Let’s face it: a book cover is a seduction. No one knew this better than the pulp fiction publishers of the 1940s and ’50s, their covers all gussied up with lurid colors, barely clad women, big black guns, and promises of what was between the covers.
But what’s a seduction without a good pickup line?
Much attention has been paid to those boundary pushing images adorning the 25-cent paperbacks, but I also love the tag lines—that extra copy the publisher adds on to give more of a hint about the action, sex and violence inside a book.
They can be simple, like on The Double Take by Roy Huggins: “A hard-boiled mystery story, tougher than a ten-minute egg.”
They can be mysterious and enticing, such as Stone Cold Dead by Richard Ellington: “Make ready: ONE CORPSE FOR SHARK-BAIT!”
And, yes, they use a lot of exclamation points, but admit it, you want to know why a corpse is needed for shark-bait, don’t you?
By publisher, there wasn’t any set formula for tag lines, unlike the way the artwork sometimes defined an imprint: the graphic style of Dell; the sleazy pictures on a Gold Medal paperback; or the elegant, yet lurid style of Popular Library.
Tag lines do fall into several categories, however. One is what I call “The Come-On”: short, punchy lines that make a bold statement or ask a leading question.
Take for example the clever word play in Murder One by Eleazar Lipsky: “A cold corpse made her a hot bet for the electric chair”
Or the femme fatale at the heart of Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze: “She had the face of a Madonna and a heart made of dollar bills.” My kind of gal.
A good question always went far, such as Catch a Killer by Ursula Curtiss: “Was it to be MURDER . . .again?”
They didn’t even always have to make a whole heck of a lot of sense, as in The Devil Threw Dice by Amber Dean: “She was the kind of gal that many men might kill” or While Murder Waits by John Esteven: “Night is the time for killing.”
I’m not sure what kind of gal that is, or why night is any better than day for killing, but I guess wanting to know is a good reason to pick up a book.
Another category of tag lines is the “Just The Facts, Ma’am” style of wording, letting you know exactly what you were in for if you crack the spine on this two-bit mystery.
What do you get in Ross MacDonald’s The Way Some People Die? Why, “Dope, Delinquents and MURDER” of course.
How about The Big Heat by William P. McGivern? “A novel of murder, graft, and retribution.” Can’t say they didn’t tell you what you were in for.
Wade Miller’s Killer’s Choice offers “A fast paced mystery of the vice racket.” John Spain’s Dig Me A Grave promises, “A study in violence . . . blackmail . . .and sudden death.”
What do you get when you read Edge of Panic by Henry Kane? “A few drinks with a blonde, and then smashing violence and a blacked-out memory.”
Many of the Just The Facts style tag lines resort to a list of adjectives:
Run, Killer, Run by Bill Gault: “Tough, sexy, fast and exciting.”
You’ll Get Yours by Thomas Wills: “A dark room—a warm woman—a cold knife.”
Shakedown by Ben Kerr: “Blackmail . . . a sizzling blonde . . . and suspense.”
Death Commits Bigamy by James M. Fox: “A sensational mystery novel—taut, tense, trigger-fast . . .”
Then there are the “Trust Me” tag lines that carry their own endorsements.
On Earle Basinsky’s The Big Steal, almost as big as the author’s name is this: “Mickey Spillane says: The kind of book I go for.” Well, who’s going to argue with Mick? For the record, it’s the kind of book I go for too. Great read. Find it if you can.
I love this quote on the cover of Bullet Proof by Frank Kane: “Written with the authority of a machine gun” mostly because the quote is attributed to no one. Presumably someone in the office said it so they could quote it and onto the cover it went.
Lest you were confused about what kind of book you were getting if you were looking at Teen-Age Mafia by Wenzell Brown, Gold Medal books reassures you with this on the front cover “Make no mistake about it—these are not punk kids, they’re an organized mob specializing in violence.”
Both Spillane and Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott novels often resorted to nothing more than telling you how many millions of books the authors had in print. Prather’s sales figures are charted over the course of his publishing career as books touted four, then five, then over six millions Shell Scott books in print. When he did get a real tag line, they were beauts, like the one on Everybody Had A Gun: “Shell Scott knew what he stood to lose—his life. That’s all, brother—his life!”
To Kiss or Kill by Day Keene wants to have it both ways with this one: “The prize fighter’s lady! Or was she? A novel with a K.O. on every page.” A little taste of the book, a little objective commentary.
Mostly, it’s those lusty “Teasers” we love on the covers of the old pulps. Prather again gets a good one written in the voice of Shell Scott on Take A Murder, Darling: “Man, oh, man, she was slaying me, inch by inch—smile by smile!”
As pickup lines go, can you beat this one from What A Body! by Alan Green? “Murder shouldn’t be fun, but Sandra was luscious enough to eat, and Hugo’s ideas about what to do with her were rather different.” If they’re as different as that tag line, we’re in for something good.
How about Hell’s Our Destination by Gil Brewer? “Sanity took a backseat while they drove headlong to disaster.”
And one of my personal favorites from No Mourners Present by Frank G. Presnell: “Killer’s don’t cry . . . until they’re caught”
So when Murder Comes Calling (by Malcolm Douglas) you can be sure “There was only one thing in life she couldn’t cheat on—death.”
Or if you’re wondering why Blondes Die Young (by Bill Peters) it’s because she’s got “Time on her hands—men on her mind.”
But don’t cry any Tears For The Bride (by Robert Martin) because “She was lovely and willing . . . but her boyfriends didn’t live long.”
So next time you ogle that tawdry pulp fiction cover, eyes rolling over the sheer fabric on the women, the bruised knuckles on the gunsels, take the time to read a little. That’s why we’re here, right? A lot of the best prose in some of these books is right there on the cover.
Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision and A Mouth Full Of Blood, as well as co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short stories have appeared in Pulp Ink, D*cked, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Off The Record, Murder In The Wind, Needle Magazine, Crimefactory, The Million Writers Award: Best New Online Voices and more. His newest novel, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me is available now. For more info visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com.
Read all posts by Eric Beetner for Criminal Element.