Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Harlequin Bowdlerizations

Well, at least the covers do look nice!

The Harlequin Vintage Collection was published in October 2009. The decision to publish these books grew out of an appreciation of (and perhaps nostalgia for) their cover art, as executive editor Marsha Zinberg explained, writing on Harlequin’s blog:

Harlequin mounted an art exhibition in May [2009], entitled The Heart of a Woman, which got people from many departments poring over old covers. Soon we had postcards and notepads—not to mention business cards—created that trumpeted our roots in the late 1940s. And folks both within our building and in the broader publishing community seemed completely taken with this vintage art. So why not publish a few of the texts that accompanied them?

At first, Harlequin intended, Zinberg says, to “[c]hoose six books and reprint them, EXACTLY AS THEY WERE THEN, as a small collection to celebrate our sixty years in business” [emphasis hers]. The six titles chosen were Dale Bogard’s Pardon My Body; James Hadley Chase’s I’ll Bury My Dead and You Never Know with Women; Alan Handley’s Kiss Your Elbow; Perry Lindsay’s No Nice Girl; and Tom Powers’ Virgin with Butterflies. True to Harlequin’s plan, the covers of these books were faithfully recreated with only two minor alterations: the vintage prices were removed, and a small copyright symbol was added next to the Harlequin logo.

The books were not chosen, however, with only their cover art in mind. While it was not necessary that the novels be great literature, it was a requirement that they not offend readers in 2009, as Zinberg explains:

We wanted books whose cover art appealed to us, and we had to be in physical possession of the book, but in some cases, once we started reading the text, we simply couldn’t see publishing the story, for a host of reasons . . . content, language, political correctness, etc. Several were eliminated, no matter how striking the cover!

Even given this winnowing process, however, Harlequin could not find novels that they were willing to reprint faithfully. Says Zinberg,

Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership. Also, grammar and spelling standards have changed quite a bit in sixty years. But that did entail a text edit, which we had not anticipated. AND, we had to clear those adjustments with the current copyright holders, if we had been able to locate them.

Unfortunately, I purchased all six titles in the Harlequin Vintage Collection before I learned that they had been bowdlerized. Once I learned this, I lost all interest in reading them . . . until I became curious to see exactly what the Harlequin editors had done.

Will the real James Hadley Chase please stand up?

Of the novels in the Harlequin Vintage Collection, I was most interested in the two written by James Hadley Chase, a significant, though minor, figure in the history of noirboiled literature, so I purchased a copy of the original Harlequin edition of Chase’s I’ll Bury My Dead (published in January 1954), and I compared it to the Harlequin edition of 2009. I did not compare the entire novels line by line. Rather, I read the 1954 edition, and whenever I came to passage that I suspected the Harlequin editors might have tinkered with in 2009, I paused to compare the two.

First, the minor changes. Zinberg’s comment that “grammar and spelling standards have changed quite a bit in sixty years” is the observation of an editor at a purely commercial press. When Library of America published their volumes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, they would no more have tinkered with the grammar and spelling in The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon than they would have changed the names of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Canonical writers, however, get respect that lesser writers like John Hadley Chase rarely receive—and a publisher like Harlequin does not respect any writers at all. Thus, in the 2009 version of I’ll Bury My Dead, “inter comm.” becomes “intercom”; “over-mantel” becomes “mantel”; “driving-wheel” becomes “steering wheel”; and so on. These changes, while not criminal, are certainly regrettable.

And now for the more substantial changes.

Passage #1


. . . she thought her new nigger-brown reverse calf shoes made her feet look even smaller than they were. (63)


. . . she thought her new reverse calf shoes made her feet look even smaller than they were. (87)

The original sentence is offensive in 2009, just as it was in 1954. Of all the bowdlerizations, this is the one that I am most sympathetic to. But was it really necessary to delete the word “brown,” too?

Passage #2


. . . that dark, cheap bitch of a girl of his grinning at me too. (68)


. . . that cheap bitch of a girl of his grinning at me, too. (94)

I find it remarkable that “bitch” was preserved while “dark” was deleted, especially given that the character described is not African-American. This character is first described as “dark” on page 31 of the 1954 edition—an adjective that is faithfully reproduced on page 45 of the 2009 edition! Why the inconsistency? My best guess is that the Harlequin editors were on edge after “nigger” popped up on page 63, so the word “dark” looked different to them on page 68 than it had on page 31, especially when used in anger.

Passage #3:


“Hit you? The only woman I’ve ever hit is my wife,” Leon said. (107)


“Hit you? Never,” Leon said. (145)

These lines are spoken by Ed Leon, a private detective hired by the novel’s hero, Nick English. Leon has, in fact, recently slugged the woman to whom he is speaking; he did so because she was drunk and violently resisting his attempts to save her from the bad guys. He gains control of her by knocking her unconscious, and the punch is faithfully reproduced in 2009 edition. This punch is important to the plot, so it stays. The joke about spousal abuse is not important to the plot, so it goes. The joke, however, is important to the characterization of Leon, and without it, readers’ perceptions of him will be substantially different.

Passage #4:


She was too frightened to pull out the knife. She held on to the handle, crying weakly as she felt her life draining out of her.

A voice said, “Lie down and die, you bitch,” and a hand came out of the darkness and shoved her savagely and violently to the ground. (113)


She was too frightened to pull out the knife. She held on to the handle, crying weakly as she felt her life draining out of her.

