Michael Malone, wide-ranging novelist and TV writer, dies at 79

Michael Malone, a novelist and television writer who moved seamlessly between genres, writing serious comic novels, comic serious novels and best-selling mystery novels — in addition to working on the soap opera “One Life to Live,” which drew critical acclaim during his run as head writer for its zany humor and sensitive explorations of social issues — died Aug. 19 at his home in Clinton, Conn. He was 79.

He had pancreatic cancer, said his daughter, Maggie Malone.

A North Carolina native who wrote frequently about his home state, Mr. Malone published more than a dozen novels, including the rollicking 1983 picaresque “Handling Sin,” a retelling of “Don Quixote” in the American South, and “Uncivil Seasons,” which was released later that same year and marked his first foray into the mystery genre. The book introduced readers to a pair of mismatched North Carolina police officers, the junk-food-devouring Cudberth “Cuddy” Mangum and the aristocratic Justin Bartholomew Savile V, whom New York Times reviewer Evan Hunter deemed “two of the most memorable police detectives ever to appear in mystery fiction.”

Mr. Malone went on to write two more Justin and Cuddy mysteries, including “Time’s Witness” (1989), which explored the relationship between racism and capital punishment, and the bestseller “First Lady” (2002), about the “Guess Who Killer,” a serial murderer targeting women in fictional Hillston, N.C. He was working on a fourth novel in the series when he died, his daughter said.

Before he turned to the mystery genre, Mr. Malone was best known for writing comic novels with a sprawling cast of characters and offbeat humor. His 1980 book, “Dingley Falls,” was set in a small Connecticut town and featured characters with names like Habzi Rabies, Rich Rage and Mrs. Canopy, an arts patron who goes to the cemetery to speak at her late husband’s grave. “She did not, necessarily, assume that he lay listening beneath it,” Mr. Malone wrote. “For that matter, he had rarely listened when he had sat across from her at dinner, or before the living room fire. The change was that he no longer got up and went to bed before she finished.”

Mr. Malone said he sought to capture the spirit of a place in his work, and found that crime fiction enabled him to depict a broader cross-section of the communities he wrote about. “I’m interested in presenting a world that is politically and socially engaged,” he told the Guardian newspaper, “and once you’re writing about a police department you’re writing about social problems, you’re into the whole politics of a region. By making your characters policemen you engage them with every rank of society.”

It was partly so that he could tell socially relevant stories to a national audience that Mr. Malone left the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught fiction writing, to join “One Life to Live” as head writer in 1991. “I couldn’t resist it,” he told the New York Times. “I think Dickens would have done it. I make up characters and there they are in the flesh. I have my own Shakespeare company!”

Working under executive producer Linda Gottlieb, with whom he had previously partnered on an unproduced movie, Mr. Malone helped shape an experimental but popular few seasons of the ABC soap opera. The series featured eccentric characters and idiosyncratic storylines — one involved an Egyptologist, a jewel thief and a sex therapist — while also delving into weighty issues such as sexual assault.

Mr. Malone and his writing team won a 1994 Daytime Emmy Award after crafting a series of widely discussed episodes about a college student, Marty Saybrooke (played by Susan Haskell), who is gang raped by a jock and his fraternity brothers, and who later brings her attackers to trial. Mr. Malone had previously made headlines for a story arc that featured the AIDS Memorial Quilt and centered on a teenage boy (Ryan Phillippe) who is bullied for being gay.

In a 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times, journalist Freeman Gunter, a managing editor of Soap Opera Weekly and veteran of the gay press, described the plotline as “a breakthrough,” saying that it showed “what it’s like to be gay in a hostile world.”

Mr. Malone said he hoped the show would increase acceptance of gay people and other victims of AIDS.

“There was no way ever on God’s green earth that five million people a week would be reading my novels,” he told the North Carolina newspaper Indy Week, “but they might see Viki,” the show’s longtime protagonist, “carrying that AIDS quilt.”

Mr. Malone left the show in 1996 and worked as head writer for the NBC soap opera “Another World” before returning to “One Life to Live” in 2003 and 2004. During his second stint as head writer, he worked on a suspense novel, “The Killing Club,” that was tied into the series, with Mr. Malone and one of the show’s characters, Marcie Walsh, both listed as authors. The book made national bestseller lists and employed some of the attention-grabbing techniques that Mr. Malone picked up from his years working in television.

“My chapters used to close out very quietly; now, they may end with, ‘Get out of the car! There’s a bomb in the car!’” he told January Magazine, a literary publication. “It’s the hook trick that I learned from television. Not a bad lesson to learn, either.”

The oldest of six children, Michael Christopher Malone was born in Durham, N.C., on Nov. 1, 1942. His parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up with his mother, a fourth-grade teacher who was deaf. Mr. Malone served as her ears, developing observational skills that he later used in his novels. His father was a psychiatrist, and Mr. Malone liked to say that he was in the same profession, except he listened to “the voices in my head” instead of “the voices on my couch.”

By age 9, he was writing plays, including a 42-act epic called “The Prince of the Chinese Elephants.” “To this day, my siblings who live in North Carolina will flee the state if I say anything about putting on a play, because they know they’re going to have to dress up as a bumblebee or something and be in it,” he told NPR in 2009. By the time he got to college he thought he might like to pursue philosophy instead of drama; a professor suggested he switch to studying literature, noting that Mr. Malone seemed more interested in philosophers’ lives than their theories.

Mr. Malone graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1964, received a master’s degree from the school two years later and went on to pursue a PhD in English at Harvard University, where he met his wife, Maureen Quilligan, a scholar of Renaissance literature who partly inspired his first novel, “Painting the Roses Red” (1975), about a young woman in 1960s California.

As Mr. Malone told it, he wrote the novel to avoid writing his dissertation, a study of American cinema that later formed the basis of his book “Heroes of Eros: Male Sexuality in the Movies” (1979). He never got his PhD, but he went on to teach at schools including the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Duke, where he led a film class in which students were divided into teams to write and produce their own 20-minute movies. Their films were honored at a “Golden Apples” ceremony that Mr. Malone modeled after the Academy Awards, with a best-director honor presented by the Duke men’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

Mr. Malone split his time for many years between Connecticut and North Carolina, where he and his wife settled in the small town of Hillsborough, a literary hot spot that was also home to writers including David Payne, Frances Mayes and Allan Gurganus, with whom he performed an annual two-man stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” “When I got here,” Mr. Malone told the Wall Street Journal, “I started writing like I was set on fire.”

His other novels included “Foolscap” (1991), about a university professor commissioned to write the biography of an aging playwright, and “The Four Corners of the Sky” (2009), a family saga and adventure epic involving a missing treasure, a con man and a naval aviator.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 47 years, Quilligan; a sister and half sister; a brother and half brother; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Malone recalled that “the most important thing ever said to me as a writer” came from author Eudora Welty, whom he met at a Yale literary gathering in the late 1970s. When Welty learned that Mr. Malone had written three novels, none set in his native North Carolina, she advised him to “let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.” He soon started working on “Uncivil Seasons,” which he described as “the first novel of mine to be set in that Red Clay country, that landscape of my childhood imagination.”

A few years later, he drove from his home in North Carolina to Welty’s house in Jackson, Miss., to say thank you. He sat there for hours but “was too shy to go ring the doorbell,” he told the Journal. Eventually he drove home. He didn’t tell Welty about the episode until years later, when he happened to spot her in the lobby of New York’s Algonquin Hotel. “She looked at me and smiled,” he recalled, “and she said: ‘Oh honey, was that you? I almost called the police on you.’”

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