Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era

paperbackconfidentialI’ll break PAPERBACK CONFIDENTIAL down as simple as possible: It is awesome. Brian Ritt’s massive undertaking needs to be commended. From Stark House Press, this is essentially a reference book for all you crime-loving paperback junkies out there.

The book breaks down every author who wrote crime novels in those halcyon days of paperback originals that you would see from a variety of publishers. Ritt has not only compiled the authors and their pseudonyms, but gives a nice rundown of their backgrounds and careers as writers.

All the authors of the glory days are in there, be they ones we all know — Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, the infamous E. Howard Hunt — but also the more forgotten men, such as John B. West, whose work I’ll be on the lookout for in my book hunts. This leads to the problem people are going to have when they get this book: You will need a notepad and a pencil to write down all the names and titles you’ll want to explore.

As thorough as Ritt is, I’ve got a quibble or two, but nothing major. Ritt gives a list of their works, but not a complete rundown. I totally understand, though, because otherwise, this book would probably be an extra hundred pages.

Ritt also includes lists of characters series (thanks for that!) and the other books these guys wrote under other names. On that note: Included in the back is the aptly titled “Pseudodex,” an index of pseudonyms. It’s an easy, go-to source even though these names also appear on each of the authors’ entries.

PAPERBACK CONFIDENTIAL is crime-centric, so don’t get upset when you get to Lester Dent and find no DOC SAVAGE adventures listed. Stark House has put together what has to be reference book of the year. It’s a loving testament to the books that I and so many others adore. But my wallet is going to hate it. —Bruce Grossman

Buy it at Amazon.

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Comment by Rick Ollerman
2013-07-11 10:55:12

There are 132 total entries in this volume, and it’s huge at nearly 350 pages. The Pseudodex is great if you have a nom de plume and check it in the listings–it will lead you to the “real” author, or at least the main name the author used. There’s debate in all books of this type: why did you leave this author out and include that one, etc. But it’s a fun book to read, not just to use as a reference.

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Comment by Peter
2013-07-11 11:52:46

Looking forward to reading this.

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Comment by Rick Ollerman
2013-07-16 08:50:23

Here’s a sample entry for a man who deserves wider recognition:

Jada M. Davis (also wrote as Jada Davis). Born Texas, 1919. Died in 1996.

Jada Davis was one of eleven children born to a struggling family in West Texas. As a child, Jada, along with his brothers and sisters, were sent out to pick cotton to help make ends meet; as Davis told it, the Great Depression didn’t mean a whole lot of change to their life. A reader of what material he could get hold of, when a neighbor gave him an armload of old books he was finally exposed to the books and writers he would come to admire.
Reading and writing became Davis’s escape mechanism and he sold his first story to Liberty magazine when he was just 15 years old. He submitted his first novel to Random House at 18. He had been making extra money selling short pieces to magazines and newspapers when he joined the Army in the 1930’s, training in the deserts of the Southwest. When World War II broke out, Davis contracted tuberculosis and ended up sitting out the war in a sanitarium. Afterwards, still wanting to make a contribution, he allowed himself to be bombarded with radiation as part of some military medical experiments.
Once out of the service, Davis worked as a writer and editor for newspapers around the West Texas area. In 1953 he sold his first novel to Fawcett Red Seal, the hardboiled classic One For Hell. The story is based on real life events and features one Willa Ree, a boxcar drifter looking for a place to make a buck–a place with oil, because oil meant money. With only a dime in his pocket Ree wanders into a café and finds Ben Halliday, or rather, Halliday finds Ree. Halliday is looking for a certain kind of man, the kind who can look after himself but also take certain kinds of orders. In Ree, Halliday thinks he’s hit it just right.
Ree has notions of his own, however. He takes Halliday up on his job to become a policeman in town but it isn’t long before Halliday and the men he represents come to know exactly what they’ve found in Willa Ree: an uncontrollable force of nature that is way more than they’ve bargained for.
Davis’s second published book was for Avon, 1956’s The Outraged Sect, also based on real events. This book is in some ways a mirror image to One For Hell. Sect is the story of a good man fighting bad men and runaway prejudice in a small town bent on driving out “the Sect,” a pacifistic religious group the townspeople just don’t understand. World War II is still going on and the rumor of the Sect’s refusal to salute the American flag rubs most of the town the wrong way. Small acts of violence become bigger and tension escalates as one man, newspaperman Book Morris, tries to talk sense into the increasingly difficult townspeople. Morris ends up putting his own life on the line, a lone man against an entire town, as he tries to save a young woman’s life and defuse the blind hatred raging through the land.
Unfortunately, these were the only two books Davis published in his lifetime. He turned down an offer to develop his writing career in New York, and instead took a job with Southwestern Bell, ending up as a senior executive in public relations. But he never stopped writing. In an interview with Paperback Quarterly (vol. 1, no. 2), Davis says he’s “written fifteen novels, but have only five I really like.” He also says he likes two of them “better than” One For Hell and The Outraged Sect.
One of these may be So Curse the Day, the story of Dun Lattner, another drifter through the American Southwest, looking for something he’ll probably never find. At least not without the kind of trouble he’s looking to avoid. Here Davis gives us the classic wealthy bad girl, the kind of woman a man like Lattner thinks he can control but never really can, mostly because he’ll never have the kind of money it always seems to take. There’s the good girl he’d like desperately to be worthy of, but he’s at war with his own nature, and he can never believe in himself the way she always will. At the heart of it is Lattner’s own cynical ego, and though he tries to go straight, to be the kind of man his girl wants him to be, he can’t help but take the easy way out when a wealthy matron named Nora takes him in and is willing to reward him for his company. This is classic noir straight out of James M. Cain territory, and is very close to the level of One For Hell.
The other is likely Midnight Road (forthcoming from Stark House Press, 2014). While not as hardboiled a crime novel as One For Hell or So Curse the Day, it is nevertheless Davis’s overwhelming tour de force. A coming of age story, Midnight Road tells the story of a boy from a poor family, 15 year-old Jeff Carr who folks claim looks a whole lot more like the easy-going Kenty Hooker than his own mother’s husband.
Not only does Jeff have to deal with his tense family situation, he gets involved with the violent and unpredictable family of Old Trails, as mean a cuss as there was around those parts. His daughter, though, was wonderful, the love of Jeff’s life. One of her brothers was a torment and a bully, and the other was forced to live under the porch to escape Old Trails’ constant beatings.
With attempted murder, hidden secrets and family scandals, Davis shows he’s as adept at writing complex characters and family situations as he is at keeping the reader absorbed with constant nail-biting tension.
Before his death in 1996, Davis said that he “hope[d] to retire early and resume the career I should never have abandoned.” If only that had come true.

Further Reading:
If you like Jada M. Davis, you might like: Jim Thompson, James M. Cain

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