Sunday, September 26, 2021

Michael Avallone's The Man from Avon and Other Book Selling Men of Action Plus Bettie Page

I had a fever when I picked up "The Man from Avon," man. I felt like a heap of crap, I needed me a pick me up and in that fevered state I figured I was in the perfect mindset to visit the "Nooniverse." Okay, "The Man from Avon" isn't an Ed Noon story but the wild antics and undisputable laws of the Nooniverse apply to the entirety of Michael Avallone's work. So, just go with me here, okay? Plunge into the weird. 

Ironically it was his novelization to "Cannonball Run" I read first without knowing who the author was, but that's another story of misspent muscle-car driving youth. Then I knew his name before I had knowingly read one of his books though the seemingly always snarky "online critics" of his work. Their words made it sound like his writing was bad, but hell, it sounded SO good. After that I actually discovered who/what a Avallone book actually was via a four-pack of dollar used books one day at my local dealer. Two Ed Noon's, his Man from U.N.C.L.E. and finally "The Man from Avon." I was hooked. The years past and I discovered Avallone wrote all the stuff I like, hard-boiled private eyes, Men's Adventure vigilantes, super spy-fi spies, tawdry little noir-types, novelizations, and most of all PULP! 

It had been too long between readings of Avon for me to remember much about it. I just remember finding it to be a bunch of fun bounded together between paper. Jerry McKnight is the top salesman for Avon books which works as the perfect cover for his actual job as the Government's top super-duper secret agent hunting down them pesky U.F.O.'s. Jerry is a little more idolized then my old buddy Ed Noon. Noon is a bit of a regular schlub thrown into the crazy, mixed-up action. Larry is Steve Holland with a case full of books. After a very real U.F.O. is seen by a sexy librarian in Old Bridge, New Hampshire Larry is parachuted down with different sexy lady with his Avon case in tow to investigate. The book actually owes a lot to the Operator No. 5 pulp tales, stalwart hero against a seemingly fantastic enemy. It boils into a cross-country chase full of strangely electrocuted victims, U.F.O. chases, spy-fi weaponry, beautiful virgins, characters named Gil Kane, odd city-wide blackouts, and valuable information about Avon book's products. Seriously, if you dig old paperbacks (who doesn't?) this part of the book is worth the price of admission. Clues hidden in rejected of Robin Moore's "The Green Berets," discussions of John Creasey's The Baron, spy books and even John D. MacDonald. Not to mention a little about how the book selling business actually worked back then. It's only let down by a slightly rushed ending, but still a more than worthy entry into Avallone's library.  

You'd think this would be the only example of spy/bookseller in the paperback world, but a year later in 1968 Sphere book across the pond put out "The Man from Sphere" by John Gaunt. This is a bit more traditional (from perusing) Bond-like spy tale about a hero named Galahad Brown. I'll report back on this one. But here's where it gets even wilder, there's another HIDDEN (sorta) Larry McKnight adventure.

"A Rep for Murder" stars Avon salesman Larry McKnight Jr. on the trail of a missing (naturally beautiful) romance novelist and running from a murder rap. Larry Jr. isn't Steve Holland, he's a bumbler trying to save his skin, job and trying not to dishonor the McKnight name. This book was written as a promotional "not for sale" item for Avon's 50 year anniversary it appears on some bibliographies of Avallone, but not all. The book is clearly a work of Avallone's its wild, wacky that barrels forward at break-neck speed and its full of wonderful old mystery clich├ęs. Avallone seemed to have a lot of fun writing it. Plus there's tons of references to Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct and other great Avon titles. It's a hoot, very much like Avallone writing on of those 40's mystery B-Movies.

Want more? Larry McKnight shows up again! This time in Michael's son David Avallone's work on the Bettie Page comic book put out by Dynamite. In fairness, I received this graphic novel from David Avallone himself, not to review but as a thank you for sending him a harder to find Ed Noon for eBook transfer. And I'm very happy I did, Vol. 1 is a blast! McKnight is Bettie Page's boss as she works for the government as a spy hunting down wild villain's, filming a sci-fi movie, clashing with cults, and basically being a wry comic book hero which is enough for me. It's a rollicking good time and it's nice that old McKnight is still kicking around. Also check out David's work on the Elvira comic, its just as good and enjoyable. I need to catch up with more of his work as he's written both The Shadow, Zorro AND Doc Savage! Too cool. Though a Ed Noon comic book would be something...*cough* *cough*

Can you tell I like Michael Avallone? He was a one-of-a-kind writer and that's something commendable, not many authors have a voice strong enough to to be instantly recognizable. I like one-of-a-kind writers, just like I like one-of-a-kind people, they kind of folk you can yak at for hours and hours. Reading an Avallone is sorta like listening to a buddy spin a yarn at you. Do yourself a favor pick up a Avallone and have a good time. And don't trust just any online reviewer...

Oh, wait...

