BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 22, 1978
Some mystery writers turn out superbly crafted hooks so different from one another that each might also have had a separate author. Others write mysteries whose characters, scenery, viewpoint, concerns and style are so similar from hook to book that together they form a world of their own, personal to the author and recognizable to the reader as one recognizes the El Greco look or the Bartok sound. These authors are the universe makers, and Michael Avallone is one of them. What sets him apart from his colleagues is that he built his world in the way the British once claimed to have huilt their empire—hy inadvertence.
The son of a stonecutter, Avallone was horn in 1924 and raised in a Bronx tenement among 16 siblings. As a teenager growing up in the Depression he wrote incessantly—in subways, buses, cafeterias, city parks and the family bathroom—and just as compulsively went to the movies, seeing anything and everything that was shown and forgetting nothing. He went from high school into World War II, serving as a line sergeant with a mechanized cavalry unit in Europe, and after his discharge returned to New York, broke but intent on becoming the postwar Thomas Wolfe. For five years he lived with his first wife and their infant son in a furnished room in Manhattan's West Eighties, selling stationery and candy and pots and pans by day, writing his arm off night after night without cracking a single market. Late in 1951 he turned his hack on highfalutin' literature and decided that if the public wanted girls-and-gore sagas in the manner of the then hest-selling Mickey Spillane, then Avallone would pump them out. The result was the Nooniverse, a cycle of 30-odd novels about the life and crimes of Manhattan private eye Ed Noon.
Since Noon's debut in The Tall Dolores (1953) Avallone has published countless short stories and more than 150 paperback novels. Besides the Nooners he's done Gothics under five female bylines, juveniles, espionage thrillers, sex novels, and movie and TV tie-in hooks, each of them written in anywhere from four days to three weeks with never a word revised or reconsidered. The royalties from his smoking typewriter enabled Avallone to migrate to suburban New Jersey, where he lives with his second wife and their son and daughter and still hats out the words as speedily as ever books, articles, rambunctious letters to editors, a torrent of correspondence, diatribes and self-advertisements beyond number.
But unlike most purveyors of drugstore fiction Mike Avallone is a true auteur, with a unique personality discernible throughout most of his hooks and especially throughout the Nooniverse. For despite his original intention, Ed Noon is no more than a distant literary cousin of Mike Hammer. Rather this Manhattan gumshoe is a cockeyed optimist, a motormouthed clown, a movie and baseball nut, a lover of luscious ladies and lousy jokes ("Hi, Noon!" his friends greet him), an emotional pushover, and in many respects a child in an adult body. The key to his adventures is simply that Avallone himself is an even more fanatical old-movies huff than his fantasy alter ego. He's not just in love with Hollywood's output of the 1930s and 1940s but immersed in those flicks, drunk on them, obsessed by them, so that when he sits down at the typewriter the unrelated fragments of dozens of vintage films leap from his cine-satiated mind to the pages and fill them with chaotic, jumbled, raucous and frenetic life. Pick up a Nooner and you'll find on one page a character modeled on Boris Karloff or Sidney Greenstreet, on the next an incident or a few lines of dialogue from Foreign Correspondent or Casablanca, then an allusion to an ancient Gary Cooper vehicle followed by three successive scenes from Hitchcock or Welles or Huston films, and so on till the fadeout. Part of the fun of reading Avallone lies in encountering the world's most film-intoxicated man.
By conventional standards the Avallone output is a hopeless mess. His anarchic plots, all of them dealing with various groups of nasties competing for some outlandish McGuffin or other, are simply improvised as he goes along, and his style is an ungrammatical brain-jangling approximation of normal English, rife with misspellings and malapropisms and an aura of great pother and thunderation:
"The U.N. Building. . . .A towering heautiful slah of crystal pie standing tall and proud on New York's very dirty feet." (The Living Bomb, 1963)
"A gilt-framed reproduction looked down on we poor mortals." (The Fat Death, 1966)
"His thin mustache was neatly placed between a peaked nose and two eyes like black marbles." (Assassins Don't Die in Bed, 1968)
"She had tremendous hips and breasts encased in a silly short black
fur jacket and calf-high hoots." "The cube flashbulbs which could shoot a set of four pictures without bothering to make adjustments was all set."
"Mady Lopez was stark naked, on her knees, still wearing the calf-high hoots."
