Republishing pulp nonfiction
Find out how National Library of Australia Publishing created Famous Detective Stories
4 July 2016
Pulp magazines were not designed to have long shelf lives. But in some ways this is what makes them so perfect for collection and ripe for republishing. Even when the subject matter is colonial Australia or wild-west America, the stories in Famous Detective Stories tell us much about Australia from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s; they're a snapshot of gender attitudes, race relations, city life and that generation's fears and dreams.
When we decided to publish a facsimile edition of Famous Detective Stories, the first step was conducting a review of all the stories published by the imprint in the Library's collection. The three NLA Publishing editors divvied up the stories and we each ended up reading about 22. Much like editors of modern anthologies, we set about creating a shortlist; unlike modern editors we were unable to edit content! Some of the language and characterisation that was publishable in the 1940s and 1950s and probably acceptable in a country with an active White Australia Policy is now obsolete and offensive, and this was the cause of much story-culling. We also removed any story that wasn't set in Australia and stories that we decided were too boring or obscure.
I was left with a selection of fascinating true crime stories, dating back as far as 1809, when Sir Henry Browne Hayes successfully smuggled almost 500 barrels of stout, disguised as Irish soil, to his home in Vaucluse, Sydney. One of the more recent stories was from 1952, when petty crim O'Meally shot and killed Constable Howell on the suburban streets of Caulfield, Melbourne, after a foot-chase and scuffle in a darkened viaduct.
The designer started laying out the stories, using the lurid cover art to illustrate the book. It looked great ... but it needed another element. I thought it would be good to remind readers that even though the stories read like fiction, the victims and perpetrators really existed, the crimes really happened. One of the Library's dedicated volunteers, Kerry Blackburn, and I began researching whether the Library held any newspaper articles, paintings or other illustrative material that would help readers put a face to names. We were rewarded!
In The Beautiful Lady in Black, Kathleen Biliski and her American boyfriend are attacked by her former partner. The boyfriend is shot dead and Kathleen is taken to hospital after being hit over the head with the rifle. The story is an all too familiar tale of domestic violence, but the response by the press in the early 1950s shows how far we've come, at least in the reporting of such a crime. Quickly dubbed ‘The Girl in the Black Nylon Nightie' or ‘The Lady in Black', Biliski's appearance was described by a breathless press, who saw a noire drama in this personal tragedy. One sentence from Sydney's Truth newspaper sums it up:
Tears started to the eyes of a glamorous young woman in black as she heard the City Coroner on Thursday commit her erstwhile sweetheart for trial for the alleged love-nest slaying of her American suitor.
The newspapers of colonial Australia were more interested in character analysis and blow by blow reporting of court cases. Hell on High Seas is the vicious and bloody true story of Dr Murray of St Kilda, Melbourne—husband, father and slave-trafficker. In 1871, he sailed to the Pacific Islands and went from island to island tricking locals, or forcing them at gunpoint, onto his boat. Then, in a horrific scene, more than 50 men and women who were clamouring to escape from the hold after a fire alarm had sounded were shot and killed by Murray's subordinates. Murray blamed his crew and went free. The Australian Town and Country Journal printed an artist's sketch of Murray with a caption calling him ‘one of the most vile offenders that ever disgraced the annals of any country'. The South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail described him as:
Cruel, treacherous, mean in money matters, a liar in word, and a traitor in action, brutal in authority, with all the trickery of the monkey, all the ferocity of the tiger, but a coward in danger.
The original Famous Detective Stories were disposable and unpretentious entertainment, read on city trams and trains as the country moved on after the Second World War. I can imagine my behatted and begloved 1940s counterpart devouring these stories on her way to work as she rattled along Swanston Street in a crowded tram, recognising some of the crimes from newspaper headlines.
Famous Detective Stories was released by NLA Publishing on 1 July 2016.