The year is 1946. WWII has ended and Jacob Heppleman is one of the many veterans returning home from the European conflict. For Jacob, home is New York City. Before the war, he wrote detective, western, and war stories for the pulp magazines. He even published a novel that was released just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war.
Desperate to re-start his writing career, Jacob steals a typewriter from a local pawnshop and begins to write again. He finds that he is simply unable to write the fictionalized version of war after having experienced the real thing and that the interest in westerns is waning. More troubling, many of the pulps for which he wrote have either closed or are on the brink of doing so.
Unbeknownst to him, Jacob’s agent has sold one of Jacob’s serialized pulp stories to a new publisher in town: Blue Devil Books. Blue Devil Books is owned and operated by Robin Elk. Elk’s idea is revolutionary: publish new novels quickly and cheaply in a disposable, paperback format. To generate interest, Elk has hired an artist to provide lurid, tantalizing covers for these stories (some of which may have only a tangential connection to the substance of the novel). When Jacob finds out, his novel, Chinese Checkers (published under the pseudonym Jack Holly), is already in its third printing and has earned him over $1,000 in royalties (almost $15,000 in 2022). And Elk wants Jacob, as Jack, to write more. . .
In Paperback Jack, Loren D. Estleman sends a love letter to the pulp novels that flooded post WWII drugstores and newsstands in America. He illustrates how, despite being initially positioned by their creators, publishers, and readers as disposable entertainment of little or no value, that they were the work of actual artists working at a breakneck pace to keep up with the demand for their product. A product that, as time has passed, has come to be recognized to have its own value, often equal to their more literary contemporaries.
Estleman creates a wonderful sense of post WWII New York and what working for one of these ambitious little companies must have been like. He also populates, and surrounds, Blue Devil Books with a marvelous collection of characters that surely represents the eclectic mix of personalities necessary to make pulp novels so compelling and interesting to so many readers even decades after they were written and published. Estleman also provides a glimpse into how the industry responded in the 1950s when the US Government decided that comic books and pulp novels were contributing to the delinquency of minors.
Paperback Jack is a fun peek into a world mostly forgotten, although the work created has influenced the generations of readers and writers that followed.