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Heroines of “Sin City” Pulp Fiction by Nancy Hardy

By Su Kim Chung on March 18, 2016 3:19 PM | Permalink


UNLV Libraries Special Collections includes many unexpected items of ephemera and literature, from elegant 19th Century hotel menus to lurid crime novels based in a fictionalized Las Vegas. 

For Women’s History Month, Public Services Outreach Assistant Nancy Hardy investigates a few of the female characters who populate the tantalizing guilty-pleasure paperbacks of Las Vegas-based pulp fiction that are a unique part of Special Collections.


Cover image of The Only Girl in the Game by John D. McDonald (UNLV Libraries Special Collections)

As the racy cover suggests, John D. MacDonald’s 1960 novel The Only Girl in the Game portrays a Vegas that is “Coney Island in the desert, Miami Beach without an ocean” and “nothing but sand and neon and money, money, everywhere.” Intriguing characters include “bare breasted showgirls conning the big spenders,” “divorcees hocking their jewels for a final desperate fling,” and a heroine who can’t escape her past, “caught forever in the sick glitter of the great sucker trap.” 

Cover image of Las Vegas Nurse by Jane L. Sears (UNLV Libraries Special Collections)

A slightly more wholesome perspective on Las Vegas from 1963, Jane L. Sears’ romance novel Las Vegas Nurse describes how Marta Humphries found security within the antiseptic white walls of a hospital. Until, that is, she rekindled an old passion for Doctor Spence Marlowe of Las Vegas’ Hoover Memorial Hospital. Ironically, it wasn’t until the brilliant young surgeon proposed marriage and Marta accepted that she began to have feelings for another man. Yet, the handsome Dev Russel, manager of the fabulous Desert Spa Casino, seemed to personify “everything she despised about Las Vegas.” You get the idea.

Cover image of Father O’Brien and His Girls by David Chandler (UNLV Libraries Special Collections)

The next year, David Chandler’s Father O’Brien and His Girls was published, piquing curiosity about nuns and challenging even the most overactive imagination. The cover touts the book as an “uproarious and heartwarming novel about a hip padre and four resolute young nuns who invade the gambling dens of Las Vegas.” Father O’Brien, a determined Irish priest, oversees a bawdy parish on the Las Vegas Strip. His parishioners include Margot Shay, a flamboyant prostitute who can’t tell a customer from a cop, Diedre Mallon, a showgirl whose boyfriend won’t do the right thing and marry her, and Jean Patten, a “dazzling beauty who is secretly a drug addict.” Ultimately, four courageous nuns help Father O’Brien mend the woes of this reluctant flock. Their adventures “bring a message of love, hope and courage to the habitués of Las Vegas’s neon-lighted dens of sin.” Although elements like this within the story may raise an eyebrow or two, the Los Angeles Times called the book, “Touching, absorbing tale that whirls the reader through a series of exotic backgrounds.” Sold!

Cover image of The Golden Greed by Brad Curtis (UNLV Libraries Special Collections)

Brad Curtis’s 1965 The Golden Greed revealed the even seedier underbelly of Las Vegas. According to the back cover, Al made Nancy what she was--”a gold plated tramp!” For a mere 50 cents, you could buy snippets of dialogue like, “Get this straight, baby, I own you. You’ll do whatever I tell you to do. That creep hit the dice table for over twenty grand last night. I want that dough.” Nancy feared being pushed into the arms of yet another stranger, but after Al tucked a hundred dollar bill into her lace brassiere, she agreed to do his bidding. This one’s not for the faint of heart.

Cover image of The Desert Rose by Larry McMurty (UNLV Libraries Special Collections)

By 1983, even Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurty had contributed to the Las Vegas-based fiction titles now represented in Special Collections. McMurty’s The Desert Rose was reviewed by The Washington Post Book World as “Beautiful...It is unquestionably one of his best novels.” (Clearly, Las Vegas fiction had risen a few literary notches since the 1960s.)  The novel describes the struggles of Las Vegas showgirl and peacock breeder, Harmony, as her career is fading within an “arid neon landscape of supermarkets, drive-in wedding chapels, and all-night casinos.”  Although at its surface, the novel paints a portrait of a stereotypical Las Vegas woman, McMurty appears to have created a more multi-dimensional character with greater emotional depth.

Despite the stereotypical ways Las Vegas women have been represented in pulp fiction, their portrayal has still become a part of women’s shared fictionalized past, which reflects--even if not in a flattering way-- the era and the locale. The fact that we find these stories so outrageous and amusing speaks volumes about how much times have changed for women. It’s also clear that depictions of Las Vegas in general--and women in particular-- continue to be riddled with stereotypes. But it’s more likely that they’re seen for what they are by a greater number of people. With Spring Break upon us, you might consider a clandestine visit to our reading room to enjoy one of these guilty pleasures for yourself!

For further reading on how Las Vegas has been portrayed in fiction and popular culture, see Larry Gragg's Bright Light City: Las Vegas in Popular CultureEdwin E. Baldwin's dissertation Las Vegas in Popular Cultureand The Gleam in Bugsy Siegel's eye : a Bibliography of Mystery Fiction about Las Vegas and Gambling by Barry T. Zeman.