Banned! The Naughty List

Detective, Crime and Mystery Novels That Have Been Banned at One Time or Another

 

The following hard-boiled and noir crime novels and/or authors have all been banned or restricted at one time or another by countries, schools, libraries and other  guardians of alleged decency. Not that they necessarily stopped anyone from reading them, but they tried.

Of course, any raving peabrain with an axe to grind can challenge a book, but it takes a perfect storm of ignorance, intolerance, handwringing and chicken shit bureaucracy to actually ban a book. The biggest disappointment, though? That there aren’t as many crime and detective novels that have actually been banned as I’d thought; surprising when you consider how subversive crime novels can be. Hell, you get right down to it, this list is embarrassingly skimpy.

Come on, guys — we can do better than this…

  • SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
    • A Study in Scarlet (1887)
    • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
      Hard to believe, maybe, but A Study In Scarlet, which introduced good ol’ Sherlock Holmes to the world, was banned from reading lists by at least one Virginia school board because of its portrayal of Mormons. Meanwhile, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection was banned in the Soviet Union in 1929 because of — get this — “occultism.” You thought this kind of woo-woo paranoia was limited to fundamentalist Bible humpers in the Midwest? Nyet, nyet…
  • DASHIELL HAMMETT
    • The Maltese Falcon (1930)
    • The Thin Man (1934)
      Both of these seminal works of the genre were, as they say, “banned in Boston,” for sexual content. Canada also banned importation of the latter for a scene where Nora asks Nick if he got an erection while struggling with Mimi. “A little,” he admits.
      Years later, when Hammett was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and refused to testify, he was sentenced to prison for several months. Then, when McCarthy’s interest turned to banning allegedly pro-Communist books, Hammett’s work was promptly deemed subversive and recommended for suppression. His entire backlist was actually banned for a while by the State Department and the Sam Spade radio show was cancelled and the world was made safe for, um, democracy?
  • JAMES M. CAIN
    • The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
    • Double Indemnity (1943)
      Both of these noir classics were banned in Boston (and elsewhere), for their depictions of lust and violence, and for their bleak endings.
  • JONATHAN LATIMER
    • Solomon’s Graveyard (1941)
      Another classic of the genre, this hard-boiled American classic was published in 1941, but only in the UK. The Fifth Grave, a heavily bowdlerized version, finally came out in the fifties in the States, but the less said about that piece of ham-handed editing the better.
  • MICKEY SPILLANE
    Most of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels could not be imported into Australia,. James Hadley Chase and James M. Cain also were barred.
  • JAMES HADLEY CHASE
    Most of his novels were banned from Australia.
  • HORACE McCOY
    • Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948)
      I’m not exactly sure why (or where) this was banned but this tale of an Ivy League grad’s wallow in the criminal underbelly of society made Open Road’s Banned Book List back in 2011. At the time of its release, Time Magazine tagged it “one of the nastiest novels ever published in this country” and Kirkus Reviews predicted it would be “quarantined from libraries.”  Nowadays, those would be the blurbs on the paperback edition.
  • HANK JANSON (House pseudonym)
    • Accused (1952)
    • Killer (1952)
    • Persian Pride (1952)
    • Auctioned (1952)
    • Amok (1953; does not feature Hank Janson)
    • Vengeance (1953)
    • Pursuit (1953; does not feature Hank Janson
      These seven titles, most of which featured bestselling series character Hank Janson, were found to be obscene in 1954 in London, England. Strict fines were levied upon two of the publishing companies, and the owners of each company, Reginald Carter and Julius Reiter, were further sentenced to six months each in prison. Upon sentencing, Judge Dodson said, “One can only hope that this trial will mean a step in the other direction, towardf the realm of pure and exhilarating literature, and not this kind of debasing stuff which sooner or later will drag the whole reading public down into a veritable lagoon of depravity.”
      Meanwhile, the author himself, Stephen Frances (Hank Janson was not only the hero of the series, but also the credited author), narrowly escaped joining them when he was acquitted of all charges, after claiming that he did not actually write the Janson books–it was this Janson guy! (Wise guys all over ther web are fond of pointing out that Frances in fact did not write the Hank Janson books–he dictated them).
  • MIKE KERRIGAN
    • Once Upon a Crime (1953)
      As noted further down, Australia wasn’t exactly welcoming pulp fiction with open arms. So the fact that Once Upon a Crime (1953) by Mike Kerrigan, a quickie pulp novella put out by London’s Milestone Publications and obviously aiming to ape the American hard-boiled style, was seized by customs officials in Sydney in August 1954 shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone. What does make it interesting is that, thanks to the Australian National Archives’ great Banned web site, we actually have correspondence from a G. Foster, apparently an Australian customs inspector, who helpfully summarized the plot of the book before making his recommendation:

“Mike Kerrigan, a struggling investigator, is hired by Wendy Lane to find out the true story of the killing of Fats Balfour. On circumstantial evidence her father is incriminated. Kerrigan eventually, after a sucession of escapades, traps the killer. The story is brutal with the killer, Lola Laine, supplying the usual sex angle. Prohibition is recommended.”

