Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Wrecking Crew - Donald Hamilton

There comes a time in every operation when the wheels are turning, the die is cast, the cards are dealt, if you please, and you've got to carry on as planned and hope for the best. I can name you names, too many of them, of men I've known -- and women too -- who died because some last minute piece of information made them try to pull a switcheroo after the ball had been snapped and the backfield was in motion. When that point comes, to scramble the similes even further, you take the phone off the hook and walk away from it. You don't want to hear what the guy on the other end of the line has to say. You've done your best, you've learned everything possible in the time at your disposal, and you don't want any more dope on any part of the situation, because it's too late, and you can't do anything about it anyway. 

Fawcett Gold Medal

This is the kind of thing our hero Matt Helm ruminates about just before someone gets killed. It's the kind of hardboiled attitude toward the spy game that keep these novels so consistently readable and entertaining. That and all the chauvinistic opinions about women in pants (he doesn't approve!) and getting them out of their girdles. Yes, in 1960, there were a lot of girdles that had to be maneuvered past in the treacherous life of a spy.

I re-read Death of a Citizen right before reading this 2nd adventure in the Matt Helm series, which was published the same year as that first novel. It's been five years since I've read that first novel, and re-reading again last week was a lot of fun. Basically, Matt Helm had been living the life of a family man residing in Santa Fe who writes westerns for a living. One night at a cocktail party he sees a woman named Tina, whom he once worked with in the war. Later that night, another young woman, who turns out to be an agent also, is found murdered in his writing studio, and Tina pulls him back into the world of assassins and death. The Wrecking Crew picks up about a year after the events in Death of a Citizen, and Matt Helm has returned full-time to the outfit he once worked for in the war.

His first assignment, after a refresher course in the art of espionage, courtesy of Uncle Sam, is to go to Sweden and find an assassin known only as Caselius, and put the touch on him. In Helm's organization, "touch" is another term for liquidating. Helm is older now, not in the same shape he once was, slower perhaps, but his instincts remain intact. Notably his ruthless determination in getting unpleasant jobs done. But times have changed since the war. His boss, Mac, laments the current state of espionage and its squeamish attitude toward killing. "Remember, this is peace, God bless it. Be polite, be humble. That's an order. Don't get our dear dedicated intelligence people all upset or they might wet their cute little lace panties." And with that last bit of advice Matt Helm is off and gone to Sweden to find the mysterious and deadly Caselius.

Helm's assignment has him connecting with the widow of a free-lance reporter who had been killed after turning in an article about the mysterious Caselius. There is some suspicion that the widow, Louise Taylor, may be involved with the other side, and that her husband's death may in fact be a ruse of some kind to muddy the search for Caselius. Louise has continued in her husband's career as a free-lance investigative reporter, and arrangements are made for Helm to go on assignment with her to photograph a mining operation in the northern regions of Sweden. The hope is that Louise will lead Helm, somehow, on to Caselius's trail. While on assignment, Helm is told to play his part as a naive citizen to the hilt, and not employ his skills as an agent for the government under any circumstance, even if he's "tested" by the opposition. And he will be tested, on that you can count on, my friends. First by a beautiful "blue-haired" operative named Sara Lundgren, who may or may not be working for the good guys. She blows Helm's cover within hours of his arrival by tailing him from the train station to the hotel he and Louis are staying in. She prissily lectures him on following orders and makes an all-round nuisance of herself until she's ruthlessly gunned down in a park right in front of our hero. Back at the hotel, Louise Taylor dresses like a beatnik (to Helm's disapproval, we're told often) and seems to have an agenda that involves more than taking pretty pictures of mining towns. One of Louise's associates is a chap named Wellington, whom Helm just happens to recognize as an OSS operative back during the war. It's made clear later, through Helm's derogatory references to "Ivy League" agents, that Wellington is with the CIA. There is also the young and achingly beautiful Elin von Hoffman, who tells Helm that she and him are distant cousins. Elin pops up throughout the novel, usually right before a contact is murdered or gunned down. And anyone of them may or may not be the almost mythical Caselius. It's up to Helm to find out just who is, and complete his assignment.

The Wrecking Crew was filmed as the fourth and final Dean Martin movie version of Matt Helm in 1968. I can't remember if I've seen it or not. The Dean Martin films never really appealed to me. I suppose if it shows up on cable again I may watch it, but I'm not going to commit myself.

