Friday, June 9, 2023

Paperback Jack: My Washington Times On Crime Column on Loren D. Estleman's Fictional Look Back At Paperback Crime Novels

The Washington Times ran my On Crime column on Loren D. Estlman’s novel Paperback Jack. 

You can read the column via the below link or the below text:

BOOK REVIEW: 'Paperback Jack' - Washington Times  


Loren D. Estleman (seen in the bottom photo), the award-winning author of the Amos Walker crime series as well as other detective and Western novels, has published “Paperback Jack,” an interesting and well-written novel about the birth of paperback novels.


I contacted Mr. Estleman and asked him why he wrote “Paperback Jack.” I also asked him to describe the novel.


“The rapid changes that took place in our society during the postwar period were exciting, stimulating, and frightening, and the men and women who created this literature saw that and put it into words that shocked at the time and still resonate now that the rest of us have caught up to their worldview,” Mr. Estleman wrote in reply.


“I wanted to showcase and celebrate these unsung prophets before our frantic society leaves them in the dust. ‘Paperback Jack’ tells the story of the most important decade of the twentieth century through the point of view of a writer who in his efforts simply to make a living doing the only thing he knows how to do has no idea of their significance until his career is coming to an end. He just can’t write about things the way he did before war opened his eyes, and so finds himself opening the eyes of those who weren’t there.”


Was Jacob Heppleman/Jack Holly, the protagonist, based on an actual writer?


“No one in particular. A handful of relatively well-adjusted artists who managed to put their wartime nightmares into perspective sort of dictated their memoirs to me through their fiction.”


Were any of the other characters in the novel based on real people? I thought I saw Mickey Spillane in one character.


“I know who you mean. He’s an arch version of the Mickey Spillane of popular conception. I enjoy Spillane’s books, and found him kind, cheerful, and an entertaining storyteller the one time we met; nothing like the brute some critics thought him, confusing him as they did with his detective, Mike Hammer. I transferred that confusion to the character himself, adding to the fun,” Mr. Estleman said.


“The troubled writer of science fiction was suggested by David Goodis, best remembered for such hard-boiled crime novels as ‘Dark Passage’ and ‘Shoot the Piano Player.’ By many accounts he was an odd duck, a disturbed loner who led the life of a derelict even when he was rolling in Hollywood money. I took his example to the extreme of serious mental illness, making him a victim of that time of radical change.


“The collaborative detective-story writers working under a single pseudonym were suggested by the Ellery Queen partnership. I sweetened (or perhaps soured) that pot by borrowing from the example of Gilbert and Sullivan, who gave the world so many beloved operettas while carrying on a lifelong campaign of mutual hatred for each other. Cliff Cutter was a personal indulgence. I based him on the late Max Evans and Elmer Kelton, close friends of mine and real-life cowboys who wrote terrific Westerns based on genuine experience. Phoebe Sternwalter stands in for the slim cadre of female writers who (often using male pseudonyms) contributed so much to pulp-magazine and paperback fiction.”


Why did paperback novels become so popular?


“America grew up during World War II. These stories, written for the most part by veterans, served up real-life experience earned through hardship and despair, and their words rang with truth. Even readers who’d been sheltered from such harsh realities instinctively recognized that they were being told how things were, by writers who respected their intelligence and willingness to be enlightened,” Mr. Estleman explained. “Also, the books were cheap; that’s crucial. At two bits a pop, anyone could carry a month’s worth of reading out of a drugstore in return for pocket change. That led to their wide dissemination and consequently their influence. Everyone profited, from publishers to writers to booksellers to an audience that simply wanted to be entertained without straining the household budget. And they were exceedingly well-written. Pick one at random and read the opening. Seven of the writers on the current national best-selling lists couldn’t write a line like that on their best day.”


Did paperback novels influence future crime fiction?


“Completely. Before they came along, the concept of official corruption and human depravity was absent from the gangster novels of Prohibition and the Great Depression. The lessons of that era, and of the horrors of mechanized warfare and organized inhumanity, made that kind of naivete obsolete. Those writers braved critical ruin and enormous pressure from the church and Congress, taking the heat from an authority determined to silence dissent, so that the generation that followed had the freedom to express itself without fear of censorship or ostracization. Without “I, The Jury,” “Badge of Evil,” and “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” there could be no “Shawshank Redemption,” no “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers. 

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