I cannot blame them. After all, one doesn’t need a telescopic sight to shoot boar and bear; so that when they came on me watching the terrace at a range of five hundred and fifty yards, it was natural enough that they should jump to conclusions. And they behaved, I think, with discretion. I am not an obvious anarchist or fanatic, and I don’t look as if I took any interest in politics; I might perhaps have sat for an agricultural constituency in the south of England, but that hardly counts as politics. I carried a British passport, and if I had been caught walking up to the House instead of watching it I should probably have been asked to lunch. It was a difficult problem for angry men to solve in an afternoon.
Rogue Male (1939)
Eric Ambler wasn’t England’s greatest thriller writer at the time when Graham Greene made that claim. Household was.
He wrote one great thriller, the manhunt novel (along with The Thirty-Nine Steps)—Rogue Male (1939) a classic. The best parts of Watcher in the Shadow (1960) are almost as good. He is very readable in Rough Shoot (1951), A Time to Kill (1951) and the picaresque Fellow Passengers (1955), and interestingly disquieting in The Courtesy of Death (1967) and Dance of the Dwarfs (1968). In the later novels, there’s too much talking like characters in a Household novel, and some questionable earth-mysteries.
He was Buchan transmuted and, up to a point, modernized. His heroes are decent chaps (a couple of them aristocrats) who are capable of wildness, some of them of savagery. He brings people closer to the “animal”—escaping when being hunted, fighting back savagely when having to. And he usually puts them into natural surroundings—the English and French countryside, the Colombian savannah— with a feel for animals and our kinship with them, even when they’re dangerous.
At times he sends people underground, as in Rogue Male, The Courtesy of Death, and the excellent children’s novel The Spanish Cave (a.k.a. The Mystery of the Spanish Cave,1936), which involves thrilling dealings with a prehistoric sea creature.
He is interesting about witchcraft and older European religious traditions.
Every quack at the table was fried but one, and since that was the same one had been shorting the pot all night, Waverly had no fear for the quality of health care in the republic. The game was low ball, five card. Three were already down. The five-and-dime cheater, Sven Fish by name, was doing the dealing. A urologist. He slapped out cards like they were OR tools: jack, forceps. Eight, ten, scalpel, sponge, king. Waverly drew a six, dealer a deuce. Everybody folded but the two of them. Fish adjusted his best sandbagging face and checked. Waverly bet six bills.
Why not? It was the agreed-upon last hand, and though he had long since got well, it held every promise of further renewing his fiscal vigor (to keep the figures apt, given this company). The count was, if not favorable, at least neutral, and anyway by now he knew his man, Dr. Fish.
Michigan Roll (1988)
Kakonis’s Michigan Roll is not a fun read. We’re a long way here from the jauntings in John Welcome’s Provence, and it takes you into company that you might well prefer not to encounter. Its Michigan is overcast, night-dark, an affair of tacky casinos and medium-price chain hotels.
But it is a salutary reminder of how very unpleasant professional criminals can be, particularly in the drug business, and of how unwise it can be to become involved with them, whether as more or less innocent bystanders making difficulties for them, or as conceited amateurs trying to rip them off. We aren’t in Richard Stark’s Parker books, where it is unprofessional to hurt civilians if you can get what you want by role-playing and cajolery.
And since Timothy Waverly, professional card-player and ex-con (in for involuntary manslaughter), who is savagely beaten by two of the thugs, with the promise of worse to come, and has a third one after him with a chilling mandate to “make it sting,” is someone with whom you can reasonably well sympathize (in part because of the dreadful conditions in the prison that he learned to survive), a good deal of uncomfortable suspense, at one point rising towards terror, is generated.
All the more because the woman whom he is trying to help, and her dumb narcissistic brother are so irritating that you feel that Waverly would be justified in simply walking away from their screw-ups.
A couple of credible-feeling sessions at the card table. A coldly atrocious act of violence that goes by early on in thirteen lines and leaves you feeling queasily that from now on anything may happen. Some interesting psychological-survival mechanisms while in prison, reassuring in a way, since it shows that you can sometimes survive the unendurable. The lust to dominate. The stink of greed and fear.
The prose style is slightly off-beat and derives in part, intelligently, from George V. Higgins evocation in The Digger’s Game and others novels, of the speech-and-thought rhythms of the imperfectly socialized. It helps Kakonis here to render all the principal players from the inside.
