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There are two sorts of literary history that are rarely conjoined. The first and most familiar to us in the universities is the history of texts, the innovative writing that altered the course of narrative or retuned the voices of poetry. Even literary biography typically bears kinship to this sort of literary history. After all, however useful a concept such as the anxiety of influence may prove, it still relates most effectively to elite texts read in their hayday by limited audiences. If we turn [End Page 813] for conversation about reading to our biological rather than intellectual relatives, asking a parent or grandparent, for example, how impressed they were when The Waste Land or Absalom, Absalom appeared, we are likely to be met with surprise. What's that? Remember, I didn't go to college. Most of our relatives, however, were not exactly illiterate. They just read different books than our histories identify as landmarks. Maybe the record of their reading is not literary history, but at the least it is a history of literacy.
The materials for such a history of popular taste are what Jon L. Breen and Martin Harry Greenberg offer us in their collection of essays on the crime and mystery novels published as paperback originals from the 1950s to the present. Succeeding the pulp magazines, paperback originals issued by Fawcett Gold Medal, Avon, Lancer, Signet, Pinnacle, and others provided apprentice experience and immediate cash for professional writers. Not a lot of cash, but maybe $2500 as an advance from Gold Medal, $750 or $1000 from other companies.
Practically all of the writers who created the commodity worked in the genre of hard-boiled fiction, repeating over and over the conventions of a man on the run encountering the dames one would expect and experiencing the frissons of fear and apprehension that kept readers turning the pages. Each of the writers discussed in this volume worked almost exclusively in the paperback market. Only one—Marijane Meaker who wrote as Vin Packer—was a woman. All were prolific. Harry Whittington published 25 novels in three years, Peter Rabe did 18 novels in five years, and Warren Murphy in collaboration with Richard Sapir produced 70 paperback novels in sixteen years.
The contributors to the book evidently worked as independently and differently as one might expect of the compilers of a literary (literacy) history without established theory or guidelines. Ed Gorman gives us "Fifteen Impressions of Charles Williams." Will Murray treats "The Executioner Phenomenon" begun by Don Pendleton and continued by anonymous ghosts. Max Allan Collins, in perhaps the best entry, examines the psychopathic characters of Jim Thompson, author of The Getaway, in relationship to the exemplary works of James M. Cain.
The editor Jon L. Breen summons the opinions of Vin Packer's work written by Anthony Boucher, the only person regularly reviewing paperback originals for many years, to set a claim for her reputation as a serious explorer of social matter. Most of the other contributions survey works and dispense information—sometimes engagingly as when Donald E. Westlake writes about Peter Rabe—as one must expect from an inchoate form of literary history in which its practitioners feel compulsion to tally whatever seems to them important as readers. In this respect Murder Off the Rack might be described as precritical history.
By contrast Thomas J. Roberts' discourse about the aesthetics of so-called junk fiction can be denominated an exercise in the assimilation of popular literature into the framework of established literary historiography. The tipoff lies in Roberts' identification of two readerships for the genre fiction he studies. One is "people whose reading is confined exclusively to these materials" such as popular fantasy, the western, science fiction, the mystery, and the romance. The other readership is "people who are well read. They have read, and they continue to read, far outside the boundaries of junk fiction. They see...