Ghosts of Paperbacks Past

Once upon a time, there were skinny books. It was possible to write a novel that ran to about 150 printed pages and see it published. This was especially true in the world of genre fiction. In fact, publishers of genre fiction preferred it that way. In those days, virtually all paperback books were the same price, be it 25, 35, or 50 cents, depending on the decade. And if you got the same money for a western at 120 pages as one at 240 pages, publish the shorter one: the profit margin would be higher and people might buy another one.

I don’t know which marketing genius first said, “Hey, why don’t we charge more for the bigger books? We can spin it so it looks like they’re getting twice as much book for a price that’s only fifty percent higher.” And I don’t know for sure if it was Jennifer Wilde (Love’s Tender Fury, 1976) who started the trend for romances two inches thick. But it was Tom Clancy who put the seal on it, with thrillers two to three inches thick. Suddenly, 300 pages was barely enough to be considered a real author, and to be a best seller, you were nearly required to produce a story that took 400 pages to complete.

Anyhow, this week at the Book Fair, we got in one of those collections where somebody bought every paperback in their genre, kept them around for a few decades, and then cleared out and sent them to us. There were some westerns, some romances, and a few good science fiction titles. But what they really bought up were the thrillers: cops, spies, and hapless innocents catapulted into violent worlds which they had never suspected existed. And virtually every book came in between 130 and 180 pages.

Having so many books in a single subject area from so narrow a time framed (all roughly 1964 to 1976) raises lots of questions. What can we learn about the political tensions of the time from these volumes? How many of these hip, up-to-date detectives spoke slang that was ten years out of date even in 1968? Which of these spies took their cue from James Bond, and which from George Smiley, and how many tried to do both?

And who the heck WERE all these people?

I have been pricing books around this joint for some time, and even before that, I was reading mysteries. In fact, man and boy, I’ve been reading mysteries for almost fifty years now. Furthermore, for a time I reviewed bibliographic titles for Armchair Detective magazine. So how can there be so many authors—many of whom are represented by three or four books in this collection—whom I have never heard of?

I pick one not quite at random: it impresses me by having a photographic cover—not common in paperback fiction at that time—and because the blurb on the cover is from The Congressional Record. Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana apparently stated on the floor of Congress that this book would “bring spy-thriller honors back to this side of the Atlantic”. It is Requiem in Utopia by Richard Starnes, and features a world-weary man in Sweden, an uncommon setting for Cold War thrillers (but very appropriate in this case because mysteries set in Scandinavia by American writers frequently have world-weary, depressing endings. I think it’s the climate. “In Stockholm it never stops snowing,” says one of the characters still alive at the end.)

His hero, Max Speed (nice play on words), is not a spy but a reporter, and this may indicate the author is Richard Starnes, a hard-hitting reporter of the Sixties. There seem to have been several writers and reporters named Richard Starnes in the last fifty years, unless they are all the same very busy man. One Richard Starnes did a write-up on the assassination of Jack Ruby which states pretty flatly that you shouldn’t claim conspiracy if the facts can be accounted for by stupidity. Sounds like the sort of fellow who’d write Requiem in Utopia.

Somehow, though, he has slipped through the net—the internet, that is. On a world-wide web where I can find out what one of my volunteers paid for her house, I ought to be able to find some place which can at least tell me which Richard Starnes is which, especially if he wrote all those articles and all these books. But there isn’t. He belongs to the age of the 160-page book, a bygone age (the cover price on the book is sixty cents.)

Still, how many books are reviewed by Senators? Ought to be worth something. (Note to the Easton Press, in case it runs out of books to reprint in fine bindings: Books Reviewed in the Congressional Record. No one else is doing it, and I know one that’s only 173 pages long.)

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