Thursday, September 23, 2021

QUICK SHOTS: The Man from WAR #2: Mission: Tank Force by Michael Kurland

An early morning cat induced wake-up call and a pending COVID test gave me plenty of time stretched out on the couch on a crisp fall morning with no pressing engagements. Although suddenly from a shelf in my office a book started yelling at me. A few years ago I read a book called "Mission: Third Force" and it knocked my socks off. That is if I was wearing socks, usually I don't. Anyway, Michael Kurland wrote that book as the start of a three book (should have been longer) series about Peter Carthage a, uh, troubleshooter or agent for Weapons Analysis and Research, INC. The second book was calling me this morning. I've only resisted this long in reading it by shear will power because now there's only one more W.A.R. book to enjoy. I read the book cover-to-cover, so I suppose I did have a pressing engagement. 

Michael Kurland has written a fair amount books, a lot of science fiction and novels about Sherlock Holmes arch-rival Moriarty among stand-alone's. Stuck in the late-60's boom of spy-fi novels is this three book series that is very different from the sea of Bond-clones. Peter Carthage works for W.A.R. which is a company that provides weapons of war, training and plans for their clients. Also will fight them for the right price. Say, like in "Mission: Tank Force" you are Sheik in a country that just struck oil and your British protection is running out and there's vultures circling, you can call W.A.R. and they can help you out. Carthage and his comrades got to such a place to teach a fresh country the art of tank warfare and battle opposing force as radically different as a former Nazi and a supposedly the supposedly 900-year old Hasan Sabbah and his drug-induced army of killers. The action is tight and well throughout but it's the fun, devil-may-care employees of W.A.R. that are the real draw. Their banter and friendship is palpable and the dialog is witty and crisp. Along the way, there's tank-fights, drugging's, ambushes, trick shooting snakes, and beautiful women hitch-hiking in the desert. 

Kurland writing Moriarty novels is a easy stretch, the W.A.R. books have a old-fashion quality of sweeping adventure but bring to mind examples like Alexandre Dumas to Manning Coles' Tommy Hambledon and Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mixed the with adventurous spirit of Leslie Charteris's early Saint novels. But more importantly they are just incredibly fun, well-written examples of different type of espionage fiction. This a series that could have last ten more books or could easily be picked up today and continued. The first two seem to available cheap as eBooks and paperbacks reprints. The originals sport of great paperback artwork and can be found fairly cheap too, so either way just GO OUT AND BUY 'EM!

Friday, September 17, 2021

QUICK SHOTS: Race Against Time #5: Duel for the Samurai Sword by J.J. Fortune

Many years ago when I was shorter I very much enjoyed my school's libraries. I think that's where a lot of my life-long book reading journey started. Also my book "hoarding," I distinctly remember checking as many books out as I could and not reading all of them before they had to go back. It started in elementary school, but what I vividly remember is my small town's middle school library. The white metal shelves in the middle and up along the walls, the shining metal built in book ends, goofy posters of Garfield telling me reading was cool and all the various sized books. There I found Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers (among many others) and I always had my nose in one of those paperback-hardback Frankenstein's. I read contemporary ones too, R.L. Stine's Fear Street (and the knockoffs) and the fairly new Hardy Boys Casefiles (as I have reviewed on here before) and Nancy Drew Files both of which started in the 80's as the slightly older more "mature" version of the characters. To be fair I only read the Nancy Drew one's to help me figure out what girls were. I guess it helped. I married a woman who loves Nancy Drew, go figure. But also random books like the "Race Against Time" series which had haunted my brain all these years. 

I had vague notions of a novel about a kid and his Indiana Jones-like Uncle who rushed around the world having adventures, but couldn't remember much past that. No titles or the author. Just something lost in the my book-addled mind. Then BINGO one day while checking the new arrivals at one of my local bookstores a tiny-little spine caught my eye. "The Duel for the Samurai Sword," the 5th novel in the series called "Race Against Time" by J.J. Fortune. The gist of the series is that a kid named Stephen and his Uncle Richard Duffy get into adventures and have to race against the clock to return Stephen home before his parents find out about all the derring-do they do, do. I don't remember any sword fights or hunts for Atlantis or having a cool gadget watch when I was getting baby-sat. Shame.

Richard Duffy is a supposed to be an engineer but mostly he had been a high-flying adventurer over the years, doing a bit of this and that. Basically whatever needed to make a good plot. Like in "Duel for the Samurai Sword" where he had spent some time learning Kendo from Master Ohara in Japan and eventually becoming the Master's prized pupil. But there's always an evil guy in the dojo, Sakuma who's so bad he turned into a Yakuza boss. Well, the Master is dying and he wants to give the sword to Uncle Duffy, but Sakuma wants it and is willing to kill for it. So, yeah what we have here is a full-tilt chase, Stephen and his Uncle just trying to stay out of Sakuma's grasp until their plane leaves. Along the way the Master's daughter is kidnapped, we learn a little about Japanese culture, have car chases and tons of fighting. One of the more entertaining aspects of this series is that Stephen is a movie buff and often compares things to movies. Really, I mean this is a young adult book that name drops 1978's "The Yakuza" starring Robert Mitchum. Probably the only one too. Shame. 

