Monday, April 20, 2009

The Voodoo Murders, by Mike Avallone

It’s the rare author, indeed, whose demise can inspire an obituary opening such as this one, from the March 20, 1999, edition of Britain’s Independent newspaper: “Few writers this century have committed more gross acts of grievous bodily harm upon the language of Milton, Shakespeare and the Authorised Version than Michael Angelo Avallone Jnr., a.k.a. Dora Highland, Max Walker, Stuart Jason, Priscilla Dalton, Edwina Noone, Troy Conway (specifically when turning out such epics of literary tackiness as The Blow-Your-Mind Job, The Cunning Linguist and A Stiff Proposition), and a host of other more or less absurd aliases.”

But of course Mike Avallone was no common wordsmith. At the height of his novel-composing career in the 1950s and ’60s, he was known as “The Fastest Typewriter in the East” and “King of the Paperbacks.” “Those sobriquets are self-given but are nonetheless reasonably accurate,” explained Bill Pronzini in his entertaining 1982 book, Gun in Cheek: A Study of “Alternative” Crime Fiction. (It’s said that Avallone once wrote a novel in a day and a half and a 1,500-word short story in 20 minutes!) Pronzini goes on to observe:
Avallone has published some 190 novels in the past four decades, nearly all of them paperback originals: P.I. tales, Gothics, TV and film novelizations, juveniles, soft-core porn, espionage thrillers. He is also the holder of unconventional opinions on any number of topics, a zealous old-movie buff, a tireless self-promoter and letter writer, and his own greatest fan. Francis M. Nevins, in his profile of Avallone in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, calls him “a true auteur, with a unique personality discernible throughout his work,” and goes on to state, “Whatever else might be said about Avallone, one must say what Casper Gutman said to [Sam] Spade in The Maltese Falcon: ‘By Gad, sir, you’re a character, that you are!’”
Born in New York City in 1924, Avallone served with the U.S. Army during and after World War II, and was a stationary salesman and the editor of men’s magazines before making a career of fiction-writing. He saw his first novel published in 1953: The Tall Dolores, which not only starred “the Shapeliest Amazon in the World,” “a regular Empire State Building of female feminine dame,” but introduced the protagonist for which Avallone is best remembered, Manhattan gumshoe (and, eventually, investigator for the president of the United States) Ed Noon. “On the one hand,” says Pronzini, “Noon is a standard tough, wisecracking op with a taste for copious bloodletting and a Spillane-type hatred of Communists, dissidents, hippies, pacifists, militant blacks, liberated women, and anyone or anything else of a liberal cant. On the other hand, he is a distinctly if eccentrically drawn character who loves baseball, old movies, and dumb jokes, and who gets himself mixed up with some of the most improbable individuals ever committed to paper.” Such as the aforementioned Tall Dolores, or the 440-pound female mattress tester who escorted him into trouble in The Case of the Bouncing Betty (1956).

Noon’s adventures are often dismissed as examples of mid-20th-century detective fiction at its cheesiest, with Avallone being dubbed a “hack.” (Curt Purcell, who writes the Groovy Age of Horror blog and has produced a number of posts about Avallone’s pseudonymous genre work, insists, “I’ve hated everything I’ve read by him.”) Yet in his assessment of The Crazy Mixed-Up Corpse (1957), film and crime-fiction enthusiast Mike Grost applauds this novelist’s efforts to at least accomplish something different from his contemporaries--beginning with his protagonist’s persona:
Ed Noon is the least sexually arrogant private eye in mystery history. When the heroine tells him she finds him attractive, he is almost pathetically grateful. He goes on to share with the reader his almost unbearable loneliness. He conveys a sense of being blest by the heroine’s attentions. This human quality is extremely refreshing. It is part of the way Avallone’s characters talk about fundamental human needs.

