I have been buying and reading Donald Hamilton’s books for over forty years, and have them all.
I have also been enabled recently to read his handful of uncollected short stories (two love stories, a kidnapping story, two Western stories, a hunting story, and a post-nuclear-war story), but apart from the several times anthologized “The Guns of William Longley” (1977) they are undistinguished.
It is interesting seeing concerns in them that he did more with elsewhere, but the short story, as I think he himself says somewhere, wasn’t really his forte. His characters require more space and time for the complex findings-out that he puts them through.
It is noteworthy, though, that if one of the two love stories bought by Collier’s in 1946 (“Stranger’s Return”) was close in tone and manner to the novels and novellas of the Forties, the other (“Magnolia”) was not, being a discursive narrative about two or three intertwined love relationships in a small Southern town, narrated by a Northerner who’s viewing the community and its history as an outsider.
Which is to say, Hamilton did indeed have more than one style at his disposal when he was setting out.
Back in 1994, I wrote Hamilton a fan letter after reading The Damagers. I cannot find his reply, but I recall his saying that his own favourite was Line of Fire, and that it had come in a wonderful burst of only six weeks. I had said in my letter that I’d probably read it a dozen times.
That was my only contact with him.
Our sins do find us out sometimes. Arrogantly (but I’m retired, damn it), I did not do my homework properly with respect to other texts. Admittedly, I didn’t set out to write a research article. I was writing a personal critical article, and that was difficult enough, and I didn’t want to get embroiled with other commentators. But sometimes the harder facts may affect the softer ones.
I drew my biographical data from two or three of the more obvious references works, such as Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler’s Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, plus Hamilton’s own non-fictional writings in Donald Hamilton on Guns and Hunting and Cruises with Kathleen, plus faint residual memories of his article on Matt Helm in Otto Penzler’s The Great Detectives, plus Loren D. Estleman’s “Donald Hamilton: the Writing Crew,” in Jon L. Breen and Martin Harry Greenberg’s Murder Off the Rack, (1989).
With my article virtually finished, as I thought, I checked a number of other reference works, all of them saying much the same things, and supplemented what I found there with what was accessible on the Web via Google and Yahoo. (I’m still a relative newcomer to the Web.)
Don Benish’s Donald Hamilton Worship Page was especially rewarding. It contains, among other things, biographical information provided by Hamilton’s son Gordon, plot descriptions of all of Hamilton’s novels (plus reproductions of the front covers), and links to a lovely set of maps created by Philip McEachern and showing where the events in each of the Helm books take place.
Hamilton says that he himself was lucky in his career, and luck is certainly real. Some people have very bad luck. But you need to be able to recognize good luck when it comes your way.
It was luck (well maybe a residual scholarly conscience) that caused me to e-mail Robert F. Skinner to learn where I could find the article by Hamilton that he had quoted from in his admirable piece about him in Lesley Anderson’s Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, 3rd ed.
And it was luck again—well, generosity on Bob’s part— that sent me, via e-mail, to the extraordinarily nice Raymond Peters, whom Hamilton has apparently called his “unofficial archivist.”
And wonderful, wonderful generosity on Ray’s part that made him send immediately to a total stranger some invaluable information about publication dates, plus photocopies of much-needed research items, including the stories, plus a bibliography of pieces about Hamilton.
I had simply not realized how much unpublished writing Hamilton had done before he pushed out onto the cold professional waters in 1946 with his own characteristic style and tone. And I’d had some important dates and places wrong.
But I was pleased to find that the new material corroborated some of my judgments and hunches.
And a patient enough reader of the novels could probably extract a good deal of biographical information from them. At least, I know that as soon as I learned in Gordon’s letter that while Hamilton was growing up there were “summer trips out West,” I was prepared to lay down money that something very like Mrs. Pruitt’s lodge in The Steel Mirror figured among them.
Sometimes, too, that may be the best way of coping with a nagging curiosity about what a writer was really like.
Hamilton himself, has always held his cards pretty close to his chest. Partly, no doubt, he’s felt that a lot of things are nobody else’s damn business. But maybe there’s also been the recognition that critics in a hurry are likely to be hunting for clues to “explain” a writer, and are happy when they think they’ve figured out what the writer “really” is, and can then read his or her works in the light of that presumption and know, or think they know, why he is doing whatever it is that he does.
Which is to say, have created a thinner fiction of their own to replace the thicker fiction that he himself has made. I caught myself starting to do that with some of the new information.
So maybe it wasn’t so bad after all that until near the end I was concentrating on the works themselves.
