09 March 2009

Dope, Danger and Dolls

The lure of the lurid. I was hooked when, as a teenager, I came across Lush Lady and The Lady is a Lush next to each other in a used bookstore. Pulps, they were the first titles in a collection that would one day help pay for a move from Montreal to Vancouver.

I was reminded of these titles, lucrative for the collector, by Dope Menace: The Sensational World of Drug Paperbacks 1900-1975, a new book by my pal Stephen J. Gertz. What a pleasure to see these tawdry covers again, with their enticing captions ('A WILD WEEKEND OF JAZZ AND JUNK IN A HOTBED OF SEX'). It's hard to resist these images; they promise so very much. However, as Steve reminds us, these books tease, but seldom deliver. Case in point, Vice Rackets of Soho, which provides the cover image for Dope Menace:
The illustration by Reginald Heade for Vice Rackets of Soho by Ronald Vane (Ernest L. McKeag) with its glorious scene of drug eroticism - a half-naked woman lying supine on a bed in a sheer gown that appears to have been spray-painted on, her head thrown back in ecstasy as she's shot up with junk by a leering miscreant - is a prime example. Though the image suggests artist Heade as a sort of twisted Bernini - the Ecstasy of St. Theresa of Avila as sultry babe meets criminal Christ who plunges His flaming scepter of drug-love deep within her - there is virtually no mention of drugs within the text, nor much sex, for that matter.
Little in the way of sex and drugs... I'm betting the same is true of Frances Shelley Wees' Lost House.

I very much doubt that Mrs Wees, author of the Scholastic paperback Mystery of the Secret Tunnel, wife to the president of omnipresent textbook publisher Gage, wrote much, if anything, about heroin and loose women.
Lost House is one of only two Canadian titles found in Dope Menace, begging the question: Where are our drug paperbacks? This is no oversight on Steve's part. Canada's early mass market publishers all but ignored the money to be had in the lucrative drug paperback trade. Lost House is very nearly unique, and has the further distinction of being Harlequin's second book. The only other Canadian drug pulp - Ronald Cocking's poetic Die With Me Lady - was also brought out by the romance publisher.

Of course, Harlequin wasn't always all hearts, flowers, bosoms and bodices; their history is much more rich and varied. They were the first Canadian paperback publishers of Agatha Christie, W. Somerset Maugham and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Their titles included thrillers, mysteries, westerns, works of science fiction and weird things like Vengeance of the Black Donnellys ('Canada's Most Feared Family Strikes Back from Beyond the Grave') by Thomas P. Kelley. And, as with the pulp houses to the south, the early Harlequin wasn't above using the same deceptive bait - Thomas H. Raddall's historical adventure Roger Sudden was pitched as a 'lusty tale'.

The publisher is currently making a big deal about its 60th anniversary, but you won't find any recognition of the early years. Something to do with branding, I suppose - and yet, Harlequin is so very protective of the very same material they choose to disown.

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