Avallone breaks from mystery history in a number of ways. While [fictional] private eyes tend to be poor, their work regularly brings them into contact with the rich and upper crust ... Not in Crazy. Ed Noon spends the entire book among characters of working-class origin. Even though the cowboy [character] is now a well-to-do gangster, his poor Texas origins are conspicuous. Much of the book is set within a few blocks of Noon’s office, in a series of near-slum locations occupied by the working poor, Noon among them. Oddly, this helps the emotional sincerity of the book. The book is about people who represent [the] emotional needs of Noon. It is not about social snobbery, or attempts to join the rich. The people in it seem even more accurate as emotional figures, because they are not carrying the burden of fantasies of wealth.
And then there’s that criticism made by The Independent, about Avallone causing “grievous bodily harm” to the English language. Indeed, examples of his ungrammatical, frequently illogical prose stylings and his fondness for mangled or downright weird metaphors--his “Noonisms,” as they’re known nowadays--have been rich sources of humor over the years. From Assassins Don’t Die in Bed (1968): “His thin mustache was neatly placed between a peaked nose and two eyes like black marbles.” From The Horrible Man (1968): “She ... unearthed one of her fantastic breasts from the folds of her sheath skirt.” In its own obituary of Avallone, The New York Times cited this gem: “The footsteps didn’t walk right in. They stopped outside the door and knocked.” And it’s hard not to groan at a line such as “The whites of his eyes came up in their sockets like moons over an oasis lined with palm trees.”

That last Noonism, by the way, was delivered in The Voodoo Murders, a 1957 Gold Medal paperback original that provides this week’s “killer cover.” I don’t own the novel; however, I gather from reading elsewhere that it leads P.I. Noon into the lethal vicinity of New York’s Caribbean contingent. Another oft-quoted passage from the book: “The hand was quicker than the private eye. Steel gleamed in his fingers magically and a lightning bolt left his brown hands. It flashed across twenty feet and pinned my sleeve to the wall, knocking the gun out of my hand. ‘Man,’ he breathed in that Jamaican-English voice you hear on a Calypso record, ‘maybe I make you stone-cold dead.’ I said nothing. With death that close, what was there to say?”

OK, so that’s not the sort of stuff that might have impressed Raymond Chandler. But Mike Avallone apparently didn’t harbor great literary pretensions. He was a journeyman author, who, as The Independent notes, was recognized by publishers for his ability to deliver a book on time, at the right length. (“In a medium notorious for its goofballs, drunks, liars and conmen, he was reliable.”) David Avallone, one of the author’s two sons and now a filmmaker in Hollywood, recalls in his blog that
My father got up every morning around seven a.m. He would walk to the local coffee shop and have a cup or two with the hoi polloi. He would return home before 9:30 a.m. and sit at “the machine.” The late industrial revolution sound effect of a manual typewriter would then start up. It would go, with very few pauses longer than a minute, until someone brought him a sandwich, or reminded him to eat. When I would come home from school, he would finish whatever sentence he was in the middle of and we’d play catch for an hour. Then back to the machine. Until dinner. If he was enjoying himself a lot, or had a deadline, he would go back to the machine and write until nine, ten at night. If he didn’t have a book or story to write, he’d knock out essays or spend the day writing letters. Hundreds of thousands of letters.

He did this five or six days a week for something like fifty years. The result was not always literature, but sometimes it was. Whatever the case it was always readable and never, ever dull. In this way he wrote around 200 novels, of which at least 170 of them saw print in his lifetime (I counted the ones on the shelf this afternoon).
The Voodoo Murders--number nine among Avallone’s almost four dozen Noon novels--probably isn’t the best or the worst of the bunch. But it certainly boasts a most eye-catching cover. A crazily dancing young woman in a bikini and beads. A voodoo doll bristling with pins. A spooky carved head and a native drum. What about that jacket doesn’t say “you’ve got to read this story to believe it”?

Credit for the art goes to the justly renowned Mitchell Hooks, a Detroit-born commercial artist who in the 1950s turned to doing paperback cover illustrations. After creating advertisements for mattress companies and clothing manufacturers, Hooks (whose style of drawing was heavily influenced by the work of Flash Gordon illustrator Alex Raymond) found a great deal of freedom in developing paperback covers. During a 2008 interview with Leif Peng, a commercial artist himself and author of the blog Today’s Inspiration, Hooks explained that Eisenhower- and Kennedy-era publishers were finally turning away from more lurid, “come on” covers that drew readers in (but didn’t necessarily reflect a book’s contents) to jacket illustrations that offered a more honest interpretation of whatever yarn was to be found inside. He welcomed the change. “The ... problem, aside from the constant aim of trying to make a good picture, is to find an original picture device that is inspired by the subject,” Hooks told Peng. “This could be an unusual bit of action taken from the story, unrealistic use of color to emphasize a mood, or interesting props or background used as a strong part of the design.” It seems he used all of those tricks for the Voodoo Murders front.

