A TIME OF LURID TALES AND COOL COVERS: A REVIEW OF LOREN D. ESTLEMAN'S PAPERBACK JACK
Loren Estleman is a writer with much knowledge and respect for those who came before him. Whether with western, detective, or crime fiction, he demonstrates a sense of the genres history that he often draws from in his own work. With his latest, Paperback Jack, he looks at the postwar era and authors who influenced him and his peers.
The story opens with an elegant description of af a Remington Streamliner portable typewriter in a pawnshop window. World War Two vet and former pulp Jacob Heppleman fetishizes it like most men would a sports car. When the store owner won't dicker down to his price, he gets drunk, breaks the window after closing and takes it to restart his career.
His agent, Ira, tell him the pulps are dead and nobody wants to buy his war novel. He points him toward the burgeoning paperback market where his once serialized story, Chinese Checkers, is selling like crazy. Ira sets him up with Robin Elk, an erudite transplanted Brit who appears the exact opposite type to be the publisher and editor of Blue Devil Books. Jacob goes into the paperback business with a new name - Jack Holly.
Jacob (or Jack) struggles with his first book, The Fence. After the war, he's had trouble coming up with tales out of whole cloth. He needs to learn something about the stolen goods trade. An attempt to talk with the pawnbroker he robbed leads to dead end disaster. When he tells Elk of his problem, the publisher puts him in touch with Phil Scarpetti, the artist of Blue Devil's best lurid covers who learned his vocation in prison.
Jacob hits it off with Phil who introduces him to Irish Mickey Sherman, a former jockey who became New York's biggest fence. . Even for a jockey, Mickey is short, but he's big on attitude and temper. At first the meet is in touch and go, then the gangster opens up with anecdotes and insight. Jacob is off and running.
Jacob builds a successful life as Jack Holly. He marries Ellen, the secretary he fell for at his old day job, and starts a family and writes and cranks out top selling (with the help of Phil's covers) crime fiction. Even Hollywood comes knocking. However triumph draws trouble. A senator has organized a committee linking paperback fiction to juvenile delinquency, with Blue Devil in the crosshairs. Also, Irish Mickey Sherman believes he is owed for the use of his experiences and Jacob's life as well as Jack Holly's career are in jeopardy.
Estleman delivers an episodic historical with the style and swiftness of those old paperbacks. He touches on many aspects of the paperback biz, relying more on period atmosphere and sharply defined characters than plot for his story. We get introduced to other Blue Devil writers, one loosely modeled on Mickey Spillane and and a western writer who reminded me of both Louis L'Amoure and Frank O'Rourke. We even get how these authors were involved with motion pictures in a whirlwind trip to Hollywood where Jacob deals with a crazy producer who wants to make The Fence with Victor Mature. He skillfully places the right amount of plot points, many hinging on Jacob's friendship with Phil to create a narrative drive to a definitive conclusion and not just slices of a fictional writer's life.
With Estleman's snappy master craftsman prose and judicious use of humor, Paperback Jack proves a must for fans of crime fiction from this era. It touches upon the relationship between art and commerce, cenorshorship, and the craft of writing. However, like the wordsmiths it pays homage to, it never lets that get in the way of a good story.