I like to think of each of the books I’ve been reading as a kind of primary source. The plot and characters are products of the author’s imagination but the ambience (even when settings are fictionalized) reflects his or her own real-life experiences. A historical novel, no matter how well researched, lacks the immediacy of a first-hand account. Sometimes the problem is an erroneous detail; sometimes it’s anachronistic thoughts or actions. So to get reliable information about the past, I’ve limited my reading to works set in times that the authors can remember.
What hadn’t occurred to me until last weekend, when I cam across this fascinating site, was that the same standard needed to be applied to setting. That is, I needed to make sure that the author actually had experiences in California. I knew that a few novels translated into English had authors who probably never spent time in California. Edward Stilgebauer’s geographically garbled The Star of Hollywood (1929) was an example. And I thought that the multitude of Carter Brown detective novels, often set in Los Angeles although the Australian author seldom visited the United States, provided only a rare exception to the rule that California novels were produced by writers who resided in the state.
Actually, however, what made Brown’s novels unusual was not the use of California settings by an author unfamiliar with them. Instead, it was their reprinting in huge numbers by an American publisher. Starting in 1958 Signet distributed millions of copies of Brown’s books in the United States. His books are still difficult to miss in bins of used paperbacks.
I hadn’t realized that many other English-language writers (mostly British) were setting pulp-fiction novels in the United States. Using what they learned from books, magazines and movies, they imitated as best they could American speech and attitudes. Hundreds of titles appeared in the years after World War II. Like their American counterparts, the books featured lurid covers and pseudonymous authors.
New York and Chicago were apparently the favorite settings, but California made some appearances as well. So we had Rex Richards’ San Francisco Dame (1952), Al Bocca’s Ticket to San Diego (1953) and Nat Karta’s Los Angeles Be Damned. Maybe the first to put his stories in California was famed mystery writer James Hadley Chase. In 1949 and 1950 he produced a three-part series featuring P.I. Vic Malloy: You’re Lonely When You’re Dead (1949), Figure It Out For Yourself (1950) and Lay Her Among The Lilies (1950). Malloy had his office in the town of Orchid City, vaguely located somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Only occasionally did one of the British-American novels make it across the Atlantic. The first two of the Malloy novels were reprinted in the United States, for example. Another was Payoff for Paula, produced in 1951 by the hyper-prolific pulp writer Stephen Francis and issued under the popular pseudonym “Jeff Bogar.” It’s apparently a femme fatale tale set in Hollywood. Later that year Lion Books reprinted the novel as The Tigress. I had been thinking that I wanted to read the book. But now that I know the author never resided in California, I think I’ll skip it.
I have already been fooled at least once. It turns out that Sex Gantlet to Murder (1955), ostensibly written by “Mark Shane” was actually the work of Victor Norwood, a British pulp writer best known for jungle stories. I haven’t found any evidence that the book was ever published in England. How Norwood got together with Fabian Books, the fledgling publisher in Fresno, is anyone’s guess. In any case, I should have been suspicious when I read the book, since some of the addresses mentioned didn’t quite make sense.