The Matt Helm series is probably my favorite series of spy novels. Published as paperback originals for Gold Medal they hit the drugstores and news-stands at just at the right time during the spy craze in the 60's, and continued on into the 80's. The last novel, The Damagers, was published in 1993, with a final, unpublished novel named The Dominators out there remaining. For years they were out of print and I was only able to find them in used bookstores, usually in deplorable condition. Since then, they've been reissued in paperback by Titan Books which, I think, is good news for fans of cold-blooded Cold War spy fiction. I suppose a word of warning should be dispensed with here. These are definitely books of their time. I doubt they would be accepted by a major publisher today without heavy editing due to the dated attitudes, particularly against women, that Helm shares with the reader. It's been awhile since I've read any of the later novels, I think it was The Vanishers, from 1986, being the "newest" at the time. I can't say if Matt Helm's attitude toward women progressed since the novels from the 1960's. I would guess probably not. Just further proof that spyin' aint for sissies!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Megan Abbott and Gil Brewer Double-Shot

Really, if they're going to wear those darted sweaters tucked tight in those long fitted skirts cradling heart-shaped asses, skirts so tight they swiveled when they walked in them, clack-clack-clacking away down the hall, full aware - with full intention - that he was watching, even as his face betrayed nothing, not a rough twitch or a faint hint of saliva on his decidedly not-trembling lip. It wasn't he who was unusual, so lust-filled or insatiable. It was they who packaged themselves up so pertly for utmost oomph, for him alone, really, even if they hadn't met him yet when they slid on their treacherous gossamer stockings that morning, even if they hadn't known why they straightened the seams on their blouses so they'd hang in perfectly sharp arrows down their waiting, waiting breasts. - Megan Abbott, from The Song is You

Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, cover design by Ellen R Sasahara

Man, if that doesn't pull you in, you need to check your pulse to see if you're still alive! Passages like this one from The Song is You are why Megan Abbott is one of my favorite writers. She can nail the menace and sex that noir is built on, and transcend it to another level. It's not a surprise that her popularity has increased with each new novel. For every half-baked bestseller touted by critics, there are novels by writers like Megan Abbott who've already done it and done it better.

The Song is You is her 2nd published novel, from 2007, and it uses a real-life Hollywood mystery for its inspiration. In 1949, starlet Jean Spangler left her home to do a "night shoot" for a film she was supposedly working in. She never came home, and was never seen again. A few days later her purse was found in Griffith Park, with an unfinished handwritten note inside it. The note was addressed to a Kirk and referred to a Dr Scott. That was the last clue to a mystery that has never been solved. Megan Abbott uses this setup to recreate a dark novel of secrets about what might have happened to Jean Spangler. It's similar to James Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia, in that it blends real life people with fiction and recreates a time and place built on dreams and fantasy. I mean who can resist a Hollywood mystery? Abbott's attention to detail and character drives this novel. If you're a fan of noir and unsolved mysteries, this novel will be right up your dark alley. Abbott returned to another true-crime case a few years later with Bury Me Deep about the Winnie Ruth Judd murders in 1930's Phoenix. The noir genre is so heavily weighed down with scads of male writers and tropes that have become so standard as to be expected. Diving into the dark heart of noir from the woman's perspective is a blast.

Gold Medal Books, 1951

Picture in your mind all the wizened, jittery, pasty-faced, hollow-eyed dope fiends you can conjure up, and add ashes. There you have the little guy. Maybe that doesn't do him justice. He was no dope. It was something else. You might think of leprosy when you saw the way his skin glistened, but you'd know you were wrong. He was drumhead tight, in a wasp-waisted gray gabardine that was neater than any pin, with a maroon tie and a maroon handkerchief cocking a bloody eye out of his breast pocket. He wore an expensive Panama hat that must have been set on his square little head with a carpenter's level. It was the broad-brimmed kind. He gave you the impression that when his suit went to the cleaners, he stayed in it, with through the process, pressing and all, and was carefully hung in antiseptic shade. - Gil Brewer, from So Rich, So Dead

The only thing missing from that description are the pink shoelaces! Gil Brewer is one of my all-time favorite noir writers from the 50's and 60's. He's not as polished as writers like John D MacDonald, but his prose has a fever and a drive that make his books irresistible to me. Unfortunately, So Rich, So Dead, from 1951, isn't one of the better examples of why I like his work so much. This was his 2nd novel with Gold Medal, after Satan is a Woman and before his highly successful 13 French Street. All three of these novels were published in 1951, which gives you an indication of his writing method. That was, churn them out and cash the checks. So Rich, So Dead has elements of the best of his novels, found in books like The Vengeful Virgin and The Red Scarf, but falls short, with it's Chinese Buffet of a plot that's almost zany instead of suspenseful.