I should add that when an author talks about something that happened forty or more years ago, it doesn’t necessarily clarify everything.
I also remind myself that the relaxed geniality of an author reminiscing with a good interviewer (Michael Pettengell’s 1992 interview is first-rate), or offering advice to young would-be writers, doesn’t necessarily correspond to how he felt at the time, or to what it was like actually writing the books.
And I think that Hamilton’s repeated line about being a simple entertainer is a bit like Fred Astaire saying that he simply put his feet in the air and moved them around.
It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. A work can be entertainment and art, in part because of the purity of its maker’s concern with craft.
In any event, someone is probably now at work on the one-hundred and fifty-five boxes of Hamilton’s personal papers reportedly held in the UCLA Special Collections Department.
The principle places in which Hamilton speaks about himself are (courtesy of Ray Peters):
“Donald Hamilton,” in conversation with Ray Newquist, Conversations, vol. 1V, 1967, pp. 131-132
Donald Hamilton on Guns and Hunting (Fawcett, 1970)
Cruises with Kathleen (McKay, 1980)
“The Man Behind Matt Helm: an Interview with Donald Hamilton” by Michael Pettengel, Mystery Scene #35, July/August, 1992, 24-28
“Matt Helm,” in Otto Penzler, ed., The Great Detectives, 1978, 120-126
“Matt Helm’s Knives and Mine,” in Knives ’96, 16th Annual Edition, ed. Ken Warner, 1995, 6-9
“Shut Up and Write,” in Colloquium on Crime, ed. Robin Winks, 1986, 99-110.
Remarkably little has been written about Hamilton critically, as compared with what’s been done on figures like Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.
Loren D. Estleman is enthusiastic and knowledgeable (one professional on another) about the Helm saga (“Donald Hamilton: The Writing Crew” in Jon L. Breen and Martin Harry Greenberg’s Murder Off the Rack,1989).
Robert E. Skinner, also a thriller writer, has published more pieces on Hamilton than anyone else, and is admirable on the Helms in Lesley Henderson, ed., Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers, 3rd ed.(1991).
Robin Winks’ “The Sordid Truth; Donald Hamilton” in the July 26 issue of the New Republic, 1975, is excellent, and sounder, in my opinion, than his comments on Hamilton in his Modus Operandi: an Excursion into Detective Fiction (1982).
Raymond J. Peters one-page “Knowing Donald Hamilton” in the November 1997 issue of Firsts is a delight, with its glimpses of a ten-year friendship with “many conversations,” and its welcome details about Hamilton’s sports activities at the University of Chicago, his current thriller reading, the filming of The Big Country, and the probable origin of Helm’s code-name Eric. I hope he will give us more…more…more, including the comprehensive bibliography that he is uniquely positioned to provide.
Geoffrey O’Brien doesn’t discuss Hamilton at all in his Hardboiled America; Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, expanded edition (Da Capo, 1997 ).
Which is odd, since the Forties works are certainly noir and the Helm of the early Sixties might be thought by some to be hardboiled. But perhaps, like the Gold Medal novels of John McPartland, they don’t fit O’Brien’s thesis about the sociological subversiveness of the genre?
There are also oddities in the reference works that suggest that Hamilton is still not fully there yet in the way that Hammett and others are.
Myron Smith, Jr. and Terry White, for example, describe the plot of Date with Darkness as follows: “While on leave at the close of World War II, a U.S. Navy officer is captured [!] by a beautiful French woman, her pro-Vichy father [!!] and collaborationist husband [!!!] whose plan he has stumbled [?] upon.”
However, they are also under the impression that Richard Powell’s Arabella (Arab) Blake is an Arab. (Myron Smith, Jr., and Terry White, Cloak and Dagger Fiction; An Annotated Guide to Spy Thrillers, 3rd ed., Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1995), so it isn’t just Hamilton.
A problem with thrillers in general, stretching the term to include mysteries, suspense, and spy novels, is that there have been so very many of them and the plots are at times so complicated that accurate plot-summaries, particularly when the books are badly written, can require attentive reading beyond the call of duty.
But I do feel that Hamilton, because of the predominance of the Helm books, has aroused some uneasiness in readers (as distinct from fans), as if getting too close to him might result in your signing up with the National Rifle Association.
The entry on Hamilton in Bruce F. Murphy’s The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (N.Y., Palgrave, 2001) is interesting in this regard.