Obviously this ain't a deep book, but it's pleasant, quick and breezy. A nice palate cleanser between bloodier books. That being said it's very much a Men's Adventure series albeit for a younger crowd. The series last 10 books which is fairly commendable for books with no I.P. like The Hardy Boys, but the print runs must have been short cause they ain't the easiest to track down, they are a lot of fun if you do though.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Serial Reflections: John Easy by Ron Goulart

California is a crowded place to be a Private Eye, especially in the 70's. You have all the sons and daughters of Marlowe beating the trail down, what could an author do to stand out? Answer: Be Ron Goulart. Goulart is a seasoned professional. He was a seasoned professional in the 70's writing the continuing adventures of Kenneth Robeson's The Avenger, Vampirella, Flash Gordon, Lee Falk's The Phantom, not to mention his detective work in the fields of Golden Age comic books and pulps. Then there's his wild and wacky sci-fi adventures. In the middle of this he set his own P.I. creation upon the paperback world: John Easy.

Easy's a easy going guy. He packs a .38 in a shoulder holster, has an office and a suffering secretary, tools around in his dusty VW Bug and finds beautiful women, catches murderers and encounters oddball characters that populate a semi-surreal California. He's a archetype-character with enough foibles to be interesting but no tragic backstory or dark secrets that plague more modern heroes. He's just a semi-regular guy who who'd you like to ride shotgun with on some crazy adventures. The 70's oozes from the pages of these slim paperbacks. They are half-way between a Carter Brown and a Ross MacDonald, but fully Goulart's own voice. Goulart knows all the tricks, his collection "The Hardboiled Dicks" is could be a text book in a correspondence course on writing punchy crime fiction. House within that tome is stories by greats like Frederick Nebel, Richard Sale, Lester Dent (one of his two GREAT Oscar Sail stories), Raoul Whitfield, and others. But I bet the one Goulart liked best was Norbert Davis's tale about the shady Max Latin. Davis could be hard-boiled and hilarious in the same sentence. The Easy books are sort of like that but filtered for modern (70's) audiences. Easy's can crack wise and crack skulls and pick up the dames while doing it.

  • If Dying was All (1971)
  • Too Sweet to Die (1972)
  • The Same Lie Twice (1973) .
  • One Grave Too Many (1974)

The 70's were a weird time for private eyes. They were morphing from the cookie-cutter paperback heroes built on the Marlowe or Hammer pre-made mix of the 50's and 60's. Some got more psychological and dived deep into "why" people commit crime. Some took "The Executioner" cue and had numbers on the covers and lots of action, rarely were the main characters in these books actual detectives but say "The Sharpshooter" by Bruno Rossi still worked like a P.I. novel just with more blood and guts. Others like Easy, Brad Lang's Fred Crockett, L.V. Roper's Renegade Roe, Alan Reife's Tyger and Cage books stuck more to the formula and produced the next wave of paperback heroes like Brett Halliday's Mike Shayne, Henry Kane's Pete Chambers, or Richard Prather's Shell Scott. These are meat and potatoes characters. All of them could have headlined a weekly TV show coming on right after "Mannix." After Robert Parker happened a lot of these types of characters dried up and the wave of Spenser/Hawk knock-offs flooded the market, some of them are great, a lot are lame.

Easy is a 70's guy, he's got a little of the left-over groovy 60's vibe. I appreciate book covers, but I think what's in the book is more important but MAN, the covers of these book nailed the tone and fell of these novels. The turtlenecks, the sports jackets, ascots and sultry women. Goulart did a lot of work in short periods of time. His "ghost-written" work is a bit hit or miss but when his heart was in a novel it's a lot of fun. The Easy books are uniformly quick fun reads with decent mystery plots and fast bursts of action. I could have read ten more of them if Goulart had written them. Later he wrote a series of books where Groucho Marx is a detective which I should probably read as I'm a sucker for Golden Age of Hollywood mysteries. He also wrote a wonderful stand-alone called "The Weissman Originals" about a slippery detective named Rudy Navarro who with the help of art dealer Briggs tangles with the mafia on the trail of original art stolen by those asshole Nazi's during W.W.II. Also check out "Ghostbreaker" a half of an Ace Double that collects his humorous take on the paranormal investigator genre. 

The book are easy to get a hold of as an ebook or audio book but they can be a little harder to track down in their original form. It took me a few years of occasionally looking to find the final book (and the only one who's cover sticks out like a sore thumb) but I've never paid more than 5 bucks (including shipping) for one, so don't break your bank.  

When I see the anyone talk about the Easy books (hell, a lot of Goulart's work) it's to knock it as fast hack-work. I don't see it, Goulart is just writing quick and clean with his tongue in his cheek. I suppose a lot of people aren't in on the joke (or just don't find it funny) but if your in the right mood any of is books will give you a hour or so's worth of fun. Who could ask for more?