All Things Mysterious Volume Eighty-Sixed
So Bad It’s Good?
Most aficionados of crime fiction are well familiar with the giants of the genre: the Christies, Gardners, Chandlers, Carrs, Hammetts, then later the Childs, Connellys, Spillanes, and tomorrow’s leading mystery writers such as Mosfegh, May, LeMaitre and Nguyen.
But today let’s spare a kind thought for the lesser lights--those who sustained a career despite the fact that they were never critical or commercial darlings.
It’s likely that the poster child for the ‘so bad it’s good’ school was and remains Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967), who during his lifetime was thought of as an admittedly eccentric mystery writer who occasionally wrote some science fiction. He was said to generate plots by taking a handful of unrelated newspaper clippings and tying them together by hook or by crook, and whether that’s true or not, he sure came up with some doozies! Like f’rinstance:
A killer midget disguised as a baby who stalks victims by helicopter.
A painting is vandalized by a ‘collector’ who takes the face--and only the face--from the painting.
A cemetery specializing in circus freaks.
The fact that his own mother had him committed to an asylum when he was a child no doubt profoundly affected Harry’s formative years, and it’s likely no coincidence that sympathetic portrayals of the mentally ill, especially people wrongly committed, abound in his work.
Clearly Keeler wasn’t particularly interested in the accepted conventions of mystery fiction. On more than one occasion the author did not get around to introducing the character who turned out to be the killer until the very end--in one instance in the very last sentence!
If it’s true that H.S. Keeler did the newspaper story grab bag to generate plot ideas, it’s no surprise that his stories win the prize for most utterly implausible coincidences ever; after all, it can’t be easy to mash some of this stuff together!
Keeler was not above padding his novels, some of which are already ludicrously long. How does 350,000 words grab you?
Unsurprisingly, his publisher insisted that this tome of tomes be broken up into three separate novels. (60-70,000 words is the length of an average novel) Even given the length of some of these stories, often a character mentions a tale or a lecture or some such, and the following chapter is the tale or lecture! In some of his later novels, Mrs. Keeler makes such a contribution. Indeed, her short story Spangles is the basis for no fewer than six of his novels! But maybe Harry Stephen Keeler needed no help in fashioning some of the most bizarre plots ever. Like: A coffin is fished out of Lake Michigan. Inside is a nude corpse comprised of the upper half of an Asian woman and the lower half of an African man! They are attached in the middle by some green gum. I am not making this up. I don't remember that story in the paper! What’s more, that’s only chapter one!
When all is said and done, how can you not love the man who created (and bumped off) Screamo the Clown? Or someone who dedicated one of his novels to one of his own fictional characters?
One thing you could say about Michael Avallone (1924-1999)--he sure was prolific! Not Creasey-level prolific, but he did claim authorship of over 1000 works, although this is likely an exaggeration. His parents were pretty prolific, too--he had sixteen siblings!
Actually he is credibly credited with about 200 novels, nearly all of them paperback originals, but not all of them mysteries.
After he got out of the army, he worked as a stationery salesman, which must have at least given him access to plenty of paper. Given the plethora of sports and men’s magazines in the early fifties in New York, there were opportunities aplenty for fast writers, of whom Avallone was certainly one. He moved into editing some magazines once he’d obtained a foothold as a writer.
He is best known for his hero Ed Noon, featured in 36 paperback originals and lots of short stories. Noon started in 1953 as a typical hard boiled private eye, but by the mid-sixties he’d morphed into a Bond-esque spy. Noon’s adventures could give Harry Keeler a run for his money in terms of implausibility. Speaking of implausibility, Avallone is also well known for his novelizations of the Man From Uncle television series, and he created novels from other series as well, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, and, heaven help us, The Partridge Family among them.
His novels are also chock-full of baseball trivia and film tidbits, and some of them have some pretty spicy scenes as well. Also sentence fragments.
It’s quite a legacy that most everyone who remembers Avallone recalls him as being ‘an ornery cuss,’ but there’s no question that his books will live on, at the very least as pure entertainment.
Literary merit is of course a function of individual taste, but quite a few critics hold Harry Keeler and Michael Avallone in low esteem. Who will the the twenty-first century’s leading ‘so bad it’s good’ author? Email your nominations here and perhaps we will mention them in a future post:
Questions/Comments/So Bad They're Good? firstname.lastname@example.org
After you’ve done that, have a read of some Keelers and Avallones:
This one is inscribed by the author:
Perverse plots and kinky kills? Sign me up!
Questions/comments/green gum? email@example.com