[paragraph deleted] (153)

In 2009, we have a kinder, gentler sociopathic serial killer.

Passage #5


"There's no needto worry about me," she said hurriedly. "I'm really quite all right."

“Are you?” He reached out and put his hand on her arm. “But you’re lonely, aren’t you?”

This was more than Corrine had bargained for. She had been prepared for a mild flirtation and his company, but the atmosphere had changed so suddenly that she now wanted him to go.

“Well, lots of people are lonely, she began, and then stopped as he smiled. His smile sent a chill up her spine. “It’s—it’s very kind of you to bother, but . . .”

“It’s not a matter of kindness,” he said quietly. “It’s a matter of attraction. Why should we waste time? Sooner or later it is bound to happen. Why not now?”

“I don’t know what you mean. . . .” She tried to pull free, but his grip tightened.

“Don’t you? Where does that door lead to?” He jerked his head towards the door opposite the lounge.

“That’s my bedroom. Will you let go of me? You—you’re hurting me.”

He leaned forward, turned the handle and opened the door.

“Come along,” he said, pushing her forward. “There is a cure for loneliness, you know.”

“No, please!” she cried, pushing against him. “You mustn’t. It’s not right.”

“Isn’t it? Do you bother about what is right and what is wrong? I don’t,” he returned, and led her into the room.”

“You’re not to come in here!” she exclaimed feebly. “How dare you! You must leave at once.”

He forced her across the room. She felt the edge of the bed catch her behind her knees, and she sat down abruptly, still trying to free her wrist from his grasp.

“Don’t be silly,” he said, one knee on the bed, his face close to hers. The sightless amber-colored eyes now terrified her.

“You really mustn’t!” she said desperately. “Please let go of me.”

“Oh, be quiet,” he said, his voice suddenly harsh, and he caught her to him in a grip that made her cry out. She felt as if she had been delivered into the clutches of some savage animal. (134-135)


“That’s no need to—to worry about me,” she said hurriedly. “I’m really quite all right.”

“Are you?” He reached out and put his hand on her arm. “But you’re lonely, aren’t you?”

[rest of the passage deleted] (180)

Does editor Zinberg’s really think that cutting a full page from the novel is a “small [adjustment] to the text”? With the removal of this implied rape, our sociopath is again bowdlerized. It is interesting (and more than a little unsettling) to note, however, that a passage later in the novel [page 224 in the 2009 edition] indicates that this encounter ultimately became consensual! Of course, the significance of this later passage is changed completely in the 2009 revision.

Passage #6


The hard-faced man who had followed them said, “Shall I give her a little tap, Mr. English?” His clenched fist was itching to come into action. (147)


The hard-faced man who had followed them said, “Shall I call the cops, Mr. English?” [second sentence deleted] (196)

As with Ed Leon’s comment about beating his wife, a passing reference to violence against a woman is deleted. Oddly, the novel’s brutal descriptions of murders of women are faithfully reproduced (with the exception of Passage #4, above).

Passage #7

“You’re going to walk into a load of grief, shamus,” she said, “if you try to force yourself on me.”
“It’s a risk I’ll gladly run,” Leon said, inside the lobby by now. He closed the door and leaned against it. “It’s not often I have the opportunity of forcing myself on a redhead as well stacked as you. . . .” (195)
“You’re going to walk into a load of grief, shamus,” she said, “if you try to make a move on me.”
“It’s a risk I’ll gladly run,” Leon said, inside the lobby by now. He closed the door and leaned against it. “It’s not often I have the opportunity of making a move on a redhead as well stacked as you. . . .” (260)

Here, a passing reference to rape is deleted. Given this, along with the implied rape deleted in Passage #5, it is interesting to note that a second implied rape was allowed to remain the 2009 edition. In this scene, Penn, a henchman to our sociopath, offers to try to save a woman’s life if she will have sex with him. He asks her, “Think you could be nice to me?,” and she responds by threatening to scream (page 250 in the 2009 edition). Their private encounter is interrupted by the arrival of the sociopath, but when he leaves, Penn stares at the woman until he is certain that his boss is not coming back. The chapter then concludes with Penn locking the door and putting the key in his pocket.


I believe that these seven passages cover most, if not all, of the bowdlerizations done to James Hadley Chase’s I’ll Bury My Dead in the Harlequin Vintage Collection edition. I do not have a sense of whether the other five titles in the Harlequin Vintage Collection would have been tampered with more or less than this one. The example of I’ll Bury My Dead, however, seems sufficient to show that if you are interested in reading any of these novels as they were actually written (or at least as they were originally published), then you should avoid the Harlequin Vintage Collection.


  1. Thanks for doing this. Now I don't have to wonder about it.

  2. How true that "Harlequin does not respect any writers at all" - beginning with the assumption, expressed here, that the authors are all dead. I think it just as true that Harlequin does not respect the book buying public. How else to explain the message to readers found in each - from the President and CEO no less - claiming the bowdlerized versions contain the "original text"?

    A very interesting piece. I'm pleased that someone decided to take this on.

  3. In his book review Raffles and Miss Blandish, George Orwell states, "In Mr. Chase's books there are no gentlemen and no taboos."

    To quote from Orwell's essay The Freedom of the Press:
    "But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady."

  4. Thanks!

    I found this post via a comment on another blog, when I was looking for reviews of _Pardon My Body_: