Thursday, July 19, 2018

Harlan Ellison and John D. MacDonald - Gool Old Fashioned Stories

They put the plate in the back of my head and silver pins in the right thighbone. The arms were in traction longer than the legs. The eye, of course, was something they couldn't fix. - Miranda by John D. MacDonald, October 1950, 15 Mystery Stories

Fawcett Gold Medal July 1984
 It hasn't seem like so long ago since my last post but, yeah, it's been a while. I've been out in the world doing that full time gig of copying and pasting spreadsheets that they pay me to do, neglecting the stuff I love doing, like reading these terrific old books and sharing them with you. Last month I took a trip to Wisconsin and brought along a couple of short story collections by writers I really admire: John D. MacDonald and Harlan Ellison. Sadly, we lost Ellison in June. For me, when I hear that I writer I admire has passed, it's like when others hear a favorite rock star, or movie star has died. I never had the opportunity to meet Ellison in person. I probably would have been too intimidated to approach him, if I did. He was that kind of guy. But I love his books, I love his stories, and mostly I love how he always stood up for integrity and respect for "the writer" in this ambivalent world. 

John D. MacDonald is another writer whose passing I remember back in 1986. I grew up in the gulf coast of Florida and had read many of MacDonald's stories set in my home state. I'd read all of the McGee novels up to the point I finished high school, and was discovering his terrific standalone novels along the way. Dead Low Tide was the first of his non-McGee novels I'd read and remains a treasured favorite of mine. Again, another writer I never got to meet in person.

Now, I try to make it a point to go see writers whose work I enjoy when they come to town to promote their books. I let them know that their books are important to me. Too many leave us and I'll say to someone I know, "Did you hear [insert name] died today?" and am often met with a blank look in response and a "Who was that?" It's a drag.

Anyway, back to the books. The Good Old Stuff, published way back in 1982 is a collection of John D. MacDonald's "lost" pulp stories, compiled by Martin H. Greenberg and Francis M. Nevins, Jr. They presented MacDonald with several dozens of stories they felt deserving of finding a new audience. MacDonald then whittled the selection down to about 30 stories he deemed worthy of reprinting and gave his blessing to go forth. In the process, he did something that he admits, in his introduction, many fans might not appreciate. He "updated" several of the stories to make their settings as contemporary as possible. As for me, I would have preferred they remained as originally published in those crumbling pulps. Regardless, they're still crackling good yarns. Good and bad are fully delineated in these stories, and yes, the hero, always wins. But we get some awesome bad guys in the process. And as always, MacDonald's seemingly effortless prose sweeping you along for the action.  "She was a plump blond and she lay dead in the trail on her back. There were streaks of drying mud on the right sleeve of her yellow sweater. There was more mud on her freckled right arm. Death had flattened her body to the ground. Her tweed skirt was pushed halfway up between knee and hip. Her heels rested in the mud and her brown sandals toed in." - Murder in Mind, Mystery Book Magazine, 1949. A year later MacDonald published the remaining collected pulp stories in a second volume named More Good Old Stuff. And yes, it is just as great as the first collection.

They were worshipers at a black mass the city had demanded be staged; not once, but a thousand times a day in this insane asylum of steel and stone. - The Whimper of Whipped Dogs, by Harlan Ellison.

Pyramid Books, 1975, Cover by Leo and Diane Dillon
 Ellison's collection No Doors, No Windows, from 1975 is a real treat for me. Instead of a collection of "Science Fiction" (a term Ellison didn't appreciate in the least, as he makes clear in his introduction to this book) we have a collection of Ellison crime stories from pulps like Manhunt and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, and "men's magazines" like Adam Bedside Reader and Mantrap. These stories are a blast. If you're a fan of shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", you'll totally dig the stories presented here. Like MacDonald, Ellison also did some "editorial cleanup" on some of the stories within the collection. As an added bonus, you get Ellison's wonderful introduction, clocking in longer than any of the stories that follow it. You'll get his aversion to labeling writers the way publishers and booksellers must do, among other things. Always entertaining and enlightening. The collection kicks off with my favorite one in the book, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs", which also appeared in his collection Deathbird Stories. I have that one, and another collection of Ellison's early crime stories called The Deadly Streets.

