If you haven’t read the first dozen books in Donald Hamilton’s ‘Matt Helm’ series, drop everything and please do so. When you’ve completed this mission, you’ll have fallen in love with Hamilton’s writing and will undoubtedly begin exploring his stand-alone novels. This will eventually lead you to 1950’s “Murder Twice Told” and presumably this review. We’re glad you’ve made it this far.
“Murder Twice Told” is actually two novellas by Hamilton that originally appeared in magazines during the 1940s before they were compiled into one paperback. I’ll address each story individually.
“Deadfall” originally appeared in “Collier’s
Magazine” in 1949 and is about a chemist named Paul Weston who works for a Chicago-based petroleum corporation. One day, two FBI agents come to see Weston at work to ask him about a missing woman named Marilyn who vanished two years earlier. After denying any knowledge about the woman’s disappearance, Weston is fired from laboratory job.
It turns out that Weston knew Marilyn when he worked at a government lab and Marilyn was on the clerical staff at a nearby office. They struck up a relationship until Marilyn disappeared. Now, it’s suspected that she was spying for foreign powers and collecting boyfriends who’d spill government secrets to her. Weston claims he didn’t give Marilyn any secrets, but the benign relationship has formed a black cloud of suspicion over Weston’s head for the past two years while making steady employment a real challenge.
After swearing to the FBI that he hasn’t seen Marilyn in years, she suddenly resurfaces in his life, and things get very interesting. This is a serviceable spy/murder story, and it’s fun to read early Hamilton during his humble beginnings. The author’s knowledge of guns, women, and great dialogue are on full display, and fans of the author will feel right at home reading this mini-novel. This isn’t top-tier Hamilton - more comparable to his “Assassins Have Starry Eyes” novel - but mediocre Hamilton is still better than most of the stuff I read and review here. Therefore, I can endorse “Deadfall” without reservations.
“The Black Cross”
Although it’s the second of the two stories in the paperback, “The Black Cross” was released first in “The American Magazine” during 1947. It’s also also the longer of the two novellas in “Murder Twice Told.”
The story opens with a car accident on a windy road between Washington and Annapolis sparked by a disabled truck on the road. After awakening in a hospital room, Hugh Phillips recounts to the police that he was trapped in the overturned car and witnessed his wife stumble over to the truck driver blocking the road. Hugh claims the mysterious trucker abruptly struck her twice with what appears to be a “black cross” before driving his rig driving away. Now, his wife is dead and the police don’t seem to believe a word of Hugh’s story.
With this odd setup, the reader hooked. Nothing about Hugh’s story makes sense. Why would a broken-down trucker murder an innocent woman? And what’s with this black cross? Why are the police so hell-bent on making sure Hugh’s version of events goes no further than his own hospital room? And what’s the agenda of a witness who surfaces to corroborate key parts of Hugh’s unlikely story?
While dealing with the grief of his deceased bride, Hugh begins to go through her belongings at home and learns some unsettling - and undisclosed - things about her. These clues deepen the mystery of her death and make him wonder how much he really knew about his own wife. Could these secrets provide any insight into the bizarre circumstances of her spontaneous murder?
In “The Black Cross,” Hamilton does a remarkable job of doling out information to the reader a little at a time as a mosaic forms regarding the circumstances of an unusual homicide. It’s the superior of the two stories in this paperback, and I found myself surprised that it was never adapted for the screen as it was the type of story Alfred Hitchcock often used as the basis for his films. Moreover, “The Black Cross” has the kind of twisty ending that Hitchcock would have loved. I know I sure did.
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