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.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Silencers - Donald Hamilton

I raised both arms and swung the heavy buckle at the end of the strap. It sang through the air like one of the Japanese noisemakers you whirl on a string. It caught him just right, squarely across the face, and with that much power behind it, the foil made no difference at all. I couldn't have done better, or worse, with a machete.

Just like the cover depicts, some bad guy gets a Texas-sized belt buckle right in the chops. In this case the bad guy really, really had it coming to him.

Continuing the Matt Helm series, from 1962 is The Silencers. This is the 4th novel in the series and Helm has fully assumed his role as a government agent assassin. All vestiges of his civilian life are gone. Even the bad guys now know his reputation. This novel looks back at the first novel, Death of a Citizen, for inspiration by bringing back one of the agents from that novel who played a role in tailing Helm as he was pulled back into the spy business. That agent is named Sarah. Sarah was a rookie at the time of Death of a Citizen. Now Sarah has a couple years of experience behind her and is on assignment in Juarez, Mexico. Unfortunately, she's in over her head on something down in Juarez, and it's Matt Helm's assignment to extricate her from Mexico, by any means necessary. Helm has some uneasiness about this assignment. He remembers Sarah as a somewhat amateur agent, prone to emotions and reactions that could easily get her, and others with her, killed. He hopes that he doesn't have to resort to extreme measures in "rescuing" her from whatever hot water she's gotten herself into. Just exactly what that might be, he isn't told. His boss Mac informs him that he doesn't need to know the particulars of Sarah's assignment, just that he has to bring her back to the U.S.

In Juarez, Helm finds Sarah working "undercover" as a stripper in a seedy nightclub. He and a partner for the assignment watch as Sarah performs her dance of the seven veils for an odd assortment of patrons, including a well-dressed American socialite and her Texas cowboy boyfriend. Sarah barely gets into her routine when someone in the audience throws a knife, burying it "hilt-deep" into Sarah's back. All hell pops and Helm rushes to the stage to discover that the well-dressed socialite has gotten to Sarah ahead of him. Sarah whispers something to the woman and then dies. By then, bullets fly and the crowd disperses, leaving Helm with the socialite, who claims that Sarah was her sister. Helm pulls her out of the nightclub and takes her back with him to El Paso. On the way he learns that her name is Gail Hendricks and that Sarah was her somewhat wayward sister whom needed rescuing from a squalid life south of the border. Of course, Matt Helm smells a rat. Back at their hotel in El Paso, he's convinced that Gail is hiding more from him than whatever it was Sarah whispered as she was dying. Forcing her to strip, he finds a container of microfilm in Gail's bra. This leads to a whole scene of dominance and humiliation and dialog that becomes a standard theme in the Helm novels.

By this time, Mac shows up in person from Washington D.C. and the two men play a sort of "good-cop, bad-cop" routine on the terrified Gail Hendricks. Matt Helm learns from Mac that Sarah had "gone over" to the other side and that the microfilm involves government plans having something to do with military tests conducted in New Mexico. Also figuring into the whole sordid affair is a shadowy figure known only as "The Cowboy" who has been wreaking havoc on the espionage games. Matt's new assignment is to find "The Cowboy" and kill him. It's now believed that The Cowboy just so happens to be Sam Gunther, the gentleman last seen with Gail in the nightclub where Sarah was killed. Mac's theory is that Gail Hendricks will bring The Cowboy to Helm. In addition, Helm and Gail will follow Sarah's dying clue into New Mexico to some place called The Wigwam somewhere in Carrizozo.

What follows is a road trip through New Mexico and pages of head games between Matt Helm and Gail Hendricks. Helm turns the male chauvinism meter to 11 in this book, figuring the more he can make Gail hate him, the more willingly she'll betray him to The Cowboy. This means we get to hear more opinions about women in pants, how silly they behave in the spy business, how ridiculous they dress in the winter, you name it. If you've read any Helm novels, you know that Helm makes no bones about his chauvinistic attitudes. Unfortunately, the role of Gail does nothing to help her cause here. Her dialog is full of  silly phrases like "I declare" and "you brute" and "you beast" to the point that even Scarlett O'Hara would have pitched her off a cliff. Even poor, dead Sarah gets little respect, as we're to believe that she turned sides merely because of a stud in a cowboy getup.

