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Australian crime fiction legend Carter Brown

April 10, 2013

Carter Brown (1923-1985) is probably the best known of all Australian pulp fiction writers. My interest in him started, as most research projects do, from a very simple question – who is Australia’s most *popular* author…my colleagues at the University of Queensland and I were having a cup of tea when I asked the most basic of literature questions. Someone said “Carter Brown”. I’d never heard of him so I went to the National Library of Australia and discovered that he’d written nearly 300 novels. After ten years of studying Australian literature I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard his name mentioned once. Then I dug a little deeper and found dozens of Australian writers had written thousands of books in the 1950s – romances, westerns, and crime. And yet not one academic in Australia had investigated them more fully. So I decided it was time for the academy to get a bit of a wakeup call.

The Deadly Kitten by Carter Brown

Silly me – I thought I’d simply get his books out of a library and read them and write all about him. Ah the simplicity of youth. One of the most difficult things was locating his material.  While the majority is at the National Library of Australia – I had to visit Adelaide (Barr Smith), Melbourne (Ballieau), and Sydney (Mitchell) to access his books. Luckily collectors were most generous and I thank them for their help. One interesting aside – of all his titles only about 90% in the catalogue actually get to my hands. For instance in the Mitchell, using the card catalogue, I noted that at least ONE title from each letter of the alphabet has a missing CB title. I wondered if there was some OCD thief with a mild passion for Carter Brown.

I have since visited the British Museum and then library, the Black Diamond (in Denmark), the French, German, Norwegian national libraries, and the Fales Library in New York. The Fales library is a valuable resource for it holds the Signet/New American Library archives until 1960 and thus has many letters about Australian authors/books whom they were publishing at the time including Ray Lawler and Nevil Shute. The archives also have all the publicity material associated with Cater Brown’s (Alan Yates’) trip to the USA for the launching of the series. Apparently Mickey Spillane was quite caustic about the books.

Perhaps the most telling of all is the extent of Australian publications in overseas libraries – as I write this I’m at the Popular Culture Conference in the USA (Easter 2013) and impressed a Finnish scholar with my collection of Finnish CB covers on my iphone. He then remembered them and had not realised CB is/was Australian.  Similarly librarians would gawk over my shoulder as trolley after trolley of books were delivered to my desk – not only did they not know the author, they had not heard of the publishers either. So yet another chapter of Australian publishing history remains rather obscure.

Just to round off the CB entertainment industry – in Australia, the books were translated into comics and radio serials. Mrs Yates told me, some years ago, that John F Kennedy claimed to have read the Carter Brown books, and she said in Germany they were given CB towels. He was very popular in Japan – and his Japanese covers are the most beautiful of all I think. His material was turned into two French films (both are pretty ordinary). Richard O’Brien of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fame has written a musical, The Stripper, based on the CB book of the same name. It was playing in the UK in 2010. Further, I have been told by a Japanese television show producer that CB inspired one of his (shortlived) series. CB was truly a 1950s ‘brand’.

Japanese and American collectors love the earliest books and it’s virtually impossible to get hold of copies via eBay as these folks have very deep pockets. Given this, it is unlikely that an Australian library will ever hold a complete run of the Carter Brown books – I have tried to appeal to overseas collectors but they are deaf to my nationalistic entreaties. But you never know … thirty years after his death CB still holds considerable cultural sway.

Toni Johnson-Woods

Toni is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. She is the author of several books including Pulp: a collector’s book of Australian pulp fiction covers

One Comment leave one →
  1. Marlene permalink
    November 12, 2013 1:03 pm

    Hi Toni, I have many of the early Carter Brown books (1st Edition) all in very good condition. I am looking to sell them
    . Are you interested
    regards Marlene

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