Briefly, Bill Maddern returns from Charleston, SC to St. Petersburg, FL upon receiving a desperate telegram from his brother Danny Maddern. The brothers had set up a detective agency in St. Pete, and had seen a moderate level of success before, for reasons never really clear, Bill took off for Charleston. In his absence, Danny is hired to investigate a missing person believed to have been involved in a payroll robbery that netted the criminals $500,000. Bill returns to FL to discover his brother's murdered body, along with a note (hidden in a spittoon!) informing Bill that Danny had found the stolen loot and the body of one of the criminals involved. This kicks off a plot that is all over the map in the span of 24 hours, filled with 3 femme fatales, razor wielding goons, shotguns, car chases, angry cops, sex and a wild chase through a lady's department store sale, of all things. It's a fun novel, but not one that I would introduce to first-time readers of Gil Brewer. I'm glad to see that Brewer's novels and stories have seen a renewed interest though.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Vintage Western Trio

So, two weeks into 2018 and it's not looking like sanity in the real world is returning anytime soon. I've made some resolutions this year, something I don't normally bother with, and one of them is to ignore the news as much as possible. Those who know me personally know my feelings about the direction we've turned in the country and this corner isn't the place to dwell on it. So I've chosen to escape the early weeks of 2018 into the canyons and valleys and deserts found in some vintage westerns I've had on my shelf.

The first one is The Lone Gun, by Howard Rigsby, from 1955. My book is a Gold Medal paperback, something that nearly always guarantees a good time. The Gold Medal westerns, in my reading experience, tend to lean hard-boiled, which I like. The Lone Gun falls right into that vibe. Brooks Cameron works for Dave Tilton, tight-fisted rancher, who runs the town which is appropriately named Tiltonville. Brooks has been with Tilton long enough to earn a good rep with most of the townsfolk. Brooks has ambitions of marrying Mary Silk, the reverend's daughter (a preacher's kid! hubba hubba!) and staking out a ranch of his own. Competing for Mary Silk's attention is the local sheriff, a bully named Adam Lufkin. Lufkin wields his authority by railroading anyone he doesn't like with whatever trumped up charges he can come up with. One day, returning from a cattle drive, Brooks Cameron has an argument with Dave Tilton on behalf of the other workers waiting to get paid. In a fit of anger, he quits on Tilton. Unfortunately, he does so in front of Tilton's brother and Sheriff Adam Lufkin. By next morning, Dave Tilton is found murdered, and the money from the cattle drive is missing. Guess who the number one suspect is. If you guessed Brooks Cameron, you've clearly been to a rodeo or two! What follows is a long...sometimes too long...ride on the lam for our hero Brooks Cameron, as he tries to find Tilton's real killer while evading the Sheriff and his henchmen. It's a pretty good novel, with my only gripe being some clear page filler with Brooks just hiding out and plotting his next move. Finding the real killer takes some time and there are a number of false trails getting there. Still, there is enough suspense to carry the plot, and you look forward to that bastard Adam Lufkin getting his comeuppance.

The next western trail I rode is Lewis B. Patten's 1957's novel Pursuit. I've read a few of Patten's other novels and some short stories and, so far, I've liked them. I understand, from others who know the genre better than I do, that his later novels from the 70's tend to be a mess. I've kept that in mind when looking for his books. Pursuit could have been a mid-century crime novel, as it begins with a robbery of a stage coach. It could have easily been updated to a payroll robbery. Four strangers ride into a town named Buffalo Wallow and proceed to hold the town hostage as the stage arrives. Casey Day is the fellow in charge of the way station, and is taken hostage as the bad guys shoot up the place and take off with the money. Turns out that Casey Day is accused of being in cahoots with the robbers, because this is the second time in his career that a stage got robbed under his watch. What follows is a...Pursuit! This pursuit goes all over hell's creation and takes nearly a year to resolve. Casey travels far and wide looking for the outlaws, taking them down one-by-one and returning the stolen money. It's an obsession that he won't let go of, even while he's got a willin' gal waiting for him back in Buffalo Wallow. I liked Pursuit a little better than The Lone Gun, while the plots were pretty similar. However, Casey Day isn't a particularly likable hero and a bit hard to relate to. But there are some really good bad guys in it, and the minute-by-minute robbery detailed in the first half of the book is nicely done.

Finally, I ended the triple-feature with The Dead-Shot Kid by Philip Ketchum, published in 1959. This is the first time I've read anything by Philip Ketchum. Same goes for Howard Rigsby, above. This one is the best of the trio, with our hero Johnny Durango (now that's a hero's name!) surviving an ambush on a cattle drive and facing a valley run by an evil bastard named Dab Bassett. Bassett has sent out his gang to steal a herd of cattle that Johnny Durango is riding with. Durango survives a shootout with a pair of Dab Bassett's henchmen and proceeds to go up against the valley alone. This one had a nice sense of pacing throughout. I will say that maybe, just maybe, not enough space was devoted to Dab Bassett himself. But that's a minor gripe, as there are plenty of fists and guns to making up for Bassett's absence. There is even a romantic angle involved as Johnny Durango gradually forms an ally with Glynn Webster, the lonely wife of one of Bassett's gang.

So there it is for now. I got my fill of westerns for the time being, and some relief from the ills of the world in the process. Here's looking at better year ahead for everyone.