Thursday, August 6, 2020

Gordon Semple's Bad Company

Bad Company is the story of a young woman named Eileen Cooper. Whether Eileen is bad company or good company depends on what you want from a girl. If you want love, devotion and home-baked cookies then she’s bad company. If you want a good time in bed and you have plenty of money she can be very good company. Eileen is a tart. She’s quite happy to describe herself as such. Do not however make the mistake of thinking she’s a cheap tart. She’s very expensive.

Bad Company was written in 1945 and the author’s name on the cover is Gordon Semple. Even by the standards of pulp writers he’s pretty obscure. All I know about him is that he and William Neubauer and Norman Bligh were all the same man but I can’t even tell you which is the guy’s actual given name. Whatever his name was he was a prolific writer of sleaze fiction. Which is a bit tautological - if you were a writer of sleaze fiction you had to be prolific if you expected to make a living out of it.

Before the war the teenaged Eileen had been Bert Jackson’s girlfriend. Bert was a real prize. On one occasion he hired her out to a buddy for an hour for five bucks because he needed the five bucks and he figured Eileen wouldn’t mind. She did mind. In retrospect though she figures he did her a good turn. He helped her to understand how life works. Love is for suckers. It’s money that matters.

Bert went off to the war and got wounded and now he’ll never play the violin again. Yes, really. Bert was an aspiring violinist, although he sounds more like an aspiring racketeer or pimp. Now Bert expects Eileen to forgive him and marry him. But Eileen has been busy while Bert was off at the front. She’s now Arthur Worden’s mistress. Arthur is fat and middle-aged but he’s rich. And he’s given her a job singing in his night-club (whatever her characters flaws Eileen is apparently a pretty good canary). Maybe she doesn’t really go for Arthur all that much in a physical way but she has Peter Ostler (a penniless hunk) to satisfy her physical needs.

Of course there are complications. There’s Eileen’s girlhood friend Rita, who has always been in love with Bert but Bert wasn’t interested. If Eileen is a gal who measures a man’s worth by the size of his wallet then Bert is a guy who judges a woman by the size of her bust. Rita just didn’t measure up. But Rita is not giving up.

There’s also Arthur’s scheming wife Agnes.

This is all overwrought melodrama but melodrama can be fun. This kind of sleaze fiction was aimed primarily at men. Perhaps not exclusively - there’s probably no way of knowing how many women read such books. Although aimed at men they actually have quite a bit in common with the steamy romance novels that would a few decades later become so popular with women. Even when the female characters are wicked the stories do tend to be told largely from the woman’s point of view. There’s usually at least an attempt to understand the heroine’s (or villainess’s) emotional motivations. It’s also worth remarking that quite  few of the popular writers of sleaze fiction were women.

Eileen is ruthless and she is certainly a tart. She does however have some justification (most teenaged girls would react pretty negatively if their boyfriends tried to pimp them out) and she is not an emotionless sexual predator. She is driven partly by lust, partly by money and partly by love. She’s not the kind of girl you’d take home to meet Mother but she’s not quite a monster. In fact none of the characters is all bad, although Bert is pretty contemptible. Arthur is weak, selfish and self-indulgent but he does love Eileen. Rita is a fool but she’s a nice girl. Agnes is a monster, but she was turned into a monster.

There’s even a hint of tragedy in the lives of these people. They’re making a shambles of life but they’re not doing so deliberately.

This was 1945 so of course there’s nothing approaching graphic sex. The secret to writing sleaze fiction at the time was to create an atmosphere of overheated desire and forbidden pleasures without having to describe those pleasures in detail. In that respect Bad Company scores pretty highly on the Sleaz-O-Meter. There’s no description of sexual acts but there’s an immense amount of implied offstage sex. There’s also some spanking, for those who like that sort of thing.

I don’t think you’ll find much in the way of a social message here, except perhaps that people who fear sex (like Rita and Agnes and Eileen’s boss Mr Lauren) are probably going to end up lonely and unhappy.

It’s not a good book but it does its job. In 1945 it would have been pretty titillating. There’s plenty of emotional and sexual melodrama and there’s some amusing dialogue. It’s tamer than the sleaze fiction of the mid ’50s to mid ’60s (in fact it’s tamer than Florence Stonebreaker’s Reno Tramp which was published just five years later in 1950) but there’s still some fun to be had here. Bad Company is recommended to anyone interested in the rather fascinating history of sleaze fiction.

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