THE GIRL ON THE BEST SELLER LIST (1960) by Vin Packer

9781933586982In the 50s and 60s ‘Vin Packer’ was the pulp fiction alter ego of Marijane Meaker, better known today as YA author M.E. Kerr. Originally published as a Gold Medal paperback, her novel is a smart and deliciously back-handed riff on Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, the sensationalist small town exposé modelled on the uncouth author’s own life. The idea behind Packer’s book is simple and clever: what if one of the real people behind the thinly disguised characters in the book took umbrage and decided to get even?

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme hosted today by Todd Mason at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

“Mrs Wealdon’s a stinker and I’d like to murder her and write a sequel to her book”

Gloria Wealdon hates living with her mild-mannered husband Milo in the small New York town of Cayuta where he teaches at the local school, tends to his flowers and makes small figures on saints out of soap. Always bedevilled by insecurities, and with an unfortunate knack for frequently saying and doing the ‘wrong’ thing in polite society (like goosing one of the town elders when the lady bends down), she vents her frustration by writing Population 12,360, a gossipy piece of ‘faction’ that becomes a massive hit and upsets the entire town, not least because it is much too easy to see who her real-life targets really are. Her husband Milo becomes Miles, her friend Fern becomes Fernanda, psychologist Jay Mannerheim becomes Dr Hammerheim, and so on. Everyone has read her book (though not all will admit it), and some have become dangerously obsessed with her – and she is not the only one writing a book, either …

She had an almost sticky hunger for love, so that being in her presence was like walking through a too-humid hot August afternoon, when you felt you were too powerless to accomplish anything at all.

Packer_Bestseller_fawcettThere is something really delirious about the simple premise of The Girl on the Best Seller List – its inspiration would have been obvious to all its readers (the fictional author, Gloria, even dresses in the jeans and men’s baggy shorts made famous by Metalious), which is perfect given that Peyton Place became a hit precisely because it was recognised right away as being based on real people and places. But this is no Borgesian piece of meta fiction – what we have here instead is a whip-smart pulp variation that all readers in its day would have recognised as being a bit tongue-in-cheek, and which then goes on to have all sorts of genre fun with it. Thus we have quite a complex narrative (each chapter begins with an extract from Gloria’s novel and then shows us the real-life counterpart for her fiction), presented in a clear and accessible way so that the hundreds of thousands of readers of ‘Vin Packer’ paperback originals would not bristle at being presented with something that could be seen as being a bit high brow and verging on postmodernism. It is to the author’s considerable credit that these elements are there (there is also a playful nod to her then partner Patricia Highsmith, who has a character named after her), but in no way get in the way of the well-defined characters and simple plot that moves inexorably to a single locus – will someone eventually snap and kill Gloria for what she did?

“I never realized my wife had such contempt, such loathing for me until I read her book.”

Marijane Meaker in 2007 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Marijane Meaker in 2007 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The book does have one obvious flaw as Gloria is just so unpleasant throughout, which is what we might expect in a superficial mystery to ensure that there are lots of suspects, but which hurts it a bit as a novel of manners. None the less, while the basic premise of this book had already appeared in Stanley Ellin’s The Key to Nicholas Street and would later appear many more times, such as in Joan Hess’ Strangled Prose, Packer’s is probably the gutsiest and most enjoyable of all of them, partly for its cheerfully and unapologetically bitchy tone, but also because it came out so closely to its literary target, making its satire that much more pointed. This is particularly clear in the concluding section of the book once the police get involved, which is almost parodic in tone. This is a terrific read and comes highly recommended –  not least because, as the seventh in the mass market Black Gat line from Stark House Press, it even goes to the trouble of recreating the 4.25” x 7” paperback format of the past. Bringing the book back into paper print after nearly 60 years, this is another great release from Stark House Press, to whom many thanks for supplying the review copy – it’s a keeper.

For a fine review of this book, you can do no better than going to see what Bill Crider had to say, right here; while Stark House editor Greg Shepard has written about his love for the Vin Packer books on his blog.

