of his time drinking and doing odd jobs, was as yet unsuccessful in establishing himself as a crime writer. He had started writing his first crime novel in 1932 but it was only in 1949, after seventeen years of ‘fighting that book’, that Nothing More Than Murder was finally published in hardcover by Harper’s. Spillane was living in a tent and trying to build his own house. Needing a thousand dollars for the materials, he wrote I, the Jury, which only sold about seven thousand copies in hardcover but, as a Signet paperback, sold over two million copies in two years, an achievement that ‘electrified and inspired the softcover book industry’.
Gold Medal saw the possibility of publishing paperback originals, and they were soon providing an entirely new kind of market for crime writers, whose work could now for the first time go directly into cheap softcover editions. MacDonald, Williams and Brewer, none of whom had previously published novels, all began to write for Gold Medal in 1950-51. Goodis, after the success of Dark Passage, had a brief career as a Hollywood script writer, and when this collapsed at the end of the forties he retreated to his home town of Philadelphia and started writing his bleak paperback originals, the first of which, Cassidy’s Girl, was a best-seller for Gold Medal in 1951. Thompson’s first paperback original, The Killer Inside Me, was published in 1952 by a competing house, Lion Books, ‘the most off-beat of paperback imprints’. As the boom grew, the struggling, often isolated crime writers fed both the ‘gloriously subversive era’ of American paperback publishing and a burgeoning output from Hollywood of films that would in due course be grouped together under the name French critics had given them: as Nino Frank described them, ‘…these “dark” films, these films noirs, [which] no longer have anything in common with the ordinary run of detective movies…’
The Milne Preview Exhibition included individual displays on some of the best-known writers of the late 1940s / early 1950s – Goodis, Thompson, Steve Fisher and Cornell Woolrich. It also showcased the work of numerous other writers of the time, all prolific producers of dark, violent, fast-paced crime and detective novels with imprints like Dell, Ace, Lion, Gold Medal and Avon. Four of the featured writers were Charles WIlliams, Bruno Fischer, Frederic Brown and Day Keene.
CHARLES WILLIAMS began publishing his subtle, distinctive noir thrillers in 1951: Hill Girl, published with Gold Medal, sold over a million copies. He was the first writer of paperback originals to be reviewed in The New York Times: writing about his 1953 novel, Hell Hath No Fury, Anthony Boucher praised the “striking suspense technique”, the “bitter blend of sex and criminality” and his “refusal to indulge in sentimental compromises.” Twelve of Williams’ novels have been adapted for cinema or television.
BRUNO FISCHER was a hugely prolific writer for the pulps and wrote, in addition, over two dozen paperback novels between the mid-1940s and 1960. Fischer, like Williams, was recommended by Anthony Boucher, who noted his “fine sense of the impinging of crime and violence on ordinary life, a biting handling of the economic factors in human motivation.”
FREDRIC BROWN, who wrote both science fiction and crime fiction, is regarded as one of the most original of the pulp writers, noted for his surprise endings and unexpected twists. He wrote more than 300 stories and 30 novels, including The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947) andThe Screaming Mimi (1958).
DAY KEENE (Gunnar Hjerstedt) was one of the earliest and most prolific writers to make the transition from the pulp magazines to paperback originals. He published with a wide variety of publishers from 1949 until the end of the 1960s – “a prime example of the sort of economical, visceral, and absolutely gripping writing that comes to mind when we think of the pulp fiction school of crime writing” (Pulp Serenade, 2010).