AUSTRALIAN PULP FICTION, by Toni Johnson-Woods
When Gordon Clive Bleeck sat down to write his first detective story in 1954, he had already written over 40 novelettes. Yet you won’t find him listed in any of the traditional literary dictionaries (until recently). Nor will you find any of his colleagues – the many, many writers who churned out hundreds of crime novels for Australian publishing companies, such as Action Comics, Calvert Books, Cleveland Publishing, Horwitz Publications and Invincible Mysteries. These companies, which printed fiction as fast as their writers could produce them, had sprung up after 1939 when the Australian government levied imported (mostly American) soft-covered fiction. Into the fiction void local publishers stepped, with one problem, Australia didn’t have enough professional writers to provide material. So into the fray stepped amateur writers such as Bleeck, Alan Geoffrey Yates, and C J McKenzie – writers who were willing to work in fiction factory conditions …who treated writing as a second occupation.
One week before Christmas in 1954 Bleeck wrote in his diary: “Cliff Robinson rang. Wants me to write [48,000 word] crime novels rate of one in three weeks.” Two weeks later Bleeck fixed a leaky faucet, tiled the kitchen sink and “analysed a detective novel.” He finished You Can’t Forget Murder on 31st January 1955. He delivered it to Action Comics the following day and received £58/4s.
Bleeck’s work schedule is nothing short of astonishing: in 1955 he wrote 26 novels a year, a novel every two weeks – nearly 600,000 words. He wrote for at least three hours per day; usually after he came home from night shift. He was a devoted father, a busy Mason and worked full-time for the New South Wales Railways. Sickness was merely an inconvenience and two days after surgery, Bleeck was back to plotting his next story (August 1955). The following diary entry is typical:
Wed 31 January: Saw Dr … and made an appointment for further deep ray treatment on Tuesday next 10am [Bleeck had a skin cancer]. Took Grubstake [western] into D Beard. Received cheque for £6.6 for “Our Home” stories also for £6.15 for westerns. Worked on Frozen Peril [Scientific Thriller] 6 hours.
Understandably, he “battled” and “struggled” with some stories.
Meanwhile at Horwitz, Alan Yates, was churning out Peter Carter Brown “Lovely Mysteries.” In 1951 Yates, an ex-publicist with QANTAS, had signed a 30-year contract with Horwitz to produce two novelettes and one full-length novel a month – specifically he was contracted to write “Scientific Thrillers” and “Lovely Mysteries.” After the Scientific Thriller series ended, Yates concentrated on Carter Brown stories. In 1955 Yates wrote 20 books, the following year 25 appeared – like Bleeck he was writing a new novel every fortnight. In 1960 Lyall Moore of Horwitz calculated that Yates had published about eight million words: “but to get there he has probably written twice the number.” Given Yates’ ability to write 40,000 words overnight, Horwitz were confident when they signed a contract with Signet for Yates to produce one new novel per month. He had been writing that for the past several years.
Who didn’t see that no one could plot, write and edit one 127 page novel a month? Especially when the writer lives in Sydney, has to submit his mss to local editors (at Horwitz) who then edit and send off to Signet. Signet editors then revised the mss and sent back to Horwtiz for approval; Horwtiz sent the material back to Yates. It was a pretty straightforward but time consuming. Often Yates’ material did not receive his approval, naturally. Soon Yates was behind and more than a little peeved. Signet had made “a new novel a month” the cornerstone of their Carter Brown publicity. The Signet archives are filled with correspondence that reflects the constant treadmill of late mss and attempts to fill the voids. No wonder Yates consumed ‘speed’ in order to complete such a frenetic work schedule (interview with Stephen Knight).
While Bleeck remained at the Cleveland stable and Yates was contracted to Horwitz/Signet, pulp fiction writer, C J Mackenzie was more freelance. Mackenzie, a journalist, worked for both Cleveland, Howitz and others; he recalled the grind of the work: “it was the hardest job in the world… You worked with stack of quarto paper on the left, a typewriter in middle and the m/s on the right. And woe betide you if you found your hastily typed story wasn’t working out… [There was] no delete, cut, copy or paste buttons. You started all over again.” (Personal Interview)
Pulp history is replete with anecdotes of the slave-like conditions for writers; was it worth the effort?
Grub Street for the Australian pulp fiction writer was not paved with gold but it could be rewarding – especially as for many writers, it supplemented meagre incomes. Audrey Armitage (co-wrote with Muriel Watkins the “K T McCall” series) taught at the New South Wales Institute of Technology; W H Williams (Marc Brody series) worked as an editor at the Truth newspaper while he churned out his 78 novels and Bleeck maintained his fulltime job at the New South Wales railways. Yates gave up his QANTAS job only after he signed a contract with Horwitz.
