Sinister Socialites: Vin Packer

I wish I could remember which Vin Packer book I read first. I had a pile of Gold Medal Books in front of me, and it was probably The Girl on the Bestseller List I picked. Or maybe 5:45 to Suburbia. I remember at the time that reading about the 1950s East Coast suburbanites wasn’t too much different than reading science fiction in the 1970s. I grew up in the 50s myself, but for a California kid with a laid-back upbringing, it still felt like I was encountering an alien culture.

Since then, I’ve read all the Packer books, and fallen in love with that sly voice that is Marijane Meaker’s (Vin Packer’s real name). Since then I also discovered John O’Hara, so I know where Meaker was coming from when she wrote her exposes of the mid-century social climbers. The whole sorority/fraternity thing makes more sense now, the importance of social position, the need to not only belong, but climb one rung higher than the rest of the pack. Patricia Highsmith, who was in a relationship with Meaker at the time, wrote about these characters, too. Their grasping insecurity would sometimes just drive them to murder.

Meaker/Packer wrote about these characters so well. Her novels are social revelations, studies of the white collar criminal who, more than a suitcase full of loot, wants the brass ring of status. There is suspense, but it usually involves not knowing just how far her characters will go to get what they want. Will they take that one last step in pursuit of social position? Yeah, probably. You know who the criminal is, because most of the books are written from their point of view.

Back when Stark House was new, I figured I had to bring these books back into print. And that gave me a chance to correspond with Marijane Meaker, which was certainly a big thrill. Straight spoken and gracious, she is a pleasure to know.

So far, her two books about lesbian/gay murderers, Whisper His Sin and The Evil Friendship have sold the best. Sex and sin always sells. Packer’s editor at Gold Medal Books knew this back in the 1950s when he encouraged her to keep writing the lurid stuff—books about teenage gangs, race relations, sex crimes—and it still works today.

I’d like to reprint more Vin Packer books, but at this point Prologue Books has made them all available as inexpensive ebooks, where they continue to find a new audience. But I still consider myself lucky that I was able to persuade Ms. Meaker to let us bring six of her Packer books back into print as Stark House two-fers, taking a chance on a new publisher with nothing but optimism and enthusiasm on his side.

And to anyone who has read Highsmith’s sardonic thrillers and regrets that there are no more Ripley books, I would suggest you pick up a copy of Something in the Shadows or The Damnation of Adam Blessing. Here you will find crime cloaked in class, where murder, as indelicate as it is, is sometimes just, well, necessary. These were cool books back in the 1950s and 60s, and they’re cool books today.

Greg Shepard, publisher


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