Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir (Originally Published 1981, Expanded Edition 1997) by Geoffrey O’Brien is, as the title says, about both the history of the paperback book industry and the men and women who wrote the books.
The paperback book was the direct successor of the dime novel of the 19th Century and the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. Early on, paperback book publishers commissioned artists to do paintings for paperback covers which were designed to do one thing: sell books. And then as now what sells? SEX.
Hardboiled America contains a great collection of prints of paperback covers from the 1940s through the 50s. Many of them are in color. In fact, most of the time, the lurid cover paintings of women with heaving bosoms in various states of undress were much more provocative than what was actually in the book. Many of these artists worked in obscurity but many have been indentified. O’Brien discusses what is known about the artists who worked on paperback covers and discusses their work in detail.
The second half of the book is taken up with a discussion of the authors of “hard-boiled” crime noir and their work. Dashiell Hammett, the grand daddy of hard-boiled detective authors, wrote long before there was any such thing as a paperback book. However, Hammett got his start writing for the pulp fiction detective magazine The Black Mask. Hammett’s novels naturally were exactly the sort of fare that paperback publishers were looking for. Later, in the 1950s, came “the paperback original,” a novel which was never published in hard cover but was written exclusively for the paperback market. Writers such as John D. MacDonald and Jim Thompson pumped out book after book in quick succession as paperback originals. And there were sub-genres like the drug addict story and the juvenile delinquent story which pretended to deal with serious subjects but were marketed to appeal to the prurient interest.
For anyone interested in American popular culture in the mid twentieth century or in crime noir, Hardboiled America is a must read.
For another great review of this book, concentrating on the work of John D. MacDonald, see the blog The Trap of Solid Gold.
COMING SOON: One of the great classics of Crime Noir: James M. Cain's 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.