Last week was Banned Books Week in the USA. You can find out more about it at Bannedbooksweek.org. The American Civil Liberties Union also has a superb infographic about banned and “challenged” novels (i.e. titles challenged by the likes of schools, libraries and other state institutions).
Also check out a recent post – and plenty of comments at the end of it – about banned/challenged crime fiction on Margot Kinberg’s excellent blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.
Here in Ireland we don’t have a Banned Books Week. Maybe we should have, as a stark reminder of the State’s atrocious treatment of our writers and artists over the decades.
The week should have a special strand to examine the censorship of crime fiction in particular, which was lumped together with porn and a surprisingly large number of “true crime” magazines.
A (VERY) brief history of Irish censorship
After the war of independence, the Irish Free State came into being in 1922. One of its earliest priorities was a widespread cultural clampdown, from literature to the theatre – as well as the cinema, radio and even the dance halls.
A Committee on Evil Literature was set up in 1926. It reported to the Department of Justice and consisted of “three laymen and two clergymen (one Roman Catholic and one Church of Ireland)”.
Besides consulting with the Churches, civil servants and the police, the committee also “gathered evidence” from organisations such as the Boys Brigade, Boy Scouts Association, Catholic Headmasters Association, Catholic Truth Society, Catholic Writers Guild, Irish Vigilance Association, Schoolmasters Association and the YMCA.
The Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 followed. This established the Censorship of Publications Board.
It had the power to ban books and magazines on the basis of them being “indecent” or “obscene”, as well as works about abortion or that promoted “the ‘unnatural’ prevention of conception”.
As for the novels, the banned authors were like a who’s who of international literature, from Balzac and Graham Greene to F Scott Fitzgerald, Huxley, Salinger and Steinbeck.
Irish and Anglo-Irish authors whose works were banned included Liam O’Flaherty (in 1930), Seán Ó Faoláin (1932), Oliver St John Gogarty (1942), Maura Laverty (1948), Walter Macken (1948), Frank O’Connor (1951), Sam Hanna Bell (1952), Brian Cleeve (1952), Benedict Kiely (1954), Brendan Behan (the autobiographical Borstal Boy, 1958) and Edna O’Brien (1960).
Such was the relentless persecution of poor Edna – easily one of the most creative writers of her generation – that you’d wonder how she managed to survive at all. Her brilliant debut novel The Country Girls was the first of six of her books that the Censorship Board would judge “indecent and obscene”. Her books were burned and she was denounced from the pulpit. Now that’s what I’d call criminal, indecent and obscene.
At its peak the board was described by the poet Robert Graves as imposing “the fiercest literary censorship this side of the Iron Curtain”. Yet, contrary to popular belief, James Joyce’s Ulysses was never actually banned in his own country. For many years it simply was never imported to put on sale – for fear of a ban.
The clampdown on Crime magazines
Besides novels, porn and material about contraception and abortion, a large proportion of the banning orders dating from the 1950s or earlier cover crime fiction and “true crime” publications.
These magazines were kept on an ongoing list of banned publications for having – wait for it – “an unduly large proportion of space for the publication of matter related to crime”.
You see, crime fiction magazines and “true crime” stories were singled out under Section 7(1) of the 1929 censorship Act:
Whenever a complaint is duly made under this Act to the Minister to the effect that the several issues of a periodical publication recently theretofore published have usually or frequently been indecent or obscene or have advocated the unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage or the use of any method, treatment or appliance for the purpose of such prevention or such procurement or have devoted an unduly large proportion of space to the publication of matter relating to crime, the Minister may refer such complaint to the Board.
But of course, inspector! True crime and crime fiction mags were bound to “devote an unduly large proportion of space to the publication of matter relating to crime”. It goes with the territory, as they say.
But I know what you’re thinking: that was then, and everything has changed for the better. Yet many of these crime fiction and true crime publications are still banned – even though most of them probably no longer exist.
Under the letter of the law, even in 2014 people in Ireland cannot import vintage copies of these “evil” publications! It’s as if a mere glance at a Sexton Blake story might “corrupt the nation’s morals”.
The list of publications that continue to be banned in Ireland as of 31 December 2012 includes the following (with the year of their initial ban in brackets):
- All True Fact Crime Cases (1953)
- Amazing Detective Cases (1958)
- American Detective (1939)
- Best Detective Cases (1963)
- Best True Fact Detective (1951)
- Complete Detective Cases (1952)
- Confidential Detective Cases (two titles, 1959 and 1960)
- Crime Detective (various titles, 1951-63)
- Daring Detective (1938, 1951)
- Detective Tales (1939, 1954)
- Detective Weekly (1958)
- Detective World (1951)
- Exposed True Crime Cases (1959)
- Famous Crime Stories (1959)
- Famous Police Cases (1951)
- Front Page Detective (1958)
- Headquarters Detective (two titles, 1951 and 1958)
- Inside Detective (two titles, 1939 and 1958)
- Master Detective (two titles, 1939 and 1958)
- Murder Mysteries (1939)
- Official Detective Stories (1938)
- Official Detective Stories combined with Actual Detective (three titles, 1955-1959)
- Police Detective Cases (1952)
- Police Dragnet Cases (1960)
- Real Detective (two titles, 1938 and 1958)
- Real Police Stories (1958)
- Special Detective (1954
- Startling Detective Adventures (1939)
- True Cases of Women in Crime (1953)
- True Crime (1960)
- True Crime Cases (1951)
- True Detective (1958)
- True Detective Mysteries (1938)
- True-Life Crime Stories (1953)
- True Mystery (1958)
- True Police Cases (1951)
- True Police Cases – British Edition (1953)
You don’t believe me? The full list is on the Department of Justice’s website here. The censorship board is still there too. It still meets very occasionally to discuss books and publications to ban, and has never bothered to lift the bans on these crime fiction and true crime publications.
While those darkest days of censorship may indeed be over, it’s hard to grasp the long-term effect this must have had on the development of a crime fiction scene in Ireland – in terms of both a readership and a homegrown community of crime fiction writers.
Right. That’s it. I’m off to be depraved and corrupted by the sheer evil evilness of “Spies in Singapore”…