Writers signed away their overseas rights, and Australian companies organised reprinting with overseas publishers. When Bleeck visited Vantage Press in New York city, the person there was astounded by Bleeck’s output and declared that if he wrote that many novels in the United States, he would be a millionaire. After his return, Bleeck approached a number of his publishers about organising overseas reprints; Action Comics admitted that they had already sold the foreign rights and that his books were selling in Mexico. He received no additional income for these reprints. Carter Brown and Marc Brody series were published by Atlas Comics in the United Kingdom – it is unlikely they received royalties for these books.
When Signet negotiated with Horwitz the rights to print the Carter Brown series in America, the contract was not between Alan Geoffrey Yates and NAL; it was between Horwitz and Signet. The basic contractual obligations were outlined in an internal memo:
1. We plan three Carter Brows [sic] in ’58, ten in ’59. Our exclusive option continues so long as we accept 75% of submissions...
2. We shall be the exclusive licensee, so long as our option is effective, of the Carter Brown name in all respects, and of all the other writings of A. G. Yates under Carter Brown or any other name, and none of your other series ... will impinge upon the Carter Brown type of narrative...
3. HP [Horwitz Publishing] is to receive not less than 2c per net copy sold...
4. No Carter Brown book will cast off to more than 128 pages, and at least for the present that should be the minimum length as well...
There is no indication of how much Yates was to receive. Stan Horwitz also received a US$1500 advance from Signet for Yates’ first book; no record remains of how much Yates received.
Carter Brown books must have been profitable for Signet and Horwitz – especially if the “17 million books in print” boasts were anywhere near accurate. Bleeck earned a little over £50 in January 1950 for one novelette, one long story and five short stories. He was earning £40 per week at the NSW Railways. At the end of his writing career, Bleeck totalled his earnings and converted them to dollars; for twenty years of writing he had been paid just a shade over $21,000. While the money seems paltry by today’s standards, it went further in the 1950s: a house in Bondi cost about £4,000. But mainly this money bought Bleeck luxuries. Bleeck could afford to renovate his house (he did nearly all of the work himself), to buy the latest technology (telephone, tape recorder, car) and to take his family on overseas holidays (he paid £1620 to sail to the USA in 1958). It is heartening to know that Yates also enjoyed his money: he indulged in a black Jaguar with leopard skin upholstery, a “sprawling house” in fashionable Sydney suburb St Ives and overseas trips.
Horwitz offered McKenzie £30 per week and the option to write novels at £90 per story. He recalls that he could not refuse the “irresistible” offer – at the time he was earning £22 per week as a journalist at the Daily Mirror. When Yates went overseas to meet with Signet, Horwitz asked McKenzie to write the Carter Brown books in Yates’ absence. For ten 60,000 word novels he received £1500 – enough for a deposit on a house. He worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week to complete the Herculean task; “There were periods when I literally didn’t know what day it was.”
Reading the authors’ diaries, publishers’ archives or listening to their stories, it is soon clear that they were pragmatic people who looked upon writing as a job. They were writers for hire. They wrote for whomever would pay them: Yates wrote for Horwitz and Invincible Press; McKenzie wrote for Horwitz and Webster; Bleeck wrote for nearly a dozen publishing houses. They had to be versatile to write romance, western, crime and science fiction. They certainly didn’t write for glory as many of their stories appeared under housenames (such as Paul Valdez, Belli Luigi, and Ace Carter) and pseudonyms (Bleeck had nearly 30). If they harboured notions of writing the great Australian (or American) novel these would have been soon expelled. Bleeck’s diaries are filled with entries such as:
Friday 26 January 1951: Al Innes [Horwitz] rang, required additional 15,000 words of The Frozen Death as soon as possible.
Tuesday 13 February 1951: Denny White [Calvert] rang. Requires a 10,000 word racing story and a 7,000 word boxing story. Former to be in by Thursday 22nd March.
Thursday 12 July 1951: Had a long talk with Al Innes when I delivered “Two Birds” to him, and received back cheque for £4-10... “Unbroken Record” a boxing story unsuitable for adult consumption. Requires a detective story and another boxing story by Monday next.
If their work was not satisfactory, it was returned and they weren’t paid. However, they seem to have found the work rewarding enough to continue. Bleeck’s advice to an aspiring writer summarises the frustrations and rewards:
Don’t – unless you are prepared to risk a lot of disappointment, for weeks, months, possibly years; and prepared to find your best efforts come homing back like well-trained pigeons.
On the other hand there is a great deal of satisfaction in creating something, in getting that first Editor’s cheque, in seeing your story in print. But between the first and the other two of these satisfactions there is a great gap that has to be filled in by hard work. (Letter to Miss Thompson, dated 30 June 1955)
Information about Alan Yates and Signet comes from the NAL archives held at the New York University in New York city, USA. C J McKenzie’s experiences as a writer are taken from his unpublished memoirs which he is currently preparing for publication. The National Library of Australia in Canberra holds the Bleeck Collection; the collection consists of Bleeck’s diaries, ledgers, letters and one copy of each of his ca. 300 novels. More information about Bleeck is available in “Bleeck House” NLA News, December 2002. Thanks to all of these people for permission to quote from their material.
“Australian writers and printers are being starved” warned Senator Cameron in 1938. He was giving an impassioned speech to parliament because of the importation of American “pulps.” He claimed that a third of a million back-dated issues had recently been landed in Sydney. The following year the Australian government imposed a ‘dumping duty’ that virtually banned imported books.
The next twenty years are the golden era of Australian publishing. Sydney companies such as Action Comics, Horwitz Publications and Cleveland Publishing printed hundreds of novelettes each month. These ubiquitous novelettes filled the shelves of newspaper stands and newsagents; they were small enough to fit into a pocket. It was disposable fiction – meant to be read and discarded. And while buyers had a dazzling array of choices: westerns, romances, adventures, science fiction, or horror, the most enduring genre was detective fiction. Local publishers and writers found a ready audience who wanted their fiction hardboiled, and with an American twist.
No wonder the presses were hot; the fiction was readily available, easy to read and promised thrills and excitement. Who could resist stories titled: Death in a Nudist Camp, The Wench is Wicked, Nude in a Boot? And the jacket blurbs were pitched at a breathtaking speed:
The ’phone jangled – it was a dame. She screamed trouble … me, I assessed its value. She gasped, then said okay, and gave me an address. In no time flat I was there. She was blonde, five feet two, ran an agency – a classy joint – filing cabinets, pretty dames behind rows of typewriters – the lot. Everything had a kick, except the blonde – she was dead. I figured I'd lost a client. Then Rita appeared. She made a hit; she kept me in business. But it was still a case of “Get me Homicide.” (Get Me Homicide)
It may not have been the most literary fiction, indeed most of the stories were poorly edited and grammatically questionable. The dialogue can be awkward and the favourite punctuation mark was an exclamation mark. But who had time for polishing, the next book had to be out in a fortnight.
In an effort to feed a fiction-hungry public, authors churned out thousands of words a week. The writing pace was frenetic. Authors such as Gordon Clive Bleeck and Alan G Yates were writing a new book every two weeks– and published over half-a-million words each year. Yates became known for his ability to write nearly 40,000 words overnight and he confessed to Stephen Knight that sometimes he worked 48 hours straight – thanks to Benzedrine and coffee. The pay was ordinary, about one pound per thousand words. But there was plenty of work available, and, as Yates reminisced, “I’ll have it rather than someone else.”
Hardly surprisingly, the stories are formulaic. The same scenarios are repeated again and again. The American hero/writer (they are always written in the first-person) is an investigator of some kind (newspaper crime reporter, private eye, insurance company investigator). He is approached (often by a female) to solve a mystery. During the course of the investigation, he drinks copious amounts of alcohol, kisses a number of babes, visits seedy night-clubs, encounters corrupt policemen/politicians, uncovers a “racket” and fights numerous gangsters. At the end of the book, the baddies are banged up and the hero wraps his arm around a babe. All standard hardboiled fare.
At the centre of the book is the eponymous hero. He smokes, drinks whisky at 9am, is prone to violence and has been known to smack a dame around, but only if she needs it. Yet according to noir-master Raymond Chandler he is a knight errant – Chandler named his detective Marlowe, a derivative of Mallory. Thus Chandler romanticised the detective whose ambiguous moral code could offend contemporary readers.
Even more outdated than the hero are dames. They come in two sizes: breasty and begging for it, or slim-hipped and spinsterish. They either work in night-clubs or they pound typewriters. Their panting desire is the stuff of adolescent (male) dreams, though the sex is heavily teasing and largely off the page. And while the hero falls in love every novel, he remains resolutely single.
Americans wrote of the mean streets of the private eye; the Australian forms varied considerably: from the tongue-in-cheek Carter Brown to the violent Larry Kent.
Gordon Clive Bleeck
Bleeck was one of Australia’s most prolific writers. He started writing after completing a correspondence course in the 1930s and for the next thirty years he wrote over 300 novels—while he worked full time at the NSW Railways. Though the majority of his stories are westerns, in the 1950s he penned 30 detective novels.
One week before Christmas in 1954 Bleeck was asked to write “48,000 word crime novels rate of one in three weeks.” He spent a day “analysing a detective novel” and for the next two years he wrote a detective novel a month. At the end of the 1940s, the editors at Horwitz were looking for someone to write a detective series and approached Bleeck but he said no. He lived to regret his decision as the editors turned to Alan G Yates who was happy to become “Carter Brown”.
Between 1955 and 1960 W H (Bill) Williams, a journalist and editor of the Truth, wrote about 80 titles for Horwitz Publications. From his garden shed, Williams churned out 98 page stoires about Marc Brody, a crime reporter, who worked for the unoriginally named The News and travels around the United States solving crimes. Many of his titles reflect the newspaper theme: Her Column’s a Killer (1955), Dame on a Deadline (1955), The Lady’s Out of Circulation (1957), and Headlines for a Hussy (1957).
The standard fare is there: the rackets, the night-club singers, the violence and the hard drinking – especially the hard drinking: “Send the lieutenant up… And some liquor. Scotch, rye, bourbon and beer” (Blackmail was a Brunette). Brody’s concerns are largely economic and money is always at the fore of his stories; Williams wasn’t above having a bit of a whinge on the page:
... this dopey talk about him being innocent – is just dope talk. It might be all right for a fiction writer! Maybe Raymond Chandler, Carter Brown, or some other top-line writer could do something in a story with a theme like that! … But I’m just poor, dumb Brody! I can’t write. I’m not in the fiction racket. I’m a wageplug – a slave working for a newspaper. I don’t drive Jaguars or Studebakers, I drive a battered old Chev convertible. All I can do is keep on plugging and plugging, trying to solve crimes that aren’t solved, and at the same time keep out of trouble while I write the story. (Sweet, Svelte and Sinful)
Williams was writing for Horwitz and thus competing with Carter Brown – colleagues report that at the time Williams was starting to think he was Brody! Williams never achieved the literary finesse of “Carter Brown.”
Alan G Yates is the name most associated with the approximately 300 Carter Brown books. However, he was not the only one. C J McKenzie reports that he wrote ten of the series while Yates was overseas; pulp aficionado, Canberra’s Graeme Flanagan believes that Ron Smith wrote the Randy Roberts books in the 1970s. Certainly Yates wrote the majority of the stories and his was the face that adorned the back covers.
Yates married an Australian (Dennis Yates) and immigrated to Australia from the UK. He was working as an Editorial Officer for QANTAS when Horwitz contracted him to write two monthly detective novels in return for a weekly advance of £30 (no royalties), Yates was to produce two novelettes and one full-length Carter Brown a month. In 1958, US paperback giant, Signet bought the American rights to Carter Brown – Yates could now write at a leisurely pace of one novel a month. New York Times reviewer, Anthony Boucher praised Yates’s work in his “Criminals at Large” column; he found Lament for a Lousy Lover “bright, sexy and amusing.”
From the outset, the Carter Brown novels differed from the run-of-the-mill detective fiction. Carter Brown was not the detective but a house name; Yates created over a dozen detectives in the series – the most famous was Pine City’s Al Wheeler who appeared in over 50 novels. His detectives are fun. There’s Danny Boyd, New York’s “toughest private eye” who loves his profile:
I moved my head slightly…giving here my right profile which is a shade better than the left. I didn't want to impress her particularly, just let her know what was available. (Walk Softly Witch)
Or Mavis Seidlitz – Seidlitz originally worked as secretary (naturally), but when her boss becomes a security superintendent she takes over his private eye business. Besides being a talkative dame; Mavis is stunning blonde who has hair-and-hip nights and is not afraid of referring to her “perfect” figure. Of course, she attracts considerable male attention, though she never “goes all the way.” She talks like a man:
“I don’t think so, honey [she says to a man] …This interlude … wasn’t what you’d call real romantic, was it? It takes a while to recapture the mood and I wouldn’t want to keep you up all night just waiting.” (Lament for a Lousy Lover)
and even acts like a man:
I slung her [an actress] over my shoulder and carried her back to her own trailer which wasn’t far. After I dumped her onto the bed she just lay there limp and I figured she wouldn’t wake up until morning, so I stripped off her silk shirt and sandals, then three fast falls helped me wrestle the tight velvet pants down to her ankles, leaving only a pair of silk briefs. (Lament for a Lousy Lover)
Yates’ stories are par-boiled rather than hard-boiled. His stories lack Chandler’s and Hammett’s dark cityscapes and stark social realism. There is too much good-natured bantering and witticisms. Real noir detectives do not have a penchant for punning: “I guess they won’t let her talk about sin even if she is syndicated.” (Lament for a Lousy Lover). Yates is unafraid of literary allusions (“The Brother Caramaba’s Off!” in The Bump and Grind Murders) and experiments with literary techniques; such as the twin narratives (Mavis and Lt Wheeler in Lament for a Lousy Lover). His proclivity for sexual innuendo (in Lament for a Lousy Lover the tv series is named Ramrod) kept teen readers, such as author Peter Corris, tittering; and may account for the censorship of three of his books in Queensland. In the 1970s however, the tone of the Carter Brown books changed – the sex that had been playful and largely off-stage became more explicit.
