billbenIn Sweden, where I grew up, there’s a certain kind of books that are called “kiosklitteratur”, meaning the kind of cheap, pulpy, massmarket paperbacks you pick up at the local corner store. Often, they’re characterized by shallow characters, formulaic storytelling, and bad dialogue… but they can also be a lot of fun to read.

My favourite brand of pulp was always Marshall Grover’s western books about Texas cowboys / Wild West heroes and drifters Bill and Ben, or, as I’ve since found out they were called in the original works: Larry and Stretch. To quote Grover’s Goodreads page:

Among his most famous characters were “Larry & Stretch”, Larry Valentine and Stretch Emerson. In the United States (Bantam Books) they they were known as “Larry & Streak” (Larry Vance & Streak Everett)” and the in the Nordic countries they were known as “Bill & Ben”.

I got into Bill & Ben because my maternal grandparents (who were avid readers) had a bunch of these paperbacks in their house, and if I was visiting (which was often), the Bill & Ben books were a sure bet for a quick, entertaining read. My grandparents had a set of very nice and very full bookshelves in their living room, lined with leather-bound volumes and other hardcovers, but they also had another bookcase downstairs that housed the pulpier titles, including “Bill & Ben”. I read a lot of the hardcovers, but I also loved to search that downstairs bookshelf for any and all new red spines (Bill & Ben always had those red spines).

billben2

As characters, Bill and Ben were classic archetypes  – or clichés, if you prefer: one dark and brooding/intelligent, and serious; one blonde, tall, skinny, goofier, with big ears. And plot-wise, the books follow a set and easy pattern: Larry and Stretch ride into some town, bad guys are up to no good, and the dynamic duo ends up helping out the good townsfolk and putting all to rights. Then they ride off into the sunset.

I don’t even know how many of these books I’ve read: dozens? a hundred? And I always just assumed that Marshall Grover was a pen name for a group of writers, but it turns out they were authored by one super prolific Australian writer named Leonard Frank Meares (13 February 1921 – 4 February 1993). He wrote 746 books in his lifetime. 746. One year, he published an astonishing 30 novels! Which is impressive, regardless of how you look at it. To quote author Ben Bridges excellent article on Meares:

Len never needed more than 24 hours to devise a new plot. “Irving Berlin once said that there are so many notes on a keyboard from which to create a new melody, and it’s the same with writing on a treadmill basis.”

As a writer, I’m kind of flabbergasted by that kind of productivity. Even if you were to write crap (and these books are not crap), you still have to write the words and the pages, and piece together the action.

mormor
Me and mormor, on the porch of my grandparents’ house.

Just holding these cheap old paperbacks brings back vivid memories of my grandparents and that basement: the steep stairs, the cold concrete floor, and the mysterious sounds of the chest-freezer (there was always ice cream in there) and the old furnace; the laundry room with the drying lines and the mangle where grandma pressed her tablecloths and sheets. And, of course, the old bookshelf with all those paperbacks, just there for the taking. Yeah, I do miss that place. It’s one of those places from my childhood that’s somehow imprinted in my brain: I still dream about it sometimes.

Bill & Ben are definitely not high-brow lit, but then not everything we read has to be that. Reading what entertains and feels familiar has its place, too, and Bill & Ben were always a comfort read for me.

And seriously, how can you resist book blurbs such as these:

The Sierra Stash was a twenty-year-old legend, a cached fortune in gold, a prize that triggered greed and homicidal tendencies. Now the secret was out. One person had acquired the Marchmount map, the key to the whereabouts of the cache. The deadly gang led by Reno Hamill closed in for the kill, and where were the Texas Trouble-shooters? Hidden, armed and ready for a running fight.

From: Wells Fargo Decoys: Larry & Stretch

The danger-prone drifters truly believed the small Circle 6 spread would become their sanctuary, a safe resting place after so many years of outlaw-fighting and knight-errantry. How wrong can a couple of trouble-shooters be? Even before they stowed their gear in the bunkhouse, Circle 6 became the powder-keg of Loomis County. Soon enough, Larry & Stretch were up to their ears in mayhem, intrigue and gun-trouble.

From: We Ride For Circle 6: Larry & Stretch

Advertisements