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The American Dream in Words and Pictures:
Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America
Geoffrey O'Brien, Hardboiled America: The Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir Expanded Edition (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997). $16.95 / £12.95 198pp. ISBN 0-306-80773-4. Paperback.
This is a welcome re-issue of Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America: The Lurid Years of the Paperbacks which has been something of a hard-to-locate collectors item for anybody with a serious interest in paperback fiction and cover art.

O'Brien's book discusses in detail the work of the artists who produced the lurid paperback covers; his attention also extends to the relationship between the cover art and the stories, and he discusses most of the key writers of the 'hard-boiled' era (a term rather taken for granted, however, as O'Brien never attempts to define it). O'Brien's scope also includes the paperback publishing companies. Chapter Two, 'Origins of the Paperback' offers a potted history of the evolution of the American paperback, which really begins with the Pocket Book Company's launch of ten cheap (25c) titles with illustrated covers in 1939. The success of the Pocket Book venture led other publishers to climb aboard the pocket-book bandwagon and paperback publishing mushroomed in the early nineteen-forties until sales went into decline at the end of the war. The post-war period saw a drive by publishers to stimulate sales with increasingly violent and sexy covers which, from the mid-forties to the mid-fifties, formed a grotesquely compelling portrayal of American fears and obsessions until checked by a moral backlash that amounted to a cultural revolution as North America went through the repressive, paranoid period known as 'the cold war.' By 1960, the the heyday of the hardboiled paperback was over and the salaciously vibrant cover art had become impersonal and bland: life had overtaken art and an era had passed, registered in a nation's cultural ephemera.

For a book that takes cover art seriously however, Hardboiled America has a rather disappointing cover of its own; the pneumatic-breasted blonde floozy and layout is a dull reworking of the 1948 Avon paperback of James M. Cain's Sinful Woman (illustrated on p. 70). O'Brien's book calls for a more exciting cover, drawing on the frisson-filled action that typifies the 'trashy' imagery evoked by the opening paragraph of Chapter One, 'Icons on Yellow paper':

Melancholy men lean over dark drinks in yet darker barroms. Intense redheads roam through empty rooms in glittering negligees. A beefy man raises a clenched fist against a backdrop of drab tenement curtains ... men and women ... frozen in portentous tableaux of fear and anguish and violence and desire. (p. 7)

The original edition of O'Brien's had a sixteen colour pages, showing a total of forty-nine paperback covers, including five full-page cover-shots. The revised edition reduces this to a mere eight pages of coloured reproductions, showing only twenty-nine covers in colour, of which only one enjoys full page reproduction. One of the full-page colour reproductions in the original edition, the cover of the 1948 Avon edition of The Big Sleep, featuring a blonde-haired, feminised skull surrounded by orchids, is reduced in the revised edition to a quarter-page monochrome reproduction, a shame because on page 42 O'Brien refers to this particular cover as one of the better Avon covers of the period. However, what is lost in quantity is partly made up in quality--the colour reproductions are slightly larger in the revised edition, and the colours are bright and clean.

The most irritating aspect of this book (and the same is true of the first edition) is tha fact that where the text refers to a particular cover, it does not guide the reader to the appropriate illustration, which might be might be anywhere in the book.

For example, in Chapter Three, 'A Disposable Gallery', the reader on page 40 has to, if he wants to inspect the covers as he reads about them, flick forward to page 72 to find the cover illustration of Pocket Book The High Window which O'Brien compares with Murder is Dangerous, which has its cover shot buried among the colour plates. It is a shame that O'Brien or his publisher didn't take the opportunity to rectify this shortcoming. I was also disappointed by the fact that there is no list of illustrations. In an illustrated book--an O'Brien's book is in effect, an art-history text-book, albeit focused on popular culture--a list of illustrations is an essential navigational and reference tool for the reader.

The revised edition generally offers slightly larger monochrome reproductions than the first edition, are more cover shots are included than before. Quite a bit of new material is included in the text too. In Chapter Four, 'Mythologists of the Hardboiled', O'Brien deals with the fiction of Hammett, Cain, Chandler, McCoy, Fearing, Latimer, Goodis, Hughs and Woolrich. Here, however, O'Brien doesn't discuss the cover art so much as the structure, style and content of the novels and stories of these proponents of hardboiled writing. Almost half the space in this chapter is given over to Hammett and Goodis, with some eight-and-a-half and six-and-a-half pages respectively. While the Hammett piece is only slightly revised, the section on Goodis is considerably expanded to discuss all the novels, and includes a page of Lion and Gold Medal cover shots.

Chapter Five, 'The Detective and his Discontents' deals with the paperback portrayal of sexuality, concentrating particularly on the treatment of female characters in Hammett and Spillane, and eroticised violence in both paperback fiction and cover-art. O'Brien makes interesting observations of something of a crossover between novel and film: paperback covers of the 1940s seemed to be miniatures drawing on the movies, while fifties film looks like a series of cover-shots: 'flat, bright, violent surfaces devoid of character but brimming with emotion' (p. 125). This discussion would be much improved, however, by the inclusion of some representative film stills. O'Brien closes the chapter considering the decline of the detective genre and the emergence of the novel of drug-fearing paranoia, evinced in Day Keene's If the Coffin Fits and M E Chaber's The Splintered Man and their cover art.

Chapter Six, 'Afternoons of the Fifties', has undergone extensive revision. The space given to Jim Thompson is more than doubled and now runs to some six-and-a-half pages as O'Brien considers Thompson's hard-to-categorise style (there are references to Thompson throughout the book). Charles Williams picks up a couple of extra pages too. The treatment of the juvenile delinquency (JD) sub-genre is considerably expanded from four pages to ten, including a full-page cover shot of the 1957 Bantam edition of Hal Ellson's Tomboy. James Bama's cover painting of a loin-thrusting nymphette is described by O'Brien as:

an outrageous manifestation of kinky energy, whose blonde pony-tail, leather jacket and tight blue jeans raised her to the top ranks of erotic iconography, an image that will be remembered long after the text is forgotten. (p. 164)

In the preface to this new edition, O'Brien remarks that he has taken the opportunity to include some new material, and to revise and correct some sections without 'radically revis[ing] the tone or the premises of Hardboiled America as originally published' (p. 5). This revised edition closes with a newly-written epilogue which considers some of the book's themes in the light of 1996.

The epilogue, entitled 'The Long Morning After' takes the form of some four-and-a-half pages of rather imaginative prose which is meant to alert the reader to O'Brien's disenchantment with the postmodern tendency to raid the cultural ephemera of the past in an insatiable demand for iconographic kitsch. The glorious years of the popular American paperback, with vibrant, sexy artwork evolved out of the pulp covers of the previous era. Popular culture of the present is simply drawing on an aspect of the past that O'Brien, one feels, would rather keep sacrosanct. If there is a democratic aspect to the present digital age, it is the tendency to equalise high culture and popular culture, which are consumed with equal voracity in the playful and ironic reuse of the past. O'Brien should celebrate the tendency to re-visit and re-interpret the detritus of post-war disposable culture: after all, his book, not least its cover, is a part of that process too.

What O'Brien's book does well, it does very well: it deals seriously and knowledgable with a fascinating subject. For anybody with an interest in cover art, the evolution of paperback publishing and the key popular wruters of the post-war era, this is an indispensible reference item and, despite some niggles with the organisation of the illustrations and the tardy use of colour, is an essential addition to the bookshelves of any bibliophile. While a serious study of the art-work of post-war American paperbacks really calls for better indexing, more full-page cover-shots and colour reproduction throughout, such a book would be prohibitively expensive; as it is, Da Capo have done a very good job in re-issuing a marvellous book at a reasonable price.

E J M Duggan