THE period between 1945 and about 1985 was the heyday of the paperback novel. Apart from Penguin Books, the soft covered paperbacks mass produced on cheap paper in that period were of a particular genre that today we call ‘popular’ fiction.
During that period, if you wanted to read something more literary or highbrow you bought it in a hard cover book.
Nowadays just about everything comes out in paperback and hardcovers are only selectively published.
Australia had several stalwart popular novelists during that time. One of the most widely read was Morris West, who wrote some 30 books and sold about 70 million in his lifetime. Jon Cleary was another, as was the adopted Englishman Neville Shute.
West’s best known novel was The Shoes of the Fisherman, about a Catholic pope who decided to flog off the Vatican’s immense riches and give it away to the poor. There was even a Hollywood movie made out of it.
Both West and Cleary wrote books with a New Guinea setting; Kundu by West and North From Thursday by Cleary.
Cleary, at least, had been in New Guinea during World War II and went back with his wife to research his novel, based on the 1951 eruption of Mt Lamington.
Although he was a prolific and successful writer, Australia didn’t really take to him, a fact that bugged him until he died.
New Guinea was very handy for the writers of popular fiction in those days because few people had been there and it was largely unknown. Writers could make up any old rubbish and people believed it for want of knowing no better.
The most revealing aspects of this ignorance are seen in the covers of the books. In an era notorious for its lurid artwork the cover illustrators excelled.
My all-time favourite was a 1973 edition of North From Thursday. It shows a photograph of a clean cut young man, probably straight out of an advertising agency, dressed in a neatly ironed khaki shirt and wearing a spotless slouch hat.
He is crouched behind a grass bank gingerly clutching a revolver. Stuck in the ground all about him are short arrows with feathered fletches reminiscent of a John Wayne cowboy movie.
These covers are an interesting comment on the perceptions of Papua New Guinea at the time.
We’ve included in this article a selection of covers from various editions of West’s Kundu. You can make up your own mind about them.