Back in the forties and fifties, finding out about sex was a tricky task! There was no internet, no education, and ‘lads mags’ were few and far between … but there was one way for hot-blooded youngsters to find out – the novels of ‘tough gangster author’ Hank Janson!
It is fairly common knowledge that in 1960, the publishers Penguin were prosecuted for – and ultimately acquitted of – obscenity over their publication of an unexpurgated edition of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What is less well-known is that in the previous decade several other, less high-profile individuals involved in the publishing industry had to contend with similar legal action over the content of pulp hardboiled crime novels – with some receiving a guilty verdict and even a prison sentence. As extraordinary as it seems today, many bookshops were raided by the police, and hundreds of copies of the offending novels were seized and destroyed.
The most well-known name associated with these mass-market crime paperbacks was Hank Janson – in fact a pseudonym adopted by Stephen D Frances, a left-wing author born in 1917 in Lambeth, South London. In their heyday, spanning 1946 to 1953, Frances’s Janson books were a publishing sensation, selling hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies – and in the process, it has been claimed, introducing a whole generation of British schoolboys to sex, as illicitly-purchased copies were secretly smuggled into bedrooms and classrooms, and poured over intently!
Frances was one of those to be prosecuted for obscenity, and although he was in the end found not guilty, asserting somewhat disingenuously that he did not write the books (he actually dictated them!), his publisher Reginald Carter and distributor Julius Reiter were not so lucky – both were convicted and served prison terms.
Since 2003, the award-winning independent British press Telos Publishing has been periodically reissuing selected classic Hank Janson titles in new paperback and, latterly, e-book editions, to be enjoyed by a whole new generation of readers. Each reissue retains its original, erotically-charged cover artwork by the pre-eminent British genre fiction cover artist of the 1940s and 1950s, Reginald Heade – which was always a hugely important part of the books’ appeal.
These covers featured scantily-clad young ladies, sometimes bound (as on Some Look Better Dead) or strongly wielding a whip (Frails Can Be So Tough) or gun (Kill Her If You Can), but all beautifully painted, and among the finest examples of what came to be known as ‘good-girl’ pin-up art.
The latest Janson title to be reissued by Telos Publishing, in August 2017, is Baby, Don’t Dare Squeal – and, at the same time, the company has standardised all of its earlier reissues into new, B-format editions (most of them having originally been A5 size). The cover of Baby, Don’t Dare Squeal is a particularly fine example of Reginald Heade’s work, featuring a beautiful redhead in a luscious green nightie, lying provocatively on what we presume to be a bed.
Stephen James Walker, the Telos Publishing director who oversees the Hank Janson range, says that the books are remarkable for their inventiveness and sheer, raw power: ‘No-one would pretend that they are great literature, but they are cracking hardboiled crime yarns that still – some 70 years after they were originally published – stand up as thrilling and absorbing tales. More than that, for today’s reader they give a fascinating insight into mid-20th Century attitudes, customs and morals – particularly sexual morals. The distinctly un-PC nature of Hank’s exploits certainly comes as a shock to modern sensibilities!’
Moreover, the books feature characters and situations that would arguably today have Frances (or, indeed, Janson) mentioned in the same breath as authors such as Stephen King, Graham Masterton and Shaun Hutson.
‘While these are nominally hardboiled crime thrillers,’ says Telos’s David J Howe, ‘some of the situations and descriptions are straight out of the most effective horror fiction. For example, in Accused, a women gets a shard of broken glass embedded in her foot, and as the foot goes rotten around it, her travelling partner has to use a kitchen knife to cut away the flesh and remove the glass – it’s hard to read, even today, and among some of the strongest and most effective description I’ve ever seen in a book! That the poor girl then dies of a morphine overdose just adds more horror and pain to the situation!’
Telos plans to continue their re-issue programme of Hank Janson’s books, allowing collectors, fans, and those who appreciate great ‘hardboiled’ writing, to enjoy them again. There are fifteen titles already available, and Telos also has published a hardcover collection of the work of artist Reginald Heade, which showcases all of his incredible ‘good girl’ artwork in full colour.
Telos Publishing’s titles can be obtained from Amazon, or direct from the publishers at www.telos.co.uk.
For more information on the range, please contact David J Howe at Telos Publishing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HANK JANSON – AKA STEPHEN FRANCES
The name seemed to him to have the right ‘hardboiled American’ ring to it – in fact, ‘Hank’ was chosen as the forename mainly because it rhymed with ‘Yank’!
Frances went on to write all of the ‘classic era’ (1946-1953) Hank Janson books (bar perhaps one or two, over which experts disagree), and many of the later ones too, although almost all of the post-1959 novels (the last was published in 1971) were the work of different authors and of distinctly inferior quality.
Frances was born in 1917 in Lambeth, South London, and grew up in conditions of near poverty. A man of left-wing political views and great principle, he was a conscientious objector during World War II. After trying his hand at a number of different jobs, and writing a few newspaper articles, he founded a small publishing company, Pendulum Publications, in 1944.
It was under the Pendulum Publications banner that When Dames Get Tough, and its follow-up, Scarred Faces, appeared. The next few Janson novels were published by a company under Frances’s own name. Then he entered into a deal with publisher Reginald Carter, and the remainder of the ‘classic era’ books – subdivided into five regular series and a number of ‘specials’ – were published by a succession of Carter’s companies, starting with New Fiction Press, and distributed by Gaywood, a company owned by another of Frances’s associates, Julius Reiter. (This has led to them being generally referred to amongst collectors as ‘the Gaywood books’.) In 1952, Frances actually sold all the rights in Hank Janson to Carter.
The huge success of the Hank Janson books gave Frances a comfortable lifestyle and made him something of a minor celebrity – although on the few occasions when he was interviewed, he insisted on adopting the Janson persona and appearing ‘undercover’ in a mask and a hat (to disguise the fact that he in no way resembled the Janson image!).
In the early 1950′s Frances moved to Spain, a country for which he had a great affection. This was perhaps just as well, as it meant that he escaped the main impact of the prosecutions brought against the Janson books at that time under the Obscene Publications Act, which resulted in both Carter and Reiter being sent to jail. When he later returned to England, Frances was acquitted of all the charges against him after claiming that he did not write the Janson books – which was strictly true, as he dictated them into a dictaphone and they were then transcribed by a typist!
Frances continued writing into the 1970′s, although the last Hank Janson novel that can be reliably attributed to him was published in 1963. He died in 1989, at his home in Spain, of emphysema.
The following is the fictional biography of Hank Janson that was printed in a number of the ‘classic era’ novels:
Hank Janson tells us that he was born in England during the Great War. There is very little of interest about his early school life except, perhaps, when at the age of fifteen, in order to win a wager with his school friends, he borrowed his brother’s motor bike, which he had never previously driven, and entered himself for a cross country endurance race. He smashed his brother’s bike and wore his arm in a sling for months afterwards.
When he was nineteen, he stowed away on a fishing trawler and started on an adventure which was to last until 1945. Not once during the intervening years did he come back to England. He has dived for pearls in the Pacific, spent two years in the Arctic with a whaling fleet and worked his way through most of the American States. He obtained American nationality some years ago, worked in New York as a truck driver, news reporter and as assistant to a private detective agency. During the war he served in Burma.
Two years ago he returned to England and is now living in Surrey with his wife and children, spending his time gardening and writing about his personal experiences in a fictional form.
His life has been rich, exciting and dangerous – and almost, it may be said, as true to life as his stories.
[The Hank Janson name, logo and silhouette device are registered trademarks of Telos Publishing Ltd.]