Breathless from overweight and a mild attack of asthma, Foley boarded the Aer Lingus Boeing 707 at Kennedy Airport. His spirits were high. He was on vacation and he knew nothing of the government secret in the black plastic folder beneath his arm.
More accurately, the secret was on the folder.The contents of the folder were glossy holiday nonsense: brochures as bright and shining as a dentist’s drill, schedules, hotel reservations. Emblazoned in white letters on the folder’s cover was the proclamation, Travel Wide with Thomas Hide; and underneath, Thomas Hide, Travel Bureau, New York, Chicago & Los Angeles. In more modest lettering upon a top corner of the folder was the bearer’s name, academic rank, destination, and a final flourish of advertising: Dr. William Foley, Ph.D., Travel-Wide Passenger to Ireland. The secret was on a microdot film one sixteenth of an inch square which had been glued beneath the F in Foley at the junction of the vertical stroke and the topmost horizontal. The writing on the film was of an eighteen-page draft report which was to be submitted to the President of the United States by the Senate Committee on Submarine Agronomy.
May You Die in Ireland (1965)
Kenyon’s May You Die in Ireland (1965) is a wholly delightful thriller that is realistically funny.
Its hero is the quintessential unheroic hero—an overweight, asthmatic, short-sighted couch potato (assistant professor of mathematics) who learns that he’s inherited a castle in Ireland, goes over after some prodding to take a look at it, and becomes entangled in espionage doings.
He gets bopped on the head and beaten up, is used as a catspaw by the Irish authorities; and goes on the run, at one point driving like a maniac through the crowded streets of a country town, at another pedaling doggedly through drenching rain on a one-speed stolen bike.
He is much the most three-dimensional and likable of such heroes, at times frisky and a bit silly (an academic on the loose), at others suitably scared, at others obstinately unwilling to be pushed around, and capable, at times, of bursts of successful improvisation. The finale is satisfyingly dramatic and movie-visual.
Ireland, which he’s not at all sure he likes, is very real: green, slow-paced, wet. The Irish characters are very real too: a nice family (with nicer daughter) who put him up and with whom he gets trapped in wilder and wilder lies (he’s not entirely innocent); a splendidly thuggish IRA-type muscle-man; acerbic unsympathetic cops.
Everything feels fresh, as if invented for the first time—the perfect first novel, without any fumbling or pastiche.
Kenyon did nothing as good again, though Mr Big (1975) is a successful, if rather depressing, robbing-the-bank novel, the bank in this case being Buckingham Palace.
The bride wore a bouffant gown of off-white silk taffeta with a fitted bodice of Alençon lace. The groom wore striped pants, a carnation, and a look of bitter regret. As for me, Ben Gates, I was wearing my .38 in a shoulder-rig inside my best Dacron and worsted. But I wasn’t a guest. Most of the wedding receptions I go to socially take place in bar-and-grills. An insurance company had hired me to come to this one and make sure that nobody went home with any of the wedding presents.
Kill Now, Pay Later (1960)
Why doesn’t Kyle get mentioned more?
His first four Ben Gates books are splendid: Blackmail, Inc;(1958), Model for Murder (1959), Kill Now, Pay Later (1960), and Some Like It Cool (1962), especially the last two. (In Ben Gates is Hot, 1964, there’s a plot gimmick that, when finally disclosed, undercuts the impact of most of what’s preceded it.)
Gates is raffish, cigar-smoking, sardonic, enjoys the pleasures of bed and booze, isn’t averse from breaking a few laws about the gathering of evidence, and can be effectively violent when needs be. But he’s no Shell Scott (Richard S. Prather’s humorously gun-blasting, ex-Marine Los Angeles counterpart to Mike Hammer). Or, rather, he’s a much higher level and believeable maverick.
He is convincingly embedded in Manhattan, with believable professional contacts and associates—a middle-aged part-time secretary who fears the typewriter, a Jewish confrere, Davison, who looks like a quarterback and catches cold easily, a gossip-columnist who he can draw on for information, a friendly-adversarial police-lieutenant. And you believe that he is well enough known to make tabloid headlines when he fouls up during a case.
