Sharing pleasures can be fun.
In How to Read (1928) Ezra Pound offered a list of essential classics to read if you wanted to get a fix on the art and craft of writing; wanted do a bit of self-educating; wanted to write better, wanted to enjoy yourself, free of the felt tyranny of the academy. (“Oh, but you simply have to read Spenser Milton Dryden Wordsworth Scott Thackeray Browning etcetera.”) It was considered idiosyncratic, but it was a pretty damn good list, and, like his elaboration of it in ABC of Reading (1934), liberative.
Terry Teachout has been making some swell lists of twentieth-century composers and performers.
So I may as well have a go myself with thrillers, having recently looked at so many long lists in reference books and surveys, and encountered so many judgments, explicit or implied, which I disagreed with, that my head has been feeling as if it had been packed with cotton.
Who is my own list for?
Well, for myself, certainly, to remind me of things that I have felt.
And for at least a few of the sympathetic readers, if there are some, of my other pieces—readers who may not be thriller readers themselves, but who feel that they might want to do a bit of exploring.
And for thriller readers whose tastes may partly overlap mine and who are interested in lists, if only to disagree with them.
And, well, maybe the kinds of readers who don’t like what I say about thrillers, and whom it might be fun to annoy.
Most of these jottings are ones that I made back in 1990 about works that had stayed in my head, one way or another, and given me pleasure, and that might or did still do so.
I must emphasize “for pleasure.” As I explain in “Reading Thrillers,” I read thrillers for pleasure. I didn’t study them, nor was I concerned to fill in “gaps” or give this or that author “a fair chance.” I knew what I liked when I liked it, and what I didn’t like. What worked for me, you might say. Or didn’t work as well as I had hoped.
What we have here is a configuration, a pattern, of taste. It’s mine, simply mine. But I like it better than some of the ones I have seen in conventionally published books.
A number of the works that I mention haven’t had their due—in a few instances, scandalously so.
Contrariwise, I’ve been glad to come upon a few admired recent ones that seem to me indeed very good. As Samuel Johnson said on one occasion, “I rejoice to concur with the common reader,” something he didn’t normally do a lot of.
I have also commented on several writers who had slipped through my net earlier.
Terms like “enjoyment” and “pleasure” are notoriously slippery, of course. And inescapably personal.
They can extend to works that fascinate, even horrify, like one or two on my list, but which, like the more benign ones, have a charge of felt life to them, a stylistic energy and/or craftsmanship.
Works, that is to say, in which you are drawn forward by the feeling, the pleasurable feeling, that something fresh is happening, that it’s going on happening, that the promise of the opening has been sustained.
The primal thrill of reading, reading of any kind. Well, any “literary” kind.
As distinct from the secondary, but also real, pleasures of historical scholarship, of time-travelling back into the styles and mores of earlier periods and genres.
There are lots of other thrillers that I’ve had that primal experience with, of course.
But lots of thrillers, like a lot of movies, fade, so that, on revisiting them years later, you know what you’re supposed to be feeling but don’t feel it; which can be a depressing experience, unless you’re primarily interested in re-enacting your youth.
If some well-known authors are missing, it is because they seem to me to be writing books about criminals, rather than thrillers, or books about detection in which there isn’t a sufficient urgency and risk, or because I simply haven’t liked them enough.
But some novels of straight detection, such as Hillary Waugh’s ground-breaking police-procedural Last Seen Wearing (1952), are indeed gripping.
In the section called Back-Ups (see the bar at the top of the page) I’ve included a list of all the thriller writers (using the term broadly) whom I’ve read at least one book by.
Back in 1969, that marvellous jazz reviewer Phillip Larkin remarked, “If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.” I can’t be that draconian, even tongue-in-cheek, but I tend to feel that if a thriller hasn’t been paperbacked, it probably won’t be my cup of tea.
A lot of the books that I mention are ones that I first read as paperbacks.
Here is my list. The quotations are the openings of novels.
•Eric Ambler •John Buchan •James Lee Burke •Raymond Chandler •Lee Child •Erskine Childers •Brian Cleeve •Joseph Conrad •James Crumley •Len Deighton •Stanley Ellin •Loren D. Estleman •Jack Finney •James M. Fox •Dick Francis •Michael Gilbert •Joe Gores •Graham Greene •Adam Hall •Donald Hamilton •Dashiell Hammett •Simon Harvester •George V. Higgins •Chester Himes •Joseph Hone •E.W. Hornung •Geoffrey Household •Tom Kakonis •Michael Kenyon •Robert Kyle •Jonathan Latimer •Dennis Lehane •Ted Lewis •Gavin Lyall •John D. MacDonald •Ross Macdonald •William Manchester •Berkeley Mather •John McPartland •James Mitchell •Peter O’Donnell •Richard Powell •Derek Raymond •John Reese •Chris Scott •Richard Stark •Richard Starnes •Ross Thomas •Jim Thompson •Arthur Upfield •John Welcome •Charles Williams •Martin Woodhouse
It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.
I had thought he was an American. He looked like an American—tall, with the loose, light suit, the narrow tie and button-down collar, the smooth, old-young, young-old face and the crew cut. He spoke like an American, too; or at least like a German who has lived in America for a long time. Of course I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American: plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it. I didn’t see his passport.
The Light of Day (1962)
Graham Greene called Ambler “unquestionably our best rhiller writer” (which he wasn’t; Household was, but de gustibus …). He was a minimalist with regard to action, and this was part of his charm—the leisurely conversations, the lengthy expositions of technical matters (financial deals, the munitions trade, and so forth).
Journey into Fear (1940), The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and Epitaph for a Spy (1938) are commonly referred to as classics. Personally I find them slow and ungripping. Background to Danger (a.k.a. Uncommon Danger 1937) and Cause for Alarm (1938) are better. There’s a strong feeling in them of the 1930s Europe of damp raincoats, train rides in packed compartments, cheap hotels, identity card, petty bureaucrats, fear of The Sack. There are excellent man-on-the-run parts in both of them, and nasty fascist villains.
But the consistently resourceful, decent, brave, humorous Soviet agent, modelled physically (to judge from photos) on the movie director Sergei Eisenstein, is just too good to be true.
The Dark Frontier (1936) is entertaining. A professor loses his memory in a car crash and assumes the persona of a thriller hero (Carruthers, who else?) in a book he happened to be reading at the time of the accident; with subsequent derring-do in a small Ruritanian country. But it’s not all a send-up. He does behave heroically, even if at times he’s a puzzle to the narrator when he has trouble coping with matters that weren’t dealt with in the thriller.
Much the best of Ambler’s novels is the consistently taut The Light of Day (1962), filmed as Topkapi with Peter Ustinov. The cowardly, petty-crook narrator is compelled by the Turkish police to be part of, and keep the police informed about, a group suspected of being terrorists but actually thieves seeking a major coup. The narrative voice is splendid, the risks real, the surprises surprising. In the sequel to it, unfortunately, the voice is lost after a while and it becomes a straightforward tale of mercenaries in Africa.
State of Siege (a.k.a. The Nightcomers, 1956) is the best of Ambler’s other post-war novels. He really knows the military-political intricacies of the revolution in South-East Asia in which his hero is trapped and must deal with armed, nervous, dangerous men and talk his way out of being summarily shot.
I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. “Richard Hannay,” I kept telling myself, “you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn” (Ernest Hemingway)
All manhunt fiction—and a good deal else—comes out of Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.
It is a classic of economical, fast-moving narrative, and (contrary to some critics) isn’t antisemitic. It is still as fresh as when it was written (though the necessity for Hannay’s hanging around so long in the Highlands isn’t as clear as it might be, and I wonder about the ability of a German spy to impersonate the First Sea Lord successfully at a Cabinet meeting (true, he has a beard), and about the possibility, let alone necessity, of secret-agent Scudder’s being skewered to the floor of Hannay’s flat with a long long knife driven through his chest.
Or, for that matter, about the ease with which you could get hold of a body in London if you wanted one, and about such a body’s looking as if it had only just been killed after a pistol had been fired in its mouth to make it look like a suicide, and…oh, well).
It has highly filmic, splendid scenes; Hannay’s chapter-ending discovery of the murdered Scudder, his escape from watchers through early-morning-summer London streets, the manhunt over the Scottish moors (the line of advancing beaters, the aeroplane circling overhead), his unforgettably explosive exit from the storeroom where he’s held prisoner, the chase on foot through London’s West End, his climactic visit to the disquietingly normal seaside villa. Hitchcock obviously knew the book intimately, but unfortunately didn’t film it straight.
With the later Hannay books (Hannay now an Establishment figure), we’re in Buchan country, with the medley of strong scenes, wild implausibilities (Sandy Arbuthnot’s impersonations!), at times irritating attitudes, especially in Mr. Standfast (1919; the weakest of the three) and The Three Hostages (1924). But the narratives can still be gripping, Greenmantle (1916) especially, if you’re willing to be gripped. And there are unforgettable moments: the close-up of Hannay’s injured hand in the duelling stalk in the Highlands at the end of The Three Hostages; the wide-angle, tear-jerking bravura ending of Greenmantle.
Also, Hannay is a vulnerable hero, prey at times to a failure of belief in what he is doing.
The lighter John McNab (1922) and Huntingtower (1925) are readable, their narratives always lucid, with good intercuttings of episodes. And there are moments of very filmic dread (the dangers threatening you as you’re making your way through “normal” London streets) in The Power House (1916). Hitchcock must have read and reread that too.
However, apart from The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle, Buchan seems to me a slightly guilty pleasure, inviting question marks and exclamation-marks in the margin.
The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary. The anti-capital punishment crowd—priests, nuns in lay clothes, kids from LSU with burning candles cupped in their hands—were praying outside the fence. But another group was there too—a strange combination of frat boys and rednecks—drinking beer from Styrofoam coolers filled with cracked ice; they were singing “Glow, Little Glow Worm,” and holding signs that read THIS BUD IS FOR YOU, MASSINA and JOHNNY, START YOUR OWN SIZZLER FRANCHISE TODAY.
“I’m Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, New Orleans police department,” I said to one of the guards on the gate. I opened my badge for him.
“Oh, yeah, Lieutenant. I got your name on my clipboard. I’ll ride with you up to the Block,” he said, and got in my car. His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial bones of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man, and talcum powder. “I don’t know which bunch bothers me worse. Those religious people act like we’re frying somebody for a traffic violation, and those boys with the signs must not be getting much pussy at the university. You staying for the whole thing?”
The Neon Rain (1987)
The Neon Rain, the first of James Lee Burke’s eleven Dave Robicheaux novels, is a rich Louisiana mix of Cajuns, Mafiosi. Latinos (drugs), corrupt cops, U.S. Treasury officials, pimps, contract killers, Blacks, and so forth, all held together in a story line that is the clearest and most gripping in the series, and not in the least the kind of jokey thing that my list might suggest. Robicheaux, an alcoholic with Vietnam in his past, takes terrible physical abuse and engages in some dramatic violences of his own in his pursuit of truth and justice. And we care.
Burke, an intelligent and gifted writer, obviously thought long and hard about what John D. MacDonald had done for, with, and to Florida, particularly in the Travis McGee series (as well as what Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren had done with Mississippi and Tennessee). His Louisiana is densely layered, with a past that he keeps tapping into, as well as a present that is being dragged or pushed, by various power systems, into an increasingly less appealing future of civic deterioration (New Orleans) and environmental befoulment.
Not that the past was charming. A recurring element is homicidal and sexually abusive racism (Robicheaux’s own non-racist dealings with individual Blacks is the most attractive aspect of his character). The Angola prison farm looms darkly, like an American Dachau.
But again, this isn’t social preachment. These things come in naturally as part of the moral climate and the nature of the “law” and “order” inside which Robicheaux, with his refusal to be impressed by the moral pretensions of the rich, including the nominally old rich, is operating. A recurring pattern in the novels is Robicheaux’ concern with some act of violence, or cruelty, or legal injustice to an “insignificant” poor Black that brings him up against power systems, legal or illegal.
There are over four thousand paperback pages of narrative by Dave Robicheaux, and at times (at least when revisiting them for a note like this) it feels as if one were trapped inside something like Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, that interminable Renaissance sequence of vivid details, dramatic episodes, and at times over-rich writing, conveyed in a stanzaic form that slowed down your reading and made it harder to skip in search of an (in fact absent) firm plot structure. Robicheaux’s loose-cannon, busted-ex-cop buddy Clete Purcell is a bit like Spenser’s Talus, the robotic iron man who beats up on the bad guys in ways beyond the reach of Spenser’s knights.
But Burke really works at humanizing and grounding Robicheaux, giving him, in addition to his alcohol problems, an ongoing love-relationship with his third wife, Bootsie (a victim of in-remission lupus) and their adopted Latino daughter Alafair, plus black Batist who assists him in his boat rental business, plus a decent sheriff in the department in which he works as a deputy after, early on, quitting the NOPD, plus at least a couple of admirable women law-enforcement officers, one (F.B.I.) Latino, the other (local police) Black.
Not all his experiments work.
Putting the incomparable Jerry Lee Lewis into Black Cherry Blues as Dixie Lee Pugh was a lousy idea, or at least lousily executed. Gavin Lyall used John Wayne (renamed) successfully in Shooting Script, about movie-making troubles down in Latin America, but this was because he made the character feel plausibly like the John Wayne that we know and care for in the movies. Burke’s Pugh is a cipher, a void. He doesn’t even speak right.
At times, too, Burke cheats by shifting the point of view, with detailed verbatim conversations and all, by means of the “I was told this by so-and-so” or “This is how I pieced it together” gimmick.
In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993) is probably his most shapely book after The Neon Rain, though the italicized sections of partly LSD-induced, partly clairvoyant (?) encounters with Civil War soldiers don’t have enough of the hallucinatory in their style. Purple Cane Road (2000) is probably the best of the ones that take us into the depths of Robicheaux’ own past.
A reviewer is quoted inside the front cover as calling Burke “the Faulkner of crime fiction,” which seems fair enough. Faulkner isn’t everyone’s addiction.
It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all Negro. I had just come out of a three-chair barber shop where an agency thought a relief barber named Dimitrios Aleidis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home.
I never found him, but Mrs. Aleidis never paid me any money either.
It was a warm day, almost the end of March, and I stood outside the barber shop looking up at the jutting neon sign of a second floor dime and dice emporium called Florian’s. A man was looking up at the sign too. He was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck. He was about ten feet away from me. His arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.
Farewell My Lovely (1940)
Chandler, in the conventional estimation, is one of the very biggest of the big guys, and indeed his role in developing the private-eye novel was immense.
However, his first two novels, The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell My Lovely (1940) seem to me mostly pretty tedious and dated, in a way that Hammett’s The Maltese Falson isn’t.
There are classic scenes, of course— Marlowe escaping from the crooked sanitorium; Marlowe and Chief John Wax, with his $80 brogues (like $400 today), psyching one another out over the bourbon glasses and cardamon seeds; Carmen Sternwood sitting naked and crazy in the Chinoiserie room with the camera peeping through the eyeholes of the totem pole; Moose Molloy taking Marlowe in tow to visit the now Black joint in which “Little Velma” used to work before they put him away for seven years; the smooth young guard on the gambling ship saying “Nix” and turning Marlowe back after bumping into the gun in his shoulder holster. Etcetera.
But Marlowe’s compulsive wisecracking becomes wearisome, the celebrated similes are more often off-target than not, Marlowe’s rich gangsters seem to have been made up out of whole cloth (can you imagine such a one saying, “I can believe that whatever you know about all this is under glass, or there would be a flock of johns squeaking sole leather around this dump”?), there are longueurs in the narratives, and the convolutions with regard to who did what to whom when and why don’t seem worth the trouble of trying to get them straightened out.
And just look at this as a specimen of “creative” (meaning blurry self-consciously literary) writing. My eye fell on it when I literally opened The Big Sleep at random:
He wanted to fight. He shot at me like a plane from a catapult, reaching for my knees in a diving tackle. I sidestepped and reached for his neck and took it into chancery. He scraped the dirt hard and got his feet under him enough to use his hands on me where it hurt. I twisted him around and heaved him a little higher. I took hold of my right wrist with my left hand and turned my right hipbone into him and for a moment it was a balance of weights. We seemed to hang there in the misty moonlight, two grotesque creatures whose feet scraped on the road and whose breath panted with effort. (Ch.17)
Chandler is at his most consistent, probably, in The Little Sister (1949) and the long Black Mask short story “The Man Who Liked Dogs.” Playback (1958) is oddly touching at times. Marlowe isn’t fully on top of things, and other people behave with unexpected decency, cops among them.
Among the other P.I.s who wouldn’t be what they are without Chandler are steadies like Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, Jonathan Valin’s Harry Stoner, James Crumley’s C.W. Sughrue, Roger L. Simon’s Moses Wine, Loren D. Estleman’s Amos Walker, Arthur Lyons’ Jacob Asch, and Max Byrd’s Mike Haller; trigger-happies like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott; and p.c.’s like Robert B. Parker’s post-Sixties Spenser (reads good books, eats health foods, works out, has a Black enforcer, Hawk, and a psychologist called Susan Silverman as his very significant Other).
Marlowe’s precarious free-lance existence parallels that of self-employed writers, which has no doubt contributed to Chandler’s popularity with intellectuals.
I recognize that my absence of enthusiasm puts me in a small minority.
There were three watchers, two men and a boy. They were using telescopes, not field glasses. It was a question of distance. They were almost a mile from their target area, because of the terrain. There was no closer cover. It was low, undulating country, burned khaki by the sun, grass and rock and sandy soil alike. The nearest safe concealment was the broad dip they were in, a bone-dry gulch scraped out a million years ago by a different climate, when there had been rain and ferns and rushing rivers.
The men lay prone in the dust with the early heat on their backs, their telescopes at their eyes. The boy scuttled around on his knees, fetching water from the cooler, watching for waking rattlesnakes, logging comments in a notebook. They had arrived before first light in a dusty pick-up truck, the long way around, across the empty land from the west. They had thrown a dirty tarpaulin over the truck and held it down with rocks. They had eased forward to the rim of the dip and settled in, raising their telescopes as the low morning sun dawned to the east behind the red house almost a mile away. This was Friday, their fifth consecutive morning, and they were low on conversation.
Echo Burning (2001)
There ought to be a unit of suspense, a JDM, contracting after awhile, no doubt, to a simple J. You know, the kind of suspense that keeps you page-turning into the small hours, even when you know you’re going to regret not saving those last thirty pages for the next night, like that last piece of pie you wolfed down.
Only the best of John D. MacDonald’s own books would get the full ten on the scale, I imagine. But Lee Child at his best would do pretty well. “The true heir to John D. MacDonald”? Well, a sibling heir, maybe, with James Lee Burke doing the dense, rich, sweet, Southern local colour, the kind where you’re on a midnight stakeout in your shirtsleeves and are still sweating as you slap at the mosquitoes.
Child’s two best books so far (for me) are Running Blind (2000) and Echo Burning, but all five are JDM page-turners. He has John D.’s empathetic understanding of ruthless, ingenious, at times psychopathically horrible criminal minds. And his hero, Jack Reacher, army-kid and ex-military-police officer, now trying in his thirties to drift and avoid commitments, but getting sucked into them, is on that border with Travis McGee where legal niceties may not count for much, particularly when the authorities are corrupt or incompetent or both
Reacher and Child also know a lot about procedures, both cop and criminal. (How do you locate a seemingly needle-in-haystack vanished person? What kind of car are you going to use if you’re a murder team and want to look unobtrusively official?) And after a bit, as the action revs up, you realize that what you’re racing along the highway in is a kind of crossover, a novel of detection, of figuring out, which is also a thriller by virtue of the time-frame urgency, the dreadful cost of failure, and the dangers faced by Reacher himself despite his impressive build (an inch taller than Travis), extraordinary marksmanship (Child knows lots about guns), and unarmed combat ferocity.
Running Blind, with its weird serial killings and obnoxious FBI team, is the tautest and shortest, and has the best-rendered women. Child seems most at home with the speech-level here, the level of relative sophistication between fellow professionals. Higher up, in Die Trying (1998), we get into Clancyland at times, with indistinguishably-voiced upper-echelon government officials. And in Echo Burning the victim-heroine doesn’t fully live for me in her speech patterns during her long conversations with Reacher in the first several chapters, conversations that can leave you, well, me, feeling at times that you’ve taken the point and why don’t we, please, get back to the murder team in the parallel narrative and maybe have a few more details about them?
Length, the length of a bright and knowledgeable writer who has a lot to show you, a writer who wants to lead you step by step through processes (how will Reacher, who knows zilch about horses, cope with having to saddle one while pretending to be a groom?)—length, I say, may be Child’s besetting temptation. But then, once the action really kicks in in Echo Burning, you realize that the build-up has all been relevant. And Echo Burning also has great heat (literally), but a great dry heat, the heat of high-summer inland Texas, and with it the dust and dangerousness of a landscape with too few people and too little local law and too-powerful rich people and a too-primitive legal system, so that you’re sort of in another country or on another planet.
Child has kept experimenting. Killing Floor (1997), his first book, is first-person narrative, but Reacher, averse from extended articulation as he is, isn’t really a first-person narrator, and after that we get third-person novels, with single p.o.v. for the Reacher parts. Which is much better. And Child uses multiple p.o.v. very skillfully, inserting false clues and throwing in zingers of awfulness or menace-in-process on the part of still shadowy bad guys. His darker imaginings of evil—underplayed in scene-of-the-crime descriptions—can curdle the blood, particularly in Killing Floor.
In Tripwire (1999), he tries Reacher in a relatively complicated love relationship with lots of telling-each-other stuff, and her career, and him trying to be caring and responsible, and so forth. But maybe it was something that needed working through, character-wise, and the leaned-down “existential” Reacher of Echo Burning, his consciousness concerned with processes rather than recollections, feels more like the essential one.
In Die Trying (1998), as I said, Child gets into Clancyland, with wide-screen plotting, high-level government officials, a right-wing rural stronghold, a big-bang disaster coming down the pike. But personally I’d have thought that the super-big, super-bright, super-cruel terrorist leader would have blown Reacher away as soon as he had him in his power, rather than leaving him around to create so much havoc. But then, we’d have lost a lot of dramatic hither-and-yonning, not to mention a major addition to the ranks of thriller heroes.
And what will Child do next? And after that? Nice to have some spaces worth watching these days. I even detected a homage-echo of J.D.M. in one or two places, with Reacher saying things I’d heard from Trav.
But (shadow of a doubt) how well will these books re-read once you know who the bad guys really were? They, the bad guys, don’t so far have the psychological heft of the ones that Travis tangled with.
But then, MacDonald published over seventy novels and Child has so far only (only?) done one a year for five years.
I have read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude—save for a few black faces—have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism. It was in some such spirit, with an added touch of self-consciousness, that, at seven o’clock in the evening of 23rd September in a recent year, I was making my evening toilet in my chambers in Pall Mall. I thought the date and the place justified the parallel; to my advantage even; for the obscure Burmese administrator might well be a man of blunted sensibilities and coarse fibre, and at least he is alone with nature, while I—well, a young man of condition and fashion, who knows the right people, belongs to the right clubs, has a safe, possibly a brilliant, future in the Foreign Office—may be excused for a sense of complacent martyrdom, when, with his keen appreciation of the social calendar, he is doomed to the outer solitude of London in September …
The Riddle of the Sands (1903)
The subtitle of Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) is “A Record of Secret Service.” The term comes from there, as does Ian Fleming’s “M”; also the name Carruthers. The individual Germans in it are simply individuals (friendly, offhand, grumpy, whatever). There is a pre-War leisureliness to it, from a time when Germany was problematic (powerful, efficient, enlightened-seeming, in actuality dangerous) but not yet demonized. The mystery that has to be explained, the “riddle,” is pretty formless during most of the book. There are no clear-cut espionage-novel rules yet. Something is going on in the North Sea, among the Frisian Islands, but we’re a long time getting to an explanation.
The narrative voice is admirably sustained—a snobbish and superficial young Foreign Office official who has learned better during his small-boat doings with Davis and is amused by his learning experiences. There is some splendid sea stuff, but the plot part, especially in the later pages, becomes a bit tedious after the fifth rereading.
He came down the steps slowly, one shoulder higher than the other, as if he were shrugging in contempt of the café. His mouth was hard and his eyes cold and sure, taking in the scatter of customers in the basement. Two boys with long hair, eating chips, trying to impress the Italian waitress. An old man wearing a dirty raincoat and a scarf, reading a coverless paperback, not taking his eyes off the page as he drank his soup. Two thick-set men whispering over their coffee. A couple of empty tables. A girl sitting alone.
She watched him coming, only her eyes moving. Her hair dark yellow, thick and heavy and animal, like a lion’s mane; her face sullen, bluish shadows under her eyes, startling, almost savage against the white exhausted skin.
Vice Isn’t Private (1966)
Cleeve’s Vice Isn’t Private is an extraordinary thriller, and extraordinarily overlooked. It is so consistently tense, the key characters so relentlessly driven, that you keep expecting Cleeve to overreach and write prose that he can no longer control, leaving us lost amidst psychological turmoils or sliding away into absurdity of plotting, or into a black cynicism. But this doesn’t happen.
A former I.R.A. jailbird and still a violent man, Sean Ryan is now working, with mixed feelings for a very small British intelligence group, and is assigned to break into a Belfast prison (with keys provided, but no official safety net if he fails), free a wholly odious American thug, and convey him across to the Continent.
The dangers and tensions mount—tensions between Sean, the thug, and the thug’s girlfriend; the menace of a Soho gangster who, when he says to a henchman about a petty crook, “Take him away and nail him up!” means it. The Home Secretary is trying to bury his own unsavoury erotic past, in which the Russians are interested. A right-wing French ex-Legionnaire also gets into the act.
The intercutting between Ryan with his two “passengers” and the political machinations that may smash him flat is brilliant. Each stretch of action has its own sharp identity. And Cleeve is equally successful with the demonic violences near the close (including a dreadful torturing), the analyses of the unpleasant workings of the Home Secretary’s mind, a head-to-head showdown between the Home Secretary and the angry but weak Prime Minister, and the fears and fates of several Continental characters.
It is a novel dense with guilt feelings, with fear and the literal smell of fear, with things going dreadfully wrong for some people and coming closer and closer to going irreparably wrong for the hero and his likeable boss. Order here is fragile, always at risk, and very precious. “Decent” values, and the effort to behave decently, are not mere old-fashioned weaknesses in a world of predators. There’s a clear contrast, partly in class terms, between the gentlemanly major running the operation and the truly nasty fear-and-ambition-driven Home Secretary, willing to sacrifice absolutely anyone to save his upward-bound career.
