Pulp fiction printed in paperback, bound in blood
WRITTEN BY Aaron Campbell
He was a U.S. Marine turned English professor who found himself at the right place at the wrong time.
The place was Kayo’s Books, located in San Francisco. The time was closed, as in Kayo’s Books wasn’t open for business.
So John Hall did what any self-respecting aficionado of 1940s and 1950s noir crime fiction would do in his situation.
He went back to Kayo’s Books the next day when it was open. He didn’t take any backup with him inside. No cops. No private dicks. No bored housewives with too much money and time to kill on their hands.
He instead took them all home with him. In a grocery store bag full of 25-cent Bantam paperbacks and well-preserved Lion originals.
And, thus, a collection was born.
“I never really set out to collect this stuff,” Hall confessed with a laugh.
Most collectors would smile in recognition; they all said the same thing when they got started. Suddenly, as time progressed and titles accumulated, it could no longer be dismissed as a mere “hobby” or a “diversion.”
Collectors know the same attraction and thrill of the hunt as any dedicated private investigator would chasing down a lead. Collecting is obsession. It’s the need for ownership and completion wrapped up in dime-store novels and narratives packed with alluring femme fatales and justice at the barrel of a smoking .38.
Hall’s collection of pulp fiction noir fills entire bookshelves in his Lancaster home. Those bookshelves fill entire rooms. And there’s still not enough adequate space to do the collection justice. All told, a treasure trove.
The titles lining those bookshelves and peeking out from their stacks are tough, taut and as lurid as the cover illustrations that grace them: “Nobody Lives Forever,” “The Girl in the Spike-Heeled Shoes,” “Jailbait Jungle,” “Little Tramps.”
“They used models—cover models—and oftentimes the same illustration was used and reused on different books,” Hall explained as he pointed to a copy of “The Blonde on the Street Corner.” The original price, up in the left hand corner, was only 25 cents.
Hall was drawn into the genre by those illustrated and evocative covers as a 12-year old boy. His parents had hard-boiled fiction all over their house when he was growing up in north Texas. Hall thrilled to the exploits of gumshoes and gun molls so much that he had little interest in the standard, “prescribed” literature being assigned in school.
In junior high school, Hall wrote a book report on a Shell Scott noir thriller penned by Richard S. Prather. The takeaway critique from his teacher at the time: “Next time choose something from our library.”
He refused to read “Ivanhoe” in high school, not as a matter of principle, but of taste. “I didn’t want to read that,” Hall said.
The well-oiled allure of good guys mixed up with bad girls, and vice versa, was too much a siren song for Hall to resist. Hard-boiled crime fiction—“that was my world.”
Nobody had a bigger influence on Hall than Mickey Spillane and his tough-guy hero, Mike Hammer. Spillane’s debut novel, 1947’s “I, The Jury,” helped usher in a whole new wave of popular crime fiction, forever altering its course in the process.
Prior to this late 1940s birth of shocking violence and suggested sex, popular entertainment in books and the movies showed good guys wearing white hats and bad guys sketched in black.
When the hero went to confront the villain, he shot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand. He disarmed him. He turned him over to the authorities so that justice could be served.
Hall, who has taught English, history and journalism during his academic lifetime, points out that Spillane gave the world a whole new idea of what a hero could be. He could be an “anti-hero,” someone willing to bend or break the laws himself in order to succeed. In the world of noir, good is never going to defeat evil. Only more evil can thwart the bad guys.
Without Mike Hammer, there is no “Dirty Harry” Callahan. There is no James Bond, licensed to kill. There is no Lisbeth Salander, cyber-hacking her way to vengeance. “I guess I’m drawn to the dark side as it were,” Hall mused. “But I wasn’t alone.”
Hall’s collection of noir paperbacks wasn’t his first. He’d tried his hand at stamp collecting in the 1950s after he received a neighbor’s collection. Inspired by the cowboy heroes of his youth —Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers —Hall collected cap pistols, lobby cards and other Western-themed memorabilia.
He even managed to get his hands on old 12-cent “Wonder Woman” and other Golden Age comic books before entering the Marine Corps in 1958. What eventually happened to his comics was a fate no collector ever wants to ponder: Hall’s mother gave them all away when he joined the military In the years since he has acquired a smaller collection of Wonder Woman comics and other issues.
But it will likely be his hard-boiled crime paperbacks that leave the most indelible legacy. Hall was even able to meet his childhood hero Spillane in 2000, fulfilling a boyhood dream in the process. He was able to first correspond, then meet the author in person and spend time with the master before his death in 2006.
“That was the thrill of a lifetime there,” Hall nodded.
Blackmail. Double crosses. Crime and punishment. For Hall, these aren’t situations to run away from. They’re invitations for thrill-a-minute tales he can’t wait to dive into.CaptionCaptionJohn Hall holds up his copy of “I, the Jury,” Mickey Spillane’s debut novel in 1947 that helped usher in a whole new wave of popular crime fiction.