"She . . . unearthed one of her fantastic breasts from the folds of her sheath skirt."
"My stunned intellect, the one that found death in his own backyard with him standing only feet away, hard to swallow in a hurry, found the answer." (All from The Horrible Man, 1968.)
"Serena tried to wither me with a ton of scorn unloading from her green glims." (Death Dives Deep, 1970)
"His freshest laurel wreath was his recent interpretation of such tough aces like Stravinsky and Shostakovich; rendering their works on violin strings was like pushing peanuts up Mount Everest with your nose." (Killer on the Keys, 1973)
Among the typical inhabitants of the Nooniverse are a 440-pound mattress tester, a set of homicidal triplets, an evil college professor complete with pet assassin, a deadly female cosmetics tycoon, and an evangelist crusading against fat. Martinis are descried as "amber and delicious," a doctor takes a patient's temperature by feeling his pulse, two lovers in bed are compared to a tossed salad, the traditional Jewish toast is spelled lach heim and the traditional Italian farewell is twisted into Caio, piasano. When the plot screeches to a halt, a tongueless black dwarf is likely to invade the mouse auditorium walking on his hands and carrying a .45 in each foot. (The mouse auditorium is Noon's name for his one room office and like every other phrase in Avallone it comes from a film, specifically Howard Hawks's 1939 flyboy flick Only Angels Have Wings, with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur.) Make the language do flipflops, mangle the metaphors like a trash compactor, slap down as many allusions to characters and incidents and lines and settings from old movies as the page can hold, add heaping measures of contempt for hippies, perverts, Commies, peaceniks, longhairs, pointyheads, militant blacks, liberated women and all other traitors to the John Wayne ethos. Season with a barrel of chutzpah and you have the recipe for the Nooniverse. "I was all tangled and brangled in a mystery and fantasy that made absolutely no sense," Noon remarks in Death Dives Deep, and so is reader every time he dives into an Avallone novel. But somehow the whole impossible slumgullion lingers on the palate.
Those who keep coming hack for more servings are known as Noonatics. If any of Avallone's multitudinous hooks is his testament it's Shoot It Again, Sam (1972). In the Nooners of the Vietnam years our hero is not just a Bogart-loving gumshoe but the part-time confidential investigator for a certain recently disgraced president of the United States. Eye or spy, however, Ed Noon remains the ultimate movie nut, and not only is each chapter of Sam prefaced with a line of dialogue from a Hollywood flick, but each of the novel's two "hooks" is introduced by a whole pageful of such lines. The president unaccountably assigns Noon to accompany a dead movie idol's body on a transcontinental train ride to its final resting place. (The deceased is clearly supposed to be John Wayne, although his radical son is obviously Peter Fonda and one of his ex-wives Lauren Bacall.) While the train is rolling through eastern California the corpse sits up in its coffin in a scene Noon describes as "something from one of those machinemade Universal horror pictures from the last generation." At this moment Chinese agents raid the train, grab the Noon man and hustle him off to a demonstration that they've seen The Manchurian Candidate. With the help of a cadre of brainwashers made up to look like Clark Gable, James Cagney and Peter Lorre, the Maoists soon have our boy convinced that he is none other than Sam Spade (as portrayed, of course, by Bogart). Then they reunite him with Brigid O'Shaughnessy and equip him with poison needle tipped shoes like Lotte Lenya's in From Russia with Love, having programmed what passes for Noon's braib so that the next time he's closeted with his good buddy the president he will kick Nixon into the hereafter with one blow to the shin. And this is only part of Avallone's marvelously cinemaniacal tribute to the celluloid myths in which he is the late True Believer.
"Strong, tough, Manhattan cynical hut underneath still a small boy. A movie lover. Cried when dogs got run over, helped little old ladies across the street, works for principle and integrity. Not an anti-hero. He believes the home team will win the old hall game in the ninth, that nice guys will not finish last and when the climax comes, the Good Guys will always beat the Bad Guys. He grew up that way, through the Depression years, a second World War and all the time he dreamed in a million darkened movie houses. He embraced the word Hero; he believed there was no other way for a man to be." Thus the fantasy image, developed in book after book, of a man who can he called many things: fascist klutz, bastion of sanity and tradition, horn storyteller, enfant terrible, patriot, pig, idealist, fool, some kind of nut, a hell of a nice guy. But whatever else might he said about Ed Noon and Michael 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!"