Showing posts with label Donald Hamilton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Donald Hamilton. Show all posts

Monday, November 28, 2022

Best of Manhunt: Volume 3

The good people at Stark House Press have blessed us with another compilation of hardboiled crime stories from the pages of Manhunt Magazine, the premier digest for crime noir fiction in the 1950s and 1960s.

The introduction by scholars Jeff Vorzimmer and David Rachels tackles the literary mystery of the identity behind the house name of Roy Carroll, a pseudonym employed by the Manhunt editors when an author had more than one story in a single issue. The thought was that magazine readers desired a great diversity of names in the Table of Contents and would somehow feel ripped off if the same author appeared twice.

Several of the Roy Carroll stories in Manhunt are now known to be written by Robert Turner - but not all. The editors performed some investigative legwork worthy of Paperback Warrior to firmly-establish that the Roy Carroll story appearing in the November 1956 issue under the title “Death Wears a Grey Sweater” was, in fact, written by fan-favorite Gil Brewer for which Brewer was paid a tidy sum of $260.

With that mystery about a mystery solved, it’s only fair that we begin our tour of this anthology with the story itself.

Death Wears a Sweater by Gil Brewer writing as Roy Carroll (November 1956)

The story opens with the horrific death of an 11 year-old girl in a broad daylight hit-and-run while her father watches helplessly nearby. After verifying that his little girl is, in fact, dead, her dad — his name is Irv Walsh — goes bananas, hops in his car, and begins pursuing the hit-and-run driver. The confrontation with the car occupants goes poorly for Walsh, and his quest for quick justice is thwarted while his desire for revenge burns hot.

As vendetta stories go, this one is pretty dark, gruesome and sadistic. Brewer’s strongest works were his short stories and this one is no exception. It’s a tough and tension-filled read that packs the appropriate emotional punch.

Services Rendered by Jonathan Craig (May 1953)

Henry Callan is a crooked, hard-drinking police lieutenant investigating the murder of a florist. A suspect named Tommy is in custody, but refuses to talk. The dirty cop visits Tommy’s wife and makes her an offer of regular sex with Henry in exchange for Tommy’s freedom and avoidance of the electric chair.

This is the kind of dark and twisted story that made Manhunt great. Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank Smith) is always a reliably great writer, and this story is consistent with his hardboiled output. Don’t skip this one.

Throwback by Donald Hamilton (August 1953)

Donald Hamilton was the author of the esteemed Matt Helm spy series, but this short story predates his groundbreaking Death of a Citizen by nearly seven years. “Throwback” is an unusual story for both Hamilton and Manhunt as it is a post-apocalyptic story set shortly after the atomic destruction of the USA.

George Hardin and his wife are among the shambling survivors wandering among the smoldering ruins of a freshly-destroyed America. Hamilton’s writing is characteristically beautiful and descriptive. Unfortunately, a coherent plot never comes together, making this story perfectly skippable.

The Red Herring by Richard Deming (December 1962)

Richard Deming appears twice in this Manhunt compilation, and “The Red Herring” won the coin toss for the prestigious Paperback Warrior review. The story stars a Private Detective named Matt Gannon, who is engaged by a corporate CEO.

The company manufactures a radiation detector similar to a Gieger counter but way more sensitive. The company bought the technology from the inventor for a song, and now the creator is apparently sending threatening notes. Gannon is hired to make the case. As expected, Deming does a fine job with a compelling, if rather standard, PI mystery.

The Verdict

The brain-trust behind these Stark House Manhunt anthologies has another winner on their hands. I hope these collections never stop, and they expand to the other hardboiled magazines that popped up in the wake of Manhunt’s success. These short crime stories are an important part of American literary history and need to be preserved for modern audiences and future generations. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Matt Helm #05 - Murderer's Row

Murderer's Row, the fifth installment in Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series of spy-fiction, was published in 1962 by Fawcett Gold Medal. The novel was loosely adapted into a film of the same name in 1966. I've mostly enjoyed the series and Hamilton's writing, so I'm continuing in proper order with this installment.

Like the last entry, The Silencers, the next dangerous mission involves a female agent working for the same three-lettered, clandestine organization as Helm. Mac, Helm's boss, explains that the coast of Virginia – Chesapeake Bay – is experiencing an elevated amount of foreign vessels. The theory is that the area is hosting a trafficking operation with foreign powers extracting key personnel from the U.S., including a top-rated scientist with important knowledge regarding American security. The agency wants to locate the scientist and either retrieve or kill him.

A female agent has been inserted into the operation to gain intelligence, however, her perceived credibility has been compromised. Mac, and the agency, need her to regain credibility through nefarious means. Helm is to travel to her hotel room and dish out a scolding punishment from the agency, a savage, violent beating to whip her into shape. The room is bugged by the bad guys, so they will hear and see the beating and realize that this agent does in fact work for the U.S. and is being reprimanded for her poor performance. Mac's last agent, a young rookie sensation, failed miserably on the assignment. Helm is pulled from a Texas vacation to do the job right. Mostly, it all goes accordingly until the female agent unexpectedly dies during the beating.

Helm “killing” a fellow agent creates a tidal wave of issues for him and the agency. Mac attempts a retrieval, and at one point Helm is set-up in an attempt to bring him back to Washington. Helm wants to complete the mission, his superiors feel he is unable to. Against orders, and without support, Helm eventually finds the scientist's daughter, and gets tangled in a wild set of circumstances where he pretends to be a mob hitman named Petroni. There's a dense, complicated family affair between the woman, the scientist, and a bitter married couple. Individually, they each want to pay Helm/Petroni to kill another family member. Surprisingly, Helm accepts the jobs.

Hamilton really threw a curveball into this series installment by creating a unique, nearly comedic approach to the typical spy formula. The female agent dying during the beating was shocking, but where Helm goes after that opening event was just so bizarre and entertaining. Helm's insertion into a high-level, deadly family dispute was amazing, especially considering he agrees to kill two family members for money. It's all for show, of course, but the means to an end is an exciting chain of events that eventually leads from hotels to back-roads, then jail to a boat, then a massive hurricane that bounces the characters around during the book's rousing finale. It was superb pacing and plot development. 

Murderer's Row is probably a high-point in the Matt Helm series. It has a really clever storyline, a plausible sequence of extraordinary events, and a deep character study of the family dynamic and the strenuous ties that bind. This one is just fantastic and highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Matt Helm #04 - The Silencers

Matt Helm is starting to stir the place up. After dismissing the first two installments of this Donald Hamilton spy series, I knew I owed it to myself to just keep reading these titles. Thankfully, the author's western traditionalism elevated the third book, The Removers, and I found myself liking it. While I've always been critical of Helm's actual heroism, I still love Hamilton's hard-boiled storytelling. The dialogue is snappy, the complex wrinkles of international espionage are smoothed over, and these stories seem to improve more and more. Needless to say I was happy to pursue the series fourth installment, The Silencers. It was published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1962 and now exists as a reprint in physical, digital and audio.

On the last page of The Removers, Mac instructed Helm that his next assignment would involve a rural mountainside retreat. In the opening pages of The Silencers, Helm has completed this mission (details were never revealed) and is now on his newest job in New Mexico. Mac instructs Helm to cross the border into Mexico to extract a female agent code-named Sarah (she was a minor character in the series debut, Death of a Citizen). There, he teams up with another agent named Pat LeBaron to find Sarah working as a stripper in a rowdy bar in Juarez. After making eye contact with Sarah, the room explodes in violence as she is fatally stabbed (mission failure) and LeBaron is shot to death (secondary mission failure). But, Helm manages to get Sarah's sister Gail to safety. 

In talking with Mac, Helm learns that Sarah had sold-out the U.S. to become an asset for a foreign enemy. Upon her death, she had a microfilm of stolen secrets ready to provide to the enemy. Luckily, Gail has the microfilm and Helm seduces her out of her clothes to find it. In a motel room, Helm is attacked by two bad guys, but learns they are working for another U.S. agency that doesn't necessarily want to coordinate their efforts with Mac's department (CIA vs FBI feud). 