If you can get past the dated attitudes though, you'll get another decent cold war caper from the sixties. I don't think The Silencers was as good as The Removers, but it's still a fun read if you like this type of novel.

The Silencers was the inspiration for the first Matt Helm movie starring Dean Martin, released in 1966. Everyone knows that those movies were silly spoofs of the Jame Bond films. They're tough to watch now, but I liked them when I saw them on TV as a kid.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Day of the Guns - Mickey Spillane

I dropped him off at his office an hour later and went back out to The Street. The Great White, how it had changed. Where there used to be men and broads, now queers and jerks; the Black Muslims giving out papers...the guys who wanted to be kings. Okay, so be kings, only first take the crown away. Small bands like with Young Assassin on the back of their jackets trying to buck men who had guns in their hands and took the beaches, pimps peddling sixteen-year-old whores and finding the clientele that wanted them, cops who had to dress like babes in order to suppress the traffic, idiots who let the knotheads make passes at their wives because they were afraid to buck the trend. Now the slobs were on the loose and not too many wanted to do anything about it. Ha.

Signet Books, May 1965

I took a break from the Matt Helm series to (re)read the first Tiger Mann novel, from 1964, by Mickey Spillane. Tiger Mann was a response to the popularity of the James Bond, spy-craze that hit theaters and paperback racks back in the day. I was never really intrigued by the Tiger Mann novels when I started reading Spillane in my teens. I liked the Mike Hammer novels. But I thought Tiger Mann was a ridiculous name for a spy, and wasn't having any of it. By the sixties though, Mike Hammer was practically a spy himself anyway, as his cases started taking on an international villains instead of just homegrown gangsters. Ultimately, anyone who has read the Tiger Mann novels will tell you that Mann is basically Mike Hammer anyway, so entering the spy scene wasn't exactly a big jump for Spillane.

As for Day of the Guns, well you can tell from the paragraph above that Tiger Mann isn't going to play nice and abide by any gentlemanly rules when it comes to taking on the commie bastards who would come and take over America with their insidious ways. Throughout the novel Tiger Mann tells anyone who listens that he's not interested in the rules while the other side gets to come over and laugh in our faces as they have their way with us. Diplomatic Immunity is a joke. No sir! He's going to feed them a belly full of lead first and worry about the consequences later!

So what happens in  this novel is one day Tiger Mann is having lunch with a reporter pal, Wally Gibbons, when a gorgeous babe named Edith Caine walks into the restaurant causing every head to turn her way. Gibbons says she's a translator with the U.N. and dares Tiger to make a play for her. But Tiger already knows Edith from the past.

"Her name isn't Edith's Rondine Lund. She isn't English, she's Austrian and during the war she was a goddamn Nazi spy. She shot me twice in '45 and left me for dead, and if there is anybody in this world I'd like to kill, it's her. No, buddy, we don't need no introduction."

And there you go. Tiger Mann wastes no time approaching Edith (Rondine Lund) Caine to let her know that he's blown her cover and that he's gonna kill her. But first he's going to find out what her game is and blow it all sky high. He leaves Rondine, pale and quaking with fear, and goes home to his apartment where he waits for a couple of hit men to show up, certain that Rondine will have put the X out on his ticket. And of course they do. But he's tricked them by stuffing his bed with pillows to make it look as though he's sleeping while the hit men blast holes into his sheets and leave. That's kind of how things happen with the gunsels in this caper. These are the worst assassins in the game who are sent to rub out Tiger Mann. This same kind of thing happens through the whole book. Tiger confronts Rondine, tells her he's going to kill her, goes out into the city and dodges flying bullets by inept assassins.

