Jacob Heppleman is back on U.S. soil after fighting for Uncle Sam in Europe in the Second World War. Heppleman finds a different world, one that he needs to get a grip on, fast, if he’s going to survive. Before the war, Heppleman eked out a living as a hack writer, supplying stories to the pulp magazines, but now the pulps have been going out of business, with direct-to-paperback books taking their place.
Heppleman can’t scrape together enough dough to buy a pawnshop typewriter, so he steals one instead, but without the pulps, his paycheck before the war, who will he write for? The head of a new publishing company, Blue Devil Books, assures Jacob that there’s a hot market in the drugstore racks for tawdry crime novels – sold as much (or more) for their covers as for the stories – and that Jacob should be one of the primary in-house writers.
Jacob becomes the unlikely best-selling author who takes great pride in his authenticity – which comes from his befriending several underworld figures who, in turn, like being the source for the larger-than-life characters.
But when Hollywood takes an interest in the books, so does Congress and the moral guardians. Soon Heppleman is a target for politicians and the Mob and he’s going to have to do some fancy writing to create a neat ending for himself.
I loved everything about this book.
Author Loren D. Estleman really captures the mood and sense of the 1950’s detective fiction, making our protagonist both a writer of such potboilers and the subject of the same.
Heppleman is a reluctant central figure (I’m hesitant to say ‘reluctant hero’ because there’s no real heroics that go on here). He’s a writer who prefers to let his characters take the lead while he stays in the background, but he relishes doing his own investigative work so that he can use what he learns in his books – giving them an air of legitimacy.
Even reluctant, though, Heppelman is steadfast. He makes no excuses for what he writes and he holds his own in the morality hearings, which does make him a bit more heroic, but only a bit.
I found this to really feel like a hard-boiled detective mystery of the 50’s, but also a bit like an historical fiction novel. There’s a good bit of history and while the events here may be fictional, they have their roots in reality. I loved learning a few things about this era and Estleman makes a point, in his “Recommended Reading” at the end of the book, of recognizing some of the writers who navigated these kinds of events.
Late in the book, when Heppleman is older and attending conventions – now an icon as a writer of the ‘golden age’ – when asked why his books (and those of his contemporaries) are only just getting the respect that was denied them in the day, he delivers a speech that I consider the message of the entire novel. “The world caught up.” He tells the questioner.
Many of us were just back from the war. You can’t see cities being bombed, corpses piled in concentration camps, and dish out happy endings. We wrote about a world that had changed, and we pointed out where it took a wrong turn. For that we were called smut peddlers. Then along came political scandals, pointless wars, and men’s peckers on movie screens where Shirley Temple used to sing and dance. It took all that for everyone else to see what we saw. So now we’re serious artists who weren’t afraid to tell it like it was.
Maybe I’ll use some of this speech myself the next time someone asks why I’m suddenly interested in 1950’s noir fiction. I finally caught up to it.
Looking for a good book? Paperback Jack by Loren D. Estleman is a noir-like, hard-boiled novel of a writer of noir-like, hard-boiled novels in the post-WWII era.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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author: Loren D. Estleman
publisher: Forge Books
hardcover, 240 pages