Griff could hear Ivy's husband moving toward him in the darkness. Only the faintest sound of gravel betrayed his movements. Down here, deep in the gut of the Earth, it was another world. A world in which Kenneth Cory knew well as a geologist. A world in which Kenneth Cory was at a disadvantage. That was why Ivy and Griff had lured him down here. To kill him. - Down in the Dark, by Harlan Ellison as Ellis Hart.

What can I say. These guys were pros. They didn't bullshit around when it came to producing terrific stories. They put their asses to their seats and pounded them out. You should find their books and dig them for yourself.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Bloodsmoor Romance - Joyce Carol Oates

Amidst the guests, however, no one was more pleasing to the eye, or excited more comment, than the five Zinn daughters of local fame. As we advance more intimately upon the sisters, we will not shrink from taking note of countless small imperfections, and some major faults, so it is well to remember that, observed and judged from a distance, as doubtless guests to the Kiddemaster Hall were wont to do, Constance Philippa, and Octavia, and Malvinia, and Samantha, and even Deirdre, did strike the eye as uncommonly attractive young ladies, though they lived in a society in which Beauty - whether of face, or form, or manner, or attire - was very much a requisite, for the female sex. 


Cover art for A Bloodsmoor Romance by Max Ginsburg

I'm straying far and wide from the world of assassins, spies and hardboiled detectives, in putting the light on this 1982 novel from Joyce Carol Oates. What a strange and weird book this is! Reading this novel I wondered who the intended audience for this "old-fashioned" novel would have been back then. It's written in a deliberate homage to Victorian-era novels, or Romances (think Little Women) as they were called. It forces the reader to slow down and accept the story on the narrator's terms. That narrator being an unnamed, elderly maiden, relating the intimate details, events and fates befalling the five Zinn sisters mentioned above. The setting is Bloodsmoor, PA, in the last 20 years of the 19th Century. It wouldn't have been the typical reading fare for the early 1980's by any stretch. This novel is almost a dare to any publisher accepting it for marketing to supermarkets, airports and and malls back then.

I've read a few of Oates's novels before, including Bellefleur, which this novel is a cousin to, as part of her Gothic period of novels. Bellefleur is another long, and more difficult, novel than A Bloodsmoor Romance, and just as weird. This novel is far more accessible for a patient reader than Bellefleur is, and I would recommend to anyone possibly interested in reading Bellefleur that they should probably read A Bloodsmoor Romance first. Both novels are historical family sagas loaded with bizarre and often supernatural events and turns of plot.

And as plots go, this novel follows the fates of the five Zinn sisters named above. It kicks off with a dramatic abduction of Deirdre by a sinister black hot-air balloon after an afternoon party to celebrate the engagement of the eldest Zinn daughter, Constance Philippe. Deirdre's shocking abduction remains unsolved. It also serves as a stain of sorts on the Zinn family itself. It's almost assumed to be her own fault that she's taken away in such a daring fashion. Deirdre is the youngest of the Zinn sisters, and the oddest. She's often beset by nightmares and visions and haunted by invisible voices. It seems to make sense that she be snatched away into mystery. Her kidnapping has an inevitability about it, and it launches the narrative detailing the diverse directions the other sisters take in their lives.

So what happens? Well, Constance Philippe disappears on her wedding night, Malvinia elopes with a European blackguard and becomes a scandalous actress of the stage, Octavia (the good sister) marries an older man to tragic consequences, Samantha follows her father's vocation into a life of science and curiosity wholly unbecoming of a young woman of her time. And Deirdre returns as Deirdre of the Shadows, a notorious medium.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg for our sisters! The turn of events include kidnappings, seances, ghosts, murder, a time machine, kinky sex, strange deaths, a sex change, erotic asphyxiation, secret marriages, disguises and more than a few family secrets revealed along the way. Just your average Victorian melodrama!

I think, given the popularity of shows like Penny Dreadful and The Alienist, this novel was about 35 years ahead of its time. I can completely see a Netflix miniseries based on this book. But until that happens, I'll just tell you to read the book first. You'll probably like it as much as I did.




Friday, April 27, 2018

The Devastators - Donald Hamilton

There was a little pause. I was tempted to add something mushy to the effect that she was a pretty nice kid, after all, and working with her wasn't going to be quite the ordeal I'd expected. While I struggled with the impulse, the telephone rang, which was just as well. I mean this buddy-buddy stuff may be all right in the armed forces, but in our line of work you're much better off hating your partner's guts. Then you won't feel so bad if he breaks a leg and you have to shoot him--and if you think that's just a figure of speech, Buster, I envy you the happy TV world you live in.

Gold Medal Books

Ah yes, that's our hero Matt Helm being as endearing and sympathetic as ever. In this case, the partner he's referring to is another agent in his organization named Claire, or that's all the name you need to know, since Claire's assignment is to accompany Helm to Scotland, posing as Helm's new wife. Helm's job is to follow up on the trail of a missing disgruntled American scientist named Archibald McRow. The previous agents put on McRow's tail have either ended up missing-in-action or have been found dead by means of various illnesses. In one case, the measles, another of chicken pox, and the most recent agent, dying of the Bubonic Plague on a lonely coast of Scotland. Small wonder about the means of death, given that our Dr. McRow has been working on top-secret biological viruses and their antidotes. Helm's job is to draw out the opposing team and eliminate them. Claire's job, or Winifred Helm as she'll be referred to, is to put the touch on Dr. Archibald McRow. Kill him, that is.

My friends, this novel from 1965 is a corker! Helm is barely in London a few hours when an attempt is made on his life by a former soviet agent believed to have been executed. Then his partner, excuse me, his wife I mean, is kidnapped from their hotel. She was last seen by the hotel staff leaving in the company of a lady and another gentleman, both Oriental in appearance. And if that's not enough, an old face from a previous novel, The Ambushers, shows up. It's Vadya, the beautiful and extremely deadly soviet agent, and as it just so happens, Helm's former lover.

If Helm has an equal in the spy game it's Vadya. In The Ambushers, Vadya had a good time torturing Helm with a soldering iron, trying to get the dirt on a mutual target in Mexico. This time she's on the trail of Dr. McRow as well. At least, that's what she tells Helm. He has to torture her with a trick belt first to get anything out of her. In many ways, this novel is a cousin of sorts to The Ambushers, as the events in that novel, two years earlier, are referred to several times. I would recommend you read The Ambushers before reading The Devastators to get the most out of this one.

Anyway, after the torture and sex session between Helm and Vadya is dispensed with, the two of them agree to "team up" to find Dr. McRow. Vadya informs Helm that a certain Madame Ling has kidnapped Claire, remember Claire? and is luring Dr. McRow on the promise of a vast fortune, to lend his brilliant mind to the Chinese Communists. All he has to do is provide the means to kill off most of the planet's population. But like I said, he was disgruntled. And you know you're neck-deep in a spy novel when you have character named Madame Ling!

What follows are chases, shoot-outs, beatings, killings, more torture, more babes, hypodermic needles and rats infected with The Black Death! I'm telling you this novel has the works! I was amused by more of the self-deprecating asides that Helm provides us as he takes us through the plot. I was a bit worried that, after nine novels into the series, I would have gotten my fill (as perhaps some readers of this blog might) of Helm's brutal and hardboiled world. But this book kicked the action up a notch. Here's looking forward to the next novel in the series, The Betrayers.




Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Ravagers - Donald Hamilton

So two men were dead instead of one, and the job was shot to hell, and sooner or later I'd be back in Washington facing a couple of departmental psychiatrists who'd try to determine the full extent of the softening of the brain and whether or not the disease was curable--but that was kind of beside the point, at the moment. I squatted to examine the thing that looked like a cigarette package--a British brand called Players, if it matters, and saw the little hole out of which something lethal was supposed to come if you squeezed it in the right place the right way. 


Gold Medal Books

So, we're back in the treacherous, shadowy world of Matt Helm for his 8th novel, The Ravagers. Helm is at his most cold-blooded, hard-boiled yet in this caper. He's practically devoid of any humanity, except for occasional wry attempts at sarcasm and self-deprecation dropped here and there for humor. His assignment is inherited from another agent who is permanently sidelined after getting a face full of acid in close proximity, in a motel room in Canada.

"It was an acid job," Helm informs us in the very first line of the novel. An acid job followed up by a dose of cyanide. There are enough clues at the scene for Helm to determine that the killer was likely a woman, especially considering the dead agent was one of those All-American types who had a weakness for women. The agent's name was Gregory, and he'd been assigned to make contact and follow a certain Mrs. Genevieve Drilling and her teenage daughter Penelope. It seems that Mrs. Drilling has decided she's tired of being the wife of a scientist, Dr. Herbert Drilling, and has up and left Dr. Drilling along with a briefcase full of top secret information on a laser project that Drilling had been working on. Word has it that Mrs. Drilling has been romanced by a suitor from the other side named Hans Ruyter. The dead agent Gregory had been working on the case until someone put the touch on him. Now it's Helm's turn to pick up where Gregory left off.

Helm's cover name for the assignment is Dave Clevinger, a private eye from Denver Colorado. Helm is informed by Mac, his boss in Washington, that he's to make sure that Mrs. Drilling and Hans Ruyter complete their escape with the stolen documents. The documents, Helm is informed, are a plant. Unfortunately, there are other agencies on the case. Helm's job is to ensure that Mrs. Drilling and Ruyter make their escape unharmed. Sounds like a walk in the park for our hero.

Helm is barely on the case for a few hours when he's confronted by a mysterious woman named Elaine Harms. At least, that's the name she's using for now, she tells him. She wants to know what Helm was doing in the motel room of a dead man who was last seen in the company of Genevieve Drilling. Elaine Harms is one of those tough girl, take-no-shit kind of dames we love. She's not buying Helm's private detective story. She tells him that she'll be following up on his background, but in the meantime, she wouldn't mind a little company in the bed if he's game. Helm decides that duty calls and obliges her, knowing she could very likely be the acid-wielding killer.

Also on the trail of Mrs. Drilling are a pair of (it's assumed) FBI agents named Fenton and Johnston. Fenton is one of those inexperienced hot-headed types, while his partner Johnston is more methodical, and dangerous. Helm's orders from Washington maintain that he's not to give away his cover under any circumstances. It's imperative that his own agency's involvement remain secret. No one is to stop Mrs. Drilling and Ruyter from making their way out of Canada with the forged documents.

Helm agrees to meet Elaine Harms the next evening at another motor lodge to "compare" notes on each other. Helm actually admires Ms. Harms, and see's in her a kindred soul in the dark world of espionage. Of course, he can't reveal this to her, nor can he be sure she isn't the woman who dosed his former colleague with acid. Ultimately, his concerns regarding Ms. Harms don't matter, because someone puts a bullet into her head after framing her for the murder of agent Gregory. It's Helm who finds her body. It's the only moment in the novel where Helm feels remorse, even regret. "I went back to the bed. The shock was wearing off. I suppose I should have been feeling grief in its place. I could get drunk and cry in my beer, or whiskey, or gin. Right now I had other things to do..."

One of the things I've always considered about the Helm novels is their similarity to mid-century hard-boiled detective novels. It's clear that Helm is an assassin agent for a secret organization, sometimes referred to as The Wrecking Crew among its members, but the attitude is very much more Lew Archer than James Bond, in my opinion. I don't mean that Helm is anything like Lew Archer, because is not. Certainly, Helm has no problem killing people when he has to. Archer would avoid killing unless absolutely forced to in self-defense. What is similar are how the assignments in Matt Helm novels unfold through the disintegration of dysfunctional families rather than evil geniuses. There are none of the glamorous travelogues of the James Bond novels. No first-class jet-setting to Monte Carlo and Rome. No games of Baccarat in posh casinos. Instead, Helm's world is populated with motels, diners, and lonely highways traveled by trucks and Volkswagens instead of Bentleys. An Aston Martin would be sneered at in a Matt Helm assignment. In 8 novels, Helm has yet to wear a tuxedo. Instead he becomes involved in frayed family ties manipulated by foreign agents. The dire world implications are kept offstage while our hero maneuvers through failed marriages, duplicitous affairs and wayward offspring. The cold war stuff, like microfilms and lasers and atomic bombs, are really condiments to the main focus of the novels, that is Helm's relationships with the immediate victims: fathers, wives, daughters.

But I digress. I should just tell you that The Ravagers is both Donald Hamilton and Matt Helm at the top of their game. Looking forward to The Devastators next.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Mountain Girls and Swamp Rats


I had to pause in my reviews of the Matt Helm series when I discovered I didn’t have the next book in line. Luckily, finding the books out there isn’t as hard as it used to be. Not sure if anyone cares or not, but I’m having fun going through them from the beginning. Anyway, it’s not like I haven’t been keeping up with other things in the meanwhile.

For example, a couple of old Gold Medal nuggets featuring primitive lusts, passion, greed, gators and girls you don’t take home to mother.

Gold Medal Books and Black Lizard Books


And the swamp continued to rot and to wait for the end, and everything was as it had been in the beginning. - Robert Edmond Alter - Swamp Sister

Swamp Sister, by Robert Edmond Alter, was published in 1966. It’s the kind of novel that’s like sour candy for me. Even the name is irresistible. I don’t know much about its author, but I remember reading Carny Kill some years ago. How is that for another great title? A pair of titles like Carny Kill and Swamp Sister and, brother, you’ve got yourself a fine double feature ahead of you. Both books were republished by Black Lizard Press in the 80’s and shouldn’t be too hard to find now. Swamp Sister sets up a classic plot of missing loot lost in a Florida swamp, a pair of swamp rats with larceny in their hearts, a lusty young man looking for a better life, a sexy babe in cut-offs and not much else, and a crooked insurance investigator, all mixed into a sweaty brew somewhere in the wilds of Florida. The place isn’t specifically named, but I’m calling Florida purely because gators turn up all over the plot as our hero, Shad Hark, navigates his way to the missing payroll loot through a pair of hot sisters named Margy and Dorry, and a couple of murderous swamp rats named Sam and Jort. Seems our pal Shad can’t get a break after he foolishly spends some of the missing loot in the local general store. In no time flat he’s got the whole town all up his ass trying to get their sweaty mitts on that money. It’s a pretty good yarn all in all. My only complaint is the cornpone dialog gets a little weary after a while. A little goes a long way when it comes to people speaking like cottonmouth snakes. But that aside, it is well worth checking out if you have a hankering for a sweaty chick with loose morals sitting on a pile of ill-gotten swag.

“Ben, they’ll kill you for sure. Ain’t nobody around here ever stands up to them. If a man’s too big, they come at him from two sides. They have guns—they’ll use them and they don’t care none if they kill. Please, Ben, let’s get out of here now. I know some of the way—we can guess at the rest.” - Norman Daniels - Something Burning

Promotional flyer found in my copy of Something Burning


Something Burning, by Norman Daniels from 1963, has never seen a reprint as far as I know. I found it in a used bookstore with a small promotional flyer by Barbara Hendra, publicity director with Gold Medal at the time, asking for a review. It’s a neat little artifact folded into the pages of the book. I don’t know anything about writer Norman Daniels, but see that he’d written some westerns back in the day. Something Burning could easily have been a western as well. Ben Medford, our lead protagonist, is deep in an alcoholic state of mourning for his recently deceased wife, Sandy, and winds up wrecking his car off a mountain road one night. He’s found by a mountain girl named Ora and is nursed back to health. In the process of recovering, he and Ora are confronted by a pair of mountain hillbillies named Roy and Joel Gallison. Roy and Joel are right out of a casting call for Deliverance, as they take pleasure in killing and raping whomever they please. Ben uses his anger and screw-it-all attitude to his advantage and beats the hell out of Roy and Joel. Unfortunately he lets his civilized upbringing get the better of him and doesn’t kill the brothers. Bad mistake! The brothers return and kill Ora as she and Ben attempt to leave their mountain hideaway. Now Ben is on the run, blamed for Ora’s death and for setting a string of recent forest fires as well. He’s an outsider stripped of civilized mores, dealing with psychotic hillbillies and firebugs as he attempts to make it out of the mountains alive. Halfway through the novel, it changes course and becomes a stranded survivor plot as Ben and others are held hostage by the real firebug in a lookout tower as the flames surround them. It’s not a perfect novel, nor a lost classic. There are some lapses in logic happening, and Ben’s sudden attraction for another mountain girl so soon after the death of his wife doesn’t make a lot of sense, but all in all, Something Burning was an entertaining way to pass a few hours. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily go out of your way to find this book. But if you see it out there, it’s probably worth a couple bucks of your hard-earned dough.

So that’s about it for missing a couple weeks. I’ll probably be back in Helm’s world. Who knows?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Shadowers - Donald Hamilton

The little .22 settled on a point of aim and his finger put pressure on the trigger. I was aware of the strangled breathing of Harold Mooney watching fearfully and making no effort to intervene. That was all right. I didn't want any help. I just wanted to get my hands on Karl Kroch. At that moment he had no information anybody wanted. I didn't have to treat him gently. I didn't have to catch him and preserve him like a delicate scientific specimen. I could smash him like a cockroach, and I was looking forward to it; and I didn't care how big he was or how many guns he had. He was dead.



The Shadowers
, from 1964, is the 7th novel in the Matt Helm series, and picks up several months after the events which occurred in The Ambushers. Matt Helm is on vacation in Florida under the guise of Paul Corcoran, a reporter from Denver. He's supposed to be spending a month of fun and sun with his girlfriend Gail Hendricks. You may remember Gail Hendricks as the spoiled Texas socialite from the 4th novel, The Removers. I wasn't much of a fan of Gail Hendricks, and couldn't see why Matt Helm would fall for her. Well, turns out someone else wasn't much of a fan either, because as this novel starts up, Gail Hendricks has been killed in a car accident. Helm is taken to the scene of the accident by the police and looks for signs of foul play but is unable to determine any. Speed and alcohol seem to be the only cause.

Shocked and saddened by Gail's death, Helm calls up his boss Mac and asks for an assignment. Mac obliges by sending Helm to New Orleans, where he follows through on a series of elaborate maneuvers, signals and pickups, all to determine if he is being shadowed, as he makes his way back to Pensacola Florida. Helm's trip to New Orleans and back to Florida is something of an elaborate ruse in preparation for his assignment, to find and kill a man known as Emil Taussig. Taussig is responsible for multiple shadow operations throughout Europe, and has now been spotted in the United States, in Pensacola Florida. It's believed that Taussig's current target is Dr. Olivia Mariassy, an aerospace physician.  .

Mac said, "The exact nature of the Pensacola target is irrelevant. The important thing is that there is one, and that a number of valuable people, Dr. Mariassy included, are in danger, and that we must find Taussig and stop him before he gets all his agents in a position to act."

Helm's assignment is to stick by Dr. Mariassy's side and find out who is shadowing her. "You will determine if she is being shadowed. If she is, you will lead the shadower into a suitably isolated spot, safe from interference by the police or anybody else, and learn from him, or her, the whereabouts of Emil Taussig." Accomplishing that, Helm is directed to kill Taussig.

It's determined the best way for Helm to accomplish his assignment is to marry Dr. Mariassy while keeping his guise as Paul Corcoran. Dr. Mariassy agrees to the marriage charade. Mariassy is described as one of those "schoolmarm librarian types" and has a way of instantly annoying Helm, providing many opportunities for him to act like a bastard toward her. This is a recurring theme through all the books so far. Helm has to work with a woman who may or may not be on his side, and he treats her like shit in the process. It's his way of impressing upon them the ugliness of his world. And of course, it never really works because without fail, the women respond to Helm's brutal charms.

Events in The Shadowers are linked to the previous novel, The Ambushers, but you don't necessarily have to read that book first. There are also a lot of references back to the earlier novels, particularly in reference to Helm's relationship with Gail Hendricks and his wife Beth, from Death of a Citizen. The Shadowers features a great villain named Karl Kroch. Kroch is one of those sadistic Nazi bastards who takes pleasure taunting Helm throughout the novel whenever he isn't raping and killing the women who are unfortunate enough to orbit Helm's world. Kroch's vendetta against Helm relates back to Helm's previous assignment. As in all of the novels before, Helm can't really trust anyone completely. Not even his new "wife" Dr. Marassy, who seems to have too many secrets. Tagging along on the assignment is Mariassy's former lover, Dr. Harold Mooney. Mooney plays just enough of a wild card in the deck to throw the assignment off the rails more than once. Also joining into the mix is Antoinette Vail, a young woman whom Helm pulls in as a decoy early on in the case.

Continuity plays a bigger role in this novel than the ones before it. We also see Helm beginning to express misgivings in his abilities as an agent. More than usual, he makes mistakes in The Shadowers which result in deadly consequences. There is even a moment of reflection, considering the death of Gail Hendricks, and the events resulting in this current assignment, where Helm thinks of leaving the game. Such moments are brief, however.

This novel was published in February 1964, and by this time Gold Medal Books had found a niche publishing series novels featuring Travis McGee, Chester Drum, Sam Durell and Matt Helm. The popularity of series characters like Matt Helm meant something of an end to the stand-alone, noir paperpacks that Gold Medal was known for in the 50's. Writers like Dan J. Marlowe, Steven Marlowe and Edward S. Aarons, along with Donald Hamilton, began turning out espionage adventures rather than straight crime novels as they'd done in the 50's. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee was an exception, considering that McGee stuck to the basic "private eye" formula. So did Richard Prather with his detective hero, Shell Scott. Dropping off the paperback shelves were writers like Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington and Day Keene. The series character had arrived and was here to stay. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Ambushers - Donald Hamilton

"In case they didn't tell you in Washington or you weren't in condition to listen closely," I said, "it's a misplaced Russian toy known as the Rudovic III. It has a nuclear warhead and a twelve-hundred-mile range. That gives it a choice, from here, of any big U.S. city from Los Angeles, California,to Houston, Texas. Maybe further. My geography is a little sketchy. And controlling this pleasant gadget is our scar-faced ex-Nazi general, with his pocket-sized army and his dreams of greatness, past and future. 


Fawcett Gold Medal Books

With this, Matt Helm essentially sums up the plot-line in The Ambushers. Doesn't the Cold War sound like a lot of kicks? I mean we thought we had enough on our plate dealing with the commies, we had to deal with lunatic ex-Nazi generals to boot!