Mac advises Helm that the main bad guy is a spy named Sam Gunther, a man Gail describes as a smooth talking cowboy. The two pursue Gunther into Carlsbad, California and learn that he has aligned with top scientists to launch a missile into a group of politicians and scientists running highly-publicized seismic tests in the area. Got it? It took me a while. But, all of this is told in a rapid-fire pace that places Helm in fights with various foreign agents and an awesome finale in an old ghost town church.

There's nothing to dislike about The Silencers and, once again, the series shows improvement. In a minor way, this Helm assignment was like a Nick Carter: Killmaster installment with the layers of over-the-top action and stereotypical criminals. There's a little more comedy inserted in between fights, leading some fans to believe Hamilton was displaying a fondness for Richard Prather. I could sense some similarities, but Helm is a far cooler character than silly 'ole Shell Scott

The Silencers is another great installment to this highly respected series. Helm and I started off on the wrong foot, but after that mess with his wife (The Revengers), I'm starting to like this guy. Hamilton writes with conviction and energy, and doesn't necessarily drown the reader in details. He does just enough to make Helm a hero, but doesn't overdo it. The end result makes it a fantastic reading experience and a worthy Bond opponent (if the literary world needed one).

Monday, January 3, 2022

Matt Helm #03 - The Removers

Ian Fleming's mega-star James Bond influenced a number of spy fiction titles, including Assignment and Nick Carter: Killmaster. One of the most popular is the Matt Helm series authored by Donald Hamilton. It ran from 1960-1993 with 27 total books. I was lukewarm on the series first two installments, but the character still intrigued me enough to warrant further pursuit. I grabbed a copy of The Removers, the third installment of the Matt Helm series. It was originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1961 and remains readily available today in audio, digital and physical reprints.

In Death of a Citizen, the series debut, Helm is married to a woman named Beth and has three children. He's a former OSS agent (the early CIA) that established a writing career and a sense of normalcy after retirement. But, events drag him back into the spy business and he rejoins his former department. I didn't particularly like the book, despite its enormous popularity, and felt that it was incomplete. The idea that Helm simply left his wife and kids (and has an affair nonetheless) didn't sit well with me. Thankfully, The Removers circles back to his family and completes the origin tale in its entirety.

The Removers begins by explaining that Beth Helm is now remarried and lives on a cattle ranch in Reno, Nevada with her kids. She's now Mrs. Lawrence and her husband is a British chap that has a shadowy past. Helm receives a letter from Beth asking him for a favor. Thus, the opening chapter has Helm in Reno preparing for an uncomfortable meeting with his ex-wife. However, Helm also receives word from his boss Mac that a young agent is working an assignment in Reno and may need a light assist. 

Helm learns from Beth that her husband was involved in a prior business similar to Helm's. Because of some sort of past event, shady people are threatening the family. Helm takes it all with a grain of salt until he meets Beth's husband Logan. Helm's theory is that Logan isn't really British, but is legitimately some sort of skilled professional capable of defending Helm's kids and ex-wife. In fact, Logan politely, but sternly, advises Helm to leave the ranch and never look back. 

The star of the show is Moira, a young and sexy woman that physically distracts Helm. The two get it on, and in doing so Helm learns that Moira is the daughter of Big Sal Fredericks, a Reno mobster. Fredericks is employing a foreign spy/enforcer named Martell, a man that Mac warns Helm about. After learning that Logan Lawrence is a former gun for Fredericks, Helm begins to connect the dots. Logan left the business, but Fredericks needs him for one more run to Mexico to recapture stolen heroin. Logan refuses, thus the not-so-gentle rub.

All of this ties in beautifully and creates a really engaging story. Helm engages in some awesome dialogue, never comically witty, but maintaining a hard-edged coolness. The action scenes are fairly swift and keep the narrative flowing into a much longer finale that is soaked with violence. Oddly, it was told with a sense of western traditionalism. The hero rides to the rural cabin in the woods to fight the unruly bad guys that have raped and captured his woman. But, that hero isn't really Helm. 

In a clever way, Hamilton mirrors Helm's origin story by telling a similar tale with Logan Lawrence. In this case, Lawrence is the one married to Beth and is called back into action after violent events begin to intrude into his retirement. Arguably, Logan is the real hero.

My main beef with Matt Helm is that he personifies the hardened tough guy. He talks tough, his first-person perspective is menacing, and he genuinely has old war stories or missions that he shares to validate his callous command. But, he never actually does much fighting. In the first two books, Helm doesn't really get the job done and people unexpectedly die. In this book, Helm watches Moira get abused by two women until her own dog makes the save and kills the would-be-rapists. Helm is knocked in the head outside of his motel room and then captured by Martell and Fredericks. 

In the finale, Logan is shot in the leg and placed on the sofa. Helm is tied up and has to listen to his ex-wife being raped in the next room. He has the audacity to question why one-legged, bleeding Logan isn't doing anything about it. The book's rowdy conclusion has Logan saving Helm's life. But, for whatever reason it all just works and Hamilton's prose is so damn cool. I loved the timeline and pacing, the brilliant conclusion of Moira (the obligatory spoiled sex kitten), Beth's neediness, the escalated violence, and Logan's expertise in disposing of the bad guys. Helm should have been the hero (and maybe he is somehow?), but I can settle for him as a co-partner.

I've already started the fourth volume, The Silencers. In the opening chapters, Helm is sent on a mission to Mexico to save a female agent. Wouldn't you know it...she's stabbed to death in front of him. But, it's written so well that I don't even care how inept the hero is. I'm sure an alternate hero will rise to the occasion.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Night Walker

Donald Hamilton hit the jackpot in 1960 with his Matt Helm series of spy-adventure novels. Before that, he churned out a respectable library of stand-alone westerns, mysteries, and thrillers, including Night Walker from 1954. The novel was reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2006 and remains in print today.

The paperback opens with U.S. Navy Reserve Lieutenant Dave Young hitchhiking his way to Norfolk, Virginia to report for duty. A stranger named Larry Wilson gives Dave a ride and during the trip, Larry knocks Dave unconscious with a tire iron. Dave awakens in a hospital bed with his head wrapped in bandages. The nurses are under the impression that Dave is actually Larry and claim that he was in a car accident alone. It quickly becomes clear that Larry staged the accident with the intent of switching clothing and identities with Dave. Moreover, the car containing unconscious Dave was on fire and almost exploded. Bottom line: Dave was never supposed to wake up in the hospital or at all.

While still sedated, Dave is discharged from the hospital with his face wrapped in bandages and sent home with Larry’s estranged wife, Elizabeth. She seems to have an understanding about what’s just happened and admits to Dave that this is her first kidnapping. I won’t spoil the hidden agenda here that has swept poor Dave into all this intrigue, but it’s compelling as hell. This is one of those novels - like Hamilton’s Line of Fire - that is filled with revelations as the story unfolds. Dave finds himself enmeshed in the the type of impossible quandary that Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.

Dave’s core dilemma is this: Larry Wilson is a pillar in the community. Who would believe that Larry would have staged an unprovoked attack on Dave, a stranger he picked up on the road? What would the police think if told this story by a man wearing Larry’s clothing and wristwatch? Dave figures correctly that - despite having done nothing wrong - the unlikely situation makes him look guilty of something, including desertion from the Navy. Meanwhile, where’s the real Larry?

Beyond that, there’s not much else I want to tell you about Night Walker - other than you should get a copy and read it ASAP. It’s a fun thrill ride of changing loyalties with tons of plot twists along the way. It’s the thinking man’s suspense novel you deserve. Fans of his work will recognize Dave’s cool-under-pressure commitment to logic and reason as Hamilton’s early attempt at finding the voice he later used for the Matt Helm books.

Hard Case Crime was smart to reprint Night Walker. Some other enterprising reprint house should take the initiative and get Hamilton’s other stand-alone books back in print. The guy was a national treasure and deserves to be remembered. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, July 17, 2020

Matt Helm #02 - The Wrecking Crew

Eric's Review

Perhaps if U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been spotted reading Matt Helm instead of James Bond, the mainstream public would have elevated Donald Hamilton to a household name. Instead, Bond's creator Ian Fleming enjoyed the fame and fortune, and Hamilton settled for mid-tier literary status – royalties earned from a 27-book series that inspired five feature films and a failed television series. Not bad in a lifetime of work. The Matt Helm series kicked off in 1960 with Death of a Citizen. I found it lukewarm at best, but was anxious for the espionage eruption promised in the series' second installment, The Wrecking Crew, published by Fawcett Gold Medal the same year.

After the events of the series debut, Matt Helm has now returned to full-time work in the U.S. Intelligence community. His 15-year span as western author, photographer and family man was washed away in a bloody bathtub. Now, his wife and family have moved to Reno, Nevada, and Helm finds himself once again as a kill-on-command agent for the government. This is where we find Helm in the opening pages of The Wrecking Crew, hunting a Soviet leader/hit-man who's terminated a lot of U.S. agents and allies in and around Sweden (the author's birthplace).

The story has Helm teaming with two women, an American operative and a widow named Lou. The cover story is that Helm will be a very American tourist – cowboy hat, southern drawl, long-lens camera – touring the northern portion of Sweden with Lou. Her husband was killed by communist forces in East Germany and she is working with Helm to find the villain. There's some reflective interludes with Helm discussing his training at the farm, re-entry interviews with longtime boss Mac, and his thoughts on dropping the family act (although that will be a main theme in the series' next book).

I was enthralled with Hamilton's opening act, 50-pages explaining the mission, warring factions, key personnel and the candidates for Helm's sexcapades. Unfortunately, the momentum is swept away over the course of the next 70-pages. Helm interacts with the two women – scores with one – and traipses over Sweden taking pictures that he purposefully overexposes. He meets with a gorgeous female cousin who plays a part in the book's finale. There's a car wreck, a brief knife fight, and a woman is murdered. There's also a lot of dialogue that finds Helm no closer to his assassination target on page 51 than he is on page 151. The finale finds Helm being hand-delivered to the villain in a fight that's written the same length as a gas station coffee menu – short with few options.

Overall, I love Hamilton's writing style. It is an easy narrative to devour and the opening act is strong enough to warrant further reading. After finding Death of a Citizen average, I can't help but think The Wrecking Crew was more of the same. The series has a devout following and heaps of praise. At the end of the day, maybe my problems with Helm reflect my selfish desire for a speedy and explosive narrative. Hamilton knows his audience and his hero far better than I do. Who am I to judge? Read it and decide for yourself. 

Tom’s Rebuttal:

Eric, I’m seeking a court injunction to keep you at least 300 yards from further installments in the Matt Helm series. You’re certainly permitted to like what you like, but The Wrecking Crew is one of the best Matt Helm installments. If you didn’t enjoy it, there’s not much forthcoming that’s going to change your mind about the series.

Readers, for the love of all things holy, please read and enjoy this paperback. I promise that you’ll destroy your bedtime flipping the pages to learn what happens next in this literary masterpiece. I also promise that Eric is a fundamentally good man who has just lost his way. With love and support from the community, I know we can bring him around on this pivotal series.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Matt Helm #01 - Death of a Citizen

We don’t do by-lines here at Paperback Warrior. Your writers, Eric and Tom, generally speak with one voice in our articles and reviews. We edit each other’s work and rarely read the same books, so there’s little opportunity to disagree on a particular review. 

Until now.

Eric read Death of a Citizen, the first book in the popular Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton and had an opinion that shocked and appalled Tom. Rather than disbanding the Paperback Warrior Empire or fist -fighting after school near the bike rack, we decided to emerge behind our curtain of anonymity and air our grievances publicly. 

May the best man win.