Moreover, he appears to be Ivy League, or at least to have gone to a decent prep school. He is comfortable around the rich when a case takes him that way, as is (fictionally at least) Kyle himself. There are thoroughly convincing round-heeled debs, dissolute preppies, money-hungry upper-East-Side divorcees, and other more or less obnoxious types in the novels. Kyle knows how they speak and how their minds work.
He is also excellent at devising central situations that permit of interesting complications—threats of libel action against a scandal mag that sounds very like Confidential; theft and murder at a posh country-estate wedding where Gates is guarding the presents; an Albany hotel full of lobbyists pro and con a bill to legalize off-track gambling; a take-over attempt against a Manhattan corporation.
The books are essence-of-late-Fifties, early Sixties, when formal structures and taboos were still strong but anarchic pressures were starting to build up inside them.
Kyle also did, earlier, a good one-man-against-the-city-machine novel, The Crooked City (1954), the man in question being an academic who gets involved in a reform movement, is framed for murder, and is forced into a series of on-the-run improvisations and snap decisions during his efforts to clear his name. The novel is a girder-walker (an allusion to the movie Safety Last in which Harold Lloyd mistakenly steps blindfold out of a skyscraper window onto a girder, and thence to another and another, swung by cranes).
The name Kyle, I have now learned from the Net, is one of the pseudonyms of Robert Terrall, another being John Gonzales. I have just, thanks to Kaya Books, been able to pick up Gonzales’ 1963 Gold Medal Book Follow That Hearse, about dealing with a massive payroll robbery at a U.S. Army base in Alabama.
The narrator, while given a bit of his raffishness, is no Ben Gates, and Terrall (who it appears was a Harvard man) is out of his element deep-Southing. Either that or the demands of a would-be semi-humorous plot (there are strippers, there is a reenactment of a Civil War battle) prevented him from giving the characters real substance. The voices simply aren’t there, including the narrator’s.
Voice, especially narrative voice, is so important in thrillers. Adam Hall is like two different authors in his Quiller books and those over his own name. The Jonathan Latimer of The Lady in the Morgue has nothing in common with the pseudonymous Peter Coffin of the tedious whodunit The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head the following year.
The morgue attendant jerked the receiver from the telephone, choked off the bell in the middle of a jangling ring. “Hello,” he said. Then impatiently: “Hello! Hello! Hello!” Wan electric light, escaping like Holstein cream from a green-shaded student desk lamp, made the sweat glisten on his lemon-yellow face. His lips, against the telephone mouthpiece, twitched. “You want Daisy? Daisy! Daisy who?”
Elbows leaning hard on the golden-oak rail dividing the morgue office from the waiting room, two newspaper reporters idly stared at the attendant’s white coat. Their shirts were open at the collar; their arms were bare; their ties, knots loosened, hung limply around their necks; their faces were moist in the heat. On the wall behind them a clock with a cracked glass indicated it was seventeen minutes of three.
“Oh, y’ want Miss Daisy Stiff,” said the morgue attendant. “She told ya to call her here, did she?” He screwed up one eye at the others. “Well, she can’t come to the phone. She’s downstairs with the other girls.”
Ballooning dingy curtains, waves of hot night air rolled in through the west windows, rasped the reporters’ faces, made their lungs hot.
The morgue attendant said, “I don’t care if y’ did have a date with her; she can’t come to the phone.” He chuckled harshly. “She’s stretched out.”
The Lady in the Morgue (1936)
Latimer looks better and better as the years go by and we all become less confidently rectitudinous—those of us, at least, who revel in thrillers and don’t want to feel that we’re being scripted (and judged) by Ross Macdonald.
For a while Latimer virtually vanished into passing references to “the alcoholic school of detection,” and to come upon his Bill Crane novels in the Fifties, especially Headed for a Hearse (1935), The Lady in the Morgue (1936), and The Dead Don’t Care (1938), was to feel that one was indulging in guilty pleasures.
Vast amounts of alcohol were consumed, the rich were not regarded as pariahs (being rich was, as the comedian Joe E. Lewis said, better than being poor), the guilty, especially the guilty rich, sometimes got off scot-free, there were humorous episodes in very bad taste, most notably one in which the embalmed body of a dead girl (clothed) was transported through nighttime Chicago in a car. And characters—occasionally, too, the author—casually used terms like “nigger,” “mick,” “dago.”