This is a 2nd time reading The Ambushers for me. First published in 1963, and the sixth novel in the series, The Ambushers shows a Matt Helm at his most ruthless yet. I think he kills at least a dozen guys in this novel. He also gets to play nursemaid to another operative, a female, if it matters, and face down a nuclear warhead in the process. So yes, it's full of action and has all the classic Matt Helm ingredients one could want.

The novel starts off in South America in a place called Costa Verde with Helm on assignment to assassinate a rebel leader known as El Fuerte. One agent has already attempted to kill El Fuerte and failed. Helm is aided by a Colonel Jiminez who, along with a rag-tag band of guerrilla soldiers, leads Helm deep into the jungle, to El Fuerte's lair. We get a detailed look at how a sniper operates in these early chapters, as Helm explains rifles, telescopes and distance to the doubtful Colonel Jiminez. The killshot is about 550 yards, and Helm doesn't have any opportunity to miss. The previous agent, known as Sheila, had tried and failed. It's Helm's hope that Sheila is still alive, and that he can extract her from El Fuerte's jungle if possible.

In the process of killing El Fuerte, Helm notices another white foreigner. Something about this one is familiar. He's a face from the files back in Washington. Just who he might be, Helm doesn't remember, but he throws a few bullets at this white stranger anyway, figuring if he's in cahoots with El Fuerte, then he's worth killing as well. Unfortunately he misses the stranger. With the assassination of El Fuerte successful, Helm and Jiminez's soldiers beat a retreat. Helm soon learns that the woman, Sheila, is rescued during the attack on El Fuerte's camp. Sheila is barely alive though, having suffered repeated rape and torture at the hands of El Fuerte and his men. She's able to inform Helm about a missile hidden in the jungle. Helm gets an opportunity to see the missile, but is unable to identify it or disarm it. He assumes it's of Russian origin, and may have been stolen somehow.

Back in Washington, various agencies are all bent out of shape to learn that a missile is down in South America. Matt Helm learns that the mysterious stranger he saw with El Fuerte is an ex-Nazi general named Heinrich von Sachs. Matt Helm's boss, Mac, suggests that it's too bad Helm wasn't able to kill von Sachs when he had the opportunity. Now he's going to have to go back and finish the job. Oh, and while he's at it, find out just what Heinrich von Sachs has to do with the missing missile, a Rudovic III, as it turns out. Oh yes, and find the missile and disarm it, if possible.

And with that, we're off on another deadly and treacherous adventure. Helm takes the traumatized Sheila down to a secret convalescence ranch in Arizona. From there he'll follow another agency's tip to a place outside of Tucson where a foreign agent was captured and killed before they could glean anything from him. It's believed that Heinrich von Sachs is also a mystery person known only as Kurt Quintana, who is gathering soldiers somewhere in Nacimiento Mountains. At the ranch, Sheila pleads with Helm to not abandon her there, to give her another opportunity to prove her worth to the agency and the country. Against advice from Mac, Helm agrees to let Sheila assist him in following the leads to Heinrich von Sachs. Along the way, Helm is kidnapped and tortured by apposing agents who are also after von Sachs. One of those agents is mystery woman known only as Catherine Smith, who lays a honey trap for Helm that he deliberately falls for. Sheila proves her worth by rescuing Helm from Catherine Smith and her partner. An uneasy alliance is formed with Helm and Catherine Smith both going after Heinrich von Sachs.

Like I said at the top, Helm doesn't mess around (too much) in this novel. He kills with deliberate necessity, using rifles, handguns, and even a machete to eliminate his enemies. And he also gets to sleep with a couple deadly babes along the way. All in the line of duty, you know. This is also the first novel in the series we're introduced to Vadya, a beautiful and deadly enemy agent.

The Ambushers is the third movie in the Dean Martin series. That movie involved a flying saucer somehow, and nothing from the novel. The movie was released in 1967 and is pretty terrible, as far as movies go. Unless you like over-the-top spyjinks. Me, I'll stick with the books, thank you!