At times there’s a frustration-dream effect, with Ryan lacking sufficient information to make his task clear, and the deck stacked against him.There’s also some touching stuff with the thug’s all-too-vulnerable girl.
There are strong parts in Cleeve’s two previous Ryan novels, with frightening South African security men in one and a frightening British neo-Fascist movement in the other. You really do very much not want Ryan to be found out by them (he’s doing some infiltrating) and be at their non-existent mercy.
But Vice Isn’t Private is Cleeve’s masterpiece—a painful masterpiece. Done with conviction and without pulling any punches, it would have made a superb movie. It could still do so.
Mr. Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law. It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening. Mr. Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business. And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.
The shop was small, and so was the house. It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London. The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes. In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.
The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like painted medicine; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The Torch, The Gong—rousing titles. And the two gas-jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.
The Secret Agent (1907)
I don’t suppose you’d instinctively call The Secret Agent a thriller. But if so, I don’t know what else is right (spy novel? political…thriller?), and in any event it’s marvelous and lots of thriller writers, Graham Greene and Adam Hall among them, have learned from it.
It is a slow read, partly because of the rich texture of its prose, partly because of the back-and-forth time-shifts, partly because of the disproportion between some of the parts. A major event can slip by in half a page; a not particularly dramatic episode can extend across a couple of chapters, without a twitch at the chapter break.
But it is richly cinematic, as Hitchcock knew (you almost expect terms like Medium Shot and Close-Up at times, though his own filming of it is nothing much). And things including people’s bodies, have a remarkable solidity. And it is lastingly funny.
It is also politically astute with respect to power games inside a bureaucracy, the working relationship between police and “normal” criminals, the various brands of political anarchism, and the efficacy of “irrational” terrorism.
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
Trahearne had been on this wandering binge for nearly three weeks, and the big man, dressed in rumpled khakis, looked like an old soldier after a long campaign, sipping slow beers to wash the taste of death out of his mouth. The dog slumped on the stool beside him like a tired little buddy, only raising his head occasionally for a taste of beer from a dirty ashtray set on the bar.
The Last Good Kiss (1978)
In Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, the private eye is alive and well, but now he smokes pot and occasionally does a line of coke. Crumley has rethought it all. His hero, C.W. Sughrue, moves around in a thoroughly real-feeling California that isn’t Chandler’s, or Hammett’s, or Ross Macdonald’s—a California of bars in small country towns, and artists and crafts-people in more or less shabby houses out in the country, most of them ex-denizens of the hippy Sixties and trying to find and keep order in their lives.
The narrator hunts for, and at times catches up with, an alcoholic writer who comes across as if he could actually be a writer. The book has lots of space and fresh air and weather (mostly sunny). And there’s a good deal of decency in it. This one is the best of the series. In the others the drug scene gets a bit heavy at times. The Mexican Tree Duck (1993), which I see won the 1994 Dashiell Hammett Award, is simply bad.
They came through on the hot line at about half past two in the afternoon. The Minister didn’t quite understand a couple of points in the summary. Perhaps I could see the Minister.
The Minister’s flat overlooked Trafalgar Square and was furnished like Oliver Messel did it for Oscar Wilde. He sat in the Sheraton; I sat in the Hepplewhite, and we peeped at each other through the aspidistra plant.
“Just tell me the whole story in your own words, old chap. Smoke?”
I was wondering whose words I might otherwise have used as he skimmed the aspidistra with his slim gold cigarette case. I beat him to the draw with a crumpled packet of Gauloises; I didn’t know where to begin.
The Ipcress File (1962)
Deighton’s The Ipcress File (1962) was one of the major transformational thrillers, opening up whole ranges of possibilities that other writers proceeded to develop. Deighton put so damn much into it—gave us, again and again, the feel of places, types, institutions that simply hadn’t been done before, or, if done (like Ian Fleming’s America and Americans) had been done with the superficiality of Fifties travelogues.
Deighton brought the Sixties to life before they knew they were the Sixties—Soho coffee houses and strip joints and quality restaurants, expense-account lunches, easy travel (Lebanon, a Pacific atoll on which Americans have installed, for their nuclear testing team, an instant air-conditioned home-away-from-home). Again and again, sentences, phrases, runs of dialogue stand out. Deighton can even do American speech convincingly.
And the narrator, from the wrong side of the great class divide, has a Beatles-like insolence and insouciance, together with (whence his ability to be unintimidated by superiors) impressive expertise about the espionage game (transferring funds; pistols and ammunition; getaway caches with extra passports).
But also, having been seconded to a new branch in tacky Charlotte Street, he has to make his way along paths often very ill-marked; so that it is an initiation novel and not just (like the Bond books) a pseudo-insider view of how things get done.
And the book is funny.
I say a bit more about its impact in sections X and XI of “The Best Thriller.”
But when you’ve done something perfectly, what do you do for an encore? (As poor Scott Fitzgerald knew to his cost after The Great Gatsby. And Ted Lewis after Jack’s Return Home.)
The Ipcress File feels like one of those gorgeous first-record pop albums that has been several years in the making and lovingly crafted.
After which it’s hurry-up time for new products.
With some problems.
In Ipcress the narrator is the new boy, being bounced around, and trying to make sense of his environment. So we get a stylistic push towards clarity—he’s trying to define and stabilize things in his own mind, even if, as he and we learn later, getting them wrong. And the way things actually are doesn’t turn out to have been all that complicated.
With Horse Under Water and Funeral in Berlin he’s a principal maker and shaker himself, and he hides things from us, and from his underlings, and his staccato elliptical presentation of the complicated goings on in the present extends to the complicated things he discovers about the past, and it all gets too overloaded with unsynthesized bits of information for my own non-crossword-puzzle mind to follow.
In Horse, too, we have irritating shifts from time to time into omniscient-point-of-view narratives about other characters. This may be an attempt to rectify the instability, or simply take care of plot elements that hadn’t been sufficiently incorporated into the main narrative. But the interjections are irritating and in fact weaken the felt reality of the action.
At times, too, the new-minted metaphors and similes are slightly off-target (someone under fire is “calm as a Camembert”!), with a further slight blurring. And though (I know, I know) charm isn’t a sine qua non, the Portuguese coast and Cold-War Berlin aren’t sufficient substitutes for the old pastoral Lebanon and that Pacific atoll.
Deighton’s London, his real querencia, is back charmingly in stretches of The Billion Dollar Brain, as is the comedy of organizational games-playing at WOOC(P). And there are memorable bits of conversation and stretches of action. But Harvey Newbiggin is a less interesting mystery man than Johnny Vulkan in Funeral in Berlin, and the secret multi-million-dollar right-wing organization feels a bit sketchy. And why didn’t the narrator get that broken finger attended to sooner?
An Expensive Place to Die shows what can happen when Deighton stops being baroque and information-rich. Its Paris is colourless and odorless, the Charlotte Street regulars don’t make even a guest appearance, and the prose looks as if Deighton had made and almost won a bet that he could write without using metaphors and similes.
Some days you just can’t win, can you, as a thriller writer?
But Yesterday’s Spy (1975), which I’ve only just reread (always make your judgments before checking your facts, then the facts will be more interesting) is excellent and reads as if someone else, maybe Deighton himself, had been making the same complaints that I have.
The narrator is straightforwardly commissioned by Charlotte Street (Dawlish in good form) to figure out what a former agent, Steve Champion, is up to in the south of France with his Arabs and arms dealings, and to penetrate his organization.
The two of them and several other solidly rendered characters have an intelligible matrix of WWII relationships. Nice and the surrounding region are presented with the loving attention to detail that Deighton previously brought to London (no shortage here of colour and odours). There are several strong episodes of conventional thriller action—shoot-outs, roughhousing, a machine-gunned car. And the verbal exchanges between the narrator and his associates are lively and often amusing, without being self-regardingly clever.
Life is too short to read or reread all of Deighton novels now and try and be “fair.” Personally I left the tour bus when it reached the Bernard Samson “Chess” trilogy (Berlin Game, 1984, etc.). To me at least, it felt more like elaborately plotted treatments for fashionably depressive novels rather than the fleshed-out things themselves, fleshed out in the way he used to do. He even managed to drain the light and heat out of Mexico, for God’s sake. The Chandleresque Violent Ward (1993), which I happened upon recently with momentary hopefulness, is jejune.
However, Only When I Larf (1967) is a banquet of con-artistry and is probably his best thriller after Ipcress, the elaborate plottings being presented solidly through the interwoven narratives of the three rogues, the relationships between whom are of more than games-playing interest. Richard Attenborough and David Hemmings at least (I can’t recall Alexandra Stewart’s performance) were perfectly cast in Basil Dearden’s movie the following year.
And oh, once again, the joy of The Ipcress File when it first appeared, lighting up the landscape like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“Truly, truly,” Frank Conmy once said to him, “this is the dirty, beautiful, golden age of the filing cabinet.
They were at Frank’s apartment in the St. Stephen that night, a clear, cold night, moonless but star-studded. Thirty stories below in Central Park sea lions barked zanily at the sky, and tigers snarled at the sirens of an ambulance careening along Fifth Avenue…
“The soul is no longer a moth,” Frank said later that evening, swashing a bucketful of cognac around in the balloon glass that might have grown root and stem from his hand. “No longer does it flutter high and free, gladly destroying itself at the end in the flame of the unknown. It is a dead bug pinned on a board. It is a collection of facts placed between the covers of a cardboard folder and locked into a filing cabinet. But the sweetest merchandise there is, if you know how to put it together, and what to do with it afterward.”
Which, as Murray had to admit, was undeniable. If you learned anything from Frank Conmy it was how to get the facts, and how to put them down on paper, or microfilm, or recording tape, so that the customer could pick up and hold in his hand exactly what he had paid for.”
The Eighth Circle (1958)
Ellin is a restless writer, trying something new in each novel--a family home taken over by terrorists (Stronghold), an insurance investigator probing a death in an exclusive Florida community (The Man from Nowhere), family hatreds and plottings in New York’s Upper East Wide, even a guilt-ridden, married cross-dresser.
His best book, however, is The Eighth Circle (1958), an elaborate and lovingly detailed account of a hard-nosed (meaning cynical and callous) senior operative in a New York detective agency who becomes reluctantly involved, at the request of the man’s fiancee, in the case of an obnoxious small-time crook arrested for murder, who he himself is quite certain is guilty.
It is an object lesson in how seemingly cast-iron facts can begin to wobble when looked at long and carefully enough. Everything is against the crook for awhile—logic, “facts,” the evidence of the investigator’s own eyes. Until hair-line cracks start appearing in the case, but so nearly not appearing.
There are also enough dangerous professional criminals involved to make the investigator’s doings (largely carried on without his agency’s knowledge) risky and at one point really scary. So that the book truly is a thriller, as well as a superbly done detective novel.
The Man From Nowhere (1970, a.k.a. Bind) may be his best book after that. There too a hardboiled investigator faces significant moral challenges and at times real danger, and other characters are interesting.
She was a very old women dressed entirely in black, and when she fumbled my inner office door the aluminum tubing of the walker she was leaning on gleamed like nickel steel against the black of her dress. I got up from behind the desk to hold the door open against the pressure of the pneumatic close. She nodded her thanks with that jerky impatience that the very old share with the very young—the poised complacency of age is a myth—but she made no comment, concentrating on the involved business of setting the rubber feet down on the rug and toddling forward and then picking up the feet and setting them down again. Her breath came sibilantly through her nostrils, but apart from that and the way the cords on the side of her neck stood out like telephone cables under her skin, she showed nothing of the strain it took to cross that six feet to the chair on the client’s side of the desk.
In his series of novels about the private eye and Vietnam veteran Amos Walker, Estleman is a worthy successor to Chandler, transferring the investigative processes to Detroit (the climate’s lousy), and displaying an extensive knowledge of the city and its history. He writes as if he cares, and Walker is in enough trouble at times to keep you reading anxiously. Sugar-Town is one of the best of the series.
Estleman has also branched out. He has written, not all that excitingly, about a professional hit man, Peter Macklin (e.g., Roses are Dead, 1985) and used him in Kill Zone (1984) to help liberate a tour boat on Lake Michigan that has been taken over by a group of, was it? terrorists.
He has also, with considerable aplomb, done one of those large, multi-perspectival quasi-historical novels that a lot of readers evidently love, this one about the complex interactions of bootleggers, cops, and journalists in Prohibition Detroit (Whisky River,1990). Personally I’m uneasy when I can’t tell which of the offered facts are in fact factual, or what keys you need in order to unlock parts of the fiction, if in fact they can be unlocked. But who am I to niggle? It is a very confident performance and the product of a lot of work...
King of the Corner (1992) is more satisfyingly (for me) tied to a main protagonist, the ball-player Doc Miller, formerly a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and now out again after seven years in the penitentiary and into various kinds of trouble.
Almost all Estleman’s books are readable. I see that I have eighteen of them on my shelf.
I didn’t want to go to my two-o’clock class, stay here in my room, or go out either. I didn’t want to stay sober, didn’t want to get drunk; and I’d already seen both movies in town. I might have called up a girl, but I was broke. I walked out, and down the fraternity-house hall toward Brick’s room; I was looking for something—trouble, maybe.
I was nineteen, a junior at a small Illinois college; and even though it was June, it might as well have been February. It was drizzling outside as it had been for days, and I’d been indoors too much for too long. I was in perfect health, weighed a hundred and sixty, with a kind of black-haired average good looks; and I was stir-crazy. I wanted to do something, I didn’t know what; preferably something no one had ever done before.