The Girl on the Best Seller List
By Vin Packer
ISBN: 978-1-933586-98-4 (paperback), 176 pages, $9.99
www.starkhousepress.com/

I submit this reviews for Bev’s Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the ‘book’ category:

05_Vintage_Silver_Scavenger_2016

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2016 Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt, Friday's Forgotten Book, Stark House Press, Vin Packer. Bookmark the permalink.

60 Responses to THE GIRL ON THE BEST SELLER LIST (1960) by Vin Packer

  1. Unpleasant character or not, this does sound like a good ‘un, Sergio. And when it’s done well, the tongue-in-cheek approach can work very, very well. And the premise is absolutely irresistible! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Colin says:

    I’ve never read Peyton Place and have only seen bits and pieces of the film. Still, the concept has entered popular culture to the extent everyone knows the kind of thing it refers to. This sounds like an entertaining piece of work.

  3. JJ says:

    Not only does this sound like a very entertaining read – love a bit of sneaky meta-fiction – but it’s also nice to have documentary evidence that “The Girl who/on/in/next to/without/etc…” title isn’t just a 2010s phenomenon!

    • Nice one JJ 🙂 I hadn’t thought about the title combination though she is more of a femme fatale type I suppose … One can see why ‘Vin Packer’\ was so popular!

      • Todd Mason says:

        MacDonald, THE ONLY GIRL IN THE GAME…Bannon, ODD GIRL OUT…etc. Of course, there was slightly less insult intended in the 1950s than is today by referring to women as girls…because the condescension was more a given.

  4. Todd Mason says:

    That and her talent and sophistication, of course…Metallious was famously Difficult. Meaker wasn’t missing a stitch.

    • Thanks for that Todd – this did send me back to her Highsmith memoir (the only other book of her’s I have) where she does talk about the composition of this particular book quite fondly.

      • Todd Mason says:

        You’ll definitely not suffer with her other work. As I’ve mentioned, I began with her “Kerr” book DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK, and have read too few since, but have consistently enjoyed them.

        • Will do chum, though that is just such a bizarre title 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            Yup. It’s an eye-catcher. I didn’t know, age 9. that “shooting smack” meant injecting heroin when I picked up the novel, just thought Ms. Hocker, she of the unfortunately belittling nickname, was a dead shot of some sort. That was Meaker’s first YA novel, and a very fine and clearly an educational one (the title phrase is a graffito that one of her adversaries puts up on a wall)(and it actually has an exclamation point: DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK!).

          • Thanks chum – I have just gone and ordered it (I have a growing shelf of Todd recommendations by the way, including books by Kate Wilhem, Harlan Ellison (of course), Robert Bloch (double of course), Saldek & Disch, Emschwiller …)

    • Todd Mason says:

      …even down to spelling her name Metalious, as you do correctly as well. Further difficulty!

  5. macavityabc says:

    Thanks for the shout-out!

  6. John says:

    Was Meaker ever writing paperback originals with the intent of delivering “a novel of manners”? No man writing this kind of thing would ever be criticized for making his characters “so unpleasant” in a book clearly intended to titillate and entertain. But now that I”:m typing this I realize that I did the same thing (accusing a woman writer of writing a book relentless in its animosity) when I reviewed Helen Eustis’ Edgar winning detective novel several years ago. So now we’re even. HA!

    The insinuating and odious roman a clef plot motif tends to be way overused these days, the most recent turgid and absurd use of it was in Joel Dicker’s international bestseller THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR. I remember that the outrage of books that reveal people’s secrets was a favorite plot device of TV script writers throughout the 70s and 80s. But this one is so interesting with the Peyton Place satire that I’d probably read this one.

