Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Signet 1151, 1954

Title : Mafia
Author : Ed Reid
Cover art : James Avati

style ***
substance **
collectibility **

We generally associate the covers of James Avati with Erskine Caldwell-esque scenes of soft summer nights and languorous figures, albeit rendered with an undercurrent of tension and dissatisfaction. Here is a rare venture into the crime and hardboiled milieu for this usually restrained artist [1]. Mafia shows that Avati could boil hard with the best of them; the book is executed (no pun inteneded!) with his usual low key lighting but he sure gets the message across – the cover depicts a hit man putting a gun back in a shoulder holster as he looks down at a dead guy sprawled on a table. Here Avati’s preference for earthy tones suits the gritty subject matter perfectly.

The book’s presentation is such that it looks more like a novel than nonfiction, in fact I thought this was the case until I did a little research and discovered that the book indeed is nonfiction, a mid-century classic on organized crime in America, a collection of 16 stories of the Mafia and its members, to be precise.

[1] In the popular imagination old, or vintage, paperbacks – particularly those of crime fiction – are generally thought of in terms of “good girl art,” “lurid,” “sensationalist,” or “pulp fiction,” as portrayed in over-the-top glory by publishers like Avon, Popular Library and the like. Avati and Avati-influenced covers, with their Rembrandt-esque lighting and predilection for browns and grays, are really a different strain in the popular culture and can be thought of as a different school altogether.
Probably due to commercial demands, even Signet, the quintessential Avati publisher, occasionally had to come into the lurid fold, as is witnessed by the Signet versions of Mickey Spillane novels and, later, the James Bond novels. [Even Avati himself did a couple of Spillane covers!]

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