TRASHY TUESDAY: EARLY AUSTRALIAN PULP – AN EAR FOR MURDER By Max Afford
Magpie Books were published by Frank Johnson Pty Ltd in the 1940s and 1950s. They ran for two series and focused on Australian authors and produced around one hundred fictional and true stories (not all crime) in a stapled digest format.
An Ear For Murder was a re-titled reprint of Australian playwright and novelist Max Afford’s murder mystery Blood On His Hands, which was originally published in 1937. Afford seems to have had some success in Australia and the United Kingdom with the handful of crime novels he wrote, but he is probably best known for his plays and radio plays, which were performed around the world.
Magpie Books appear to have purchased the rights to five of Afford’s novels and published Blood On His Hands in their first series in 1945. They then re-titled it and published it in 1947 as An Ear For Murder (some sources suggest it was published in 1953, but 1947 seems the more likely date).
An Ear For Murder is a traditional murder mystery set in Sydney and involving the police and a professor of mathematics, Jeffrey Blackburn, who assists them in their investigations. It seems to contain a number of staple mystery elements, a mysterious returned soldier suffering from memory lost, a large lottery prize, a religious sect and murder. The writing is not great and it has not aged well.
The cover for An Ear For Murder is quite striking, once you realise that the thing in the opened hand is not a dried mushroom, but a bloodless ear. The ear and the hand with its neatly trimmed nails are not particularly well drawn, but the strong green tinge gives it a real horror story feel, which is reinforced by the dripping blood effect on the titles. Frank Johnson Pty Ltd were primarily a publisher of comics, and there is a strong comic feel to the cover of An Ear For Murder. It is not the sort of cover you would usually find on a relatively traditional murder mystery. The tagline on the cover says: “No crime could be more horrifying in its ferocity” and certainly there is a sense brutality to the cover, although this is slightly offset by the neatness of the finger nails. .
In all, it is an interesting example of early Australian pulp publishing.
Thanks to Gayle Lovett for the copy of An Ear For Murder.
Some of the information on Magpie Books was drawn from Graeme Flanagan’s Australian Vintage Paperback Guide.