Non-Spoiler Plot Synopsis:

Donald Hamilton (1916-2006) was a popular mid-20th Century author whose greatest success was in the genre of spy fiction. In the 1940s and 1950s, the author wrote a number of stand-alone crime-fiction novels and westerns. His most prolific work is the successful Matt Helm series of spy-fiction novels that ran 27 published novels from 1960-1993. The series was loosely adapted into four comical films starring Dean Martin in the title role that no one should ever watch because they are awful and bear no resemblance to the book series.  Having enjoyed Hamilton's stand-alone novels, it was time to finally check out Matt Helm's first adventure in Death of a Citizen, the series debut. 

The novel introduces Matt Helm as a suburban husband and father living a quiet life in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1958. Helm has gained a bit of notoriety as a popular author of western novels (paralleling Hamilton's own career). It's at a neighborhood dinner party when Helm sees a fellow guest named Tina, creating the perfect moment for the author to add some backstory into this rather complex character.

Readers learn that Helm was in the U.S. Army during WW2 and was recruited into the government's counter-agent program. Think of an assassin killing enemy assassins, spies killing spies. Helm and Tina were both knee deep in dead enemies for a five-year period in war-torn Europe. As co-workers and lovers, the two went their separate ways after the war - Helm disappeared into everyday citizenship and Tina just disappeared. Until now. 

After a brief exchange with a young, aspiring novelist named Barbara, Helm departs the party only to find Barbara dead in his writing studio the next morning. Seemingly set up as the murderer, Helm is re-introduced to Tina who explains that Helm's atomic-scientist neighbor is the target of some sort of criminal conspiracy or communist nation. Tina and her new partner are in town to stop the would-be assassin – Barbara, the dead girl. Caught up in the crime and the old trade of killing, Helm is thrust back into his former life as ally and partner to Tina.

Eric’s Take:

Despite the novel's immense success and critical acclaim, I found Death of a Citizen to be an average spy-thriller. At 140-pages, nothing substantial happens during the novel's first-half. The narrative is presented as more of a road trip as Helm and Tina drive to Texas and rekindle that loving feeling (note - Helm is happily married to Beth and the father of three small children). With all the mileage, the story never really gains momentum once readers and the hero arrive at their destination. Aside from a few deaths, Helm isn't involved in much gunplay. I was a bit befuddled by the big reveal – the enemy is within – and Helm's dismissal of the most relevant portion of his life in the book's closing pages. 

I would assume the series gains quality with quantity and maybe the Helm character becomes a little more menacing in an international setting. The end result is an average beginning to what is widely considered an enjoyable series of spy-adventures. I'm anxious to read the series' next installment, The Wrecking Crew, to analyze series' improvements. 

Tom’s Take:

I think Eric misses the point in his review of Death of a Citizen, one of my favorite all-time novels that debuts my favorite series ever. 

I will grant that it’s not a balls-out action spectacular like Don Pendleton’s War Against the Mafia. There’s plenty of that to enjoy later in the series. Instead, Hamilton is giving us the story of a man who is an amoral killer by his very nature who can no longer wear the costume of a suburban family man. The circumstances of the novel force Helm’s hand into deciding who he wants to be – a meek husband and father or a trained killer. You can guess which way he swings. Matt Helm is the citizen in Death of a Citizen.

Death of Citizen is a brilliant novel because it explores the nature of a violent man who is done conforming with polite society’s expectations. Helm is a great narrator who presents his acts of violence and his slide back into his old life in an offhand and cavalier fashion. For instance, the most shocking scene in the book happens off-page and is revealed to the reader as an offhand remark in a single sentence. Donald Hamilton was a genius who knew when to throw his punches but also knew when the reader’s imagination could do the job better than his tightly-wound prose.

I hope Eric continues with the series – at least the first dozen books or so. The other paperbacks are more traditional spy-assassin books with more traditional plotting. Book two is called The Wrecking Crew, and I thought it was a masterpiece. The third book in the Matt Helm series, The Removers, ties up the loose ends from Death of a Citizen regarding Matt’s family. The Removers was not amazing, but I suspect that Hamilton needed to resolve the unresolved family issues from the debut.