When the editors of Dell’s Great Mystery Library chose Headed for a Hearse in 1957 for inclusion in their prestigious reprint series, they did some substantial cutting. The full version is far superior. This is 1930s Chicago, for Heaven’s sake.
It was obvious, too, that The Fifth Grave (1946) was a politically incorrect redoing of Hammett’s Red Harvest. The fat private-eye narrator, Karl Craven, had been a strikebreaker, indulged (under duress) in sadomasochistic love-making with the queen-bee of the pseudo-religious colony (based on an actual one in Michigan or Wisconsin) that he was trying to liberate a client’s daughter from, and beat a thuggish gangster’s face to a pulp in a jail cell. Bill Pronzini reported tantalizingly that the unexpurgated version, Solomon’s Vineyard (1941) was even stronger; but in fact, when it was reprinted in 1988 (it had briefly surfaced in England in 1941) there wasn’t much difference.
It was also obvious that Latimer insouciantly borrowed from other writers. In Lady in the Morgue, there’s a disarming of a “gunsel” that’s a rewriting of the one in The Maltese Falcon. From time to time, both in The Lady in the Morgue and The Dead Don’t Care, there are passages of dialogue that are pure Hemingway (as is Latimer’s non-thriller African safari novel Dark Memory, 1940). And the lovingly crafted Fifties novel Sinners and Shrouds (1955) is a redoing and improvement of Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, (1946), for John Farrow’s movie version of which (with Charles Laughton and Ray Milland, who should have been James Stewart) Latimer had written the screenplay.
But all of this is unabashedly up front and overt, often sportive, in contrast to Ross Macdonald (via Lew Archer) virtually becoming the Chandler of Lady in the Lake in his first Lew Archer book.
Latimer’s books are all his own, except for Red Gardenias (1939), The Search for My Great Uncle’s Head (1937, published pseudonymously), and Black is the Color for Dying (1959), which are detective novels that a number of writers could probably have written. He is an entertainer, a bravura entertainer, not an overt moralizer like Chandler and the two Macdonalds, or an explorer of moralities like Hammett.
Bill Crane and his two fellow operatives from Colonel Black’s New York agency—tall, handsome, dissolute-looking Tom O’Malley, and Doc Williams with the white streak in his hair (relic of a knife wound), dapper waxed moustache, and boot-button eyes—enjoy themselves. They enjoy drinking, eating well (one’s mouth waters), staying in good hotels on expense accounts, going to penthouse parties for professional purposes, being guests at the Key West homes (well, one home actually) of the very, very rich.
They also run risks, particularly in The Lady in the Morgue, where Crane has serious trouble with gangsters.
And Latimer, who had been a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, and had learned, though without being purist about it, from Hammett’s stylistic externality in The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, has a splendid eye for detail, a fine ear for the speech of a broad variety of social types, and the ability to set things down in prose that never wobbles or blurs.
Admittedly, the whodunit details in the Crane books wear a bit thin, and there are passages the eye slides over on the seventh or eighth rereading.
Occasionally, too, there are errors that the pedant’s eye notes with amusement or perplexity. A gangster remarks that Crane had cracked two of his, the gangster’s, ribs in an earlier fight, but no blows were delivered to them. There is no place on the Michigan Boulevard bridge over the Chicago River, at least that I could see, where the supports are wider apart than elsewhere. In Lady in the Morgue there is a scandalous piece of faking with respect to what can and can’t be seen in dim lighting. There is also a striking implausibility, when you stop to think about it, in the car chase in The Dead Don’t Care.
But these things don’t matter, partly because nothing really matters in the Crane books, partly because there are so many parts that stay good. The cemetery episode and penthouse party in The Lady in the Morgue and the boat sequence in the last three chapters of The Dead Don’t Care are especially fine stretches of narrative.
If Hammett is the Twenties thriller writer and Chandler the Forties one, Latimer in the Crane books is the quintessential Thirties one. Nor are the wisecracking movies of those years ever far away. The books have a more-than-movie vividness, and in fact three of them were filmed, with Preston Foster as Crane. Movies are mentioned in the books, too, which is a refreshing change. Crane goes to a movie in Lady in the Morgue and is reminded, out at the cemetery, of the kind of horror movie with mad scientists in it. Latimer himself wrote a lot of screenplays, including one for Stuart Heisler’s 1942 version of The Glass Key.
