Pulp Covers for Classic Detective Novels by Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie & Raymond Chandler

Yes­ter­day we wrote of the low opin­ions the emi­nent J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis held for the “vul­gar” cre­ations of Walt Dis­ney. As a coun­ter­point to their dis­dain for pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment, we might turn—as writer Steven Gray­danus does in Dis­ney’s defense—to their con­tem­po­rary, the Catholic apol­o­gist and pro­lif­ic essay­ist, jour­nal­ist, poet, and writer of detec­tive nov­els and short sto­ries, G.K. Chester­ton.

But we aren’t talk­ing Dis­ney here, but hard-boiled pulp fic­tion, a genre I think Chester­ton would have liked. Chesterton’s work “was entire­ly pop­u­lar in nature,” notes Gray­danus. He was “a great defend­er of pop­u­lar and even ‘vul­gar’ cul­ture.” Take his essay “A Defense of Pen­ny Dread­fuls,” which begins:

One of the strangest exam­ples of the degree to which ordi­nary life is under­val­ued is the exam­ple of pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture, the vast mass of which we con­tent­ed­ly describe as vul­gar. The boy’s nov­el­ette may be igno­rant in a lit­er­ary sense, which is only like say­ing that mod­ern nov­el is igno­rant in the chem­i­cal sense, or the eco­nom­ic sense, or the astro­nom­i­cal sense; but it is not vul­gar intrinsically–it is the actu­al cen­tre of a mil­lion flam­ing imag­i­na­tions.

Sen­ti­ments like these inspired admir­ers of Chester­ton like Mar­shall McLuhan and Jorge Luis Borges to take seri­ous­ly the mass enter­tain­ments of their respec­tive cul­tures.

We might apply a Chester­ton­ian appre­ci­a­tion to the book cov­ers here, illus­trat­ing detec­tive fic­tion by such nota­bles as Dashiell Ham­mett, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Ray­mond Chan­dler.

Despite the cul­tur­al cachet these names bear, they are also writ­ers whose work thrived in the “pulps,” a term denot­ing, Rebec­ca Rom­ney writes at Crime Reads, “a wide cat­e­go­ry that bounds across gen­res.” Famed detec­tive writ­ers were as like­ly to be print­ed in “pulp fic­tion” mag­a­zines and cheap paper­back edi­tions as were acclaimed authors like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe. In addi­tion to a num­ber of genre con­ven­tions, the “com­mon traits” of pulp fic­tion “are cheap­ness, porta­bil­i­ty, and pop­u­lar­i­ty.”

Detec­tive fic­tion, whether “lit­er­ary” or wild­ly sen­sa­tion­al, has always been a pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment, close kin to the “Pen­ny Dread­ful,” those cheap­ly-pro­duced 19th cen­tu­ry British nov­els of adven­ture and sen­sa­tion. “Twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry detec­tive nov­els are inti­mate­ly tied to the his­to­ry of the pulps,” writes Rom­ney, which “rely on the erot­ic for their appeal.” Pulp pub­li­ca­tions sen­sa­tion­al­ize in images what may be far more chaste in the text. These “ridicu­lous­ly sex­i­fied” book cov­ers do not both­er with coy sym­bol­ism or min­i­mal­ist allu­sion. They take aim direct­ly at the libido, or, to take Chesterton’s phrase, “the actu­al cen­tre of a mil­lion flam­ing imag­i­na­tions.”

The cov­er of The Mal­tese Fal­con at the top goes out of its way to illus­trate “the only sex­u­al­ly scan­dalous scene of the book, as if it were the sin­gle most cru­cial moment of the entire sto­ry.” The cov­er is pure objec­ti­fi­ca­tion, and on such grounds we might rea­son­ably object. To do so is to cri­tique an entire mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry aes­thet­ic of “exploita­tion,” a campy style that glee­ful­ly tit­il­lat­ed audi­ences who glee­ful­ly desired tit­il­la­tion.

The cov­ers date from the mid-thir­ties to ear­ly fifties. All of the typ­i­cal visu­al pulp themes are here, which are also typ­i­cal of detec­tive fic­tion and noir: the femme fatale (called “a lus­cious mantrap” on the cov­er of Ray­mond Chandler’s The Big Sleep below), in var­i­ous seduc­tive states of undress; the unsub­tle hints of vio­lence and sado­masochism. Such themes in the nov­els can be overt, implic­it, or ful­ly sub­merged. The focus of these cov­ers turns the tropes into cheap come-ons. In this, per­haps, they do their authors an injus­tice, but their naked inten­tion is sole­ly to make the sale. What read­ers do with the books after­ward is their own affair.

“These absurd cov­ers,” Rom­ney writes, “speak to the detec­tive novel’s unavoid­ably shared her­itage with oth­er sen­sa­tion­al pulp gen­res, much like the ever-present creepy uncle at Thanks­giv­ing.” As much as qual­i­ty detec­tive fic­tion, sci-fi, fan­ta­sy, and hor­ror might receive crit­i­cal praise as high art, they will always be inex­tri­ca­bly relat­ed to the “vul­gar” plea­sures of the pulps. To speak of such enter­tain­ments as the domain of the low­brow, the mag­nan­i­mous Chester­ton might say, is only to “mean human­i­ty minus our­selves.” Still, I won­der what Chester­ton would have said had his col­lect­ed Father Brown sto­ries appeared in a pulp ver­sion with a non­sen­si­cal­ly sexy cov­er?

Vis­it Crime Reads to see these cov­ers com­pared with those of more sub­tle, and arguably more taste­ful, edi­tions.

More pulp cov­ers of clas­sic lit­er­a­ture can be found at LitHub.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter the Pulp Mag­a­zine Archive, Fea­tur­ing Over 11,000 Dig­i­tized Issues of Clas­sic Sci-Fi, Fan­ta­sy & Detec­tive Fic­tion

“20 Rules For Writ­ing Detec­tive Sto­ries” By S.S. Van Dine, One of T.S. Eliot’s Favorite Genre Authors (1928)

Ray­mond Chandler’s Ten Com­mand­ments for Writ­ing a Detec­tive Nov­el

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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