Five Against the House (1954)
If you can stand the slightly manic style, Five Against the House is one of the more ingenious robbing-the-bank novels, the bank in this case being Harold’s Club in Reno.
In Assault on a Queen (1959) Finney ups the stakes, the risk, and the lèse-majesté, the target here being the Queen Elizabeth in full career. The preparations on Long Island get a bit tedious at times, but once the Q.E. shows itself as a speck on the horizon, the writing become agreeably taut. The movies made of both these books were undistinguished.
The House of Numbers (1957), filmed with Jack Palance, involves a character breaking into a penitentiary. Finney obviously had the gift of coming up with striking concepts—most memorably in the science-fiction The Body Snatchers (1955), filmed twice, and part of our collective iconography of dread.
“Sign here,” the Day Captain, Detectives, said. He pointed with a thick, square thumbnail, flipped the document across the blotter, leaned back in his swivel chair and swung both feet up on the window sill beside his desk. A heavy rain lashed the panes. The sharp southeaster that came whistling in across the Mississippi Delta seemed to be concentrating its efforts on this one window on the seventh floor of City Hall, as if it disapproved particularly of the three men assembled there.
Detective Sergeant Gerald Long produced a ballpoint pen, glanced at his partner, caught a shrug, and walked across the room to scratch his signature on the paper. Chuck Conley, lounging with his back against the imitation marble of the fireplace, tamped a large, curved meerschaum pipe. “What sort of fellow is this, Captain, would you say?” he drawled.
“An s.o.b. with ears,” the Day Captain, Detectives, told him cheerfully. He used his thumb again, this time to flick the squawk box switch. “Maxwell,” he snapped into the mike. “The extradition case. Up here, ready to travel.”
Free Ride (1957)
Fox’s Free Ride reads as if it was written to be filmed, and it ought to have been filmed. (The movie of that name has nothing to do with it.) It is the perfect train thriller, an essence-of-long-distance train ride from New Orleans to San Diego, at a time when such trains were still special.
Two young San Diego cops have collected a boxer accused of murder who is being extradited back to California. They and their prisoner are not welcomed by the train personnel, and the passengers that they encounter in the dining-car and lounge car display a spectrum of attitudes towards them: fascination, disgust, ostensible friendliness, etc.
Moreover, at least one of the passengers, they realize, is out to kill their roomette-mate. And the more senior of the two young cops complicates things further by trying, at the train’s various stops along the way, to find out with long-distance phone calls, what really lies behind the alleged doings of their charge. He also has encounters with violent criminals at a couple of stations.
The action builds to an intense and violent night-time finale, when the chief cop (whose partner has been immobilized) realizes what is really at stake just at the point when those who have the strongest stake in the matter make their moves.
There are satisfying tensions throughout between civilized comfort and danger, respectable and non-respectable people, the near and contained, the distant and formless.
Fox’s other books, especially his John and Suzy Marshall private-eye series, are very competently done, but apart from A Shroud for Mr. Bundy (1952), the latter are a bit short on violence, hovering in a sort of no-man’s-land between tough private-eye novels and straightforward detective novels.
I looked at my friend and saw a man who had robbed me. Deeply disturbing. The ultimate in rejection.
Jody Leeds looked back at me, half smiling, still disbelieving.
“I’m taking my horses away,” I said.
“But…I’m your trainer.” He sounded bewildered. Owners, his voice and expression protested, never deserted their trainers. It simply wasn’t done. Only the eccentric or the ruthless shifted their horses from stable to stable, and I had shown no signs of being either.
We stood outside the weighing room of Sandown Park race-course on a cold windy day with people scurrying past us carrying out saddles and number cloths for the next steeplechase. Jody hunched his shoulders inside his sheepskin coat and shook his bare head. The wind blew straight brown hair in streaks across his eyes and he pulled them impatiently away.
“Come on, Steven,” he said. “You’re kidding me.”
High Stakes (1975)
With his interchangeable one-word titles (Jump, Risk, Fall, Bonecrack, etc) and virtually identical first-person narrative voices, it’s easy to sell Francis short. A new Francis used to come out each year, just as there used to be a new Christie. He is in no way innovative, apart from putting horse-racing on the thriller map. There’s no crisp shaping of chapters, no stretches of memorable prose, no novel or novels really standing out from the rest of the field.
But he’s been a comforting presence, and gripping. Rereading one book can set you off rereading them all.
His novels are about “character,” in the English sense of the word. There are variations, of course. One hero works for an agency specializing in rescuing upper-income-bracket kidnap victims. Another is involved with computers. And so forth. Francis goes on doing his research, all honour to him. But there’s a recurring formula.
A decent hero—jockey, trainer, private investigators, racing journalist, etc—becomes aware of machinations in which little guys, or vulnerably decent bigger ones, become victimized—beaten up, framed, financially ruined, terrorized, murdered. The hero becomes involved, doggedly persists despite mounting threats (often he’s beaten up), and finally breaks the power of a rich, greedy, powerful, ruthless, socially-respected figure with strong-arm men at his disposal.
The hero is often particularly vulnerable in some way. He needs rides, he’s in trouble with the Racing Commission, his own business is shaky, his arm dislocates easily because of falls, his wife is an invalid. And he’s misunderstood or unappreciated—assumed to be on the make, or unfeeling, or incompetent.
A number of the heroes work for or have to deal professionally with fathers who have never shown them affection and who consistently undervalue them. They have to live with a lot of unfairness. But they never complain about life, or indulge in self-pity, or bitterness, or even anger. There’s none of the Lew Archer glooming. They keep going.
Even when the Turf isn’t involved, the jockey ethos is present. You win some, you lose some, you have your falls and break bones, you get back into the saddle, you live with pain uncomplainingly, you never allow others to goad you into losing your temper. And all the time you’re combining physical skills with a strong feel for tactics and strategy, including a constant awareness of the mind-sets of the fellow jockeys, trainers, owners, and horses, and doing your best to win.
Francis’ heroes are patient, absolutely undeflectable in pursuit of a goal, and at times very ingenious in setting the villains up for a fall. They also use their own judgment about retribution. There’s no simple pattern of demonstrating the guilt of the wicked and turning them over to The Law (Society Wins Again!) to pay for their sins. At times they’re banished from racing by the Racing Commission, at others deprived of a lot of money, at others simply compelled, upon threat of exposure, to desist from their wickedness.
And love too, like justice, is not a magical doorway through which one can step into the Absolute. When love comes to the heroes, it is usually slowly and as part of an ongoing relationship for non-sexual purposes. The Weltanaschauung of these books is wholly secular and humanistic. It seems to me surprisingly adequate.
The books are also intensely exciting at times, given the viciousness of the villains. Even the horse-racing is interesting. The limitations that I indicated at the outset also make the books reread well. You’ve usually forgotten what comes next and how the heroes cope with their various predicaments.
When Wilfred Wetherall learned that the boys called him “Wellington” Wetherall he was not displeased. He was an admirer of the Duke, and he had no doubt that it was his references to this hero in the course of his history lessons that had planted the idea. A headmaster had to have a nickname. It could have been a good deal worse.
There were physical resemblances, too, in the bony structure of his face, the jut of his nose, the spare frame and forward bending carriage. It finished there. Nobody, not even Wetherall himself, imagined that had the Wellingtonian character, useful though it would have been in the daily difficulties which beset the headmaster of an understaffed, overpopulated secondary school for boys in the south-east of London.
Fear to Tread (1953)
Gilbert is a restlessly inventive writer, a sort of English Ross Thomas, incapable of settling down into a formula. He has done classic puzzlers, police procedurals, spy novels, municipal corruption novels, prisoner-of-war novels, comic-doings-in-Arab-countries novels
His evident conviction that the right kinds of service-middle-class persons—hard-working solicitors (he was a solicitor himself), schoolmasters, doctors, police officers, soldiers, clergymen—and working-class individuals who share their attitudes are the salt of the earth can be infuriating at times. And his grasp of working-class speech is so shaky, particularly in later books, that he would have benefitted from the assistance of a translator.
But in books like They Never Looked Inside (a.k.a. He Didn’t Mind Danger, 1948), Death Has Deep Roots (1951), Fear to Tread (1953), and Blood and Judgment (1959), he is unbeatable, at least among British writers, for providing elaborately devised entertainments involving juicy violences and the risk-charged uncovering (at times by middle-class civilians, at times by the right kinds of police officers, at times by both in collaboration) of complicated plots.
In such works he’s a sort of updated Buchan, in love with the service-middle-class virtues, but accepting—indeed, qua thriller writer, welcoming—the existence in post-war London of murderous black-market rings, corrupt journalists, crooked lawyers, bent or over-ambitious cops, and pukka officer-class types who are in crime up to their well-fed necks.
(In The Nightshade Ring , Lindsay Hardy had a passable go at a baroque London of truly vicious professional criminals, but without Gilbert’s verve, his social texture, and his service-middle-class convictions.)
Gilbert can be disastrously bad at times, as in the unspeakable The 92nd Tiger (1973), and there is a furtive vein of cruelty in his writings, as in the unpleasant tales about the professional government assassins Mr. Behrens and Mr Calder. But when he is in top gear, he is a marvellous read. And even when he seemed a bit adrift in Thatcher’s England, you could take up a new book by him with the feeling that at least it wouldn’t be predictable and certainly not boring.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett guided Goodie Osborne out of Loew’s ornate Warfield through the jostling midweek crowds.
“Oh, Sam!” she exclaimed. “I just love Billy Dove!” She had watched the whole of Yellow Lily enthusiastically, her baby-blue eyes even wider than usual.
Hammett grinned. He wore a maroon worsted Shaker coat over a wool shirt, an ideal outfit for the chilly San Francisco evening. “You hungry?”
“I’m always hungry.”
She tucked her arm in his. They made quite a pair: Hammett a lean six feet two, Goodie a petite blonde who came just to his shoulder.They crossed the foot of Powell Street, past gripmen and passengers heaving one of the rattly little cable cars around on the turntable for its next trip up Nob Hill.
Hammett’s thoughts were a long way from food. He was thinking about a one-time carnival showman named Feliz Weber and his run-down rooming house. Weber was the trouble, all right. Weber and his damned Primrose hotel.
Gores’ first novel A Time of Predators (1969), a redoing of Brian Garfield’s Death Wish, was so derivative and incompetent as to make it obvious that he had no worthwhile future in thriller writing, any more than the Jack Nicholson of Roger Corman’s The Terror or the Diane Keaton of Woody Allen’s Sleeper had any future (to my astute eyes) in movies. But a much improved Gores came on the scene with Dead Skip (1972), Final Notice (1973), and the even better Gone, No Forwarding (1978 ), in all of which he drew (like Hammett and his Pinkerton years) on his own experience as an operative in a debt-collection agency.
He knows what manhunting is like: the patient methodical enquiries, the hours of tedious waiting in parked cars, the lousy weather, the missed or fast-food meals, the constant need to decide when people are lying or holding back part of the truth, the art and craft of questioning so as to elicit knowledge that people don’t know they possess, the ability to glimpse a configuration and play a hunch successfully, even when it means departing from the organization’s carefully prescribed routines.
At times there’s the possibility of violence, when some large, strong, angry man doesn’t want his Ford Falcon repossessed; and the accompanying need for a good deal of deviousness and the ability to improvise.
At times, too, there are conflicts between how you are paid to behave—which is to say unpityingly—and your feelings towards more or less decent but financially slipshod people, some of them born losers, to whom you do what you have to.
And though the plots are largely hooks on which to hang a wealth of details, including the attitudes and idiosyncracies of the various operatives and the agency’s boss, there is a mounting tension in Gone, No Forwarding, with its scary strong-arm men and a firm, deftly sketched, violent climax.
It was natural, given the similarity of their backgrounds, that Gores should have felt a special affinity for Hammett. What is remarkable, and very far from natural, is that his novel Hammett, in which Hammett comes out of retirement while he is working on The Dain Curse and Red Harvest and does some detecting again, isn’t one of those dreary exercises in Camp like —well, no names.
Gores, who obviously knows Hammett’s work and his 1920’s career backwards, and by his own account in the afterword has done a lot of supplementary reading about San Francisco at that time, gives us, in a third-person narrative that approaches Hammett’s own styles without ever slipping into pastiche, a convincing Hammett in a convincingly rendered San Francisco, with enough episodes in which Hammett himself doesn’t figure for us to see that this is a novel about a number of lives and not simply a private-eye novel in which Hammett replaces Sam Spade or the Op.
And when Gores, like a juggler adding more and more items to the arc above his head, throws in the figure of Jimmy Wright, on whom, according to Hammett, the Op was partly based, that too works. As does the fact, obvious enough when you stop to think about it, that Wright has read some of the stories about the Op, and the fiction of Hammett’s visiting a presumably fictional Chinatown from one of the Op stories that is presented here as the real base for the place in the story, and in which someone has read that story.
None of this makes the doings in the novel less solid, or the dangers faced by Hammett from time to time less real. It is a tour de force, and a great treat.
“That nigger going down the street,” said Dr. Hasselbacher, standing at the Wonder Bar, “he reminds me of you, Mr. Wormold.” It was typical of Dr. Haselbacher that after fifteen years of friendship he still used the prefix Mr.—friendship proceeded with the slowness and assurance of a careful diagnosis. On Wormold’s deathbed, when Dr. Hasselbacher came to feel his failing pulse, he would perhaps become Jim.
The Negro was blind in one eye and one leg was shorter than the other; he wore an ancient felt hat and his ribs showed through his torn shirt like a ship’s under demolition. He walked at the edge of the pavement, beyond the yellow and pink pillars of a colonnade, in the hot January sun, and he counted every step as he went. As he passed the Wonder Bar, going up Virdudes, he had reached 1369. He had to move slowly to give time for so long a numeral. “One thousand three hundred and seventy.” He was a familiar figure near the National Square where he would sometimes linger and stop his counting long enough to sell a packet of pornographic photographs to a tourist. Then he would take up his count where he had left it. At the end of the day, like an energetic passenger on a trans-Atlantic liner, he must have known to a yard how far he had walked.
Our Man in Havana (1958)
Greene was around so long, and wrote so many novels and stories, and so many of them were filmed, that he became, as W.H. Auden said of Freud, “a whole climate of opinion.”
Hale in the opening pages of Brighton Rock (1938), “certain that they were going to kill him” but trying nevertheless to escape his fate as the Brighton crowds go about their pleasure seeking and The Boy (Richard Attenborough in the Boulting Brothers’ superb film version) tails him; Raven (Alan Ladd) shooting his two contracted-for middle-aged targets with his silenced revolver in the shabby English boarding house (one of them through a closed door); Arthur Rowe (played unsatisfyingly by Ray Milland in Fritz Lang’s unsatisfying movie) in The Ministry of Fear (1943) wandering into the fête in one of London’s wartime squares, and acquiring a cake by guessing its weight, and then finding people trying oddly to get the cake back from him, so that the whole fête starts feeling sinister—these and other episodes from the earlier novels, including Stamboul Train (1932, a.k.a. Orient Express) and The Confidential Agent (1939) feel like permanent parts of the thriller landscape.
But they are only episodes, the filmic moments of someone who had himself been a movie critic and who was strongly aware of the filmic aspects of Conrad’s The Secret Agent. And for the most part, in these novels, you are stylistically not in the world of thrillers but of “Greeneland.” As Greene himself recalls, Brighton Rock stopped being a thriller after the first four chapters, and went off in a new direction. And you can see the same thing happening, intermittently, in This Gun for Hire (a.k.a. A Gun for Sale), with its curiously flattened style (“Whatever Miss T. eats turns into Miss T.,” as some poem has it).
No, Greene’s thrillers are The Third Man (1950) Our Man in Havana (1958), and The Human Factor (1978), and of these the first suffers from being close enough to Carol Reed’s masterpiece for us to keep recalling it, but different enough—Martins and Lime being English there—to make the novel, well, movie treatment judged as a novel, frustratingly imperfect. My hunch, incidentally, is that James Mason may have been who Greene had in mind while writing the treatment. Mason had starred in Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and would have been the perfect English bounder.
The Human Factor is fakey and tendentious, juxtaposing a decent, idealistic, wife-and-child-loving traitor (post-Philby) with a haw-haw but ruthless upper-class head of intelligence and a genial department doctor casually “eliminating” suspects to save the department from scandal. To see how thin “Greeneland” had become, compare Greene’s Soho here with Deighton’s.
Greene’s masterpiece is Our Man in Havana (1958), as beautifully put together as a Swiss watch (not a cuckoo clock), with every effect becoming in its turn a cause, moving the action forward and upward in a steady escalation of inspired inventions on Mr. Wormold’s part amid intensifying dangers, always escaped, but always followed by new dangers, leading up to the marvellous final interview between the Chief and Wormold in the basement office in “the big steel and concrete building near Maida Vale.”
Every stretch of the novel—runs of dialogue, paragraphs describing Wormold’s thinking, episodes of action—has an Evelyn-Waugh-like shapeliness and crispness. The send-ups of Secret Servicedom and Fleming/Bond never collapse into mere parody.
There are unforgettable episodes, such as Wormold‘s nighttime visit to Professor Sanchez (professor of comparative education) and his latest mistress, and the businessmen’s lunch at which Wormold is supposed to die.
The book is that rarity, a humorous thriller that stays funny (in fact a humorous novel that stays funny). And it partly stays funny because it isn’t merely funny. This is Batista’s Havana, Batista’s cops are dangerous, people get killed, and discovery and disgrace loom for Wormold at point after point. It is funny, and it is a thriller—very much a Cold War thriller, with Greene himself sniping at the warriors.
Reed’s movie was disappointing, a heavy-handed come-down from The Third Man. No doubt there’s a law that says the better the novel, the worse the movie.
I came in over the Pole and we were stacked up for nearly twenty minutes in a holding circuit round London before they could find us a runway and then we had to wait for a bottleneck on the ground to get itself sorted out and all we could do was stare through the windows at the downpour and that didn’t help.
Sayõnara, yes, very comfortable thank you.
There was a long queue in No. 3 Passenger Building and I was starting to sweat because the wire had said fully urgent and London never uses that phrase just for a laugh; then a quietly high-powered type in sharp blue civvies came up and asked who I was and I told him and he whipped me straight past Immigration and Customs without touching the sides and told me there was a police car waiting and was it nice weather in Tokyo.
The Tango Briefing (1973)
Actually there are three Adam Halls, the Hall of the Quiller books, the Hall who wrote The Volcanoes of San Domingo (1963), and the Hall whose name got attached to three or four feeble detective novels, originally published over another name, after the Quiller books became famous. Behind them all sits Elleston Trevor, a writing machine with nine other pseudonyms and about a hundred books to his credit.
The Volcanoes of San Domingo, which the author inexplicably said he hated, is what every airport newsstand thriller ought to be: a multiperspectival novel of a hundred and eighty-nine paperback pages, none of them superfluous, involving a drenchingly hot Latin-American country right on the equator (“Aguador”), a British airliner mysteriously vanishing in mid-flight, a couple of airline officials (one of whom detests the other) sent over to investigate, conspiratorial goings-on among some of the “natives,” a mysterious beautiful French woman who keeps trying to evade the hero, an attempted poisoning, a false arrest (this is a dictatorship), a knife fight, a shark attack (or close to it) on a deep-sea diver, an earthquake, a revolution, an armed assault on a heavily guarded prison (have I forgotten anything?).
And all of this works, all of it solidly narrated in good prose; an ideal summer read, an ideal winter read, too, when you want to get away to the sights and smells and drinks and general texture of the tropics.
But of course it’s Quiller who put Hall permanently on the thriller map, that manic figure living for the adrenalin surges of missions, especially missions that come to the brink of disaster, and quarrelling compulsively with his superiors and mission “controls”.
Quiller is the most artificial of the major British thriller heroes. Like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, he was skillfully blueprinted.
He works out of the unnamed Whitehall building (“We don’t exist”) with the terrible tea in its basement canteen, its parsimonious old hags in their lisle stockings in Accounts, its administrative officers all more or less unappealing—Loman prissy, Egerton chronically melancholy and chilblained, Croder absolutely ruthless about sacrificing an agent when necessary; the invisible higher-ups; and a whole roster of other agents who never share a mission with Quiller but of whose doings and fates (the Lubyanka Prison; a brilliant dash across the frontier; guilt-ridden suicide) he is frequently conscious—a bunch of eccentrics and prima donnas, as he freely acknowledges.
Quiller never uses a handgun, never draws a death pill, doesn’t drink (except in the first two books), has been proven reliable under torture, knows a lot about the psycho-biological workings of the mind and body, drives brilliantly (Hall in his youth was an apprentice racing driver), is very reluctant to kill, has almost never killed except as a last resort in self-defence.
Other facts aren’t there at all. Where did he grow up, was he ever married, what does he read for pleasure (if he ever reads), does he go to movies, does he have any favourite possessions?
Who knows? Who cares? Primarily he lives for us as a voice, a voice that gives the impression of narrating things at the moment when they are happening. Nothing is recollected in tranquility. There is no tranquility. He is on the move almost constantly, taking planes, driving cars fast, running flat out (there’s a lot of running), flying a plane, clinging underneath a bus, parachuting, hang-gliding, even flying a jet fighter.
And when he isn’t doing such things, he is getting ready to do them, or tensely watching the movements of other people, or checking patiently to make sure that other people, of the wrong kind, aren’t after him.
It is all highly mannered, but also compelling. You feel that Hall/Trevor really knows what a lot of those things feel like; has projected himself into them kinaesthetically, may even have had some experience of those psychic force fields and the like that make fleeting appearances in the later books.
The best of the books are The Quiller Memorandum (1965; a.k.a. The Berlin Memorandum), The 9th Directive (1966, with the Duke of Edinburgh, here only The Person, as a kidnap victim), The Warsaw Document (1971; featuring a plausible-seeming Kim Philby, renamed), The Tango Briefing (1973), and Quiller KGB (1989). Even the weaker ones are full of the body’s doings, sufferings, and strivings.
Hall strains too hard at times to keep the reader breathless. And for awhile he was overworking the gimmick of ending a chapter with Quiller in a seemingly hopeless impasse and then, at the start of the next one, leaping ahead several hours or days to where he’s back in action, leaving you to wait for the explanation of what had gone right.
But the books are never dull, at least on a first reading. They read as if they were lived and not merely written.
I had worked out the range from the window to the yellow fire hydrant down at the intersection three blocks away. It was four hundred and twenty-six yards on a scale map of the city; four hundred and twenty-two by counting paces and calculating angles. The difference wasn’t enough to worry about. I had a sandbag rest for the gun just inside the window and a six-power telescopic sight. The gun itself was a star-gauge Springfield they had picked up for me; it would shoot better than inch groups at a hundred yards now that I had tuned it and learned what ammunition it liked. Most people don’t seem to know it, but guns are very particular about what you feed them; what’ll shoot like a dream through one musket will spray all over the landscape from another. This particular gas pipe liked the hundred-and-eighty-grain of Hi Vel No.2 powder which pushed it along, I figured, at better than twenty-eight hundred feet per second.
Line of Fire (1955)
Donald Hamilton is one of the three best American thriller writers, the other two being Dashiell Hammett and Ross Thomas. I talk about him at some length in “Writer at Work” and will try not to repeat myself here.
I will mainly comment on the Helm books, the twenty-eight-volume series about counterterrorist government agent Matt Helm that began in 1960 with Death of a Citizen and continued into the Nineties, interrupted only by The Mona Intercept (1980).
First, though, a word about the books of the Fifties and post-war Forties.
If you were going to read only one novel by Hamilton, it would have to be the superb Line of Fire, its prose a steady delight in its lucid, tactile rendering of episode after shapely episode.
You are there that Saturday morning in the empty downtown office with gunsmith Paul Nyquist and a minor hoodlum, awaiting the entry, at just over four hundred yards, of Governor Martin Maney;
—there when Nyquist briefly takes it on the lam to a lakeside resort when things go dramatically wrong after he shoots;
—there when he’s back in the city (Midwestern, by the feel of it, with lovely summer heat), coping with his friend Carl Gunderman, the crime boss who’d asked him to do the shooting, and the boss’s resentful right-hand man Brooks, and a cop or two, and a crusading reporter, and the young widow who—but read the book for yourself.
You won’t be disappointed.
And after that (OK, two books?) well, the best of his five excellent Westerns, Smoky Valley (1954), has a similar clarity, firmness of outline, physicality, and abundance of memorable scenes, and a similar ironical self-awareness on the part of its young hero, ex-Union Army Major John Parrish, out West to recuperate from a war wound, as he tries to maintain his self-defined way of life and avoid being drawn into moral crusading against the local predators—whom he handles with the same ruthless effectiveness as Nyquist when he finally does get drawn in.
It contains some of Hamilton’s finest writing.
And after that (so let’s have a trio), how about my own other special favourite, The Steel Mirror (1948), the best of the three fascinating books from the post-war Forties in which Hamilton was at work, with considerable moral delicacy, on relationships between young men and women brought together in dangerous situations that really test their characters. It’s a moving narrative of the growth of love.
It’s also lovely with the romance of long-distance driving across a continent that still was romantic, in the way that the America of Edward Hopper’s magnificent paintings was romantic—a romance that emerges from things, when rightly examined, rather than being simply draped over them.
This is an America, from Illinois down into Colorado, traversed with caring eyes, before the freeways and the Howard Johnsons and USA Today. Where an angry small-town sheriff in Illinois could be as scary as one down South. With a dash of espionage, and a layer of unresolved Occupied France guilt and accusation, and one of the sexiest bits of nudity in any thriller.
Oh, and don’t miss Assignment; Murder (1956; a.k.a. Assassins Have Starry Eyes), with its atomic physicists who actually feel like scientists, a lovingly evoked New Mexico, a marriage between two difficult individuals that oughtn’t to work and yet hearteningly does, and the toughest-minded hero-narrator, Jim Gregory, in all of Hamilton’s novels, not excepting the Helms.
When I say “tough-minded” here, I have in mind William James’ well-known distinction between the tough- and the tender-minded. Hamilton himself is a tough-minded writer, not a hardboiled one. There’s a difference. A hardboiled writer, Peter Rabe for example, can be more predictable and less challenging, because less intellectually demanding.
The Helm books weren’t the first important American series about a government secret agent. So far as I know, Edward S. Aarons started things off with Sam Durrell in Assignment to Disaster (1955), three years after the first James Bond, Casino Royale.
But the Helm series, uneven though it is, is far and away the best, in a genre that American writers, in contrast to British ones, mostly haven’t been at home in or handled well.
Years ago, W.H. Auden suggested that the English were natural-born spies. I suspect that for a lot of Americans, spying and secret agenting, with their chronic duplicity, have seemed sort of, well, sneaky and unsociable (“My son the spy”?) and should be left to Boris Badenov and Spy vs Spy. Spying is what is done to America by others.
The sympathies of American novelists and movie-makers have largely been reserved for individuals who become innocently and unpleasantly involved with the CIA or some even tackier organization, or are trying to resign from one, as in Richard Condon’s Three Days of the Condor.
What other American series were there in the Sixties, apart from the Durrell books, to set beside those of Britishers like Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Simon Harvester, Adam Hall, Brian Cleeve, Andrew York, William Garner, James Mitchell, and others? The names of Philip Atlee, E. Howard Hunt, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Mickey Spillane (in his Tiger Mann books) aren’t exactly a constellation lighting up the night sky.
A Helm short-list? Not easy. I haven’t reread all of them, and there’s plenty of disagreement among aficionados. But Death of a Citizen (1960), The Wrecking Crew (1960), The Removers (1961), The Ambushers (1963), The Interlopers (1969), The Intriguers (1972), The Intimidators (1974), The Revengers (1982), and, for its first two-thirds or so, The Detonators (1985), are all strong. Not a very short list, I’m afraid.
If I had to chose a single Helm to set beside the earlier titles that I picked, I guess it would have to be Death of a Citizen, written, by Hamilton’s own account, before he knew that there was going to be a series. Matthew Helm, Santa Fé writer and photographer, and former wartime operative, is morally still a free agent (no word-play intended), not someone carrying out, however flexibly, the directives of superiors.
In the later Seventies, Hamilton took time out to do The Mona Intercept (1980) and probably rethink the Helms after the unusually savage The Terrorizers (1977), precursor to John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper two years later. The Mona Intercept is a valiant try at a multiperspectival, fat-best-seller, airport-newsstand thriller, a splendid read in parts, less than convincing in others, though never dull; a thinking person’s precursor to Frederick Forsyth’s big-ship thriller, The Devil’s Alternative (1982).
After which Hamilton returned to Helm in 1981 with renewed vigour and at greater length, and kept going for thirteen more years. Self-correction is among his strengths as a writer. Several times a weak Helm has been followed by a strong one.
The Helm saga is at its most consistent in the eight books which appeared in a sustained burst of energy between 1960 and 1965. Helm and Hamilton are still figuring out what is entailed in living by a ruthless, task-oriented professional code while hungering for satisfying non-professional sexual relationships and trying to remain, up to a point, a reasonably decent and civilized human being.
Which Helm indeed, up to a point, is. He was a genuinely peaceable and loving husband and father during his marriage to gentle Beth before the savage past re-entered his life in Death of a Citizen. And if you were to meet him later on at a party, you would have no trouble taking him as the free-lance writer and photographer that in fact he continues to be as one of his covers.
What has really bothered some people about the books, I suspect, is not that Helm himself doesn’t wear horns (though there’s a nice bit of by-play in one of them about his “humorously Satanic” look), but that neither do most of the enemy agents whom he kills in the line of duty, sometimes after quite cordial exchanges. If he’d simply been ridding the world of strutting fascists and wicked multimillionaires, there wouldn’t be a problem.
Subsequently (partly perhaps from contamination from the four Dean Martin movies), the plots became more theatrical, with increased numbers of sexy women, a sinister underground laboratory in Scotland, sneaky Madame Ling and Mr. Soo, an evil Canadian (Canadian?) clinic in which Helm is tortured by an acromegalic woman doctor, a group of rich right-wingers who want to steal Baja California away from Mexico, and so on.
It’s all great fun, and of course there are touches of humour throughout the series, particularly in Helm’s quasi-filial relationship with Mac, his cool, grey-haired Washington boss, with his dark-grey suits, his coal-black eyebrows, and his fondness for linguistic precision. (The plot of The Intriguers partly hinges on someone’s use of the word “contact.”)
But there’s a slackening of intensity, and when Helm starts being complimentary about the foreign parts his missions take him to, instead of being mildly irritated by their foreign ways, you feel that the author, who obviously traveled himself in search of locations, may be courteously saying thanks for a pleasant stay. In Death of a Citizen the famous Menger Hotel beside the Alamo in San Antonio wasn’t even given a name. It was simply a hotel lobby and a bedroom where things happened. It might as well have been a Howard Johnson.
At times, too, we and Helm have to sit and listen while some character provides, in unnaturally tidy prose, plot information that hasn’t been sufficiently incorporated into the action. When it comes to plotting, particularly plotting by the bad guys, Hamilton doesn’t achieve the Swiss-clock precision of Ross Thomas. But then, who does?. Still I can’t help wondering why no Mafia smuggler had noticed those extra-heavy cans of dope in The Removers.
Nor is Hamilton’s ear for women’s speech in the Helms and The Mona Intercept, especially that of younger ones, always what it might be.
But Helm’s depictions of his non-violent outdoor activities are always convincing—fishing, sailing, surfing, driving a half-ton truck over rough terrain, crash-landing a small plane, and so forth. And almost every book contains stretches of lovely clear firm “action” narrative, often at the beginning and end.
Hamilton has also put a lot of thought into Mac’s anonymous Washington-based government organization, with its WWII origins, intelligent operational rules, and hideaway “ranch” in the Southwest for recuperation, psychological monitoring, and post-trauma surgery when necessary. (Helm’s body must carry a lot of interesting scars.) Unlike Quiller, Helm has mission dealings (often less than entirely amicable) with plenty of fellow operatives, both male and female, with various degrees of expertise.
Hamilton continues, too, the interplay of stereotypes (largely derived from books and movies) and actualities that he had been engaged in in the Forties works, where Humphrey Bogart epitomized masculine toughness. Helm has been to the movies and watched TV. He knows the clichés. He knows how he’s “supposed” to be behaving as a secret agent at times (and isn’t)—and how at times he’s indeed being Secret Agent Helm, sexual satyr.
At bottom, though, what interests him most, professionally, is the complicated mind-games that adversaries play with one another, the successful gambling of his life, from time to time, on non-reckless guesses about how other will behave, and the obligation to defend, to the unsympathetic, the continuing social necessity for persons like himself.
What we have in these books, in effect, is a war ethos in a peacetime setting.
It departs in various ways from the rules of civilized warfare, in which adversaries can withdraw from combat by surrendering or being physically incapacitated, and are then treated differently from combatants.
In Helm’s kind of war, there is no romantic chivalrousness. If you have to kill someone, it doesn’t matter what you do it with or whether from the front or the back.
At the same time, though, one of his deepest values is the distinction between “peace” and “war” when people other than adversarial pros are face to face. As long as someone behaves civilly Helm will treat them civilly in return—physically, at least. But the moment they open the door to violence, if only by producing a gun for purposes of intimidation, they cannot complain if the most vigorous counter-violence is used against them, regardless of their gender.
A peace-loving amateur with a little itty-bitty .22 that of course they don’t mean to use (but who’s to know?) can kill you just as dead as a seasoned pro with a Luger that he or she obviously has no reason to use at that point.
With pros, you are in fact less likely to have violence, most of the time, than with amateurs. Amateurs—or more accurately the amateurish—are playing with imperfect skills and insufficient commitment in games whose rules they don’t fully understand.
But if romantic sentimentality can be a handicap, at times a lethal one, so can machismo, revenge-seeking, and crusading. Helm goes on coping with them in others, resisting the occasional temptations in himself, and getting along in a civilized way, up to a point, with adversaries, especially female ones. In other words, avoiding being locked into long-term roles that preclude an enjoyment of present moments.
And a lot of interesting variations get played in the series on the kinds of sexual relationships in which both parties can achieve a reasonable degree of emotional sincerity even when each knows or suspects that the other has a contrary scenario.
Nor does Helm (who’s no superhero and makes plenty of mistakes) always act as tough as he talks or abide by his own and his organization’s ruthlessly goal-oriented principles.
In the longer post-Mona Intercept books, which I don’t think have had their due, there are interesting softenings of the edges of his personality, though even before them it often turns out that some seemingly callous bit of behaviour had a humane motive behind it.
With more pages in the later books to turn around in, Matt can make more allowance for the weaknesses of some of his now more fully modeled, and mostly younger, fellow operatives, as well as experience real grief himself at the loss of a couple of beloved woman.
In The Detonators (1985), after its almost uniformly strong and clear first two-thirds, and one of the most vivid scenes of effective violence in the whole series, he comes attractively close to giving way to the sentimentality that an even tougher-minded pro attributes to him in an amusing scene of horn-locking under the sardonic gaze of Mac.
Like Travis McGee, but more complexly, Helm is a voice, an ongoing voicing across three decades, commenting on things as they come up, new places, new experiences, new manners and morals (particularly sexual ones), expressing preferences and prejudices freely, but not locked into them, and pleasantly surprised when something proves to be better than expected—a self-aware, self-critical, and, yes, civilized voice, with a variety of registers in it that are in fact more true to how we actually organize perception than the monotone of formal “realism.”
Personally I think the voice is best in the early Sixties books, when it tends to be in the irritation mode, and also later on in Helm’s explicitly maturer incarnation in the post-Mona books.
Like McGee (but more affirmatively) and unlike Quiller, Helm has gone on evolving. If he didn’t, he and his creator wouldn’t have mattered so much to so many intelligent readers.
Let us hope that his publishers will now, post-9/11, and with the fin-de-siècle Nineties behind us, relent and let us have the final volume in the Helm saga.
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.
Red Harvest (1927)
Hammett is the Grand Master of American thrillers, as central and generative to them as Buchan was for British ones, and more intelligent.
He experimented restlessly, did lots of things brilliantly, got bored, stopped. He was deeply romantic, deeply ironical, but in a way that protected rather than undercut his romanticism. He wrote out of, and was energized by, the staccato, still optimistic Twenties, when being confidently on the make (in contrast to the edgy nasty opportunism of James M. Cain’s born losers in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity) was the natural thing to do.
His favourite site was that most romantic of American cities, San Francisco, with its bay and waterfront, its consciousness of the Orient, its Chinatown, its easy access to alcohol, its Gold Rush memories, and behind it, eastwards, the Colorado and Montana mining towns and their ferocious labour wars. It was a thrillerish equivalent of Joyce’s Dublin.
His preferred types were working stiffs, dapper con men and gamblers, jaunty roughnecks with the kind of devil-may-care courage that a lot of the Wobblies had displayed. When he moved East, he lost his creative roots. His only post-Twenties novel, The Thin Man (1934), is, figuratively speaking, a thin book.
He knew a whole milieu intimately, knew how criminals’ minds worked, knew that most of them were non-monstrous human beings moved by perfectly intelligible motives and essentially no different from lots of people trying to make money, sometimes a lot of money, on the right side of the law.
He knew how it felt to inhabit their bodies too—the tensions, the alertness, the swaggering or pseudo-humble body English, the readiness when necessary to engage in violence, the ability to absorb a remarkable amount of physical punishment without flinching.
He could hold in his mind’s eye a whole thieves’ kitchen of individuals tense with suspicion, as in the remarkable episode in Blood Money (1927) in which the assorted heavies and cracksmen are waiting in Larrouy’s speakeasy to be paid after knocking over a city.
And he relished the speech of criminals discriminatingly. There is none of that clutter of now long-outdated thieves jargon that you find in weaker Black Mask writers.
He had, in a sense, a criminal mind himself, an adversarial rebellious mind bored by stasis, aware that the wealth of the wealthy, particularly out West, was generally ill-gotten, aware too that the forces of law-and-order were as likely as not on the take, and fascinated by short cuts, ingenious schemes, skillful lying, and the deft manipulation of others to one’s own advantage.
If the Continental Op and Sam Spade are technically speaking on the right rather than the wrong side of the law, it is because catching criminals is more permanently interesting for them than being ones or straddling the border of legality like the professional gambler Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, friend, advisor, and helper of the city boss Paul Madvig.
It offers a number of the same satisfactions: manipulation; imagining (reconstructively and three-dimensionally) the plottings and doings of criminals, so that you can see in your mind’s eye where someone’s car must have been at 3.35 p.m. on that fatal afternoon, or which way a bank robber was facing when he was shot in the back; and always the spice of danger, the need to avoid being shot or stabbed or slugged, the possibility of using fists or guns oneself.
In Red Harvest, notoriously, the Op goes way over the frontier and becomes a predator among predators, caught in the momentum of the increasingly murderous game that he himself has largely initiated. Thomas J. Roberts’ An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction (1990) contains a brilliant brief analysis of one of the more equivocal episodes.
Hammett’s best short stories before he turned to novel writing are the ones about the Op, the fat little operative in the Continental Detective Agency (a.k.a. the Pinkertons).
He never settled into a formula in them. In some the Op goes off to investigate mysterious doings at a rich client’s country home; in some, investigates a middle-class urban domestic murder or robbery; in some, glimpses something odd as he’s going about his city business and follows it up; in some, is called in by the police, usually his friend Detective-Sergeant O’Gar, who think the Agency might be interested.
“One Hour” is a five-page short-short, in which the Op solves a whole case in an hour, and not just by cool ratiocination. The fight in it is splendid. “The Gutting of Coufignal” is a knock-over-a-town caper, ablaze with gunfire and nighttime hither-and-yonning. “Corkscrew” is a Western. The Op even gets to ride a bucking bronco in it and have a main street-showdown.