The book is remarkable for the extent of Murphy’s reading (he appears to have total recall), the accuracy, at least where I am in a position to judge, of his plot summaries, and the soundness, within agree-to-differ boundaries, of many of his appraisals. But the Hamilton entry is about as brief and noncommittal as you could decently get.
I am sure that Murphy simply couldn’t stomach the Helm books, for the by now familiar political reasons. Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise and Willy Garvin didn’t squeak in at all.
John Le Carré on the other hand (Murphy again) “has demonstrated the sociological implications of Cold War Culture, which was inherently a spy culture; subterfuge, lying, and the sacrifice of people like chess pieces in the service of the ‘good cause’ erodes whatever goodness the cause had.”
I suspect that we are in for some post-9/11 rethinking about “spy cultures” and the importance of good intelligence-gathering on the ground, and about the kinds of issues with respect to power and violence that Hamilton has explored so intelligently during his fifty-year career.
Let me glance at a few more aspects of his importance for us now, particularly in the Helm books.
Perhaps when Hamilton disclaims being a “serious” writer, he means, among other things, that he isn’t a depressive one, and that he writes a lucid and unmannered prose (at least until some distance into the Helm saga) that doesn’t presume to take us into the psychological depths of our collective being.
Back in 1975, Winks observed famously of Ross Macdonald that each of his more recent novels read
as though it were taken from a textbook co-authored by Freud, Kraft-Ebbing and the Biblical prophets. I find that one can pretty well guess whodunit with Macdonald—it will be the daughter of the cousin who is really the illegitimate brother of the nephew’s youngest uncle twice removed.
Academics love depressiveness. It reassures them that what they’re reading is serious, particularly if it has Style.
The stylistic route that Hamilton chose for himself was not the only “quality” option.
When he was writing Date with Darkness (accepted for publication in the fall of 1945), the premier “serious” American writer of mysteries—I mean mysteries that were more than “just” mysteries— was almost certainly Dorothy B. Hughes.
Her Ride the Pink Horse, which also appeared in 1946, contained sentences like, “Sailor was good. He could shoot before the Sen[ator] did, could watch the Sen’s gun explode toward the stars, too far away to know or care; watch the Sen crumple on the dark stubble of the earth.”
It contained “psychological” passages like,
The Sen looked at him, trying to read what he meant, sure that it wasn’t what the Sen alone knew; wondering if Sailor had sold out to McIntyre, sure that he wouldn’t dare; boring into Sailor’s impassive face and getting no answer. He rattled Sailor’s words in his brain and couldn’t get an answer without asking for it. “Now what?” he demanded.
Sailor said, “I didn’t kill your wife.”
It was the moment he’d been moving up to and the moment was worth the feints and thrusts of delay. The Sen stood frozen where he was. He looked really old, shriveled and old. He was in that moment one with the aged violinist at Tio Vivo. There was only a mechanical shell left.
Hughes, you see, was a real writer. She had had a volume published in the Yale Younger Poets series. She had reviewed mysteries.
Here are a few sentences from her first thriller, The So Blue Marble (1940), which was about nasty things happening to ordinary people like you and me. (O’Brien, whose comments drew me to the book, is entertaining on the Big Fear in her work.)
“She was near to tears again but she buffeted them.” “Missy nibbled her fork.” “Bette’s smile was twinkles.” “The inspector had eyes that could look sideways.” “Griselda’s nails teethed into her hand.”
I could keep going.
Sometime, if it hasn’t been done already, someone should write about the popular conception of poets and the poetic (in New York and San Francisco especially) as evinced in thrillers, Hammett’s among them.
And there’s a moral point of sorts here.
If you write the kind of prose I’ve just quoted, the body, the inhabited, muscled, active, live body simply isn’t there for you as you write. People aren’t really there, not in their flesh-and-blood individuality.
So that it is easy to present (in The So Blue Marble) a narrative in which everywoman Griselda Cameron Saterlee, successful young Hollywood dress designer temporarily back in Manhattan and staying in the upper Fifties, has no problem co-existing socially (when she doesn’t feel that her own precious self is in danger) with two debonair young socialite twins with lethal canes who have murdered in her apartment the inoffensive janitor of her building (with whose wife she converses), plus a night-watchman in her brother-in-law’s Fifth Avenue bank, plus a woman movie star.
And who stubbornly refrains from telling the cops about it, even though one of them went, where else? to Princeton.
And the cop doesn’t press her. And the evil twins, abetted by her evil kid sister, don’t simply twist her pretty arm until she tells them where the amazingly mysterious and important little blue marble of the title is hidden.
Hardly surprisingly, the Chicago mobster (“Sailor”) down in Santa Fe for two or three days on a mission of vengeance in Ride the Pink Horse has zero believability. The movie of it that Robert Montgomery made and starred in was a pretty good noir though.
And this isn’t simply a different-but-equal tradition. It’s a lousy one, and related, I’m sure, to bad writing in poetry during those years.
In equal-opportunity fairness I should add that in The Black Curtain (1941), the much-filmed Cornell Woolrich favoured the serious mystery-reading public with sentences like: “His wrist made a quick hitch, and he gulped the bracer of whisky,” “Terror, still unassuaged by safety, still meeting with some grim inflexible purpose,” “The agate eyes buried themselves deeper behind their lids with baleful calculation,” and “It was violence in its most ravening form. It was the night gone hydrophobic at their threshold.”
There is a quotation from the New York Times Book Review on the front of my copy of The So Blue Marble (bought, I hasten to add, for the purposes of this article): “If you wake up in the night screaming with terror, don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
If that was Anthony Boucher, he also called it “an unforgettable experience in contemporary sensation fiction.” Which I guess may have been true.
Some things do get better, thanks in part to great editors, like Maxwell Perkins handling Hemingway and Fitzgerald at Scribner’s, and Joseph T. Shaw handling Hammett, Chandler, and others as editor of Black Mask from 1926 to 1936, and George Delacorte creating Dell First Editions after being hired away from Collier’s in 1952, and whoever it was at Fawcett who made Gold Medal books, from 1949 on, the delight that they were.
But I go on being amazed by the dehumanizing callousness (I’m thinking here of that janitor of Hughes’, as well as the odious works of Patricia Highsmith, and movies like Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry) that “nice” readers and viewers seem able to stomach who would be horrified by the violences in the Helm books.
I suspect it’s related to the dissociation that Helm comments on, at times to the point of tedium, whereby there is nothing problematic about eating a good steak—I mean, you aren’t being violent, are you?—but to go out and shoot a deer for the larder is just horrible. Those great big soulful eyes! Bambi’s Mom!
I suppose there’s a notion lurking here that hunters enjoy killing and so presumably must be dangerous whereas the workers in slaughterhouses don’t and aren’t (but see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre).
It’s pretty much a class thing, isn’t it?
The lower orders do the dirty work (with literal loss of limb and life at times, and mental trauma, see Gail A. Eisnitz’s heroic 1997 exposé of the pork industry in Slaughterhouse), and the good healthy food to which we, I mean the nice us and our nice hungry growing kids, are entitled arrives in the cold-display cases of the supermarket.
But obviously something has to be wrong with anyone who goes voluntarily back down the evolutionary ladder and, I mean, kills for sport (even if they eat what they’ve killed).
I talk about these and other issues in my Violence in the Arts (1974) and America and the Patterns of Chivalry (1982).
I see from my files that the reviewer for the British Church Times called Violence in the Arts “Mr. Fraser’s deeply pondered and responsible book,” and reported that “Two readings have, for me, far from exhausted its significance.”
The distinguished ethical philosopher Alan Donagan, who I think at one point liked to fish, shared my enthusiasm for the Helm books in the Sixties.
Neither of us was contemptuous of peace, or yearned for actual violences, or despised reason.
But “peace” may not be a simple thing, any more than “violence” is. And Hamilton seems to me to have been ahead of the political curve on at least a couple of pre-Helm occasions.
I have already quoted the exchange, ca.1945, between Philip Branch and Constance Bellamann (who had been tortured by the Gestapo) about not letting the Germans starve now that the war had ended.
As we would (almost) all agree now, Branch was in the right about that one, both ethically and practically. But a reader of thrillers at the time might have felt that somehow it wasn’t quite, well, you know, quite right for this young man to be saying what he did (with a laugh) and departing so much from the natural way of feeling morally (which is to say punitively) about these matters.
And nine years later, in what Winks interestingly suggests may be Hamilton’s best-written book, there was worse to bother the normal reader.
Near the end of Assignment; Murder, the nuclear physicist Jim Gregory, who has remained committed to his Los Alamos researches in the face not only of his idealistic young wife’s objections, but of a test that has gone frighteningly wrong, speaks out to a group of peace-loving former colleagues in their underground hideaway who are holding himself and Natalie prisoner.
I will quote the central passage:
“So far there are still people who think they can arrange a war in such a way as to destroy a lot of other people but not themselves. Whether they are right or wrong doesn’t matter: what matters is that they may try. Should we leave it at that? Or should we go on to the point, not so far away, where every citizen of every nation will know that when a certain button is pushed, by anybody at all, right or wrong, the world ends, and that therefore they’d damn well better see that it doesn’t get pushed. I’m working on the assumption that the quicker we get to that point, the better; and so are a lot of other men I know.”
But…but…but, you just couldn’t say that about those horrible bombs, could you? Not decently, I mean. Not after the terrifying chain-reaction described early in the book. (I can remember feeling like that myself at the time.)
With the wisdom of hindsight, though, it’s plain that had those bombs not been there, we would long since have had World War III, and probably IV as well. And when you consider the sixty-odd-million deaths during “normal” World War II, Gregory’s deal (peace plus nuclear anxiety) looks rather less self-evidently monstrous.
But…but…but… he shouldn’t have said it so unapologetically, even if we might (granted, granted) need bomb-building scientists the way we need slaughter-house workers.
And besides, he was a hunter, and went out in the fall and killed deer.
And he defended himself so aggressively when the nice young idealistic conspirator tried to kill him with a switchblade. The boy was only trying to kill him, after all. It wasn’t as if he were trying to hurt him. There wasn’t anything personal about it.
Those were the years when “war” and the values and virtues that had sent so many American young men to face, on behalf of something greater than themselves, “the blind inquisition of the battlefield,” were being redefined as a simple antithesis of peace vs. atomic annihilation.
The enjoyment of guns was now simply an anachronistic manifestation of male aggressiveness that conduced to annihilation. Well, unless displayed by “freedom fighters.”
Actually, Gregory is remarkably un‑aggressive in his relationship with Natalie. He is respectful of her right to be whatever the self is that she wants to be. He does not demand that she tell him what she has been up to, after cops have come around enquiring about her. He does not try to argue her out of leaving him. And he loves her.
He simply isn’t prepared to allow her to dictate to him what he must be.
Some time during the past three or four years I read an article about a brilliant young American-born physicist who was working in Los Alamos around that time, and he sounded to me a good deal like Jim Gregory, too much so, I felt, for it to be just a coincidence. After all, Los Alamos and Hamilton’s Santa Fé were within spitting distance of each other.
I wouldn’t have wanted to spend time with him or with Gregory.
But I think it was because of what Hamilton did in Assignment: Murder that he was able to embark with confidence on the Helm series, and keep posing over the years, in one concrete situation after another, the never-ending problem of ends and means.
How realistic are the Helm books?
Well, dependent as it was on the integrity of one man—the ageless Mac in his dark-grey suit, with the details of umpteen operations in his head and seemingly, to judge from his instant accessibility by phone, requiring only a couple of hours sleep a night—the nameless organization in which Helm finds his spiritual home after his wife Beth leaves him would obviously have become a monstrosity had it actually been set up in the peacetime America of those decades.
Just imagine (well, Hamilton imagines some of them for us) the bureaucratic rivalries, power plays, Congressional investigations, leaks, media crusades, disingenuous apologetics, and so forth, not to mention the corruption of local police agencies through the need to cover up the “necessary murders” (W.H. Auden’s phrase) and dispose of the bodies.
Plus the ghastly terminal errors that would undoubtedly have occurred, given the track-records of the actual CIA and FBI.
But if there should be another disaster with the impact of 9/11, the metaphor of being in a “war” will become a good deal more literal.
And in that event, a figure like Helm will come to seem a good deal more like an actual soldier. Like a sniper, say, whose function is to kill selected individuals, and who doesn’t distinguish between killing them “fairly” and “unfairly.” Or like the self that Helm had been on missions inside Occupied Europe during the war.
There will obviously also, as has started already, be some rethinking about the (as in traditional wartime) painful sacrificing of innocent lives because of some larger necessity.
There has even been a broaching in one or two respectable places (the Atlantic Monthly, as I recall) of the repellent question of torture, or implemented interrogation, or whatever term applies to the spectrum of coercion.
The history of real human progress has in part been the story of the relative elimination during the nineteenth century of the appalling state-sponsored cruelties that Voltaire and others had fought against in the eighteenth, and that Amnesty International fights against today. And it was a culture shock when the French, the good guys, returned unapologetically to torture in Algeria in the 1950s.
But the challenge of particular dilemmas still hovers.
When Helm’s genuinely contented marriage and peacefully creative way of life as a good citizen collapses, it is because Beth has caught him literally red-handed, after torturing and killing the enemy agent Tina—the Tina whom he and we have come to like in the course of the story.
But he has done what he did in order to prevent the otherwise certain death of their baby daughter Betsy—the Dirty Harry situation, you might say, meaning the situation in the first movie in that series.
And it doesn’t, does it? really take much imagination, or a particularly nasty one, to hypothesize real-life situations in which preventing some appalling act of mass destruction depends on getting vital information from one of the planners of it.
I am aware of what the French paratroopers did in Algeria, and of the much worse horrors in Latin America (not to speak of what had gone on in the Gulag of the Workers’ Paradise as described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn), and of the questionableness of information obtained under duress.
Nevertheless, the moral life is partly an affair of coping with particular instances in which two codes, two sets of moral imperatives, are so in conflict that neither path is going to be a clean one, and yet not acting is itself an action. Tina is unhurt, Betsy dies.
Part of the power and necessity of fiction, especially fiction involving violence and terminal decisions, is that it helps us to think through things before some of those particular instances are suddenly sprung upon us. For it won’t do, not morally anyway, simply to assume that somehow things will be taken care of in the dark by moral scapegoats, the equivalent of the slaughterers in the abattoirs.
And if you haven’t been thinking and imagining and arguing your way forwards, one or other of two undesirable extremes may occur.
In the second book in the series, The Wrecking Crew, which probably owes some of its strength to its having been a reworking of what was originally another anti-heroics novel, Helm recalls that Mac
always did like to get men who’d done some hunting. It was the first thing he looked for in a prospective candidate. It wasn’t that you couldn’t train city boys to be just as efficient, as far as the mechanics of the job were concerned, he explained to me once, but they tended to lack the balance of men who were accustomed to going out once a year to shoot something specific, under definite legal restrictions. A city kid, turned loose with a gun, either took death too seriously and made a great moral issue of the whole business—and generally finished by cracking up under a load of self-imposed guilt—or, finding himself free of restraint for the first time in his life, turned into a crazy butcher.
So it was encouraging watching an obviously nice young Mount Holyoke student talking recently on the box with an unperturbed Katie Couric (just think what the paragons at CNN would have made of it!) about a group of them at the college who were now interested in target shooting and the management of guns, and believed that they had every moral right to do so.
Apparently, Holyoke being a truly liberal college, their fellow students, while disagreeing with them about that right, or at least their practice of it, did not regard them as moral lepers. These were matters to be argued about. They were not outside the pale of reason and civility.
Thinking ahead. Ends and means.
When he devised Helm, Hamilton must surely have had in mind the predicaments of CIA agent Sam Durrell in Edward S. Aarons’ Gold Medal “Assignment” series, which debuted in 1955, three years after the first James Bond book.
“As an American,” sneers a bad guy in Assignment—Angelina (1958), “you have confused ideas of loyalty, the sanctity of human life, and all those medieval concepts of chivalry that prohibit you from risking the girl to get your own way.”
On the one hand, Durrell is expected to foil plots that threaten the whole existence of America, the “free world,” the lives of scores, hundreds, thousands of others.
On the other, he is so inhibited morally that at one point when he is in hot pursuit of the very bad guys and is stopped by a young uniformed cop, he “didn’t want to fight the cop or hurt him” and only “finally began to fight him off in earnest” when another cop comes up. “But it was too late by then.”
A more sophisticated version of this attitude occurs at the end of Adam Hall’s penultimate novel, Quiller Salamander (1994), where the only way, the only way, that a ground-to-ground rebel missile attack on the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, can be prevented is if Quiller, who alone has the needed skill as a long-range marksman, kills a Khmer Rouge general, and Quiller refuses to do so on the grounds that he’s a spy and not a cold-blooded assassin. Hall contrives a way for him to do it with warmer blood and preserve his self-image, but you can imagine Helm’s incredulity about the episode. This is a professional?
But it is no longer axiomatic, as it used to be in countdown movies, that it would be political suicide for an American government to order the shooting down of a hijacked airliner headed towards a major center with lethal intent.
And debate goes on in these Helm books, particularly where the women are concerned.
Helm isn’t like Adam Hall’s Quiller who simply can’t exist without the adrenalin surge of a mission, and who, once launched, hurtles towards his goal like the MiG-28D that he memorably pilots in The Sinkiang Executive (1978). Helm proceeds at a more leisurely pace, and making him a counter-terrorist, counter-assassination killer, rather than a spy, makes possible a larger role for contrary voices, particularly women’s voices.
In a spy novel, a “decent” woman isn’t normally going to be objecting when she and the hero are on the run and he is trying to save them both, or when he seeks to foil a dastardly plot. And when the enemy agents are caught on our soil (if they haven’t been killed in self-defense), they will be turned over to the forces of law and order.
I am not talking about individuals quarrelling. There can be plenty of that. I am talking about their seriously debating issues.
But when killing someone is itself an agent’s mission, and if, as a matter of organizational policy, no sentimental scruples can be allowed to prevent it, it invites those indignant questions from “decent” people that we hear so often in the Helm books:
How can your horrible organization be allowed to DO such things? And how can YOU (who love dogs, and can be surprisingly tender and considerate to people, and always treat women as individuals, and have genuinely loving relationships with some of them) belong to it? And how can you do what you’re doing in this particular instance?
Hamilton himself, he tells us, has heard those kinds of complaints, at times perhaps to the point of exasperation. In some of the later works you sometimes feel that he is being deliberately provocative. Trailing his coat.
But a correction is needed here.
The real point is not that Helm, as Hamilton says, (a) is a pretty nice guy and (b) kills people. Nobody, I’m sure, would be bothered by the thought that young Lieutenant Helm—a pretty nice guy, who after the war settles into a nice peaceful life with the very nice Beth—had spent part of the war heroically taking out key German officers, most of them no doubt Nazis, and at least one of them personally vile, in Occupied Europe.
The problem is that Helm’s peacetime targets are not obviously nasty. They are not, for the most part, conventionally villainous—sadistic, swaggering, gloating, greedy, megalomaniacal (mini-Hitlers, mini-SS). If Helm were wacking Ian Fleming’s villains, he’d be cheered all the way. He’d be cleansing the world of wickedness.
But in fact the same thing can be said of most of the enemy assassins (meaning Communist assassins) that Helm copes with as is said of him.
They kill people, or try to (The Shadowers involves the projected more or less simultaneous assassination of a number of key American nuclear physicists), but individually, when we see them, they’re mostly pretty normal, reasonably nice, at times (like dear Vadya) literally lovable.
And I think that underlying the objections to what Helm does is partly (a) a persisting but not necessarily speakable feeling that what Communists do, particularly in the Third World, can’t really be bad, since it’s always being done in pursuit of good aims, and (b) that people should be judged according to what they are—I mean, whether they’re basically nice or not—and not according to what they merely do.
Which at bottom may be related to the feeling that when essentially nice people like you and me screw up, it shouldn’t really be held against us and there shouldn’t be any significant penalties. I mean, it’s not the real us that did that.
As I have said elsewhere, the debates in the Helm books are almost Shavian at times.
Nor are those debates (some of them inside his own head) as rigged as they might appear in a casual dip-and-skim.
I am not going to come to the defense of Helm as Mr. Nice Guy.
He is indeed, as Hamilton himself says, a relatively nice guy. But his comments can be pretty bothersome at times, and in fact he can be obnoxious at times, and he certainly didn’t need to hack off practically the whole hand of that frat-boy when the yahoo mob tried to break into his college room (The Intimidators, 1974), and the early Murderers’ Row (1962) is substantially about his own recognition that his violence can get out of control. Which makes him try to resign from the organization.
But the ferocious kill-or-be-killed absolutism of some of his statements is often a mode of energizing himself at a particular point in the action, and it turns out subsequently, as he will acknowledge, that he was being over-simple. Often too a seemingly callous act or assertion on his part has a conventionally benign motive behind it.
Nor do the individuals with counter-positions always lose out.
We do indeed get a good deal of what Hamilton, in one of the articles, calls “sentimental hypocrisy” on the part of the nice young things who exclaim with sometimes too predictable regularity, “But you killed him!”, even though his doing so has saved their lives.
From time to time, too, we are reminded of how an insufficiently grounded pacifism can rotate through a hundred and eighty degrees when something particularly dear to the pacifist, usually the anti-nuclear pacifist, especially the anti-American-nuclear pacifist, is at stake.
But not all the individuals who refuse to go along with Helm’s values are shown up as hypocrites or wimps, or even as inevitably less efficient.
The twelfth book in the series, The Interlopers (1969), is particularly rich in successful challenges to both his moral and his professional authority, and it is pleasant when at the end the young Lester Davis, who he has suggested might consider joining Mac’s organization, replies, “If this world is to be saved, Mr. Helm, it’s going to be saved by people who still retain a few illusions, not by people like you. I’ll stay a Rover Boy and a boy scout, if you don’t mind.”
