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Review: Paperback Jack, by Loren D. Estleman
Forge, 2022. 224 pp. $27

Jacob Heppleman returns to New York from World War II in 1946, thinking the world has changed beyond recognition and wondering whether he has a place in it. A hack writer for pulp magazines, he quickly discovers that these markets have dried up.

But his agent has taken the liberty, while Jack was in the army, of selling one of his novels to Blue Devil Books, for publication in paperback. Cover approved and everything, with the promise of an advance against royalty Jacob sorely needs—though his name now appears as Jack Holly.

September 1929 issue of Black Mask, featuring the first serial episode of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, quintessential hard-boiled fiction. Illustration of detective Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy (courtesy Popular Publications Inc. via Wikimedia Commons; copyright lapsed, therefore in public domain)

Since Jacob never signed a publishing contract—never even heard a whisper of the deal—this is patently fraudulent (and perhaps incredible). And since he rejects the made-up moniker and the anti-Semitism that makes it commercially advisable—what did he fight for, after all?—he has no intention of permitting his book to appear with Blue Devil. Paperbacks? Ugh. Hardcover’s where it’s at, and Jacob intends to become a “real” writer, learn his profession the proper way.

However, when the only place that will pay him for his words turns out to be a second-rate tabloid that hires him as a rewrite man—no byline, low salary—he wonders how he’ll make a living. And when he takes a writing class under the GI Bill, hoping to nurture his art, the teacher’s a nasty, arrogant 4F who has it in for veterans (natch), which thwarts Jacob’s plans for study.

The class does help him in one way, though. He meets Ellen Curry, a beautiful redhead who’s hoping to improve her writing so that she can find a secretarial job.

Eventually, Jacob agrees to become Jack Holly to the public, and Robin Elk, Blue Devil’s British publisher, promises that he can’t go wrong. Jacob, though he respects Elk’s war record—he survived a German POW camp—thinks the man has a slimy side and doesn’t trust him.

Jacob also insists that if he’s to write gritty crime stories, he needs to meet a gangster or three. Elk sends him to his star illustrator and convicted felon, Phil Scarpetti, whom Jacob befriends (no easy task), and from whom he learns a great deal, thanks, in part, to a few crucial introductions.

The jacket flap calls Paperback Jack a thriller. That’s news to me; only intermittently does the narrative’s “no—and furthermore” push our hero to the brink. Yes, there’s a gangster who wants a cut from Jacob’s royalties in return for his advice, but he never feels that threatening.

More significantly, a congressional hue and cry in 1952 against the immorality peddled to American youth by paperback writers and publishers ropes in Phil and Jacob and could wreck their careers. I love those scenes, outrageous assaults on First Amendment rights and human decency that read like House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. But I still don’t think “thriller” because of them.

Nevertheless, Paperback Jack is a wonderful book, a delightfully evocative rendering of hard-boiled fiction and its practitioners in the 1950s. And as you would expect—demand—from such a story, Estleman has the language, culture, and attitudes down cold. From the opening lines, in which Jacob admires a hip, slick, and cool typewriter in a pawnshop window, you know you’re in the hands of a master:

The typewriter—for that’s all it was, despite the trimmings—compared to his old gray Royal standard like a spaceship parked next to a hay wagon. In a pawnshop window it was absurdly out of place, surrounded by egg-beaters and pocket watches, bouquets of fountain pens, a Chock full o’ Nuts coffee can filled with wire-rimmed spectacles tangled inextricably like paper clips, a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia (outdated emphatically by events in Munich and Yalta). It looked proud and disdainful, a prince in exile.
And it spoke to him.

Estleman, last seen in these pages with Billy Gashade, writes propulsive, unexpected prose that actually means something and doesn’t sell out to cuteness. Consider this thought of Jacob’s, as he struggles to find his feet: “The army spent six weeks training a man to act on reflex, without thinking, and no time at all retraining him to use his brain when the crisis was over.” A concise description of a veteran having trouble fitting into civilian life.

Despite all that, the characterizations can be hit-and-miss. Jacob’s memorable, if opaque in spots; for instance, I don’t quite believe his Jewishness, and I wonder if this tough-guy writer has been rendered as too emotionally remote. Ellen seems at times a male fantasy. I wish the narrative showed more of her life separate from Jacob’s, though she does have strong opinions, a mind of her own. But the supporting cast is first-rate, starting with Phil, who steals most scenes in which he appears, and Elk, the smarmy publisher, whom Jacob never entirely warms to.

Paperback Jack is a love letter to a style of fiction and the authors who produced it. I was looking forward to reading it and am glad to say it’s as advertised. Enjoy.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.