At times the tensions between conventional detective-story elements, romantic-exotic elements (Europe, Mexico, the Orient), and gritty, hard-sidewalk and cheap-hotel-rooms elements is too strong and one or other of them predominates, so that stories become over-ripe or jejune.
But the best of them are masterpieces of elegant concreteness, each with its own shapely individuated central situation, each presented throughout in terms of action, rather than collapsing at times, as do some of the weaker ones, into extended expositions by the narrating Op of what had really been going on in the mystery that he has now solved. I have named three of the best. “Dead Yellow Women,” “Fly-Paper,” and “The Whosis Kid” are some of the others.
But short stories became too constricting for him, and in The Dain Curse, Blood Money, and Red Harvest he knitted short stories together into longer narratives.
The Dain Curse (1929 ) is the only outright failure among his novels, as distinct from the competent-but-thin Thin Man.
The three stories that he piggy-backs on each other involve far too much suummarizing exposition, expositions that are further weakened (where a serious attending to them is concerned) by the baroque final exposition of what had really been going on and connecting them below the obvious level. The literary-aesthetic stuff reminds us how embarrassingly sub-Ninetiesish and parochial the “advanced” literary culture of California could be. And in the first of the three stories, someone else—the literary young narrator in “The Nails in Mr. Cayterer” perhaps—seems temporarily to have borrowed the name of the fat little Fatima-smoking, steak-eating, poker playing Op.The only distinguished part of the whole farrago is the episode in which the Op successfully cures a young woman of her morphine addiction.
The interconnected narratives in Blood Money (a.k.a. The Big Knockover, 1927) are far more readable, but the seams are heavily stitched and the novella feel like a trial run for Red Harvest.
But Red Harvest (also 1927) is the near-perfect clean-up-the-crooked-city novel, its only weak spots the at times implausible-sounding dialogue of the curiously asexual Dinah Brand (supposedly everyone’s favourite the-money-first-please lady of easy virtue) and a needless brief intrusion by a shyster lawyer. It’s an aficionado’s banquet of one shapely episode after another, each of them usually quite short, involving sharply individuated professional crooks, bent cops, and others, with the fat little Op busily at work among them, solving crimes, setting the professionals at one another’s throats, and trying to keep his own skin unpunctured.
Hammett’s two “real” novels from the Twenties are in some ways more brilliant, in some ways odder, in some ways even more equivocal.
The Maltese Falcon is the first and most remarkable of the tough private-eye novels, though it isn’t the conventional I-took-the-first-step-and-then-I-took-the-second-step case-solving investigation, but rather a story about a private-eye trying to keep his head above water among adventure-story-elements. You can imagine a similar narrative set in Shanghai or Macao or some other suitably exotic locale, with the fans turning slowly overhead and the local police appropriately suspicious about the whole crew.
The novel suffers a bit now from being impossible to read without hearing and seeing Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Elisha Cook, Jr., as Wilmer, Sidney Greenstreet as the Fat Man, Ward Bond as Sergeant Tom Polhaus. And Spade and Brigid O’Shaugnessy are not quite Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, even when they’re speaking, as they do, the same lines.
You keep feeling you ought to know what the book Spade’s up to at each point, particularly in his dealings with the chronically untruthful O’Shaugnessy, since he’s Bogie. But he isn’t, and part of what keeps the novel fresh and always slightly askew is Hammett’s rigidly adhered-to technique of describing only Spade’s external and observable behaviour: his words, the movements of his body, the shifts in the configuration of his eyes, eyebrows, mouth, facial lines.
A lot of the time you don’t know whether he’s really angry, or miming anger, or angry but using his anger for manipulative purposes. Nor do you know how far he’s seeing and planning ahead, how far simply improvising and trying to find his bearings.
But the dialogue itself is always impeccable and often brilliant. The exchanges between Spade and Brigid, the elaborate piece of games-playing between Spade, Dundy, Polhaus, Brigid, and Cairo (“We really fooled them that time, boys and girls!”), the conversation between Spade and Polhaus afterwards over beer and pigs-feet were unprecedented.
Moreover, the dialogue is never merely verbal, as it too often is in Chandler. Something is always going on, the speakers (apart from the Fat Man’s now somewhat tedious account of the Falcon’s history) are never simply conveying information or cracking wise, someone is always intently trying to affect someone else—persuade, intimidate, soothe, seduce, anger. This is a novel about trying all the time to make other people do things.
And though the on-stage violences, as distinct from the off-stage shootings, are “small” ones, they are charged with feeling as one person invades another’s territory—Spade “dreamily” holding Joel Cairo and deftly knocking him unconscious, Dundy (under extreme provocation) crossing a major boundary and hitting Spade, Spade taking Wilmer’s gun away from him, Brigid gashing Cairo’s cheek, Wilmer kicking the doped Spade on the temple, Spade knocking the luckless Wilmer unconscious.
The police too are real individuals with whom Spade has ongoing personal relationships, and not a mere semi-comic or sinister chorus. This is never the novel of simple binary opposites that Chandler turned the private-eye novel into: private/public, purity/impurity, love/justice, honor/corruption, gentlemanliness/boorishness, etc. You can’t imagine Marlowe, if he had a partner, having an affair with his partner’s wife. Or, for that matter, having an affair at all.
The Glass Key, in which Hammett likewise confines himself to an externalized narrative, is also problematic. Here he has given up both the baroque pyrotechnics of Red Harvest and the adventure-story melodramatics of the Falcon side of The Maltese Falcon—the fabulous history of the jewel-encrusted golden bird, the intricate glimpsed double and triple-crossings of Guttman, Cairo, and O’Shaughnessy as they made their criminal ways through Europe, the Middle East, the Orient.
We are now in a wholly realistic-seeming Prohibition America of political machines, stolen elections, speakeasies, gambling joints, and public officials who keep one eye turned on the political bosses or would-be bosses and the other on the press and the electorate.
Hammett knows this environment too; knows how things work; knows that such a system is in part a response to genuine needs or desires and isn’t simply the sink of iniquity, the straightforward absence of all good civic order, of the polemics of scandalized Progressivist reformers; knows that by and large the crooks, both at the top and at the bottom, aren’t monsters but are simply people going about their normal lives in ways that for the most part would be the same in non-illegal contexts.
Paul Madvig has a likeable, independent-minded mother who scolds him from time to time but stays out of “men’s affairs,” and a problem daughter whom, like any father, he does not understand. Violences may and do occur from time to time, but for the most part people are civil to one another. There isn’t any of the “I’ll get you for this, you dirty rat” rhetoric of a novel like W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar. This is essentially an Irish-type America, not an Italian one. (One of the minor oddities of Hammett’s writings is the near-total absence from them of Italian names.)
Hammett knows Ned Beaumont from the inside, knows what it would be like to be a professional gambler, probably from a city like his native Baltimore, for whom gambling is a whole mode of life, a structuring mode, with its own imperatives and taboos, especially the imperative to keep playing and never allow anything to weaken your nerve, regardless of short-term setbacks.
The imperative to keep moving forward and never acknowledge weakness manifests itself in other ways, too, including (one of the greatest episodes in any thriller) Beaumont’s persisting again and again, despite being knocked down again and again, in painfully getting up from the bed where he has been tortured and trying to make his way out of the room where he is held prisoner—and finally making it.
The moral problem, of course, is that Beaumont’s loyalty to Madvig, though it doesn’t violate his own code of honour, is an active, advising, duties-performing loyalty to someone who when all is said and done is still a key player in a basically indefensible system to which we never catch a glimpse of any viable alternative. Crime pays, and at the end of the novel Madvig is looking forward to getting back at the next election the city of which he has temporarily (because of his unwillingness to listen to Beaumont) lost control.
So that when you identify, as you feel invited to, with Beaumont—though here again, as with Spade, there are areas of ambiguity in his conduct—you are liable to find yourself wondering exactly what it is that you are identifying with.
It is not a bleak novel.There is a good deal of decency in it, and some gratifying successes, such as Beaumont’s recovery, against heavy odds, of the money that a welching bookie owes him. But it all does rather hang over a void.
It is the most enigmatic of thrillers, all the more because of the sympathies that later brought Hammett before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and into a six-month stint in prison for taking the Fifth and refusing to cooperate in their investigation.
The Thin Man (1934) is probably brilliant of its conventional kind. But even Hammett could get only so much mileage our of an alcoholic ex-investigator who’s dropped out to live off a rich wife and manage her money, and a rich wife who never ever complains about his drinking and gaily joins him in it. And Manhattan obviously bored him.
His shift away from his rowdy rough-textured Twenties material to a conventional detective novel about an uninteresting victim and boring suspects paralleled the shift in movies away from the pre-Code coarse vitality of works like Rowland Brown’s Blood Money (no relation to Hammett’s own novella of that name).
Charming though William Power and Myrna Loy were, the first Thin Man movie is pedestrian. The second one, After the Thin Man, is much better, and draws on earlier Hammett material.
The non-criminal and autobiographical long short story Poppy (ca 1947), which was written while Hammett was enduring political persecution, poverty, and alcohol-intensified ill-health, is admirable in its stoic lucidity, and is in effect a complex explanation of why Hammett can no longer write anything except this particular story that he is now writing after a twelve-year silence.
Since there is no plot to speak of, and since it is largely about Hammett (or his narrator) preventing things from going anywhere, characterizing it as unfinished seems pretty much a technicality.
Silk chattered briskly at the late afternoon sunlight glowing on these bleak Russian hills and though he loved little children dearly he wished this bunch would scram. These mites of the Soviet frontier regions sniffed about for agents like other wee angels grubbed for worms or tiddlers.
Their questions had already kept him squatting with his back to a boulder for over an hour. They sprawled on their carefree bottoms, an intent half circle of innocent menace less than two strides away, enclosing him like choosey vultures awaiting choice tidbits. With oldfashioned politeness they had refused to share his snack of goat’s-milk cheese, chiqu maize bread, and cherries. None desired greater pleasures than the delights of hearing his voice and seeing his face. Both should be deeply embedded in memory by now. Each of the five small boys stared at him relentlessly. Their three sweet sisters, six shiny black pigtails waist long, did their own jobs of getting to know his aged charm.
Their shrewd Arab eyes unsettled him more than anything which had happened on his overland prowl to Samarquand and back. One wrong word now could lead to months of interrogation and a long holiday in Lubianka or whichever gaol was fashionable. He was not amused. It would be just his luck to be bunkered by other people’s darlings killing an afternoon while their aul schoolmistress nursed her rheumatism or broken heart.
Red Road (1963)
Harvester is unique. There is simply no-one else like him among thriller writers. His best novels, the ones with “Road” in the title (as in Red Road and Treacherous Road), are spy novels set in exotic parts—the Middle East principally, but there is a Moscow Road and several are set in the Far East. The heroes are often disguised as native inhabitants and speak what Hawthorne in Our Man in Havana would call the lingo, but the novels are not conventionally glamorous.
In contrast to Quiller, Dorian Silk, the failed playwright and part-time-journalist hero of the Road series, is usually not literally on the run, or creeping up on some secret installation, or desperately trying to get across a heavily guarded frontier, or infiltrating an organization. The pace tends to be slow, at times glacially slow. There is a good deal of walking, and waiting, and low-keyed talking with “natives,” and eating greasy ethnic food in cheap restaurants, and sleeping in scruffy bug-infested hotels with temperamental plumbing. Even the occasional hand-to-hand fights are likely to be slow, a matter of clumsy grapplings and punchings, in which no-one is killed. Silk is no martial-arts expert.
There are also, when Silk is in his journalist role in countries like Egypt or South Vietnam, likely to be a fair number of inconclusive conversations, often with women, in which the parties are trying to figure each other out, conversations which up to a point are normal conversations.
At times you find yourself floundering through a patch of journalistic information-giving about the appearance of a locale and the ways of its inhabitants. At times, too, Harvester’s prose can be so casually idiosyncratic that you feel (wrongly, I think) that it would have benefited from more copy-editing. And frankly I don’t believe in Silk’s ability to get up such widely various languages so well that he can always pass as a local. The Vietnam novel Battle Road (1967) is particularly suspect in that regard. Maybe Harvester should have assigned it to another character. Nameless Road (1969), about Mongolia, is even worse.
In other words, reader be warned; these are mostly not Well Made Novels.
But they can also be extraordinarily good ones, and they are almost certainly the most morally salubrious of all spy novels.
Their slowness isn’t the programmatic slowness of later Ambler (after he’d lost his touch), or Somerset Maugham’s dreary Ashenden, or Berkeley Mather’s curious A Spy for a Spy, whose hero must be the most chronically irritable hero of any thriller. Things do happen, surprises can occur, and when they do, Harvester can bring things vividly to life in a way that make you really care, care humanly, about what’s going on.
When Erskine Childers’ Davis and Carruthers in The Riddle of the Sands scramble around, more or less for the hell of it, on an exposed North Sea sandbank with waves crashing on its margins, you’re indeed there. But it’s a simple thereness, and so for the most part are the therenesses of Quiller. He’s on the run in icy Moscow and wants to get away from his pursuers, etc.
But Harvester can take you into Silk’s discovery of his beloved director Swann, kicked and beaten almost to death in a Cairo alley in Treacherous Road (1966), and you share Silk’s shock and grief.
