Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Two-Fisted Tales:
Kill Me On The Ginza
by Earl Norman

(Erle Books, 1969 / first published 1961)

Hunting for English language volumes in the dozens of second hand book shops that fill the Jimbocho area (colloquially known as “old book town”) in Tokyo’s Kanda district can be an interesting experience.

At one end of the scale, the area boasts several beautiful, Art Deco shops whose interiors seem to have been carefully preserved since the 1920s. Therein, impeccably-dressed staff wearing disposable white gloves will guide the curious gaijin visitor toward floors housing carefully selected (and ear-wateringly expensive) hardback volumes dealing with specific areas of Asian history, sociology and culture, divided into English, French or German, and seemingly intended to cater to visiting foreign dignitaries who feel the shelves at the embassy are looking a little bare these days.

Needless to say, it was the other end of the scale that was of more immediate interest to your humble correspondent. Down on the street, the English language offerings within the cramped, almost impossibly dusty confines of the smaller, independent shops fall largely into two categories, both priced in such a manner that buying them for fuel or toilet paper would not seem entirely uneconomical, should living conditions in the city take a turn for the worse.

On the one hand, there are masses of largely obsolete, 70s/80s era monographs and text books, many covering such time-specific areas as economics, sociology, engineering and (for some reason) British and Canadian politics. These I take to be either detritus left behind by generations of foreign students and visiting academics passing through Tokyo’s universities, or perhaps reflective of the scholarly interests of the relatively small number of Japanese with both the ability to read English books and the inclination to import them. (Possibly some of the pop economics books could even have originated with bubble-economy era fortune hunters in the ‘80s and ‘90s, or, given the preponderance of hardbacks and the irrelevance of the subject matter, it even occurred to me that some of these books might have entered the country as ballast on ships, or something like that? Who knows.)

And then, on the other hand, we have pulp. Masses and masses of pulp fiction, primarily American, ranging all the way from the ‘50s to the ‘90s.

Although you’ll be lucky to find anything genuinely collectable or valuable in this vein in Kanda (that stuff has presumably already been harvested by dealers by this point), if you duck down the right alleyways you’ll stuff find racks of Carter Browns and Shell Scotts falling apart in the summer sun, together with more Nick Carter: Killmaster’s and other “men’s adventure” series entries than I have ever before seen in one place and a fair smattering of ‘80s/’90s UFO and True Crime titles.

In one inauspicious corner bookshop apparently operated by a pair of elderly ladies meanwhile, I found an entire bookcase filled with nothing but hardcore porn paperbacks. Hundreds of ‘em. (Sadly none of these dated from the smut/sleaze era in which such books had wild n’ zany cover artwork and were quite possibly written by Ed Wood – we’re talking more the blank covers and/or random nudie photos era of the ‘70s. I picked up a couple of the weirder/funnier looking ones, but didn’t fancy having to explain to friends and family my reasoning for cramming ‘Nobody Does It Like Daddy’ or ‘Ski Lodge Orgy’ or whatever in my suitcase, so they’re all still there for the taking, dear readers, if that’s your particular bag. I’d imagine you could probably make enough back on Ebay to cover your plane ticket.)

Of course, the reason all of these books all ended up in Japan is pretty obvious. It lives behind barbed wire in places like Yokosuka and Okinawa, wears khakis and ray-bans, and until recently could be seen cruising the streets in jeeps, probably whilst yelling “yee-ha” and looking for the nearest girls school, if the unflattering caricatures presented in Japanese popular culture are to be believed.

Clearly, the market for pulp fiction (and, no doubt, pornography) amongst U.S. servicemen in Asia in the mid-20th century was vast. So much so that, in the late 1950s, one Norman Thomson, an “old Japan hand [and] well-connected member of the post-World War II American occupation” [source], decided to take advantage of the situation, and began writing a series of low-brow detective novels specifically catering to soldiers stationed in Japan.

Beginning with ‘Kill Me in Tokyo’, six “Earl Norman thrill books” were published by Berkeley in the US between 1958 and 1962, all featuring the ‘Kill Me..’ prefix in the title and recounting the exploits of Norman/Thomson’s series character Burns Bannion, a Tokyo-based Private Eye whose lecherous, bantering first person narration seems modelled fairly closely on that of Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott.

An easy identification figure for the books’ intended audience, Bannion is a dishonourably discharged U.S. marine who used G.I. bill funds to enrol at a Japanese university, but soon dropped out to set up shop as a PI, making no bones about the fact that his reasons for staying on in Japan are limited to perfecting his mastery of karate and, as he charmingly puts it in ‘Kill Me On The Ginza’, “..anthropological studies, restricted to the female 15 to 40 category”. (Insert your prefered cringe/shudder emoticon here.)

I don’t know how well these books did for Berkeley (suffice to say, they’re fairly scarce on the market these days, going for between $15 and $40 apiece), but whatever the case, Thomson seems to have decided at some point in the sixties that he could cash in more effectively by publishing them himself and selling them direct to oversees servicemen stationed in Asia, a decision perhaps influenced by the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam, which greatly increased the number of US personnel passing through Japan.

As such, cheaply printed new editions of all the books previously published by Berkeley appeared in the late ‘60s, courtesy of the ‘Erle Publishing Corp’ of Minato-Ko, Tokyo. It is at this point that the books, perhaps benefitting from being on the other side of the Pacific from anyone liable to take legal action, adopted the blatant rip-off of the Carter Brown series logo seen on the edition above, whilst the fact that cover prices are given in cents despite the books being printed and published in Tokyo signals pretty clearly that they were never intended for sale outside of American bases and their immediate environs.

Whilst the Berkeley editions of the ‘Kill Me..’ books had pretty lively, comic book style cover art (watch this space for more on that), the Erle reprints feature garish, rather primitive renderings such as the one seen above. God only knows who produced this artwork but, given the expectations created in paperback fans by the ‘Carter Brown’ styled logo, the contrast between this and the immaculate stylings of Robert McGinnis is almost comical.

The Erle editions are printed on the kind of thin, silky paper stock commonly used by Japanese publishers, whilst the prints for many of the pages are lined up in extremely wonky fashion, giving the books a unique, mutant vibe that serves to differentiate them from more professionally produced American or European paperbacks. (The multiple exclamation marks on the back cover copy are a classy touch too.) Financially speaking, they must have done pretty well, as several new Bannion adventures (inviting killings in Yokosuka and Roppongi) were published by Erle alongside the Berkeley reprints.

As regards the actual content of the books meanwhile, aside from the Japanese setting, the only significant differences between Burns Bannion and Shell Scott seem to be that, instead of knuckle sandwiches, Bannion dishes out karate chops to his antagonists, and, no doubt in deference to the demands of his intended audience, Bannion gets his leg over with a far higher number of ‘exotic’ dames than Scott, whose amorous escapades often ended in slapstick disappointment, ever managed to.

To a significant extent in fact, the Norman books I’ve skim-read are as much tame, comically-inclined smut as they are detective stories, with Bannion spending the bulk of his time frequenting hostess bars, night clubs, strip joints, bath houses, massage parlours and pretty much anywhere else where he might conceivably get the opportunity to leer at some women, whilst meanwhile taking full advantage of the feminine attention that a square-jawed, Caucasian stud might reasonable expect to attract in such establishments (in the hetero male fantasy world of a pulp detective novel, at least).

Showing at least a little more imagination in its relentless pursuit of lechery, ‘Kill Me On The Ginza’ finds Bannion at one point pursuing a flighty young lady to the ‘Oppai Jinja’ or ‘Temple of the Breast’, a sacred site allegedly located in the Ogikubo district, wherein expectant mothers are apparently encouraged to stimulate their production of breast milk by making enlarged casts of their breasts from clay and hanging them from the walls.

Hilarity, needless to say, ensues, but fear not – Bannion’s girl is not pregnant (because that would be a bit of a buzz-kill for the G.I. crowd), she’s merely trying to heal the anatomical peculiarities that have helped her make a living through the preceding years. (According to our narrator, “..many G.I.s on leave from Korea have taken photos with their service hats hanging from her knotty protuberances”.) Laugh? Why I nearly… etc.

Elsewhere, the book is thankfully rich in all kinds of other random weirdness, the like of which you’d be unlikely to encounter in even the zaniest of purely American detective novels. The central plotline, if you have the patience to locate it amongst all the leering an shagging, concerns Bannion’s hunt for the killer of a fellow American whose severed head has been found in a duffle bag, a quest that leads him to reluctantly team up with an elderly gentleman who claims to be a master of “ninjutsu”. A lengthy digression outlining the history and practice of this art follows, which must have been eye-opening stuff for Norman’s readers, many years before the ninja first became a regular presence in international pop culture in the late 1970s.

