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True Crime, True North: The Golden Age of Canadian Pulp Magazines

by Carolyn Strange, Tina Loo

Like their dime-store novel counterparts, the most enduring charms of true crime magazines from the 1940s are their sensationalized covers and hyperbolic titles. A typical cover would depict a sultry woman with waffled tresses smoking a cigarette with one hand while holding a pistol in the other. Or perhaps a woman in a Peter Pan-collared gingham frock shielding her virgin eyes from an evil-looking man who seems about to leap at her.

The crime stories within were never written with the lust or grimness promised by their covers. The language was typically swaddled in moral finger-wagging. Women in trouble with the law, for instance, “lacked domestic obedience.” Cops were saviours, and detectives and Mounties were heroes. This kind of popular culture is always fun to spend some time with, but True Crime, True North is really more a dry historical text on the genre. Authors Carolyn Strange and Tina Loo describe in far too excessive detail how these magazines reflected the conservatism of the era. They summarize plot after plot to demonstrate, for example, how sexist things were back then, or how racist Canadians were toward aboriginals – all of which could have been covered in an introductory essay, leaving readers to linger over the gorgeous and hilariously camp covers reproduced in this book.

In contrast, the book’s design is excellent. Bill Douglas, publisher of the award-winning Coupe magazine, has given the pages his signature cool styling, with lots of big block pull quotes and vintage duotone combinations. It’s too bad the writing often gets in the way of such a rich visual inventory.