And you are totally there in his fear and fury after his beloved Fatima Fahmy is kidnapped from her Surrey mansion in Zion Road (1968) and smuggled out of the country because of police incompetence. And are there again, subsequently, when the two of them and several wealthy Jews, also kidnapped, are the prisoners of an Egyptian patrol in the Sinai Desert during the Six Days war, led by a dazed and exhausted Egyptian sergeant who is struggling to do the right thing after the rest of his regiment has been wiped out by Israeli planes.
And the reason why you do care at these and other times is that you really care for the characters. Silk, and Giles Priest, and Swann, and a number of other British agents that we come across from time to time in the books are patriots—patriotic even though they may detest a number of aspects of British society in the Sixties and Seventies. And they are decent, sensitive, responsive men; as is, fundamentally, that Egyptian sergeant.
Harvester has also given us what must surely be one of the most insufferable men in thriller fiction, the vain, peacocky, mincing, vicious, unreachably obtuse and self-satisfied writer Geoffrey Woolf, Silk’s temporary superior in Unsung Road (1961), a teeth-grinding novel of frustration and delay.
Harvester is especially fine with respect to Silk’s relationship with women. Silk quite simply likes women as people, and feels that women in Moslem countries have had a very bad deal.
And there are memorable women in the novels—Shamz Nayim the gorgeous Afghan feminist in Silk Road (1962); Fatima Fahmy, immensely rich, utterly without side, and thoroughly nice (I mean it, you really like her); Grace Statler, the charming young American archaelogist in Sahara Road (1972), traumatized sexually by her discovery two or three years before of the bodies of the rest of her immediate family killed horribly by a Manson-type gang; Hagah, the gentle, totally uneducated Yemenite girl coping bravely with problems utterly alien to her; Yeu-Marie Labouret in Battle Road (1967), of mixed French and Vietnam blood and bitterly aware of the suspicion with which she is viewed.
The conversations are often masterly, and when people sleep together you believe that they genuinely enjoy being heterosexual. Moreover, as you come to realize after awhile, the kinds of slowness that I spoke of earlier are simply part of the general realism of the books. Things, for the most part, do not happen in them in the way things do in thrillers. But they are thrillers all the same, and among the best.
Some other pleasures in them: Swann’s patient handling of Silk, who has a penchant for tirades against their masters in London; the excellence of Harvester’s doing of Americans, including American speech; the skinny, scruffy, indomitable, adorable young cat Tanya who Silk picks up, or who picks Silk up, during his disguised progression through Moslem Russia in Red Road, Giles Priest’s phrasing of his note to Dorian about the death of Priest’s baby daughter; the episode of long-distance shooting in Afghanistan; in Silk Road ; the dazzling six-page rendering of Silk’s concussed and falling-down-drunk mental processes in Unsung Road.
According to Donald McCormick in Who’s Who in Spy Fiction (1977), “The Russians regarded [Harvester] as serious and compulsory reading for the KGB.”
The best of the books are Silk Road, Red Road, Treacherous Road, and Zion Road.
There were three keys on the transmission hump of the XK-E. The driver touched the one nearest the gearshift boot. The fat man, cramped in the passenger bucket, squinted at it in the moonlight.
“Back door,” the driver said. “Three steps, aluminum railing, no outer door. No alarm. You got a problem of being seen. There’s a whole mess of apartments back up on the place, and they got mostly kids in them and them fucking bastards never go to bed, it seems like. What can I tell you, except be careful.”
“Look,” the fat man said, “I’m gonna act like I was minding my own business. This is that you say it is, tomorrow morning nobody’s even gonna know I was there. Nobody’ll remember anything.”
“Uh huh,” the driver said, “but that’s tomorrow. First you got to get through tonight. It’s tonight I’d be worried about, I was you.”
“I’ll decide what I’m gonna worry about,” the fat man said.
The Digger’s Game (1973)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1971), The Digger’s Game (1973), The Judgment of Deke Hunter (1976), The Rat on Fire (1981), what can I say, I don’t have time to reread them, they can’t be skimmed.
Higgins did it first and did it best, the way B. Kliban did cats, did them from the inside, knew them, loved them, practically was a cat. His cats have weight, presence. You know a guitar-playing cat would sing, “Love to eat them mousies,/ Mousies what I love to eat./ Bite they little heads off…/ Nibble on they tiny feet.” Elmore Leonard comes along later and makes things tidier, more formulaic, more, of course, filmable. Sort of Garfield.
Boston-area thieves, cops, dons, shylocks, stoolies, Feds, their dialogue reading as though transcribed from tape recordings, hard to do, hard to get your stories told that way, who’s doing or did or plans to do what to whom when.
And Higgins brings it off and lets them be there as individuals, stupid, dangerous, ruthless, whatever, and not all one thing, they have their ongoing daily concerns, problems with kids and wives and mortgage payments, and aren’t always interacting with one another in the same mode either, things segue from ordinary social chat and reminiscing into menace, reminders of money owed and baseball bats or worse, or plans for retiring associates who’ve become a liability.
Not to be missed--the wincingly funny account in The Digger’s Game of one of those utterly appallingly stupid episodes (at Vegas) that you look back on later and wonder how you could possibly have done it and yet at the time it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to be doing.
Big Joe Turner was singing a rock-and-roll adaptation of Dink’s Blues. The loud licking rhythm blasted from the jukebox with enough heat to melt bones.
A woman leapt from her seat in a booth as though the music had stuck her full of tacks. She was a lean black woman clad in a pink jersey dress and red silk stockings. She pulled up her skirt and began doing a shake dance as though trying to throw off the tacks one by one.
Her mood was contagious. Other women jumped down from their high stools and shook themselves into the act. The customers laughed and shouted and began shaking too. The aisle between the bar and the booths became alive with shaking bodies.
Big Smiley, the giant bartender, began doing a flatfooted locomotive shuffle up and down behind the bar.
The colored patrons of Harlem’s Dew Drop Inn on 129th Street and Lennox Avenue were having the time of their lives that crisp October night.
The Real Cool Killers (1959)
Himes’ Harlem novels are powerful, wild, poetic, unique. A Rabelasian cast of whores, preachers (real and fake), lovers, pimps, madams, thieves, funeral-parlor owners, transvestites, old folks, gamblers, bartenders, and others are going intensely about their lives, eating, stealing, lying, dreaming, conning, having sex, killing one another, and being marvellously difficult when cops are trying to get information from them.
Sex, race, religion, money, all vivid presences.
Detectives Grave-Digger Johnson and his partner Coffin Ed Jones, with his acid-scarred face and berserk rages when he feels threatened, were the original “wild” cops—tall, gangling, flat-footed, with their shiny long-barreled revolvers (no-one in Harlem respects a small one), their quickness to sock people, their street-smarts, their deep friendship, their sovereign contempt for “downtown” and all but a handful of white cops, their shiny black suits, their beat-up car, their honesty.
The books are rich in examples of what French movie critics call l’insolite—the unusual, the unprecedented—that are fantastic but possible —such as a strong-arm man with a hunting knife stuck through his head walking dazed and voiceless along a crowded street. There are marvelous fight sequences and car-chases like those during the great age of Hong-Kong movies (ca 1987-1994), particularly Ringo Lam’s, where you also had some of the same rich social texture and disregard for legal niceties and the wishes of superiors...
And there’s great street-theatre (funerals, revival meetings, race riots). And baroque scams. And lots of strong women characters. And succulent food. And a generous tolerance for human frailties.
And the books are funny, lastingly funny, especially in the dialogues, not because characters are cracking wise (when they try, it usually backfires), but because of the seethe of emotions, the brazen lying, the feigned dumbness, the actual stupidities, the mutual incomprehensions, the manipulatings, especially, but not exclusively, when it’s white-and-black (including the sympathetic but frustrated Lieutenant Anderson trying to cope simultaneously with Jones, Johnson, and members of the more or less criminal fraternity).
Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965) is probably Himes’ most popular novel—an elaborate interweaving of (among other things) a Back-to-Africa scam, a serious Back-to-the-South white visitation, a hijacked trove of $87,000, and a stolen and re-stolen bale of cotton.
But Himes is at his most poetic and unpredictable in The Real Cool Killers and The Big Gold Dream (both 1959). And his first and best book, A Rage in Harlem (1957), is a cover-to-cover delight, the escalating misadventures of a fat, young, incredibly naïve funeral parlor assistant whose stubborn determination to get back the $1500 dollars out of which he is conned by tough crooks and his inveterately dishonest girlfriend Imabelle involves him and his con-artist twin brother and us in a tour of an extraordinary region of—of what? the mind? the actual Harlem? both? Again I’m reminded of the incomparable Hong Kong cinema.
The comedy isn’t bloodless. Guns are fired, knives used, blood flows, acid is thrown in Coffin Ed’s face, people die. But the swift-moving action scenes build in the way that they used to in the great American silent shorts, one move or stumble leading with perfect comedic rightness to the next, and the next, and the next. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson, who gave us marvelous comedies like The Silent Woman and Bartholomew Fair, would probably have relished it.
On the cover of The Real Cool Killers, the distinguished Provençal novelist Jean Giono, himself richly poetic, is quoted as calling A Rage in Harlem “the most extraordinary novel I have read in a long time,” and saying, “I give all the Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck for this Chester Himes.”
Well, I don’t suppose we really need Steinbeck and Dos Passos all that much, do we? I mean, if it came to the crunch?
A Rage in Harlem received a French first-prize award for crime fiction, and several of these books first appeared in translation in France, a year or two before the American originals. All eight Coffin Ed and Grave Digger books are worth reading.
I don’t know. Certainly I’m not going on Williams’s calculations. It may have been a week before—or a day. Anyway, sometime before he disappeared, for no good reason I could think of, Henry had given me an Egyptian ten-piastre note: the remains, among other pieces of grubby paper—hotel bills, ticket stubs and so on—from one of his trips abroad. He’d thrown the mess down on my office table, just after he’d come back from Egypt—from one of his ‘missions’, as he described his visits to that part of the world which interested him most. When he went further afield—east or west—he talked simply about having been on a holiday, as if the only real work he did took place in the Middle East. And that was probably true, though I didn’t know much about his work. We were friends in other ways.
The Private Sector (1971)
Live and learn—sometimes.
A copy of Hone’s The Private Sector (tenth printing, I see) had been on my shelf for a number of years, in a special mental category. I recalled it as a long, slow, unusually literate (a.k.a. literary) read, with lots of stuff about personal relationships and local colour in post-colonial Egypt that seemed a bit in excess of the task of telling a story of espionage and betrayal. And I associated it, lazily, with the Joseph Hone who wrote the excellent biography of W.B.Yeats, so that it felt like a one-shot oddity, a “sport.”.
Well, I should have been more leery about names. After all, I myself have felt at times like one of those three bats in Pogo arguing among themselves as to which is who.
There are in fact two Hones, and The Private Sector is very good, an uncommonly sophisticated treatment of matters too complicated for me to attempt a summary now. In its seeming knowledgeability about government organizations, foreign parts, and socio-sexual relationships, it is a far superior doing of what Graham Greene was attempting in The Human Factor. Hone even gets away with shifting from a first-person to third-person narratives.
The way things work out in it is melancholy, but there isn’t the programmatic cynicism, boring away like death-watch beetles, that people seem to identify with “realism” when it comes to espionage, at least the spying by “our” side.
I’m delighted to see, after doing a bit of last-minute browsing, that Hone is also the author of The Oxford Gambit, The Paris Trap, The Sixth Directive, and The Valley of the Fox. I look forward to reading them—reading them, not studying them. I shall take my time with them. Hope springs eternal.
It was about half-past twelve when I returned to the Albany as a last desperate resort. The scene of my disaster was much as I had left it. The baccarat counters still strewed the table, with the empty glasses and the loaded ash-trays. A window had been opened to let the smoke out, and was letting in the fog instead. Raffles himself had merely discarded his dining-jacket for one of his innumerable blazers. Yet he arched his eyebrows as though I had dragged him from his bed.
“Forgotten something?” said he, when he saw me on the mat.
“No,” I said, pushing past him without ceremony. And I led the way into his room with an impudence amazing to myself.
“Not come back for your revenge, have you? Because I’m afraid I can’t give it you single-handed. I was sorry myself that the others —.”
We were face to face by his fireside, and I cut him short.
“Raffles,” said I, “you may well be surprised at my coming back in this way and at this hour. I hardly know you. I was never in your rooms before to-night. But I fagged [no sexual connotations[ for you at school, and you said you remembered me. Of course that’s no excuse; but will you listen to me—for two minutes?”
It is easy to forget that Hornung wasn’t invented by George Orwell, who in a famous essay played the Raffles stories off against James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, (which wasn’t the “brilliant” book that Orwell saw it as, though permanently establishing a type situation in thrillerdom— kidnapping and rape, going on from Faulkner’s Sanctuary—and filmed three times).
Hornung’s darkside mirror-imaging of the Holmes-Watson relationship is still good reading, surprisingly detailed in some of the technicalities of theft, and richly fin-de-siècle in its juxtaposing of the Nietzschean aestheticism of the master-cricketer and ex-public-man thief A.J. Raffles with the vulgar displays of the new plutocracy, the sinisterness of organized crime (the proto-Mafia), the coarseness of common-or-garden criminals, and the ebb-and-flow guilt feelings of his acolyte Bunny. (Oh those English nicknames!)
Hornung’s prose is not at all camp, and is a significant way-station on the road from Robert Louis Stevenson, via the Sherlock Holmes books, to.Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, after which the rest is thriller history.