Before defining his career with the excellent 'Matt Helm' series, Donald Hamilton wrote a bunch of satisfying crime and western novels for the robust paperback original market of the 1950s. His 1955 stand-alone thriller was “Line of Fire,” and it gives Matt Helm fans a glance into pre-Helm Hamilton as he was developing the narrative voice that later became the staple of his famous series.
“Line of Fire” is the story of a sniper named Paul Nyquist who we meet at a domestic assassination he’s handling. The novel opens with a job gone bad and very little information about Nyquist’s background or agenda. The intended target takes the round, but an attractive female witness interferes with the getaway. Our hero drags the girl along for the escape until he can decide what to do with her. She’s an innocent bystander at the wrong place at the wrong time, and Nyquist is an experienced shootist - but not a monster. From there the story goes in some quite unexpected places as we learn more about Nyquist, his intended target, and his motivation for taking the shot. Beyond that, anything else I tell you about the plot would be book reviewer malpractice. Suffice it to say that this is one of those clever novels where not all is as it seems. The twists, turns, and reveals along the way are a total delight. Leave it at that.
Hamilton had a love of guns and he often slipped interesting technical specifications into his novels, but somehow he’s always able to make them interesting to the layman. The firearms lessons never feel tiresome like the gun porn of Gold Eagle novels or contemporary men’s adventure fiction. Additionally, Hamilton throws a lot of good advice on proper marksmanship into the narrative. All of this is meant to illustrate that the protagonist is a consummate professional in his field. And the more we learn about Nyquist’s chosen profession, the more his odd decisions make perfect sense.
Fans of the Max Allan Collins Quarry series and Lawrence Block’s Keller books will enjoy this novel about another exceptionally-skilled gunman in a world filled with amateurs and thugs. “Line of Fire” has the same first-person, matter-of-fact narrative style as Quarry and Keller but without as much comedic whimsy. The style is more world-weary and slavishly logical - just like the Matt Helm books.
An economical 157 pages, “Line of Fire” is a quick read. It’s a worthy precursor to the Matt Helm series and a wild, violent ride filled with vivid characters and exciting situations. Highly recommended.