Thereafter, the ninjutsu gentleman hires Bannion to aid him in his investigation of something called the ‘Oshira’ cult – an outlawed group who seemingly practice an unspeakably ancient fetish/fertility rite dating from the very earliest days of Japanese civilisation, in which a sacred wooden pole is wrapped in silk.

Whilst I confess I’m unsure whether the ‘Oppai Jinja’ is a genuine eccentricity of Japanese culture or just something Norman made up for laughs, the whole Oshira business is actually rooted in authentic folklore, and is pretty fascinating, even though Norman, naturally enough, ramps up the sensationalism by assigning the practice of human sacrifice and all-purpose sexual deviance to the cult - which , by the way, turns out to be masterminded by a villain going by the unlikely name of House Charnel, and is operating rather incongruously from a secret meeting place in the urban sprawl of West Ginza.

Other odd, page-filling tangents along the way include discussion of Shinto ‘toilet gods’ and some novel methods for taking finger prints directly from a live human body, but, despite this evidence that the author is at least somewhat engaged with the culture of his adopted home, anyone approaching the Bannion books in the hope that Norman might have taken the opportunity to present his fellow Americans with a sympathetic alternative portrait of life in Japan will be cruelly disappointed.

Indeed, as far as East-meets-West type stuff goes, Bannion’s interactions with the world around him are about as crass as it gets. As the capsule biography of the author I quoted above concisely notes, the books are “..filled with stereotypes and caricatures, and the Japanese women are treated with an outlandish chauvinism, as if the country were one giant geisha house”.

The opening of ‘Kill Me On The Ginza’ very much sets the tone in this regard, as the “oriental doll” Bannion finds himself fooling around with is referred to as “slant-eyed” or variations thereof no less than three times in the space of a single page. It’s… ghastly, to be perfectly honest.

If, as has often been remarked, Japanese pop culture of the 1960s had a tendency to fan the flames of public anger (of both left and right wing varieties) by portraying the American military as a barbaric occupying force engaged almost solely in acts of rape and cultural desecration, it’s safe to say that the fictional antics of Burns Bannion can’t have done much to help matters.

One can easily imagine the kind of controversy that might have resulted had the local media got wind of the content of these books, but perhaps Norman/Thomson was simply confident that the good old language barrier (and perhaps the disinclination of the Japanese establishment to rock the U.S. boat) would save him from adverse publicity.

Speaking of which, worse is yet to come – in terms of the book’s readability more than anything else - as our hero begins to engage in some verbal (as opposed to merely physical) interaction with the populace of the city in which he has apparently lived for many years without getting murdered. (Given the way Bannion behaves, the books’ titles seem more like taunts to random passers-by than anything more dramatic.)

Although Norman sometimes has a decency to record sentences in romanised Japanese, which Bannion then conscientiously translates for his readers (which is both nice, and potentially educational), more often than not the protagonist’s Japanese friends and enemies address him in the kind of pidgin English that would make Charlie Chan blush, whilst he in turn mocks their pronunciation, throwing phrases like “hando baggo” and “iceo boxo” into his bantering narration whilst simultaneously expressing frustration at their failure to grasp the precise meaning of the dense passages of wise-crackin’, tough guy slang he rattles off, irrespective of his listeners’ level of comprehension.

If you can overlook the relentless misogyny and racial insensitivity of Bannion’s banter however (and that’s a pretty big IF, I’ll grant you), ‘Kill Me On The Ginza’ actually holds up as an enjoyably off-beat timewaster. Although Norman lacks the chops of a Prather or Spillane, his prose is certainly never less than lively, and the sheer novelty of the socio-cultural circumstances under which these books were produced makes them – to me, at least – far more interesting reading than the rather smug and interchangeable Shell Scott books.

Both as detritus of an age long gone and as bracing evidence of a variety of inter-cultural exchange that those men in white gloves in the nice bookshops could scarcely imagine, they are actually quite fascinating, and I’ll be sharing a few more scans of other volumes in the series with you over the coming days/weeks.

As a final note, I’ll also draw your attention to the fact that someone has used a biro to etch what seems to be a woman’s phone number onto the back cover of my copy of ‘Kill Me On The Ginza’; perhaps evidence of a previous owner aspiring toward the lifestyle celebrated by the book’s hero, for better or (more likely) for worse.

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