Friday, April 1, 2016

Confronting Frontal Nudity

(Editor’s note: This post appeared originally in The Rap Sheet way back in 2007, long before I launched the Killer Covers blog. But it really belongs here. So, on this April Fool’s Day, 2016—a totally appropriate occasion, given the title of the book under consideration—I am reposting that Rap Sheet piece below.)

Regular readers of The Rap Sheet know my fondness for vintage paperback fronts, especially those that Independent Crime’s Nathan Cain might define as “book cover porn.” I find the squeamishness of modern U.S. readers toward provocative novel jackets ludicrous, especially when they’re hit through every other medium by sexy imagery (see this familiar advertising campaign for PETA, as an example), and when they appear more ready to take up arms against bared body parts on the nation’s bookshelves than they are violence in their crime and thriller fiction. I also applaud the willingness of publishers such as Hard Case Crime to bring back the sort of suggestive illustrations (see here and here) that were, interestingly, familiar to pre-Sexual Revolution Americans of the 1940s and ’50s, but are now deemed too risqué. Aren’t we all grown-ups here?

So Steve Steinbock’s post at Vorpal Blade Online about vintage Dell paperback covers struck me as amusing. Among the many fine examples he showcases of works by Ellery Queen, George Harmon Coxe, John Dickson Carr, and others are two versions of Fools Die on Friday, a Bertha Cool/Donald Lam mystery, originally published in 1947 and credited to “A.A. Fair,” one of the numerous pseudonyms employed by Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner. It seems that this novel bore two rather dissimilar paperback covers during its early years, one of which—shown on the left above—was distinctly racier than the other. When that original version (Dell No. 542) was republished (as Dell No. 1542), the redhead who’d previously been zipping up her skirt and displaying a handsome cleavage was now merely adjusting a shirt cuff. (Click on either of those images for an enlargement.)

(Right) The “mapback” rear cover of Fools Die on Friday.

According to Book Scans, a paperback history site,
This is the only Dell cover illustration ever to be altered. The first was published in 1951, the later printing appeared in 1953. Robert Stanley remembers painting over the old illustration, but claims that he was never told the reason, or who the request came from. William Lyles, the Dell bibliographer, believes the change was ordered by either [William] Morrow (the hardcover publisher) or by Erle Stanley Gardner ...

The model in the illustration was obviously one of Stanley’s favorites. She graces the covers of literally dozens of vintage paperbacks. You guessed it ... she’s his wife, Rhoda.

So what happened between 1951 and 1953 that might have prompted such a change? Plenty. In 1952, Congress convened the House of Representatives Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. They wound up “suggesting” that a list of 60 paperback titles be banned by communities throughout the country, including works by Erskine Caldwell, John Steinbeck and Irving Shulman, to name only a few. ... Of particular interest to the Committee was the “pornographic” nature of modern book covers. Oddly, the Book Jacket Designers Guild (yes, they had a union, too) agreed with them. They saw no reason to make jacket illustrations overly provocative, especially if the work itself was not particularly sexual in nature.

This book [
Fools Die on Friday] was NOT on anybody’s “bad” list, but somebody obviously thought the original cover illustration had crossed the line between good taste and indecency. And so Stanley was told to change the scene. The cover art is actually very true to the story. You will notice the copywriters also changed the dialog at the top of the scene. While they’re both close, neither of the quotes listed on the covers is taken verbatim from the text.

(In the book, Donald Lam, who unwittingly has a knack for attracting ALL women, has stashed a key witness in his apartment. Sgt. Sellers is on his way to search the place. She’s taking a bath when Lam gets there, just ahead of him. He—ever the honorable hero—turns his back as she gets dressed. Hey, whaddya expect in the early 50’s? That’s as risqué as it was allowed to get!)
I guess American Puritanism comes and goes. Thanks to today’s condemnatory, hyper-religious posturing of U.S. conservatives and the dimwitted complacency of everybody else, it seems, the country is enduring another of its prudish periods. Fortunately, those old paperbacks aren’t yet being burned on the White House lawn, and I live with confidence that these priggish times, too, will pass.

SEE MORE:Happy April Fool’s Day, Everyone!” (Killer Covers).

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