Bottom line for Eric: Don’t give up on Matt Helm.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 18

You’re in for a real treat this episode as Tom discusses his favorite series of all time, the Matt Helm books by Donald Hamilton. Eric reviews “Death Squad #1” by Dan Streib while Tom covers the inspiration for the movie “Bullitt” starring Steve McQueen, a paperback titled “Mute Witness” by Robert Pike. Stream below or on your favorite podcast service. Download directly at (LINK). Listen to "Episode 18: Matt Helm" on Spreaker.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Murder Twice Told

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. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Line of Fire

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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Texas Fever

World War II veteran and author Donald Hamilton is best known for his 'Matt Helm’ spy series. That long running line ran from 1960 through the 1990s. Hamilton also contributed stand-alone crime novels in the 40s and 50s as well as six westerns penned in the mid 50s and early 60s. This novel, “Texas Fever”, was released by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1960, and reprinted again by the publisher in 1989 with a slightly modern cover (resembling something more akin to 80s Pinnacle or Zebra). At it's heart, “Texas Fever” is a coming-of-age tale, but it's wrapped in a dusty, rugged range war that emphasizes the “classic western” brand. 

Young Chuck McAuliffe is on a cattle-drive from Texas through Kansas. His father, Jesse is a Confederate veteran, as is his brother David. The family have been pushed hard, with their ranch nearing foreclosure. This drive hopes to net them $20 a head on a herd nearing 1,200. My guess on the time period is right around the late 1860s, a time when Texas and their steer were still considered scruff and repellent. Complicating matters is a cow disease that warrants the law and buyers to envelope the mid-west in a quarantine. After being forced west at numerous junctions, Jesse, back to the wall, stampedes the quarantine and is killed. 

The heart of the story is a cow theft operation that forces weary, tired and broke cattlemen to sell their stock at pennies on a dollar. Chuck sees through the scam, and takes his battle to the crooked preacher, deputy and outlaw. As Chuck is forced to mature and harden fast, he meets up with a con-woman who takes his virginity before trying to go clean in an alliance with him. Soon things get out of hand, and the barrels heat up.

Hamilton tells the tale well, pausing for backstory, to propel the narrative. The opening third is fisticuff action, all in the classic western mold – cattle thieves, cap and ball fire and well-defined “good guys”. The middle is bogged down with the convoluted alliances, a confused sheriff and the overall love-dove dialogue. The closing third returns to the prairie, with enough hard-charging mounts and gunfire to fully redeem itself. A quality, enjoyable read from a rare Hamilton western.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Matt Helm #17 - The Retaliators

Donald Hamilton started his fiction writing career in the later 1940s coinciding with the introduction of paperback original novels into the American literary marketplace. After a series of decent stand-alone mystery, western, and adventure novels, he finally found critical and commercial success with his 'Matt Helm' espionage series that spanned for 27 novels released between 1960 and 1993. The character of Matt Helm was poorly-adapted for the screen in a handful of awful James Bond parody films starring Dean Martin. Those films failed to capture anything that was great about the books. The series never got the film adaptation it deserved.

“Matt Helm #17: The Retaliators” (1976) was a mid-series great installment in the adventures of the cynical-realist assassin. This novel followed a string of tepid, over-long, and convoluted Helm installments apparently designed to showcase Donald Hamilton’s nautical knowledge. Thankfully, the series found its legs again in this land-based propulsive action story.

In the novel, Matt Helm and two U.S. government assassin colleagues are on-the-run and suspected of treason after internal investigators discover mysterious large cash deposits into their bank accounts. The action quickly turns to Mexico where the seeds of the plot against Helm and his co-workers were planted. Many double-crosses and compelling characters surface. Blood flows. Matt gets laid. All good stuff.

Although it wasn’t the best book in the series, “The Retaliators” was nominated for an Edgar award for Best Paperback Original - probably as a means for recognizing Donald Hamilton’s lifetime of quality genre fiction. In any case, it was great to see this beloved series regain the high-quality action that Hamilton was capable of delivering. Highly recommended.