    • Thanks for that John. I would imagine that the ‘Vin Packer’ books were primarily meant to offer blood and thunder and some titillation, above all else, right? What I meant was that, given what we have in this book, which really has no salacious content or violence and a mystery plot that only kicks in in the last quarter (and is then amusingly defused pretty elegantly and ironically), I just got the impression that the author wanted to go elsewhere. I didn’t mean to suggest a gender bias though – because I think Stanley Ellin for instance did a very good job in his book too in this regard but may also have strained a bit at the genre confines.

      • Todd Mason says:

        I think that Meaker, like many an artist before her, didn’t pay any more attention to “rules” than she had to.

        • I am sure you are right – and good to know that she is still very much practising the art (apparently she was slipped a link to this review (gulp!))

        • Todd Mason says:

          While her memoir aimed at her YA audience, ME ME ME ME ME: NOT A NOVEL, is circumspect about a number of things, it does get into her artistic process a bit…I should be seeking out any interviews or essays she also wrote for an adult audience…I imagine Ed Gorman or MH Greenberg or Allen Hubin or someone like them solicited same over the years.

  7. George Kelley says:

    I find these Gold Medal books irresistible. Great stories, great cover artwork, fun reading for thirty-five cents! Those were the days

  8. Yvette says:

    I read Peyton Place of course since it was the literary cause celebre of the day once upon a time. I remember too that the author was a bit of recluse type who struck it big with this novel and its sequel, but never seemed happy or able to handle her success. (She died relatively young.) At any rate, the reasons for PEYTON PLACE’s success are varied, but the main one I’ve always thought was it’s frank depiction of small town sexual shenanigans at a time when ‘sex’ was not seen, not heard and never talked about in polite society.

    I’m not at all familiar with the Vin Packer books, but your review made me want to read this one, Sergio. I’m intrigued. 🙂

    • Thanks very much Yvette – yes, she seems to have had a very, very good time and yet not been all that happy and I think was dead by the e.g. of 39. I think you’d like this one – it is certainly much more nuanced than one might have thought if you just expected some pulpy excess! It is all very deftly handled and very constructed – really good basically 🙂

  9. tracybham says:

    I have wanted to read something by Vin Packer, and this sounds great. I want to have both editions though, one for ease of reading and the other just because it is so cool.

  10. Santosh Iyer says:

    By the way, what happened to your proposed review of the film Strait-Jacket ?

  11. Todd Mason says:

    “Vin Packer” might’ve written something that might actually qualify as “pulp fiction,” btw, but I’ve not yet read it…all her work under that name I’ve read so far was not only not from a pulp magazine, but didn’t fit any reasonable attempt at a definition of pulp–always too narratively sophisticated, too double-bottomed. SPRING FIRE is say several things to the reader at once, in a way that pulp fiction, by its intended use as a classification (which is almost always wrong, fwiw), does not. Pulp fiction is, even more than other fiction about simplification. This action provokes this reaction reliably. That’s not the Packer fiction I’ve read…but I’ll admit I haven’t read enough yet to say too much reliably about her work under that name…but I’ll bet most of it isn’t simple-minded.

    • I know the ‘pulp fiction’ tag tends to be applied too loosely and usually irks you Todd – and yet, rightly or wrongly, it tends to conjure up a sense of expectation that I think most would understand – i.e. a commercial paperback fromn the 50s and 60s in a recognisable genre mode (western, mystery, horror, sci-fi [rather than SF] as well as sex and romance [why the two don’t more often go together though?) with a title and certainly a cover that tends to be a teens weensy side of exploitative, titillating and possibly (if you’re lucky) downright tawdry and lurid 🙂

  12. Todd Mason says:

    Sorry…her novel SPRING FIRE is saying several things to the reader at once.

  13. This sounds fabulous, a must-read for me. I have read Peyton Place – I always associate it with those other scandalous bestsellers, Valley of the Dolls and Best of Everything. PP is a bit grim but very readable… very much looking forward to this take on it, thanks for putting me on to it.

  14. Kelly says:

    I LOVE her stuff–I even read the ME Kerr stuff when I come across it at used book stores. This one has eluded me, and it sounds so much fun.

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