The entry concludes by noting that “Customs placed an import ban on the novel on 22 November 1954..” Not that it probably made much of a difference — “Mike Kerrigan” was almost surely a house name and the book was most likely instantly forgettable. Foster’s critique may have been the only review it received.

  • BRET EASTON ELLIS
    • American Psycho (1991)
      This bleak, vicious slice of consumerism noir has had a rough ride in many places. Its original American publisher balked at publishing it, and the book wasn’t even published in hardcover in the States until 2012. Upon its release in 1991, the author received numerous death threats and hate mail. It was banned in Germany as “harmful to minors,” and in Australia and New Zealand it was sold shrink-wrapped and sold only to those over eighteen.
  • JON A. JACKSON
    • Dead Folks (1996)
      This quirky hard-boiled mystery/thriller, featuring rogue hitman and ladies’ man Joe Service, on the run from the eerily persistent Detroit cop Fang Mulheisen, was challenged in a Missoula, Montana high school  in 2009 for being “too graphic” in its discussion of sex.
  • MARK HADDON
    • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003)
      Swiping its title from a Sherlock Holmes story, this novel features a fifteen-year-old British math whiz with autism, who discovers his neighbor’s dog dead in the backyard, apparently stabbed to death with  a pitchfork. Urged on by a teacher who tells him he should write something he’d like to read himself, he decides to make like a private eye and investigate. When this book was pulled from some American high school reading lists in Tennessee and Florida due to concerns about “atheism and profanity,” Haddon supposedly remarked “Good. Now more people will read it.”

ART FOR ART’S SAKE

Of course, the guardians of public decency didn’t always have to actually open a book or magazine–or God forbid, read anything–to decide that some books were not fit for human consumption. Some books and magazines were banned simply for their covers. Apparently they don’t know Bo…

In the months ahead, I’ll try to find some good examples and maybe create a gallery page of the Ten Most Unwanted Covers. If you have any in mind, feel free to share.


  • Pulp Magazines: Banned in Australia!
    Including Black Mask, True Detective, True Crime and Best Detective Cases
    Pulp mags, both those featuring crime fiction,and those featuring purportedly “true” accounts of crime, exploded onto the scene in the 1930s, but they found no favor with the guardians of decency in Australia’s Customs Department,who deemed the magazines “prohibited imports” under their obscenity laws, despite the fact that neither the fiction or non-fiction crime mags featured sexually explicit material. Ironically, the laws remained on the books well into the seventies, long after most pulps had ceased publication.
    Not that I’m necessarily picking on the Aussies, by the way. By their own admission, however, they claim that “…during most of the 20th century Australia was one of the strictest censors in the western world,” frequently banning “what was considered suitable reading in England, Europe and America.”
    On the bright side, the Commonwealth Customs Department, which had the authority to prohibit imports, maintains a reference library of around 15,000 books, magazines and comics that had been banned in Australia from the the 1920s through to the 1970s, with many of the titles long out of print and extremely rare. And for those of us who don’t live in Australia, they have a fascinating section dedicated to banned publications in their national archives.
  • Pulp Magazines: Banned in Ireland!
    Not that Australia had all the fun. As recently as 2004, Irish readers could find themselves in all sorts of trouble for possessing magazines such as Detective Tales, Detective Weekly, Detective World, Crime Detective, Daring Detective, Detective Cases, Detective Police Cases, Front Page Detective, Inside Detective, Master Detective, True Detective, Uncensored Detective and Confidential Detective Cases.

RELATED LINKS

  • Banned
    You’ve got to give props to the Aussie for coming clean here, airing out their dirty laundry, so to speak, given that during most of the 20th century, they boasted some of the strictest censors in the western world.
  • Banned Books Week
    The official site.
Preliminary list respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith, with help from Yvonne Klein. Have I missed any?

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