In the 1950s, juvenile delinquents and gangs were hot stuff, the fodder for evening news, rumor, tabloids, fear, and pulp fiction. Publications like Manhunt featured juvie stories of all kinds. Hal Ellson’s Tomboy was a bestseller, as was Evan Hunter’s The Blackboard Jungle. Harlan Ellison joined a street gang so he could write about juvie gangs with an authentic voice in his books The Juvies, The Deadly Streets, Gentleman Junkie, Memos from Purgatory, and his first novel, Rumble (aka Web of the City).
Gang Girl was Robert Silverberg’s second title for Nightstand, after Love Addict and before Naked Holiday. It came after Ellison’s Sex Gang by Paul Merchant, which featured some juvie gang stories and a cover of a woman about to be raped by a man with a switchblade.
Writing about teenage hellion hoodlums on the urban prowl in the city’s gutter streets, raping and mugging and rumbling and sinning and lusting, was an art form of genre, much like the Western or the P.I. tale.
And like the Western and gumshoe yarn, full of romance and fiction.
Who knows what was truly true and what was good story-tellin’.
Gang Girl is about Lora Menotti, 16, deb in the Scarlet Sinners in the Bronx. Her family has moved to a Manhattan lower east side project, so she needs to roll with a new gang: the Cougars. She knows the moves. She dresses in a tight sweater and tight jeans and goes to the soda fountain where the Cougars hang, finds the leader of the pack, seduces him, has his deb kicked out, and is instantly the No. 1 girl. The Prez wants to carve his initails in her flesh so she seduces another Courgar to fight him for leadership — it ends in death.
Lora doesn’t have much ambition but to get high on reefer, drink cheap wine, have sex, and get into fights. Her goal at 17 is to quit igh school and at 18 to become a syndicate call girl, where former debs she knew can help set her up. She will live the good life then: she figures why not get paid well for what she gives out for free and likes?
She feels she can manipulate the Cougars into anything — from gang raping (“lining up”) a girl she doesn’t like to getting into a big rumble for no reason other than to inflict violence. She secretly enjoys her power, which she uses her body and looks to wield.
But she doesn’t know the other debs, and the deb that was kicked out and the deb that was gang raped, have plans for her — to make sure she is never pretty again…the book ends in horrble violence.
In fact, the book skirts some tricky ground for a softcore: underage sex. Not only is Lora 16 and screws a bunch of guys, there is a detailed flashback of her losing her virginity at age 11, something she instigates just to get it over with. Other debs talk about losing their virginity at 10-13, at the hands of uncles or rape; there are stories of girls getting pregnant by their brothers or step-fathers. Some heavy stuff for softcores that couldn’t even use words to describes genitals or swear words.
Earky that same year as Gang Girl, 1959, Silverberg also published Streets of Sin as Mark Ryan with Bedtime Books. It has a similar set-up as Gang Girl: Frankie Alfono is a NYC hood whose family moves to Brewsterville, Ohio. He’s new and seeks out the area gang: the Barons. at their soda fountain (funny how these tough kids like to kick it at candy shops and soda joints, whereas today it’s liquor stores and crack houses). He challenges the Baron’s Prez, they get into a knife fight, and Frankie kills (“cooled”) the guy…suddenly, this outsider is running the gang, he claims the dead leader’s deb, and plans some crimes: a gang rape of a girl who turned him down for a date, destroying a bar that wouldn’t serve him beer, and rumbling with the town’s other gang.
The copy I have and paid $15 for, the six page gang rape scene was missing. Someone took it out for other uses, I guess. The girl winds up dead by walking into the river…either accident or suicide.
Frankie is tough and good with a blade, and he has short man syndrome: he’s only five foot three inches and gets dog mean mad at anyone who calls him short and midget (why do I have a feeling that Harlan Ellison was a model for this character?). Like Lora, he pushes people too far, taking other members’ debs or kicking members out, so that they eventually turn against him. Plus, the boyfriend of the gang raped girl has it in for him.
Most of Slverberg’s vintage sleaze protagonists are characters we like, even with their lusty and sinful flaws: we identify with them, from the lovelorn fool in Love Addict to the wayward hooker in Party Girl…Lora and Frankie, however, are both soulless, violent kids who are sadistic and manipulative, so when they come to horrble ends, you cheer for their pain, for they had it coming.
Apparently, Silverberg published a Don Elliott book as Streets of Sin in 1961 but was different, and this one was reprinted in 1966 by Nightstand as The Passion Barons.
Both are intetestng books as representative of the juvenile crime genre, but also a look as how the public perceived juvie gangs, and how the gangs of the 1950s-60s differ from the gangs of the 1970s, 1980s, and today. Yet, they are the same as well: they are just kids looking for a sense of cmmunity and beloinging to something greater than they are, with gang codes, and gang girls, that have not changed much over the decades.
Juvie fiction comes along way from the sociological study The Jack Roller, and so has gang fiction and movies like The Warriors.
The 1973 reprint of Gang Girl has an updated cover: