Sunday 30 August 2020

The Removers by Donald Hamilton

Donald Hamilton is rising swiftly in my estimation. Soaring, in fact.

I have previously written about the first and second novels in his Matt Helm series.

These are nominally spy novels, but essentially they're hardboiled adventure thrillers.  

Matt Helm is the American equivalent of James Bond, given license by his government to kill the enemies of the state, receiving orders from the head of a shadowy government department.

But beyond that he is an entirely different creature from Bond. A blue-collar guy who drives a pickup truck, Helm may travel to exotic locations like 007 (as he did to Sweden in The Wrecking Crew) but he also emphatically has a home turf and roots in the way that Bond doesn't.

Matt Helm comes from the American Southwest, and when he's writing about that milieu, Hamilton is particularly acute and effective.

Helm also has a domestic background — a wife and kids — in the way that James Bond never did.

In fact, in my post about the second Helm novel I was bemoaning the fact that Helm's divorce meant this family background was history. I wrote, rather sententiously, "domestic normality to contrast with bloodthirsty action in a thriller provides an interesting dynamic and an ideal counterpoint."

I spoke too soon. Here we are, in the very next book in the series, and the entire plot is triggered by Helm's wife Beth and their kids, who are in jeopardy. A rather sardonic form of jeopardy...

Because, by a delectable stroke of irony, after dumping and divorcing Matt due to his violent history, it turns out Beth's new husband is just as bad.

Ostensibly a respectable rancher with a large spread outside Reno, Lawrence Logan is revealed to actually be the murderous ex-enforcer for a high ranking Mafia thug.

When his past catches up with him, and therefore her and the kids, Beth turns to Matt Helm for help.

In my last post I also made a slightly snide comment that "Hamilton isn't quite in the class of John D. MacDonald or Charles Williams."

I fear I'm going to have to eat my words concerning this, too. The writing in The Removers is simply terrific. The only false note is Logan's rather fake British accent. (But then, Logan himself is supposed to be something of a fake.)

And the characters are just wonderful, and enchantingly described.

I am thinking in particular of an Afghan hound called Sheik, looking "rather like a greyhound with shaggy cowboy chaps on. It had a long, narrow inbred head and big pleading brown eyes... standing erect on its hind legs... as tall as the girl on the other end of the leash."

The girl on the other end of the leash is Moira Fredericks, the daughter of the high ranking Mafia thug mentioned earlier.

But despite this, or more likely because of it, Moira is one of the good guys.

She has "disturbing sea green eyes" and a mildly tragic backstory in New York where she "was about ready to jump off one of the bridges, it was just a matter of deciding which one, they've got plenty to choose from in that damn town."

She was saved by adopting Sheik, "the wildest, meanest, most difficult dog" they had at a kennel she happened to drive past.

Muriel is perceptive, and a great, great character. She certainly has Matt Helm's number, assessing him as "Something kind of special, in a a gruesome sort of way." 

Moira and Sheik are the best things in the book. And the scene where Moira and Matt drive out into the Nevada wilderness, letting Sheik off the leash and allowing him to hunt, may well be the most memorable sequence:

"The transition from the gaudy night life of Reno to the dark, silent desert nearby was almost shocking... an arid landscape that might have been the surface of the moon... vaguely illuminated by the threat of dawn in the east."

When they let him out of the car, Sheik stretches, "his long body flexed like Robin Hood's bow." Soon the dog is running "faster than any deer ever dreamed of." And he's hardly got started...

"Wait till he cuts in the afterburners," says Moira, wryly alluding to a fuel injection system in a jet engine. And the "lean grey dog, running silently, its long fur rippling with the wind of its own motion" is like "pale death flowing over the ground."

Of course, this book isn't about Moira Fredericks and her Afghan hound. They're subsidiary characters.

The real thrust of the story is a neat intertwining of three plot strands — the danger faced by Helm's family, the gangster past of Beth's new husband, and espionage taking place at the nuclear weapons research facilities in the Nevada desert.

It's a story that moves fast and delivers elegant, logical surprises. It's supremely well told, with vignettes of savagely violent action and heartbreaking tragedy — it actually made me cry at one point, sitting in my garden holding a vintage paperback in one hand and rubbing my loyal cat under the chin with the other.

And Beth comes out of the shadow of being merely Helm's ex-wife and emerges as something of an extraordinary character in her own right.

But this novel belongs to the sardonic green-eyed Moira, and Sheik, one of the most memorable animals in fiction. When the plot requires the two of them to be side-lined, and moves on to other matters, the book never quite recovers.

Nevertheless, The Removers is easily the best of the Matt Helm adventures I've read so far. It's ironic that such a terrific book has such an anodyne title. (Whereas The Wrecking Crew is a great title applied to an okay book.)

This is an unforgettable novel. And as for Donald Hamilton's stature as a writer, all bets are off.

He may well prove to be up there with the best of them. 

(Image credits: The front and back covers of the British Frederick Muller 2/6 version and the US Gold Medal 40c edition are scanned from my own — now treasured — copies. The Titan, Audible and Finnish and Greek editions are from Good Reads. The rest, all Fawcett Gold Medal variants, are from the extremely useful Good Reader Gone Bad.)

Sunday 23 August 2020

The Stories of Katherine Mansfield

Holy crow. You can normally depend on my blog posts to deal with novels about a desperate loner on the run from the police, framed for the murder of a cop...

Or an army of mutant creatures taken into battle against invading aliens.

Or, at the very least, a movie about a skyscraper on fire.

But this week I'd like to alert you to the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. And there's not a framed fugitive, mutant army or burning skyscraper in sight.

Mansfield was a New Zealander who moved to England as a teenager in 1905 and spent most of her remaining short life there or on the Continent. 

Short indeed. She only lived to be 34, and it was a life so packed with tragedy and misfortune that you may want to skip reading about it.

But it was also packed with writing, and she was the creator of a body of genuinely brilliant and indelible short stories.

I was aware of Mansfield, but had never read her work. All that changed when I heard some excellent recent dramatisations on BBC Radio, in an impressive two week celebration of her stories.

These included Miss Brill, a concise and deft account of a spinster whose defensive illusions are destroyed by a chance remark.

And the heart-rending The Doll's House, about the brutality of snobbery and class barriers — between small children.

These, and others equally powerful, got me seeking out a book by Katherine Mansfield and digging deeper into the BBC's archives...

Where I found The Garden Party, another lyrical but ruthless dissection of class distinction and the incredible The Fly.

The Fly is the story of a wealthy businessman whose life has been rendered meaningless by the death of his son in the First World War. He assuages his pain through a tiny — but heartbreaking — act of cruelty.

The Fly and The Garden Party seem to be permanently available for listening online. 

As do two anthologies, the first featuring stories including Bliss, an elegant tale of rapture and betrayal.

And the second including Daughters of the Late Colonel, about what happens when you devote your life to a controlling invalid of a parent — and he suddenly drops dead.

On the other hand, Miss Brill and The Doll's House may well no longer be available by the time you read this, but that hardly matters because, like me, you can get hold of a book by Katherine Mansfield and read these stories.

Mansfield's prose is terse, sharp and funny. Her descriptions are forceful, such as the "dark, oily spinach green" of the eponymous doll's house; and almost dreamlike at times, like the "hot, bright station slipping away" as a train pulls out on a hot summer morning.

And her characters are fabulous, often hilarious and drawn in swift strokes, like Kate, the "proud young" servant of the Colonel's daughters, who sees herself as an "enchanted princess" and the sisters as two "old tabbies".

Mansfield's poetic characterisations can cut deep. Like the young husband in Marriage à la Mode who loves his wife so much it literally hurts.

He thinks of her as a rose bush "after a shower of rain... petal-soft, sparkling and cool."

Unfortunately for him, his wife is pretentious and vain, running around with a crowd of artistic phonies and spongers. 

When he writes her a deeply felt love letter, she reads it to them and they all laugh themselves sick.

Katherine Mansfield was an exceptional talent, cut short by a stroke of fate as cruel and underserved as anything in her stories.

And those stories are well worth seeking out.

(Image credits: The beautiful main illustration, by the great Leo and Diane Dillon, is of the Caedmon LP of reading of Mansfield's stories and is from Discogs.The portrait by Anne Estelle Rice is from Bookanista. The beautiful floral cover for The Garden Party is designed by Holly Dunn, from her own website.

The Oxford Bookworms edition with the seated lady is from Rakuten Kobo. The Oxford Bookworms edition with the standing lady is from Amazon. The lovely and elegant Selected Stories cover is from Mark My Books. The classic orange Penguin if from Literature Cambridge. The floral cover Penguin English Library edition is from Penguin. The Penguin Modern Classic with the black and white cover illustation by Heather Standring is from Pinterest. The lady-in-the-hat Penguin edition with the grey stripe at the bottom is from Books of Gold.)

Sunday 16 August 2020

Westworld Season 1 by Crichton, Nolan & Joy

Well, I've finally caught up with the TV series of Westworld. And, spoiler alert, I'm impressed.

I still have vivid memories of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie it's based on. Not so vivid that I couldn't do with seeing it again, though.

Indeed it's clear that I need to give Michael Crichton a full blown reappraisal. He was an influential, intriguing and diverse talent.

But for now let's talk about the TV series that he inspired, which started in 2016. Crichton was given full credit in the first episode, but from that point on his name was shunted into the small print at the end of the show.

This is what happens to you if you die in Hollywood. It's reprehensible, but what can you do? Especially if you're dead.

The series was developed for television by Jonathan Nolan, whom I'm sure is utterly sick of being identified as the brother of Christopher Nolan.

Jonathan Nolan is very much a talent in his own right and he is also responsible for Person of Interest, another favourite TV series of mine.

He developed Westworld in collaboration with Lisa Joy, whom I'm sure is utterly sick of being identified as the wife of Jonathan Nolan...

Nolan and Joy have done one hell of a fantastic job. Essentially the original Crichton movie was about a cowboy theme park robot (memorably played by Yul Brynner) rebelling in a lethal fashion.

(There's a nice little nod to the movie in the TV show when we glimpse the decommissioned Yul Brynner robot in the background in one scene.)

As I recall, in the movie our sympathies were pretty much with the Brynner robot's human victims — the theme park's customers. And the story was essentially from their point of view.

In Westworld the TV series, this is cunningly reversed. We see the situation from the robots' point of view. Which has seismic implications...

The show is full of wit and intelligence. One of the dominant recurring images is a player piano in the saloon in the town of Sweetwater.

Its pre-programmed, inflexible routine, playing music guided by a punched paper tape,  is a cogent metaphor for the lives of the robots, repeating their own programmed scenarios, again and again.

Indeed, when you tell this story from the robots' point of view it becomes a very scary version of Groundhog Day.

The horrible plight of the robots — sexually exploited, tortured, murdered, all for the pleasure of the theme park's customers — is powerfully conveyed.

The story alternates between the robots, officially called 'hosts', and the corporate humans who control their destiny. 

The humans callously call the hosts 'livestock' and there are rooms full of their discarded, maimed nude bodies.

No longer exactly robots, they have been pushed dangerously in the direction of becoming human, because this makes for better business — "Your humanity is cost effective."

I was well aware of Westworld, both because of the Crichton source movie and the (well deserved) acclaim it received.

But I had no idea about the calibre of the cast. Thandie (pronounced 'Tandy') Newton is Maeve, the madam of the saloon bordello in Sweetwater.

And none other than Anthony Hopkins is the creator of her and her fellow robots, Ford — a rather on-the-nose name, don't you think, for the pioneer of a new consumer technology?

While most of the robots go unquestioningly about their hellish lives, Maeve has begun to question what is going on. When her character gets killed, and taken in for repair, she wakes up in the lab and glimpses reality.

So she begins to arrange her own death, to get more of these glimpses of the real world — rather like the use of the 'suicide express' in Philip José Farmer's Riverworld novels.

Maeve is great, and Ford is pretty intriguing, too. But for me one of the most engaging characters is the monstrous Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), the heartless nerd in charge of 'narrative' for Westworld.

In other words, he creates the horrible fates for these poor robots.

There's plenty more to say about Westworld. And as I finish this first season and move on to its sequels, I hope to discuss it in some detail.

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Sunday 9 August 2020

Low Action by Andrew Cartmel

My fifth Vinyl Detective novel has just been published and I hope you'll permit me the indulgence of discussing — and of course promoting — it here.

I'd like to reassure any prospective readers, however, that I won't be giving away any spoilers. You can read this post before you read the book, and no damage will be done...

Each of the Vinyl Detective stories tends to focus on a different genre of music, and for this excursion, Low Action, it's punk rock. 

The novels in the series often also involve a search for a rare recording — which in some cases mean one that was suppressed.

It was my friend the composer Joe Kraemer who came up with the sardonic suggestion that the rare record in this book had been pulled from the shelves because the playing on it was too good for a punk LP.

I loved that, added it to the plot, and duly set about my research and preparation for the story. The first step was to come up with a suitable name for the imaginary (all girl) punk band in the book.

Here's a selection of names that didn't make the cut: The Chuff, The Bints, The Scrubbers, The Kippers, The Duff, The Birds, The Muff, Bimbo Eruption, Bad Kissing, Unauthorised Nudity, Rough Garden and Lovely Furry Killing Machines — LFKM, a name that signified cats! 

The latter, inspired by a tweet from @LogBookGuy was far and away my favourite — thank you, @LogBookGuy! And I may well use it one day. But for plot reasons I settled on something else for the protagonists of this novel.

Another friend, the novelist Ben Aaronovitch, requested that one of the characters from his own novels make an appearance in my book, since he wanted to establish a backstory for that character as a punk. I was happy to oblige.

My research on the punk rock era proved invaluable. Not least because I discovered the importance of fanzines to the scene — and that gave me a character I hadn't had before, one who wrote and published (although publish is far too grand a word) an amateur magazine about the band in the book.

The other big influence on this novel was, oddly enough, Agatha Christie. The Vinyl Detective stories sometimes reflect my admiration for other crime writers. 

I've mentioned before how in the third book in the series, Victory Disc, I wanted to try my hand at the sort of unbearable, claustrophobic suspense that Cornell Woolrich was such a master of.

This time, as I say, it was Agatha Christie. In particular the brilliant way she would set up a whole panel of suspects for the role of murderer — all of whom were equally plausible as being innocent or guilty.

I hope I've had a fraction of the great Christie's success in pulling the wool over the eyes of the readers. 

And I hope you'll check the book out (literally check it out, of a library, if you like) and that you will enjoy it.

Oh, and as a special bonus and Easter egg, here is a little portion of the book that was cut from the final version:

"...make it look like an accident…”

“Make it look like an accident?” said Nevada. There was the deadly serious promise of mayhem in in her voice and my eyes immediately went to the large and bulbous glass sugar shaker on the table in front of us, because it looked like Monika was about half a second away from getting this smashed into her face. 

(Image credits: All are from my own collection, the Vinyl Detective covers from Titan Books and the copy of Peril at End House with the beautiful Tom Adams cover and the vintage Pocket Book of The Bride Wore Black with the equally lovely H. Lawrence Hoffman art are both scanned from the ones in my library.)

Sunday 2 August 2020

The Wrecking Crew by Donald Hamilton

It's a terrific feeling to wake up in the morning and know there's a book you're in the middle of reading and looking forward to picking up again.

Last week I wrote about Donald Hamilton's Death of a Citizen, his first Matt Helm adventure. Thanks to the speedy response of a secondhand book seller – and, credit where it's due, to the readability of Hamilton's story — I am now in a position to discuss the next book in the series.

In that first book Matt Helm, a former assassin for his government in a time of war, was settled, staid and respectable; a married man with three children. I didn't expect that to last. 

In some ways it was too good to last — personally, I think having domestic normality to contrast with bloodthirsty action in a thriller provides an interesting dynamic and an ideal counterpoint.

But in the period that Hamilton wrote these books (the early 1960s) action heroes were invariably loners. The model of the secret agent who also has a home life wouldn't really surface until the James Cameron movie True Lies in 1994.

So I fully expected Matt Helm to be divested of his family by the end of the first book. Indeed, I half expected and was braced for them to be massacred by evil commie bad guys to send our hero on a revenge spree that would last for dozens of novels.

Fortunately, that didn't happen — bad things ensued, but none that bad. What Donald Hamilton came up with was much more interesting. Matt Helm's wife Beth had no idea of her husband's secret past...

And when she finds out, she just can't handle it. So she leaves him, taking their kids with her. Leading to Helm's bitter reflection, "she'd never have dreamed of breaking up our home if she'd merely discovered, say, that I was the bombardier who'd pushed the button over Hiroshima."

Indeed, this being the height of the Cold War, the thought of death by nuclear weapons is never far away. Leading Helm to consider how the sound of a siren could signify "a brush fire in a vacant lot... or an intercontinental missile with a hydrogen warhead zeroed in on your home town."

Helm is a long way from his own New Mexico home town in The Wrecking Crew (the title refers to the shadowy government agency for whom he works). He's travelled to Sweden to put the "touch" on — i.e. kill — a Soviet agent. The plot of this novel doesn't feature any breathtaking twist to rival that of the first book.

But there are other pleasures. Hamilton has the good sense to make his stories slowly cumulative, carrying just enough over from previous adventures to enrich the mix and give his hero some depth and reality. Hence those jaundiced reflections about his ex-wife.

And whereas the femme fatale in the first book was sort of unconvincingly and synthetically foreign, here we have a cast of more much authentic Swedes. Perhaps because, like his hero, Hamilton has Swedish ancestry, he's taken his research seriously.

Helm's cover story is that he's a photographer for a magazine (in the first book he was both a writer and a photographer) and clearly Donald Hamilton knows this craft. He has some fascinating things to say, as asides, about the difference between black and white and colour film in low light conditions.

And there's the great observation, as Helm deliberately destroys a roll of film by exposing it to daylight, that "There's nothing as permanent and irrevocable as fogging a film, except killing a man."

And, sure enough, men — and women — get killed in the course of this taut, compact suspense novel. But you won't guess which ones.

Donald Hamilton isn't quite in the class of John D. MacDonald or Charles Williams, but he is very, very good. His plots are precision engineered and often ingenious, and he writes well: "We... were driven in to town, leaving the plane standing alone in the arctic wasteland with only the cold wind for company."

And there are moments of cool, offhand profundity in his characterisation, like the woman who says her husband "couldn't always be bothered with being kind."

Hamilton's female characters are particularly memorable, and often informed with the sardonic humour which is one of his most appealing features. 

Take Lou Taylor, for instance, the woman with the above-mentioned husband: "she wasn't exactly from Sexville, as the cats back home would put it," but she is nevertheless appealing with her "taut, shorn, dark leanness."

Or there's Elin von Hoffmann who is "something to make you weep for your wasted life."

Matt Helm himself is a "bright, ruthless guy" with a "diabolical soul" who'd "once survived a war mainly by putting no faith whatever in the power of coincidence."

Cynical, fast moving, satisfyingly evocative and occasionally very thrilling indeed, The Wrecking Crew is a strong sequel to Death of a Citizen.

But I'm already moving ahead — and looking forward to — book three in the series.

(Image credits: My starting point, as usual, was Good Reads. The British Gold Medal back cover is from Existential Ennui. The Gold Medal 40c front and back cover is from eBay seller kenz430, the 95c is a stock image from ABE. The Fawcett $1.50 is also a stock image from ABE. The Coronet edition with the film strips is also from ABE, although that particular copy is apparently no longer listed. The later Coronet edition with the green Matt Helm logo at the top is from GD Price on ABE. The Serie Noir French translation is from Les Livre on ABE. The front and back cover of the Turkish edition is from Collectybles on eBay.)