The Mushroom Jungle

The Private Eye Denizens

Immediately following World War II, there was a boom in England, as a swarm of hungry writers and publishers, inspired by the success of Peter Cheyney and James Hadley Chase, sprang up seemingly overnight to meet the British public’s apparently insatiable demand for “American-style” hard-boiled fiction. Steve Holland pretty much nailed the definition of this British publishing phenomenon to the door, dubbing it the  “mushroom jungle” in the 1993 non-fiction book of the same name. He defined it as:

“… the many small publishers who sprang up in the days of paper rationing to slake the public’s thirst for reading matter, usually with cheaply produced paperback novels. The term was used by contemporary writers to describe the fly-by-night antics of some of those publishers, whom one writer described as the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ variety.

And a jungle it was, with writers (under a barrage of pen names) pounding out the pulp at a breakneck pace, as an army of publishers, many of them fly-by-night operations with dubious finances, flooded the bookstalls with cheap paperbacks that rarely exceeded 150 or so pages (128 seems to be the standard), most of them boasting colourfully cheesy, garish covers.

And the contents? While there were westerns and romances and a myriad of other genres represented, by far the most dominant genre was thrillers–the so-called “gangster novels.” Gloriously pulpy, “American-style” crime and detective novels–earnestly rendered depictions of a post-war England or, often, a mobster-ridden America that the Brits just couldn’t seem to get enough of, written by mostly British authors who’d never been to west of Liverpool. They were gloriously pulpy affairs, quickly written and quickly printed, hastily edited and dripping with violence and (mostly suggested) sex, second or third-hand James Hadley Chase, which in turn were second or third-hand Chandler and Hammett and Cain.

So… utterly disposable trash, right? And yet the fondness with which they are now regarded far outweighs any literary merit, and the surviving copies of these books now go for very high prices on the collectors market, prized as much (or more) for their garish, salacious covers as for their contents.

Not that the contents should be dismissed… As Canadian scholar and Mushroom aficionado John Fraser puts it:

“As someone who dislikes formulaic noir pessimism and the assumption that if something’s depressive it must therefore be truth-telling art, I’m struck by how undepressive, during those grey, depressing post-war years in a nearly bankrupt Britain, the great majority of the jungle books that I’ve gone through are.

It isn’t really so surprising that there were so many of them and that they were so popular. They were entertaining.”

Because of the fleeting nature of these books, barely held together booklets regarded (and usually treated) as trash, the few that have survived can command outrageous prices on the collectors market, although it seems that in most cases the books are prized more for their covers than their contents.

The following are some of the possibly hundreds of private eyes who appeared in what could fairly be considered the “mushroom jungle” (there is still considerable debate about whether hardcovers should be included, for example, or whether the Australian pulp boom of the forties and fifties was part of the same jungle, or a down under cousin). I’m still working on those questions myself…

MUSHROOM JUNGLE EYES

ABOUT THOSE COVERS

Several artists and illustrators became inextricably linked with the mushroom jungle, most notably Reginald Heade, whose steamy, suggestive covers adorned the books of Hank Janson, and others. Other illustrators associated with the era include John PollackRon Turner, Denis McLoughlin, James McConnell, Mick Anglo and Perl.

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • Holland, Steve
    The Mushroom Jungle: A History of Postwar Paperback Publishing Buy this book
    Borgo Press, 1993.
    A fascinating study of the post-WWII pulp explosion in Britain, loaded with oodles of great cheesy covers and illustrations and all sorts of dirt on the often shady, fly by night publishers and the colourful writers who banged out these cheaply produced “alternative classics.”
  • Holland, Steve
    The Trials of Hank Janson Buy this book
    Telos, 2004.
    Holland covers the 1954 obscenity trial of the popular Mushroom Jungle author, whose “obscene” thrillers sold five million copies in only six years.
  • Maurice Flanagan, Maurice,
    British Gangster and Exploitation Paperbacks of the Postwar Years Buy this book
    Zeon, 1997.
    A visual history, loaded with over 300 illustrations, of the writers, artists and publishers of the Mushroom Jungle era. Feratures an intro by (who else?) Stephen Holland.
  • Haining, Peter,
    The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines Buy this book
    Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001.
    A richly-illustrated, highly personalized account of the pulps. Not a scholarly essay, not by a long shot, but a passionate labour of love, from a fan, and for fans. Haining’s scattershot approach, though, hits the mark far more often than he misses, and the numerous cover shots, many from Haining’s own collection, are to die for. Of particular interest to Mushroom fans is the chapter entitled “The Chilling of Hotsy; the Brit Pulps.”
  • Haining, Peter,
    The Classic Era Of Crime Fiction Buy this book
    Prion Books Limited, 2002.
    Another lavishly illustrated tome from Haining, this one features rare book and magazine covers  and classic illustrations in full color, as the author tracks down what he calls the  “classic era”—from roughly the 1840s to the 1960s, spotlighting, albeit in a rather spotty way, a variety of writers who developed every important sub-genre, including the police detective, the professional sleuth, the hard-boiled private eye (HEY! THat’s us!), the secret agent, and of course, the criminal masterminds, crooks, and gangsters. Of special note to fans of the Mushroom era is the chapter entitled “The Mean Streets Of Crime Noir,” although tit offers more of an intriguing  overview than any detailed insight.

RELATED LINKS

  • Mushroom Jungle Books
    John Fraser’s overview of the genre, with particular emphasis on “the toughie area between 1946 and about 1954.” A retired Canadian scholar, his Thrillers is also worth investigating.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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