Hooks’ illustrative style made him popular with publishers. His efforts were soon decorating novels by William Campbell Gault, Michael Collins (né Dennis Lynds), Erle Stanley Gardner, William Herber, Peter Rabe, and many others. One of the most recognizable Hooks illustrations comes from the 1955 Bantam edition of The Name Is Archer, by Ross Macdonald (shown on the right). It was that cover to which freelance illustrator Jeff Wong referred when creating the jacket for The Archer Files, an excellent collection of Macdonald’s private eye Lew Archer short stories and story fragments, edited by Tom Nolan and published by Crippen & Landru in 2007.

Eventually, Hooks would move into doing magazine illustrations and movie posters, and alter his rough signature style to something more realistic, as the market demanded it. Now 86 years old, he ranks with Robert Maguire, Robert McGinnis, and Rudolph Belarski as one of the most familiar artists from America’s mid-20th-century paperback heyday.

For his own part, Mike Avallone kept beating away on his typewriter well into his 60s. “He wrote so many books, under so many pseudonyms, that even apparent misspellings like Mike Avalione and Michael Avalone soon became pen names,” explains The Thrilling Detective Web Site. “He wrote at least sixty-two novels and novelizations under his own name, many with series characters, such as April Dancer, Ed Noon and Satan Sleuth, at least three novels as Nick Carter (with Valerie Moolman), two novels as Sidney Stuart, three gothics as Priscilla Dalton, twelve gothic novels as Edwina Noone, five gothic novels as Dorothea Nile, five gothic novels as Jean-Anne de Pre, four novels as Vance Stanton, at least twenty erotic novels as Troy Conway, featuring a horny super spy named Rod Damon, a.k.a. ‘Capitalism’s favorite tool,’ nine ‘men’s adventure’ novels as Stuart Jason (all with series character ‘The Butcher’), at least three collections of short stories, and at least thirty novels and novelizations unrelated to the above series. He also wrote original novels based on television shows, including The Partridge Family (8 titles), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (the first book), The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (2 books), Hawaii 5-0 (2 books), and Mannix. The guy just loved to write.”

As The Independent recalled, “Michael Avallone wrote anything and everything, ‘to prove that a writer can write anything’. He also ghosted: ‘Liner notes, music biographies, personality articles, poetry, cover copy, all of these ... because of a long-standing love affair with the English language’. This was all perfectly true--although whether the English language reciprocated is quite another matter.”

But he couldn’t keep up such a pace forever. On February 26, 1999, this much-acclaimed “pulpmeister” was stricken down by heart failure. He was 74 years old. The Thrilling Detective Web Site recalls that he died “in his sleep at his Los Angeles home. In a better world, or at least one in which he was allowed to write the rules, it would have been while sitting at his beloved typewriter.”

I couldn’t agree more.

READ MORE:Forgotten Books: Dead Game, by Michael Avallone,” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges); “Professional Touch” (Pulp International).


Ed Gorman said...

Believe it or not there was a burger joint two blocks from Catholic school where my group of eighth grade boys went because they'd sell us cigarettes. I still remember walking in there one morning before school and noting immediately that they now had one of those sacred wire racks that held the sacred paperbacks. That's where I bought The Voodoo Murders. I still have the same copy because of the cover. Hooks was my favorite Gold Medal cover artist. This is a terrific post, Jeff. Thanks for running it.

Pericles said...

What a wonderful cover. When I think of 50's GM, its like this.

Randy Johnson said...

Loved the post, Jeff. I first encountered Avallone with his U.N.C.L.E. novel and was on the look-out for him after that. I own most of the TV novels, used to own the Rod Damon series, and the first three Noons, as well as a handful of them at the end of the series. Those alien invasion Noons I somehow missed.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ed Gorman your a spinner of fine tales.
Hope you puplish more mystery fiction.

David Avallone said...

I can't believe I've never commented on this very thoughtful post before... particularly as I find myself quoted at length in it. Kudos on the breadth of your research...

As such, it also grieves me to find myself here on such a commercial mission. This last week, we've finally relaunched Ed Noon in what passes for "print" in the 21st Century: ebooks on Amazon. Today, THE TALL DOLORES is free download, with three more Noons available for something reasonable. While my father might have found books turned into ones and zeros disconcerting, the ability to reach a mass audience without a publisher or editor's interference would have thrilled him, I'm sure.

If you're curious...