Guilty Reading Pleasures
Are there books you enjoy, but would be embarrassed to admit you read? NPR has an ongoing segment called My Guilty Pleasure in which authors confess to books they adore, but would not wish to be caught reading in public.
Pulp fiction novels from the 50’s and 60’s are my guilty reading pleasure. The more salacious the cover, the cheesier the premise, the better. There, I’ve admitted it. Before you judge me too harshly, however, I can explain!
Judging a Book by its Cover
It all started when I worked at a used bookstore simply called The Business, a wonderful place (much like Recycled Books over in Denton.) One day, my boss handed me a bag of rejects to put in the recycle bin. As I began tossing them out, a book called Impatient Virgin caught my eye. The cover art featured a pouty blonde wearing a tight lace top with one of those Jane Russell style pointy bras beneath, and quoted her as saying, “I’m going after the thing I want, and to h- – – with everybody!”
Oh, Donald Henderson Clarke, you had me at H- – -!
The title and illustration cracked me up so much that I kept an eye out for similarly styled books. In the beginning, I merely collected them for their covers. I was too highbrow to read a lowly pulp novel, after all.
One fateful evening, however, as I searched my bookshelves for something to read, I could not find any that hit the spot. It was similar to that feeling of staring at a full closet or fridge, yet still feeling that you have nothing to wear or eat. Bleary from a stressful day, I wanted something easy to concentrate on, something that would make me laugh.
On a whim, I cracked open Strip for Murder by Richard S. Prather. Little did I know that this would be my gateway novel into the world of pulp fiction. Right from the start, I got a kick out of Prather’s hard-boiled dick, a fellow named Shell Scott, who – from Prather’s description – resembles an albino Oompa Loompa on steroids and is quite a ladies man.
As for the plot, Strip for Murder details how Scott is sent to a nudist colony to solve a string of mysterious homicides. The prose is studded with dated slang, political views, and attitudes, but what kept me turning the pages was Prather’s puns and wordplay:
“I knew she was getting on towards sixty, but she must have got off somewhere along the way, because from this distance, except for the white hair, she didn’t look forty.”
“Four women strolled by, then two couples, then six or seven more women. I didn’t count them, but never in my life had I seen so many naked broads all at once. I didn’t mind, though; I’m broad-minded”
“The parted lips curved into a soft smile. I looked at her for a second or two, steeling myself, but she was like a magnet, so it did no good to steel myself.”
“There was what seemed to be a drawbridge lowered over the moat, though whether it actually worked or not was a moat question.”
And let us not forget this elaborate groaner:
“He was Chinese, a young, completely bald guy in his early twenties, maybe two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than I. He’d been a star center in college, and once while he’d been carrying a big rally sign that said “football,” the sign had got torn and he’d run around carrying the part that said, “foo.” He’d carried that name into his postcollege and extralegal activities, and becuase he was a youthful Chinese egg and bald, and because hoods are hoods, his monicker had become, almost inevitably, Young Egg Foo.”
Prather’s novels are entertaining romps that definitely do not take themselves seriously. I even feel that stylistically, Prather could be Tom Robbins’ dad. It may sound strange at first, but I enjoy Prather and Robbins for the exact same reason: you can tell they are having fun as they write.
So there you have it, I love pulp fiction. What is your guilty reading pleasure?