Saturday, February 24, 2018

Murderers' Row - Donald Hamilton

It wasn't the worst moment in my life. After all, I've been responsible for the deaths of people I knew and liked: it happens in the business. Although we'd worked for the same outfit, this woman had been a stranger to me. Still, she trusted me to know what I was doing, and it's no fun to find yourself holding a corpse and wondering what the hell went wrong.

Gold Medal Books, October 1962


The 5th novel in the Matt Helm series picks up not long after the previous novel left off. Matt Helm is in the Chesapeake Bay area after returning from an unrecorded assignment in Cuba. He's looking forward to a month's vacation where he can visit his new girlfriend, Gail Hendricks. You may, or may not remember, that Gail Hendricks featured in the previous novel, The Silencers. It seems that Matt Helm has inexplicably fallen in love with Gail and is looking forward to a month of relaxation somewhere on a beach with her. Mac, his boss in Washington, makes no secret of his disapproval of their relationship. I don't approve either, if it matters, since I found Gail to be super-annoying.

Anyway, Matt Helm is called to Washington to take over an assignment that has already been refused by one agent. His job is to meet another agent named Jean at a nearby motel for a "come to Jesus" confrontation. Jean is an agent who is coming apart. She drinks too much, and is having doubts about the country she serves. She's even gone as far as hinting that the other side may not be wrong in its philosophy. Matt's job is to confront her and push her over the edge by roughing her up. It has to be believable enough to make the other side take notice.

"Jean has been one of our best female operatives," he'd said, pushing the key across the desk to me. "Very good appearance, attractive without being conspicuous, the pleasant young suburban-matron type. It's most unfortunate. We do encounter such breakdowns now and then, you know, and alcoholism is almost always one of the symptoms. Have you noticed how these slightly plump, pretty, smooth-faced women seem to crack up more readily than any other kind?"

That's right, spying in Helm's world is still a man's game, even though females (reluctantly, it seems) populate it. But you've been with me 5 Matt Helm novels in now, and I'm not popping any surprises here. Anyway, Matt reluctantly accepts the distasteful job. He must confront Jean in her motel room that is undoubtedly bugged, beat her, and leave her alive just enough for the other side to come and collect the pieces. Jean's job is to allow herself to be taken and, in the process discover the channel of human smuggling the other side is using. In addition, a genius scientist named Michaelis, who has recently designed a top secret submarine detection apparatus known as AUDAP, has recently disappeared in the area. It's Mac's hope that Jean will be on the same human transport as Dr. Michaelis. It's of vital importance that the information in Michaelis's brain does not fall into enemy hands. Jean's job is to either rescue Michaelis and blow the human smuggling chain, or kill him and extricate herself. Matt Helm's cover for the job is the identity of a low-level Chicago mobster named Jimmy (the Lash) Petroni.

Unfortunately, things do not go as planned. Helm is barely into roughing Jean up when she dies on him. What happened? Did he go overboard on the rough stuff? Did his "hand slip" during the beating? He quickly erases his presence in the motel room and attempts to leave when he's spotted by a party of four at the motel pool. A young woman in a bikini asks him to light her cigarette, which he does, before he hauls ass out of there. Unfortunately he doesn't get far before the police pull him over. After a night in jail, where he sticks to his cover as Lash Petroni, he's released when the pool side witnesses claim they can't be sure he was the one seen leaving the room of the murdered woman. The same poolside witnesses who just happen to be related in a myriad of ways to the missing Dr. Michaelis, including his daughter Teddy Michaelis, and mistress Robin Rosten.

Soon after being released from jail, Matt is pulled into their circle where each, in turn attempts to hire him, as Lash Petroni, to kill icy Mrs. Rosten. In the process, Helm nearly kills another fellow agent with a knife after he catches that agent tailing him. His assignment has gone to shit. His boss, Mac, tells him to come in from the field, that perhaps his psyche is no longer up to performance levels, that just maybe he's gone "blood simple" to steal a term from a well known movie. Perhaps he's cracking up under the strain of assassinating others in his line of work. Of course, Helm refuses, and insists that he'll see Jean's assignment through, and that if he finds any of Mac's other agents interfering, he'll kill them. It's all very nasty and treacherous, as Helm can trust no one, not even his own team, on this assignment.

As the novel progresses Helm is pulled deeper into the Rosten family intrigue. He keeps his mobster cover going, knowing full well that the enemy knows he's an agent. The problem is that he has no idea which among the party of bizarre characters he's tangled up with is the enemy. And time is running out, if he's to find the missing Dr. Michaelis and save AUDAP from falling into the other side's hands.

Murderers' Row is a return to the claustrophobic world of spies and treachery that made the first novel, Death of a Citizen, so compelling. Helm beats a woman to death, or so he believes, knifes a fellow agent in the gut, accepts money for hit jobs, kills an agent with a lead bar, gets slipped a mickey, gets captured and held on a sailing yacht, debates what to do with a suicide pill, and kills another guy in a typhoon. The book is loaded with action and, in a sign of what's to come in future novels, a lot of nautical jargon. I grew up in Florida but I'm very much a lubber, so much of the nautical stuff was a bit confusing to me. Donald Hamilton has Matt Helm learn the lingo as well, so much of it gets explained for the reader's benefit. Also, we're introduced to a villain that will very likely reappear in future novels, but telling you who would spoil the fun.

Murderers' Row was the 2nd movie in the Dean Martin series, released in 1966. The movie is completely different than the book, except there is an assassination on a lonely beach in both. I have clear memories of seeing Murderers' Row on TV, which means it's probably a decent one. There was a guy with a metal skullcap in it, that I do remember. No such skullcapped villains in the book however, just shadowy figures willing to kill each other barehanded after drinking martinis.


No comments:

Post a Comment