Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Bygone Delights of Cast Listings

Am I the only one who loves the “Cast of Characters” pages that so often introduced paperback crime novels during the mid-20th century? Probably not, but they definitely rank nowadays among the ugly stepchildren of publishing. With rare exceptions, such prefatory pages don’t appear in new books; even Hard Case Crime—normally a supporter of all things old-fashioned—excised from its November re-release of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Shills Can’t Cash Chips the roll call of players that had appeared in that book’s 1970 Pocket edition.

Too bad, because those one- or two-page lists of dramatis personae were often witty, filled with wordplay, and delightfully provocative. As I explain in a piece posted this morning in CrimeReads,
“Cast of Characters” pages date back at least to the 19th century and such densely populated yarns as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), which limned one of literature’s early eccentric sleuths thus: “Mr. Inspector Bucket, a sagacious, indefatigable detective officer.” Yet they enjoyed a particular and particularly creative later flowering during the mid-20th-century American paperback boom. It became de rigueur back then for crime-fiction publishers such as Pocket, Dell, Ace, and Permabooks to open their releases with rosters of this sort. (Those might disappear from subsequent versions, however, which is why I mention the publication year of each vintage edition cited here.) Some lists included not only provocative or revealing personality details, but also the page numbers on which the players were set to enter the plot line. The choicest examples were pawky and piquant in comparable measure; they were intended to bring a smile to the reader’s face and perhaps even mine a chuckle from his or her throat.
I have collected many examples of “Cast of Characters” write-ups, which you can enjoy by clicking here.


Gram said...

I also enjoyed the back cover maps that some books used. I know that some stories now include them inside, but it is not the same to me.

Randal Brandt said...

Hey Jeff, you are definitely not the only one who loves these cast lists! They've long be a favorite of mine, as well. In fact, I copied the idea for my website, A David Dodge Companion, in which I wrote short character summaries for every character that Dodge created. Thanks for another entertaining read!

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Hey, Gram: I previously wrote a piece for CrimeReads about those famous "mapback" editions:



Craig said...

Thanks for writing this. I read a lot of those Golden Age mysteries that featured cast lists, and found them helpful. So when I wrote my true-crime book about orchid smuggling, "The Scent of Scandal," and one of my beta readers suggested I find a way to help readers keep track of which character was which, I immediately thought of the cast list idea. Since the book was published, I've had quite a few readers tell me that helped them a LOT.