Crime Fiction Illustrations and Obscenity Issues
The United States was one of the few non-authoritarian countries that have had a habit of banning books. It was quite common in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and even persists today in certain regions, especially by conservative school boards and other organizations. “Banned in Boston” is a well-remembered phrase inasmuch as it was common in “Beantown” as late as the 1950s. Crime fiction was often a target of book banners either because of the contents, or the covers, which were often racy.
The early pulp magazines such as Black Mask, Hollywood Detective, Detective Tales, Dime Mystery Magazine, Black Book Detective, Detective Fiction Weekly, New Detective Magazine, and many others, were notorious for illustrations within the stories and on the covers. They often attracted readers with covers depicting beautiful women partially clad and in great jeopardy by villains. Some publishers even color-coded books. Red covers indicated crime/mystery fiction, green for adventure and travel, and blue denoted general fiction. They were well drawn, colorful and I am sure young boys found them as interesting as the National Geographic! An excellent and delightful selection of such illustrations can be seen in Peter Haining’s The Art of Mystery and Detective Stories (Chartwell Books, 1986).
Even in more recent times crime fiction books were found “pornographic” or with low moral content. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain was one of the better known mysteries banned in Boston.
However, the most notorious case was that of Stephen D. Frances, an Englishman who wrote under the pseudonym of Hank Janson. The hero of the novels was Chicago journalist Hank Janson and the stories were violent, sexual and a bit absurd inasmuch as they were driven by characters and events and were almost devoid of plot. They reflected an Englishman’s view of America and were sometimes quite silly. People were bludgeoned with spanners, and women wore knickers (most Americans know or knew knickers as knee-high pants worn with knee-highs stockings!!), cops put gangsters in gaol and in one of his stories, asked if someone were “having a spot of bother!” The stories were basically without plots and were driven by characters - many named Spike and Kitty - and events that were usually sexual and brutal.
I am convinced that Frances had a female underwear fetish because nearly all the brutal scenes had women in some state of nudity with clinging sheer stockings and ripped “knickers.” He was turning out a novel or novelette every three weeks and, in all, published almost sixty steamy stories. Many have been reprinted by Telos Company in the U.K. complete with lurid covers and illustrations. Titles include Gun Moll for Hire, Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, This Dame Dies Soon, Kill Her if You Can, and Death Wore a Petticoat. Clearly, “dames” were the main attraction in just about every one of these pot-boilers.
Frances sold millions of his novels in England but in 1954 he was indicted under the British obscenity laws. He fled to Spain to escape prosecution but two of his publishers were prosecuted and jailed.
An excerpt from Double Double-Cross follows as an example of the type of material that offended the authorities.
"Fix her so she won’t cause no trouble." Minnie cowered away from them as they crossed over to her. They dragged her to her feet, pulled her across to an armchair. She tried to resist them and at the same time hold the flimsy strip of underclothing around her loins. They bound her hands with electric flex from the table lamp, pulling it so tightly so it cut into her flesh. She kinda lay half in the chair, her eyes closed and tears crawling over her cheeks. Her breasts heaved beneath the white silk blouse she wore. "The trouble is, what do we do with her?" Hal shook his head,“You know Joe’s policy. He won’t beat up dames. They die too easy.” First the hair was ruthlessly hacked off and then cropped to the scalp. The shame of her semi-nudity was overwhelmed by this new and terrible shame. (Someone named Joe came for Minnie) Joe looked at Minnie with implacable blank eyes. His face was hard and ruthless. He said, “Maybe the boys can work up an interest if she’s got her head in a bag. A few of my colored boys have got a yen for white dames.” Joe asked,“What do I do with her afterwards?” Carol said brutally,“Strip her, take her to any big city that’s more than two hundred miles away. Dump her on any main street.”
This scene was not unusual and indeed, not rare, as women were featured as victims as well as torturers. There were rarely any explicit sex scenes, but racy fondling, heated exchanges and physical brutality were common. In today's value system it is doubtful that such works would raise any legal concerns but times and thresholds of tolerance have changed. I believe Mr. Frances would have been driven out by the gender sins he committed rather than the eroticism.
Following are a selection of covers from the Hank Janson series that, at the time, were considered very risqué.
Other crime fiction books captured attention because of the content and particularly the covers that often had nothing to do with the story. The Perry Mason mysteries by Erle Stanley Gardner were often adorned with some sexy covers during the 1950s. Two that stand out are The Case of the Fiery Fingers, featuring a blonde in a flimsy negligee baring a bit of cleavage, and The Case of the Cautious Coquette in which the cover depicts a lovely and shapely lady reaching for a gun around a shower curtain. Neither cover has anything to do with the story!
Any number of book jackets and covers were and still are decorated with illustrations of violent acts or salacious scenes of females in various states of undress. Some of the more interesting - or rather salacious - ones include many of the Carter Brown such as The Blonde, and many Mickey Spillane books such as Me, Hood! and The Erection Set. The Australian writer, Gil Brewer (aka Alan Yates), was a prolific writer, and many of his titles had very racy covers including the alluring but tasteful Nude on Thin Ice.
Australian pulp fiction - including much of its crime fiction, is documented in Toni Johnson-Woods tome entitled Pulp: A Collector’s Book of Australian Pulp Fiction Covers. She notes that many of the books graced by such covers were banned in Queensland and decried by ministers and others. The issue of racy and edgy crime fiction book covers is true also in almost all countries including Russia and other European states.
An example of how times have changed is to note that in 1986 the Report of the Meese Commission on Pornography contained an argument that “detective magazines” were “pornography for the sexual sadist!” The reference was particularly aimed at true crime magazines but the report contained a warning to a good portion of the popular fiction industry to clean up its act.
It is also interesting to note that publishers, according to Publishers Weekly, found book covers and jackets an important part of the book, especially in terms of boosting sales. Three quarters of the publishers indicated that, of all the elements of the book, the cover was the most important. In fact, outstanding book cover and jacket designers are in great demand and some have become legendary. An interesting and creative cover can make a book browser want to read it, and an exotic illustration, if not erotic one, has a similar attraction for certain audiences.
You can’t judge a book by its cover but it may prompt readers to buy it.
George J. Demko November 2007
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