Having guessed I’d never seen such a magazine before, my future husband included an issue of Startling Detective among my birthday presents, a little joke between two aspiring writers. We’d met the year before, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and had been living together for six months. As MFA students, we gathered with our peers to critique one another’s short stories; we used the words epiphany and redemption whenever the opportunity presented itself. We did not consider hard-boiled, artless accounts of rape and murder a legitimate form of narrative.
“I knew you’d like it,” he said.
“No,” I said, bouncing up from our thrift shop couch, “I love it.”
The pandering sensationalism; the preponderance of lurid clichés; prose that had passed from bad to execrable without stopping at worse: He’d found the perfect anodyne for the hours I spent rearranging the order of sentences, which had themselves required hours in the making. “Oregon’s Copycat Sex Murders” was the lead article for March. In the back were ads for handguns, wigs, diet aids, miracle cures, girdles and correspondence courses to improve your sex life or learn to become a private eye in your own home.
My future husband, who’d imagined the gift as a onetime gag, thought it was funny that I liked what was unarguably pulp, with standards lower than a tabloid’s.
After we’d graduated and were packing for a move east, to New York, I was surprised by how many detective magazines I found lying around our living room, jammed between sofa cushions, buried in piles of newspapers. He’d bought a few more, and I’d bought some myself. While the joke of their abysmal prose had worn off, I remained captive to what was irredeemably vulgar and misogynistic. True Detective, Startling Detective, Front Page Detective—they were all the same. Whether the girl was hog-tied and gagged by a murderous lothario or was luring an innocent man to his death, the bombshell on the cover was usually wearing no more than lingerie or a bikini. If sex didn’t equal death, the two were inextricably bound.
The transition from a Midwestern college town to New York City was predictably vertiginous, especially as neither of us had ever lived there before, not as an adult working a day job while writing on evenings and weekends. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have time to squander on what had been, I decided, a sophomoric attraction to kitsch, the literary equivalent of a pink plastic flamingo jabbed into a patch of lawn.
A decade disappeared before I gave detective magazines another thought—we’d married by then and started a family. I suspect I may have been the only mother in my neighborhood Barnes & Noble to leave her children within the safe embrace of the “Jr.” section so she could troll the true-crime shelves while they made their way through Frog and Toad Together. I didn’t care about murders undertaken to dispatch an inconvenient spouse or hasten an inheritance. I wanted to read about lust murder, the kind committed by an apparently ordinary man who secretly hunts a girl down, uses her sexually, kills her, discards her lifeless body and seamlessly re-enters his upstanding, workaday life.