It has been estimated that circa 80 million Carter Browns were sold; he was translated into 14 languages and was reprinted worldwide. The French made two movies and the Japanese based a TV series on his books. In Australia, his novels were adapted for one-hour radio serials was introduced by Yates. Rocky Horror Picture Show creator Richard O’Brien paid tribute to Carter Brown in his musical The Stripper (1982) which was performed by the Sydney Theatre Company and starred Terence O’Donovan.
Carter Brown’s chief rival was “Larry Kent.” Kent started his life as the hero of a half-hour radio programme on the Macquarie Network. The popularity of the radio show prompted Cleveland to publish Larry Kent novels. Two authors, Don Haring (an American who lived in Australia) and Des R Dunn (a Queenslander) are primarily associated with the series. Approximately 400 Kent novels were published between 1954 and 1983. In the 1990s the series was still being produced in Scandinavia.
Kent is a typical hardboiled private eye. He smokes Luckies, drinks whisky and within the first dozen pages, he has met a dame and is fighting for his life. His mean streets are pure New York (the radio series is set in Australia) and include Harlem nightclubs and Jersey roadhouses.
He is Chandler’s knight-errant: “You wouldn’t fail to pick up a lady. He said you were the chivalrous type” (Mayhem in Mexico), but that doesn’t mean Larry thinks much of women: “To a dame, almost any action is rational and normal … horse-sense and dames don’t necessarily go together.” (Get Me Homicide). Somehow he always finds two for himself. Generally the body counts are high: about six deaths per novel. The police are corrupt and Larry’s not above dealing out his brand of revenge to the boys in blue: “My fist caught (Lieutenant) Vascomb on the side of his leathery face and he went over.” (Get Me Homicide). And of course, Larry usually finds himself up against organised crime or some kind of “racket”:
The Syndicate! A crime organization that was spread across the United States. For a price, if you knew the right contact … you could gamble, get dope or a dame or a cozy-hide-out … or you could buy a guy’s death. (Get Me Homicide)
K. T. McCall
Female hardboiled writers are rare, but Audrey Armitage and Muriel Watkins wrote about 20 novels under the pseudonym K T McCall between 1957 and 1958. The star of their series is Johnny Buchanan, a New York investigator for the Silver Star Insurance Company. Published by Horwitz, the titles included Killer in the Chorus, Playgirl for Keeps and Stripper Strikes Out. Buchanan never carries a gun, but he encounters some of the most violent crimes. Lady’s a Decoy opens with the discovery of a dancer’s leg. Armitage and Watkins also penned two Gerry North stories. Few copies of these still survive.
Dozens of writers tried to replicate the success of Carter Brown. Robert Dudgeon’s Max Strong series offered “excitement of a different kind.” Each Carl Dekker “On the Spot” novels offered a new exotic location – Cuba (Pin it on the Doll), Egypt (Cutie Cursed), and Colombo (Miss Deadly). Webster Publications released about 30 Martin “Kane” (an investigating advertising executive) and J. C. “Jason” (a journalist) books; C J McKenzie wrote the Kane novels and G Stannus and Hugh Munro wrote the Jason ones. As Mickey Spillane would say, you know what they got? “Customers.”
Toni Johnson-Woods has written Pulp: A Collectors Book of Pulp Fiction, Pulp Fiction of the 1950s and is currently finishing a book on Carter Brown for the University of Sydney Press. She has also published on reality tv (Big Bother) and South Park (Blame Canada).
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Copyright © 2006 by Toni Johnson-Woods.
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