As far as agents go, Tiger Mann isn't exactly subtle. This is no George Smiley. There is no cerebral gamesmanship going on here. This is Bull-in-a-China-shop spying. But neither was James Bond exactly subtle. Tiger Mann works for an unnamed agency on the fringe, run by a guy name Martin Grady. Grady hands out the assignments and his agents do the necessary wet-work. Occasionally Mann will make a cutting remark about his competition, the "striped-pants" boys, who are either liberals or CIA agents. He's also got a boodle of connections and informers who pull strings for him, dropping information on what's happening around the U.N., putting eyes out on the street for him. All of whom tell him that he should "lay off" before things get too heavy. It's a standard theme that runs through Mickey Spillane's novels, whether it's Tiger Mann or Mike Hammer, where everyone around the hero is busy warning him off before things go all to hell. And like Hammer, Tiger Mann is a stud with the broads. He takes them to the Blue Ribbon where he feeds them steak and Pabst and beds them in their apartments later. And you only have to read a few of Spillane's novels to know who the real evil villain is well before Tiger Mann figures it out.

But as silly as it all is, Spillane's books are really fun to read (with the exception of The Delta Factor, which was a real stinker!) and go down like a cold brew on a hot day. There is a reason they were bestsellers. They're a good time. You know the moves, you know the speeches, and you take the ride to see the bad guys get what's coming to them.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Removers - Donald Hamilton

I took my hand out of my pocket and gave the little snap of the wrist that flicks that kind of a knife open if you keep it properly cleaned and oiled and know the technique. Opening it two-handed is safer and more reliable, but it doesn't impress people nearly so much. Tony's eyes widened slightly, and he stopped coming. This wasn't supposed to happen. When you pulled knives on suckers and squares, they turned pale and backed off fearfully; they didn't come up with blades of their own.

Fawcett Gold Medal books. 
Yup, it looks like Tony has really stepped in it this time. Matt Helm returns in 1961's The Removers, the third novel of the series by Donald Hamilton. This novel is best enjoyed if you've read Death of a Citizen first. Without having read that novel, the reader will miss out on much of the tension in the relationship between Helm and his ex-wife, Beth, who plays a major role in the plot.

It's been about a year since the events of that 1st novel, and Helm is summoned to Reno Nevada via a tersely worded note from Beth asking for help. She's now remarried to a man named Lawrence Logan. Helm isn't particularly eager to revisit old wounds with Beth, especially under the roof of a new husband. But he owes it to his children and clears it with Mac, his boss in Washington. Mac gives permission and tells Helm to check in with another agent named Paul upon his arrival in Reno. Clearly, there is something afoot in Nevada, but just what that may be is based on a need-to-know basis, and for the moment, Matt Helm doesn't need to know. Mac does go on to inform Helm that he has misgivings about Agent Paul's ability to carry out his assignment, and that perhaps Helm can be of assistance should Paul need any.

But, as readers discover in these novels, Mac is always a few steps ahead of Helm in sending him on seemingly routine assignments. Helm meets Logan, the new husband, and is politely but firmly warned off the premises. It's clear that Logan has a dark past of his own. But to hell with it, Helm figures, if Beth has decided to trade in Helm for another man of mystery, that's her problem. Adding to the reunion is a young woman named Moira Fredericks, who just happens to be the daughter of a powerful racketeer. So what's the connection between Logan and Fredericks? Well, that's something Helm is going to find out. Helm returns to his motel where he finds Paul, his fellow agent, dead from having been recently tortured. He learns from Mac that Paul's assignment was to learn what a mysterious enemy agent known as Martell is doing in Nevada working guessed it, Fredericks.

So now you've got the recipe: mobsters, assassins, an ex-wife and a horny young woman who just happens to be the daughter of a gangster. It's all very nasty, and full of the brutality that saturates Helm's world. In no time flat he beds Moira, knowing that will bring down Frederick's henchmen upon him, and eventually get him closer to the mysterious Martell. Helm is a particularly cold-blooded and ruthless bastard in this caper. He lets an agent die to avoid blowing his cover, allows himself to be tortured, and offers up others around him get tortured and mistreated and in one instance even raped in the process. 

Beth was sobbing helplessly, less with pain than with sheer terror. The sound annoyed me. I don't want to sound hard-boiled or anything, but I'd been taking a beating for several hours. Logan was on the cot with a badly injured leg. We all stood a good chance of dying if we didn't work together properly, and here she was making a big fuss about something of relatively little importance. 

The Removers is an excellent example of a tightly wound, suspenseful plot. It moves faster than the second novel, The Wrecking Crew. Helm is now fully realized as a cold-blooded assassin here, having permanently shed his past as a civilian. From here on out, it's all business in the spying game.