Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Nullifier (Joe Gall) - Philip Atlee

The next number was a blue tango. This tango does not depend on gyrations, clutchings, or simulated copulation, and yet there is more sexuality in it than any other dance. The movements are all grace and pointed pause, in slow time, and in them the man defers to the object of his chase. So I held her lightly, fingertips and hip, and we moved to the controlled tempo. 

And when that dance had ended, I did not step away. Instead, I thrust my hands under the rajah coat and cradled her firm breasts.  (-- The Silken Baroness Contract)

I thought it would be fun to look back at the couple of  Philip Atlee's Joe Gall novels that I've read. Joe Gall was an American response to James Bond much like another hardboiled spy of the time, Matt Helm, His first adventure occurred in the novel Pagoda by Philip Atlee, however the proper series of Joe Gall adventure starts with The Green Wound Contract, originally published under the title The Green Wound, way back in 1963.

You certainly do not have to read these in order, because continuity between contracts really goes out the window as Joe Gall's adventures progress. Looking back at his first "contract" known as The Green Wound Contract (which was the 4th one that I read) we have a plot that careens from one set piece to the next with all the logic of a dream in which there is a race riot, a blackjack wielding nun, a blues guitarist who kills for kicks, a bunch of "Arab-gowned goons" and a couple of screwy women to spice things up. The whole thing is delivered in a cynical hardboiled tone that I find kind of enjoyable. You learn fast that Joe Gall can be a real dick, and he's no fan of politically correct observations.

My first exposure to Joe Gall's world, (and reading these adventures you have to accept that it's Joe Gall's world and no one else's!) was in the novel The Ruby Star Contract. In this one, Joe Gall gets sent to Burma where he hires an escort, has lots of sex and curry, blows shit up, plays poker for his life against a drunken monk, is captured by a tribe of headhunters, somehow manages to play one dictator off against another, and (mostly!) comes out in one piece by the end. And I'm not sure what the damn thing was about.

Then there was The Rockabye Contract in which Joe Gall was assigned to act as bodyguard, under the guise as manager, for a 6'2" folkie singer named Hester Prim. This one had a loopy chase through Europe that included a factory of walking teddy-bears wired to explode. Then somehow it ended up on a Caribbean island run by a dictator who wanted to kill our hot singer Hester Prim. And yes,this is all during a rebellion.

I lay listening, staring at the sky. The airport was only a few miles from town. The ring of tanks around the Palace was still blowing up foolhardy rebels who tried to rush the gates and the lighter fire from the roof and the gatehouses continued. (-- The Rockabye Contract)

Joe Gall will go to any lengths in his adventures as long is it involves bedding plenty of babes. For example, in The Death Bird Contract from 1968, Gall takes an assignment to investigate the background of a potential diplomat (and millionaire) named Lewis Wardlaw in Mexico. We know it's not going to be easy when we learn that two previous agents assigned to monitor Wardlaw had come to bad ends. The crazy thing about this "Contract" is that in order to go undercover and appropriately blend into the scene in Mexico Joe Gall must first become a heroin addict. With that setup, we're off and cooking in a plot wherein Gall hooks up with a beautiful dancer, goes to jail, lives in a party-house, attends an opium-fueled orgy, takes a dip in a pool filled with piranhas, escapes from a clinic specializing in black-market organ stealing, gets chased by federales and all while suffering withdrawals from the needle. Proving once and for all that spying ain't a game for sissies!

It all sounds crazy, but I must say that in all seriousness, these novels are really well written. Philip Atlee has a compelling eye for detail, especially in all the exotic places he sends our hero. There is also an appealing charm to Joe Gall's attitude that grows on you, in spite of his being a bit of a jerk. I'm not going to say they're any better or worse than some of the better known spy series novels out there. They're full of confusing plots and odd diversions that make you wonder if the whole thing was done in a make-it-up-as-you-go-along manner. Women are props and not much else. Gall is a chauvinist just like any proper secret agent from the 1960's should be. So with that in mind I am going to say that they're a lot of fun to read.

I think it would be just fine if these were made available again for e-readers, noting that I prefer the smelly old paperbacks first and foremost. And wouldn't it have been something if we had a team-up of Joe Gall and Matt Helm out there on a caper? I can only imagine! There wouldn't be a safe broad in sight, unless they did something unforgivable like wearing slacks!

Happy hunting.


  1. The plots in the ones I've read didn't make a lick of sense, but I enjoyed them anyway for that distinctive hardboiled voice. PAGODA, on the other hand, is a really good book and I ought to read it again one of these days.

  2. The incoherent plots are hard to take, but the manly posing gets awkward fast. The last one I read had Joe tussling with a gorgeous ballet instructor, both of them all ramped up on this super exotic Oriental herb that gives you sexual superpowers.
    Okay, that's really silly. But it got worse when Joe reveals the name of this awesome herbal sex weapon....ginseng.
    Hoo boy. Maybe ginseng was a bit less common back in the early 1970's, huh?

  3. Thanks for the comments! I would like to read PAGODA at some point. I've heard it is really good. And yes, I remember reading somewhere about Joe Gall's use of ginseng in one of the novels. I have about a dozen of the books so it's probably in one of them. In another, he loses his finger, but by the next "contract" it apparently grew back! Man, the life of a spy.

  4. Philip Atlee's brother David Atlee Phillips was a big shot in the CIA. I believe he ran the Latin American operation in the 70's. Also, Philip Atlee's son is the American musician Shawn Philips who had some great albums in the early 70s. Seems like the family had talent.

  5. Here the electronic edition of the Atlee's books is announced: