Mike Avallone earned a reputation two reputations during his lifetime. The first was as the self-proclaimed “fastest typewriter in the East” as he churned out hundreds of paperbacks, including dozens of tie-ins for film and TV: The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hawaii Five-O, Friday the Thirteenth Part III, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Partridge Family, and more. The second was as a hack writer, as the “Ed Wood of the written word,” because his novels were often low-end schlock—let’s start with the obvious, nobody ever got famous for writing TV show tie-ins. Avallone’s books were often characterized erratic, wacko yarns, a mix of nonsensical plotting, right-wing rants, soft-core porn, and often hilariously-mangled English. (His malaprops and bizarre metaphors are near-legendary in the field, known as “Avallonisms.”)
Starting back in June, Avallone’s earliest novels—introducing the private detective Ed Noon—were digitized as eBooks for Kindle by his son David. Between getting some as freebies and the general low prices, I ended up with the first five or six from Amazon, and figured I’d give them a shot.
Private eye Ed Noon wasn’t expecting a six-foot-three beauty named Dolores to start pounding on his door one morning, but the perpetually down-on-his-luck detective needed the job. It sounded simple: track down Dolores’ similarly statuesque husband. Easier than it sounded, since Noon’s police tipster gives him a lead: a corpse found in a museum, which happens to be Noon’s quarry. Checking in on Dolores, he finds a dead Chinaman in her apartment right before she decks him and flees. And from there, Noon dives into a world of cons and double-crosses, crooked cops and police justice, and a half a million in diamonds stolen decades earlier.
You start to see just how crazy the novel is when I mention that both Dolores and her husband were giants working in a carnival sideshow, with a get-rich plan once they hit New York. And it gets weirder from there; Noon’s major love interest in the novel is a prostitute whom he converts from lesbianism through his self-deprecating charm, who has a shocking revelation of her own later in the novel. And the ending involves a rush to the Statue of Liberty. Other than that, the novel is a cocktail of ’50s-era detective tropes: Noon lives in his run-down office, buts heads with the police detectives, drops snarky comments at the local hoods and their hired goons. The hodge-podge of elements, from the car chases to the crooked cops to the hooker with a heart of gold, makes the novel veer back and forth between epitome of the genre and a spoof of every other 1950s detective novel.
Avallone has a very distinct voice: it’s confident and sure, even though the plot tends to meander; it’s full of wit and wordplay, though it’s in the same vein as every other Chandleresque smart-alack detective you’ve ever seen. And in that combination of contradictions, I start to see why Avallone’s readers—and so many of his peers—loved his writing: he’s having a grand old time writing this, and doesn’t give a shit about the rough edges or low production value. You get the feeling Avallone is grinning the whole time, throwing content around because it sounded interesting and seeing what stuck.
The problem with reading all these old vintage paperbacks is that they often have viewpoints that no longer fit the bill. This one had a few sections that rubbed me the wrong way; there’s an almost unconscious racism that rears its head once or twice, and did I mention that Ed Noon’s suave personality converted a woman from lesbianism? Who turned to it because she couldn’t find a man? Had no man in her life, a life which revolves around being a prostitute hooking up with… men? Granted, that may be related to a plot twist, but it’s so very… quaint.
I feel like I should have more to say about the novel, but there’s really not that much to it when you get down to brass tacks. Some of the twists I would never have saw coming, keeping in with the idea that Avallone made it up as he went along, though some of the “surprises” I could see coming miles and miles away. (Case in point, the destination for the final showdown.) The pacing and prose was vividly furious, using the genre’s faded tropes to good effect. I can’t sum up any glorious revelation stronger than “it was fun.”
I didn’t find The Tall Dolores particularly unique or interesting; it reminded me of several dozen similar novels in the same genre, all of which lacked the roughness of Avallone’s first novel. Tall Dolores is more than a little predictable, but it doesn’t wallow in stock tropes, it embraces them—Avallone makes up with vivid gusto what he lacks in panache and originality. So, nothing new under the sun here, but it made for a few nights of entertainment. The Tall Dolores is the ideal kind of light and fast summer reading, something to kill a few hours while lazing around on the beach: this will never be confused with highbrow literature, but that’s because it’s twice as entertaining. Mindless entertainment, mind you, but decent reading. Hoping the rest of the novels shape up, but thanks to David Avallone’s work digitizing them, at least I have the opportunity to read them.