The Helm books are an interplay of general principles and particular instances, at times to the detriment of their thrillerishness.
They are concerned with stereotypes and actualities, role-playing and authenticity, legality and necessity, the values of “peace” and “war,” the nature of true professionalism, the dangers of self-regarding amateurishness, the relationship of the individual to the organization, and of the organization to society at large, and individual decision-making inside multiple sets of rules. And these matters aren’t all tidily arranged.
When Hamilton tells us that when he starts a novel he doesn’t know how it is going to end, this surely applies to the moral aspects as well as to the action ones.
It would be wonderful if one didn’t have to think about all these unpleasant questions about violence in what still passes for the real world but feels an increasingly fictional one. (List a dozen of the more dramatic public events of the past dozen years and you will know that you are inside an airport novel. )
But the problems won’t just fade away at the end of the flight or when the credits start rolling, and Hamilton has done a lot of thinking about them, and it goes on in the Helm books.
Nor are the issues simply ones of violence.
If the private eye is particularly appealing to the creative writer as someone who pursues his own odd path, often without knowing where it is leading to, and is only intermittently in touch with “official” values, the figure of someone like Helm who belongs to an organization and, up to a point, has to follow orders, but who does not feel a self-denying brotherly love for his fellows in it, and has missions of his own with which they can offer only marginal help, if any, can have its appeal as a paradigm for the life of the high-intensity academic.
And, as so often, principles of energy as well as of order are involved.
In The Mona Intercept (1980) Hamilton’s long, ambitious, multiperspectival, and regenerative vacation from the Helm saga, young Harold Ullman is thinking about his wife Nancy—a wife whom he loves, but who shortly thereafter knocks aside his shotgun in horror when he is about to shoot three masked figures whom he has caught trashing their house, resulting in his own hospitalization and her rape:
The idea that you had to test yourself occasionally, just as you tested your cameras or the rigging of your boat, to find out if you were still all there, still ready, still competent to cope with it if it came—whatever it might be—seemed to be totally incomprehensible to her. She had only one word for it, that idiot term macho, the great cop-out word of the century. If it was tough or dangerous, or uncomfortable, or required skill, strength, or endurance, you dismissed it with a sneer as macho and saved yourself from having to do it. Like all her intellectual friends, Nancy stubbornly refused to believe that it had nothing whatever to do with masculinity. It was an ancient survival mechanism totally divorced from sex.
And here is Helm in Death of a Citizen, double-clutching his half-ton truck into compound-low on a steep slope off the highway:
I hit it right for a change, the lever went home without a murmur, and we ground on up the mountainside in the dark with that fine roar of powerful machinery doing the job it was designed for. It always gives me a kick to throw her into that housemoving gear and feel her knuckle down and go to work, using everything that’s under the hood, while the big mud-and-snow tires dig in for traction …
Maybe that was my trouble, I reflected. I just hadn’t been using everything that was under the hood for a hell of a long time. [Ellipsis marks in text.]
Such bracings of the self can be essential in intellectual undertakings too.
In Thomas Carlyle’s words, “Smooth Falsehood is not Order; it is the general sumtotal of Disorder. Order is Truth.—each thing standing on the basis that belongs to it. Order and Falsehood cannot subsist together” (On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, 1841).
Truth is not won easily.
I have now (May 2004) been fortunate enough to acquire a copy of the hardcover first edition of Date with Darkness (1947). The following is on the back cover, and gets us as close to the horse’s mouth as could be hoped for. Ray Peters may have sent me a photocopy of it while I was writing the article, but if so, I mislaid it. It clarifies several points that I speculate about in the article.
Donald Hamilton came to this country from Uppsala, Sweden, at the age of eight. He wrote his first novel as a freshman at the University of Chicago but destroyed it without showing it to anyone. When he graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1938, chemical jobs were scarce enough that he had plenty of time to make a determined effort to sell to the pulps, turning out a detective story a week for a period of months. He finally secured a laboratory assistantship in a junior college, did graduate work at the University of Chicago, and wrote novels in his spare time.
In 1942 Mr. Hamilton joined the Navy and was stationed in a laboratory in Annapolis. Writing evenings and Sundays, he completed a novel about German spies. The Germans promptly surrendered and he decided to shelve that one also. In the fall of 1945 he finished Date with Darkness and sold a short story to Collier’s. The following spring Date with Darkness was accepted for publication, he sold another short story, bought himself a brand new typewriter and has settled down to the serious business of being an author. Mr. Hamilton is married and has two children.
The German surrender was signed early in May 1945.