National Archives of Australia

Issue 11 July 2013

What a gem! For your eyes only

Archives staff often unearth exciting or unusual records from among the millions of items held in the collection. ‘What a gem!’ showcases these finds. In this issue, Your Memento looks at the case of a freelance writer seeking the mighty American dollar.

Cover of 1961 issue of True Detective. NAA: C3059, True Detective

It’s a tough gig being a freelance writer – especially so if you lived in remote Perth in the 1930s and the magazines you wrote for were banned.

In 1939, journalist W Charnley wrote to the Minister for Customs in Canberra pleading his case. He explained that his profession ‘finds small scope in Australia’. As a result of these limited local opportunities, he explained to the Minister, he was ‘obliged to seek markets overseas’.

He had been fortunate enough to gain a foothold in two magazines, True Detective and The Master Detective, published by Macfadden Publishing Co. of New York. But here was his problem: the two magazines, typical of the ‘true crime’ genre that had emerged in the 1920s and quickly gained popularity with sensationalised accounts of shocking crimes, were banned in Australia.

The Customs Department labelled many of the popular pulp crime magazines as ‘obscene’ and declared them a ‘prohibited import’. With story titles such as ‘Flirting Fiend and the Tunnel of Terror’ and ‘Red Rampage of the Prowling Peril’ – as well as illustrations and re-enactments of crimes that tended to feature shapely and scantily-clad women – the publications were deemed inappropriate for the Australian public.

Cover of Best Detective Cases, 1948. NAA: C3059, Best Detective Cases 3

But for Mr Charnley, pulp crime was a matter of earning his livelihood and supporting his family. It was necessary, he told the Minister, for a writer such as himself to have access to the pages of these obscene magazines, ‘to keep in touch with the papers he writes for so as to observe what is going on and also to obtain ideas’. Further, he added, the copies would be ‘strictly for his own use’. He wrote persuasively: ‘I am 56 years of age and it is unlikely that their contents would do me any harm.’

Charnley’s arguments swayed the Minister – his case was seen as one for ‘sympathetic consideration’ – and he was allowed to receive a subscription to the magazines denied to other Australians keen for their fix of ‘true crime’. Perhaps this comment sealed the deal: ‘I may also perhaps be pardoned for pointing out that in extending my literary market to U.S.A. I am in a small way doing something towards balancing trade with that country, bringing real American money into Australia’.

Read more about the prohibition of pulp crime in the Archives’ Banned blog.

Letter from W Charnley to Minister for Customs, 1939. NAA: A425, 1939/11662

Want more?

Read the latest entry in the Banned blog

View the file containing Mr Charnley’s request

‘Banned: The Catcher in the Rye’, in Your Memento issue 9

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