I occasionally hear comments on how the 50s was a bland time in America but I disagree. It witnessed the birth of Rock n Roll, the rise and fall of E.C. Comics, the full force of Cold War paranoia, and the golden age of the paperback original.

At the end of WW2, there came a rise in demand for cheap reading material. Pulp magazines once fulfilled that need but were on their last leg. In the place of pulps came paperback originals: new novels that were released immediately to paperback, making contemporary novels of any genre accessible to working class people. Hardcover books were expensive and so publishers such as Fawcett Gold Medal, Lion, Ace, and many others stepped up and produced this new material, leveling the playing field so to speak. To make a living writing this stuff you had to work fast and few writers did it as quickly or as well as Harry Whittington.

Under roughly 19 pseudonyms and his own name, Whittington wrote 170 novels from the 50s to the 70s. He wrote everything including crime, westerns, romance, sleaze, and southern plantation dramas. In the late 50s, he wrote, produced, and directed a horror movie The Face of the Phantom but lost money from it because he couldn't distribute the film. To offset his losses, he worked out a way to pay back his creditors by producing and selling a novel a month which he did for almost 3 years straight. To say the least, he was a workhorse and he was the model of what a writer truly is: someone who spends hours on end pounding away at a book every day. According to Paperback Confidential by Brian Ritt, "It's widely regarded among paperback aficionados that the quality of his (Whittington's) work did not suffer due to its quantity. His characters are three dimensional, believable, and show psychological depth. He is noted in particular for his expertly crafted, suspense-filled plots." Because of all of this, he has been called the King of the Paperbacks.

Rather than highlight more highs and lows of his career I would like to mention 6 of his novels that I have read:

A Night for Screaming: a cop is accused of a murder he didn't commit and he's on the run. It doesn't help that his former partner and a sadistic S.O.B. is on his tail. Our hero winds up on a farm but his cover is in danger of being blown thanks to his boss' trampy wife. This book is kind of a modern hardboiled mesh of Steinbeck and Hugo. A great intro to Whittington, this book is currently in print from Stark House Press.

Web of Murder: an even better book about a lawyer who conspires to murder his wife. Just when he thinks he's getting away with a seamless crime the rug is pulled out from under him. This is a fast-moving, tightly-written thrill ride and one of my all-time favorite crime novels.

A Haven for the Damned: another Stark House reprint. In this one, a couple of bank robbers grab a wounded hostage after pulling a job. They hide out in a ghost town in New Mexico where several other characters converge. This is a noir crime story that works as a drama with each character bringing their insecurities to the forefront and are forced to confront them. Most of the story takes place in an abandoned building, so I can envision this one being adapted into a play.

Forgive Me Killer (A.K A. Brute in Brass): While being investigated for shady dealings, a crooked a cop works to clear a convicted man of a murder he didn't commit. The thing is, this cop becomes more sympathetic as we learn more about him. He is the product of a corrupt system in which he goes along with the corruption or gets steamrolled. This is a stunning study of hypocrisy within big city government. This is noir at its finest, packing a major emotional punch.

You'll Die Next: this book has more than a touch of Cornell Woolrich. A man finds his life turn apart by a group of hoodlums due to a case of mistaken identity. This is the shortest novel in the batch but my least favorite. Everything in this book is a stretch while the other novels have a more organic feel. That being said, it's still a fun read.

A Ticket to Hell: awesome title for an awesome book. A shady character come to stay at a hotel and thwarts a murder but that'sonly the beginning. His overall intentions are unclear until the second half of the book where we realize his motives are purer than we suspect. He's someone you could honestly root for through every nail-biting moment. This is wonderful book.

These are only 6 novels from Whittington's prodigious output and regarded as some of his best crime fiction. He's one of my heroes now. A master who, at the top of his game, could craft brilliant, satisfying noir with economical plotting, in less than 150 pages. Give his stuff a read.

Sources: Paperback Warrior Podcast, Paperback Confidential by Brian Ritt, "I Remember it Well" by Harry Whittington, and Hardboiled, Noir, and Gold Medals by Rick Ollerman.

Written by Nicholas Montelongo

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