Prohibited pulp

Certain publications are … being imported into Australia, which have no literary or intellectual value and are obviously published in order to cater for those seeking to satisfy depraved tastes for morbidity, sadism, sensuality, etc. These books are usually printed in luridly attractive covers … [and] are retailed at prices ranging as low as 3d. or 4d. a copy.
– Acting Customs Minister John Perkins, 11 May 1938

Copy of banned book

Mickey Spillane, Vengeance is Mine [1951], Corgi Books, London, 1960.
Banned circa 1950s.
NAA: C3059, Vengeance is Mine

Literary and scholarly works made up only a small proportion of the publications banned by Australian Customs. The bulk of prohibited imports were pulp fiction novels, comics, magazines and pornographic material. These items were considered to be a threat, not only to our morals, but also to Australia’s literary standards. They were banned by Customs under special provisions introduced in 1938 to address the growing number of cheap books and magazines entering the country.

In the 1940s and 1950s, crime and detective thrillers were an especially popular pulp fiction genre. With themes of both sex and violence, novels by bestselling authors like Mickey Spillane and ‘Darcy Glinto’ (Harold Kelly) were frequently banned by Customs. Featuring bold covers designed to attract readership, many pulp fiction titles are now considered a collector’s item.

Adult magazines were often subject to blanket prohibitions lasting years. Popular American men’s magazine Playboy was banned in Australia from 1955 to 1960. Considered obviously obscene by the censor, adult magazines and other pornographic material were also criticised by feminist anti-pornography groups which argued that these publications objectify women.

Below is a selection of racy titles and the reasons they were banned by Customs.

Copy of banned book

‘Darcy Glinto’ (Harold Kelly), Road Floozie [1941], Robin Hood Press, London, 1953.
NAA: C3059, Road Floozie

Road Floozie was submitted to the Literature Censorship Board after 100 copies of the book were seized in Sydney on 16 February 1942. The Board concluded that the book ‘needs no comment from a literary point of view. The style is on a level with the cheap paper, and the illustration on the wrapper … The book is a cheap edition written for the pornographic market’. An import ban was placed on Road Floozie on 4 March 1942.

British author Harold Ernest Kelly penned at least 15 novels under the pseudonym ‘Darcy Glinto’. The Hangman is a Woman and She Gave Me Hell and… were also banned by Customs.

Copy of banned book

Donald Henderson Clarke, The Housekeeper’s Daughter [1938], Avon, New York, 1953.
NAA: C3059, The Housekeeper’s Daughter

The Housekeeper’s Daughter was banned in May 1949, more than 10 years after it was first published. One member of the Literature Censorship Board made the following damning assessment:

In my opinion this book is rubbish. It has no merit as literature & contains many passages which are quite gratuitously obscene. I would ban, though even placing a ban upon it is showing considerably more consideration than it deserves.

The Chairman agreed, describing it as a ‘trashy novel’ that is ‘obvisously written for pornographic purposes’.

Copy of banned book

Ruth Lyons, Hotel Wife, Macaulay Company, New York, 1933.
NAA: C3059, Hotel Wife

‘Worthless – & I shd call it indecent’, is how one member of the Literature Censorship Board described Ruth Lyons’ Hotel Wife. Banned on 5 July 1935, the novel was a prohibited import for nearly 30 years.

Copy of banned magazine

Black Mask Detective, December 1950.
NAA: C3059, Black Mask

Fifty copies of popular American detective pulp magazine Black Mask Detective (also known as Black Mask) were seized at Port Adelaide in 1938. Noting that the magazine was ‘not yet on the prohibited list’ but was ‘on a par with other similar magazines which have been prohibited’, the Collector of Customs, South Australia, recommended prohibition. This copy was probably confiscated in the early 1950s and kept for reference purposes.

Check out our Books page for information about other prohibited pulp, including links to digitised documents in the National Archives’ collection.

Pulp crime: detectives, murder and mysteries

By Amy Lay

She looked like a sleeping beauty as she lay on the cellar floor … but she was cold and beyond all feeling … she was dead! Murdered!

– ‘Flirting Fiend and the Tunnel of Terror’, Best Detective Cases, July 1948

Best Detective Cases, 1948. NAA: C3059, BEST DETECTIVE CASES 3

Best Detective Cases, 1948.
NAA: C3059, Best Detective Cases 3

‘Red Rampage of the Prowling Peril’, ‘The Woman Who Walked with Death’, ‘Murders by Satan’, and the ‘Shocking Case of Cleveland’s Carnal Killer’ – fictionalised accounts of horrors that could never happen in the real world?

In fact, these are the titles of purportedly ‘true’ accounts of crime found between the pages of pulp magazines of the mid-20th century, such as True Crime, True Detective and Best Detective Cases. The lurid titles designed to titillate and thrill readers caught the eye of Australia’s Customs officials soon after the pulp crime genre exploded in popularity in the 1930s.

True Detective, 1961. NAA: C3059, True Detective

True Detective, 1961. NAA: C3059, TRUE DETECTIVE

True Detective, the first of the true crime genre, was created in the United States in 1924. Initially, stories published in the magazine were fictionalised accounts of notorious crimes, but later the editors leaned towards publishing only factual accounts. The publication was so popular in the States that even J Edgar Hoover, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, professed to a subscription. Despite the sensationalist reporting, American law enforcement officials did not denounce or condemn the magazines. In fact, interest in crime was encouraged. True Detective published photographs of known fugitives so that readers could assist in tracking them down.

True crime magazines were just as popular in Australia. By July 1934, around 100,000 copies of pulp crime magazines had been imported into NSW alone. But Australia’s Customs Department did not see the magazines as a vicarious thrill or crime-fighting tool; they were viewed as a dangerous mix of violence and horror. True Detective and many of its contemporaries purporting to tell ‘authentic stories of crime detection’ were declared prohibited imports in the 1930s.

Pulp magazines like True Detective were prohibited under obscenity laws, despite rarely portraying sexual material. The crimes presented often had lascivious undertones, but censors took greater issue with the considerable emphasis on violence.  In a Cabinet Minute in 1959, the head of Customs pointed out, ‘The publishers [of True Detective] go to some length to re-enact the ghastly and gruesome details associated with murder cases’. Actors and actresses with hammed-up expressions of lechery and fear posed for re-enactments of crimes that played up scandalous details.

Occasionally, single issues or subscriptions were allowed into Australia. In 1939, freelance journalist W Charnley from Western Australia wrote to the Assistant Comptroller-General in Customs to request importation of True Detective for work purposes. Charnley had submitted work to the magazine before, and felt it necessary ‘that a writer keep in touch with the papers he writes for so as to observe what is going on and also to obtain ideas for his own use’.

Letter from W. C. Charnley to the Minister for Customs, 18 August 1939. NAA: A425, 1939/11662.

Letter from W. C. Charnley to the Minister for Customs, 18 August 1939. NAA: A425, 1939/11662.

The Senior Clerk in Customs agreed, and advised the Assistant Comptroller-General to allow the importation: ‘This appears to be a case for sympathetic consideration’. Charnley was permitted to receive a single subscription to the magazine.

Many pulp crime magazines remained prohibited imports until the 1970s. In some cases, blanket bans were placed upon entire publications, and in others only single volumes were examined and prohibited.

Next month we’ll return to the literary world with Aldous Huxley’s iconic work Brave New World, prohibited for its perceived blasphemy and obscenity.