DIRTY BOOKS: WHEN NOVELS COULD SHOCK

Irving Wallace (left), Grace Metalious, Mickey Spillane, Harold Robbins

The lengthy process that is publishing a new novel, started my mind drifting back to the past, where it all-too-often drifts lately, to a lost era when popular novels actually influenced the culture and stirred controversy in ways unheard of today.

When I was growing up, popular fiction was often popular because it occupied forbidden territory that I was sternly ordered not to enter. On that dark terrain lay…sex! Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get to where I wasn’t supposed to go. Reading wasn’t so much reading as it was an act of rebellion—and exploration into the unknown.

The novelists who shocked readers and drove me to their books late at night, by flashlight, under covers—Grace Metalious (Peyton Place), Irving Wallace (The Chapman Report), Mickey Spillane (the Mike Hammer mysteries), and, most blatantly, and therefore most successfully, Harold Robbins (The Carpetbaggers).

Those writers are all-but-forgotten, and no one gets too concerned about sex in literature (unless you are the Texas or Florida school boards and legislatures), but in the late fifties and early sixties they were breaking new ground with explicit sexuality that previously had been banned (you couldn’t for a long time read either Henry Miller or D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published, for heaven’s sake, in 1928).

In those days, if an inquisitive young person like myself wanted information about sex, novels provided it. Sizzling was the word often used. And steamy, too. Critically, they were dismissed as potboilers but they were outrageously popular, the subjects for endless debate and raging denunciations from local governments and the church, labelled “dirty books.”

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on them.

Years later, as a journalist, I talked to some of the writers who had created those, ahem, dirty books. Irving Wallace, a screenwriter who began writing novels after he became disillusioned with Hollywood, turned out to be an amiable, mild-mannered guy still slightly taken aback by the controversy over The Chapman Report, his runaway bestseller, whose plot was inspired by the publication of the Kinsey Report (talk about controversy!).

By the time I met up with Mickey Spillane, his days of churning out lurid, bestselling mystery paperbacks such as I, The Jury (the novel that made him) and Kiss Me Deadly were behind him (after selling 225 million copies). In their 1950s heyday those novels, full of violence and lots of implied sex, had helped fuel the exploding paperback book industry.

I went down to Mickey’s home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina to talk to him, a gruff, entirely likable guy who had held onto his trademark brush cut, proud of the fact that, remarkably, he typed a single draft of a Mike Hammer mystery, never going back or editing what he had written, before sending it off to his publisher (he swore he wrote I, The Jury in nine days).

No one adopted the role of playboy author more overtly than Harold Robbins. He lived the most glamorous life of all the writers from that era, cheerfully insisting that he drew the sex scenes in such novels as The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers from personal experience. In Detroit to promote one of his later books, small and foul-mouthed, he insisted on being surrounded by models hired for the evening, and had no qualms about grabbing at his groin when discussing the sex in his books. Not a nice guy.

Although they don’t sell anything like they once did, and now seem almost old-fashioned, most of the scandalous titles from my past are still in print—and you no longer have to read them by flashlight under bedcovers.

Amazingly, however, Peyton Place, Grace Metalious’s novel of murder, incest, and abortion in a New Hampshire town which sold 30 million copies when it was published in 1956, had been turned into two movies, and a hit TV series, and whose name had become synonymous for elicit goings-on in small town America, was out of print for years.

It was rescued by author Ardis Cameron who persuaded a small New England press to republish it. I once attended a lecture Ms. Cameron gave in Camden, Maine (where the Lana Turner movie was filmed) in which she argued effectively that Peyton Place was much more than a hugely popular “dirty novel”, that it had done much to break down the barriers surrounding conservative North American cultural thinking.

I suspect you could make the same argument about Wallace, Spillane, Robbins et al who so gleefully poked at the rigid boundaries of the time in ways that no author can today, if only because those boundaries have been long since breached.

Today’s fiction hardly causes a ripple let alone a tsunami of controversy the way it once did. You would be hard-pressed to even come across a sex scene in a contemporary novel. The dirty book, for good or ill, is a thing of the distant past.

And in keeping with the mores of the time, I like to think of the novel I have co-authored with Prudence Emery, Death at the Savoy, as a sexy mystery. A dirty book? Heaven forbid!

About

Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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