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.