Packaging Pulp

Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Fig 1. Dashiell Hammett, The Continental Op (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1945). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Dashiell Hammett, Hammett Homicides, (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 19456). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Fig. 2. Dashiell Hammett, Hammett Homicides (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1946). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Dashiell Hammett, The Adventures of Sam Spade, (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1944). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.
Fig. 3. Dashiell Hammett, The Adventures of Sam Spade (New York: Lawrence E. Spivack, 1944). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kylie Sharkey.

The name Dashiell Hammett conjures up images of gangsters with flashing guns and seductive women with secrets. This common association is no mistake given Hammett’s literary worlds full of murder and mystery. Throughout the writer’s career he worked to create these vivid worlds via a voice and narrative distinctly his own. This aptitude for crafting a cohesive style generated a Dashiell Hammett detective brand, as recognizable today as it was six decades ago. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Hammett was no stranger to the world of marketing. In 1926 he worked as an advertising copywriter and ad manager at Albert S. Samuels Jewelers where he fine-tuned the skill of selling products. Over the years, as Hammett’s works filled magazines and lined retailer’s racks, his stories became entrenched in the emerging literary mass-market. Like diamonds, his rough and gruff mystery tales had to be sold in the most effective way, sparkling in order to catch a buyer’s eye.

Pulp fiction, of course, had a decidedly different market than fine jewelry. But like the blue of a Tiffany’s box, book covers had to lure a customer to the register. Most commonly one may associate the pulp movement with the now-iconic covers showing scantily clad women and suggestive phrases. But mirroring the cohesive tone of Hammett’s work, the “Bestseller Mystery” collection utilized covers that created clear brand recognition. As seen in figures one through three, the Hammett covers had nearly identical layouts (Fig. 1-3). “The Continental Op” features a blue badge, “Hammett Homicides” a selection of green weapons, and “Adventures of Sam Spade” red and black pistols. These simple designs allude to cop adventures, murder plots, and gun fights within the texts. But despite these small variations in design each novel adheres to the same general cover-topography: a large white square holding the title with a black mask and gun beneath and the phrase “Bestseller Mystery” above.

The strength in this strategy is the construction of a sense of consumer trust. If a reader has enjoyed one Hammett’s stories, he or she can identify the next similarly packaged product and expect a repeated quality. This sense of quality, in the world of Hammett, meant the production of genuine thrills, dramatic showdowns, and knockout reveals. Undoubtedly the author delivers on the paper promise of consistency by offering honest covers that open to high adrenaline Hammett style stories. And although the wrappings for Hammett’s pieces may not be as inherently eye-catching or heart quickening as other contemporary pulp fiction, there is a reason a woman loves a blue box wrapped in a white bow and a reason a subway rider loved a twenty five cent Dashiell Hammett story.

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One thought on “Packaging Pulp

  1. The motif of the gun and mask also recalls The Black Mask, the detective magazine that first published the short stories.

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