Moreover, the very different things that he does in Solomon’s Vineyard and Sinners and Shrouds (1955) are also done excellently.
Solomon’s Vinyard is a staccato first-person narrative in which there can scarcely be a sentence more than twenty words long, or a subordinate clause, but which works because Latimer’s eye is firmly on the events described, and because the narrator is not afraid to say unpleasant things directly, including things that put him in a bad light. It would have made a marvelous vehicle for Lee Marvin, who could have stepped straight into it from Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut (1972).
Contrariwise, the third-person but single p.o.v. Sinners and Shrouds is consistently full, elegant, well-made, and dense with characters and incidents, as well as virtuoso-intricate with respect to the plot that gradually gets uncovered, partly by journalist Sam Clay, partly by the Lincolnesque private investigator Mr. Bundy. As a light-toned thriller-mystery it has everything. It is the high spot of the genre, and an even better girder-walker than Robert Kyle’s The Crooked City.
Some of the many minor pleasure points: Crane and O’Malley sharing the morning bathroom in their hotel suite, Crane bawling out fat corrupt Warden Buckholtz over the phone; a guy saying in a washroom, “And with the buck dinner they throw in a glass of wine,” the bantam-like Jewish lawyer Finkelstein coping with a snippy receptionist.
And always the weather, the weather—the gorgeous broiling summer heat of Chicago and Miami, the lovely sun over the Key West bouganvillias and the clean white sand and gently welcoming ocean of the Essex estate on Key Largo.
Each day in this country, twenty-three hundred children are reported missing.
Of those, a large portion are abducted by one parent estranged from the other, and over fifty percent of the time the child’s whereabouts are never in question. The majority of these children are returned within a week.
Another portion of those twenty-three hundred children are runaways. Again, the majority of them are not gone long, and usually their whereabouts are either known immediately or easily ascertained—a friend’s house is the most common destination.
Another category of missing children is the throwaway—those who are cast out of their homes or who run away, and the parents decide not to give chase. These are often the children who fill shelters and bus terminals, street corners in the red-light districts, and, ultimately, prisons.
Of the more than eight hundred thousand children reported missing nationally every year, only thirty-five hundred to four thousand fall into what the Department of Justice categorizes as Non-Family Adbuctions, or cases in which the police soon rule out family abductions, running away, parental ejection, or the child becoming lost or injured.
Of these cases, three hundred children disappear every year and never return.
Gone, Baby, Gone (1998)
Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone is one of those books that can make you feel incredulous that it’s actually there and that you’re reading it.
1998. Fin-de-siècle. The end of one of the lowest and most dishonest of decades (to adapt W.H. Auden on the 1930s).
After all the jejune complexity and indirectness of writers like Elmore Leonard, and the awareness that private-eye conventions go back a long time, and the academic readings of subtexts, and the political desconstructings, and the irony, the irony—then, pow, along comes Dennis Lehane writing this book with a driving moral conviction and an evident belief that if your detectives are real enough, and are felt deeply enough, you can set them in motion in an also truly known and felt community and involve them with a number of other strongly-imagined characters, including larger-than-life ones, and have an abundance of incidents, some of them violent, and onion-layer plot complications, and that it can all, if the plotting is also firm enough, have real moral meaning, though not the kind that can be reduced to a formula.
Cast: Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, a completely satisfying private-investigator couple who here are also lovers, with Angie really strong and not just in-your-facing, and the relationship still in process of formation, and they genuinely like one another. A couple of professional cops from that Boston area, also partners, professionally that is, with whom they become involved while following up the vanishing from her blue-collar home of Amanda McCready, four years and seven months old. Other cops, with convincing cop conversation (at one point there’s even a bruising informal football match between cop teams).
Three loser-type relatives of the kidnapped girl.Two smart, dangerous, and larger-than-life thugs who exempt Patrick and Angie from their predations. Three utterly vile and dangerous child abusers. Miscellaneous others. With the working-class Boston milieu that they all share coming out to us through both direct socio-historical descriptions and past episodes recalled by characters in conversation.
Patrick and Angie own handguns and aren’t apologetic about pointing and even firing them, but they need them. This is a rough area with dangerous people in it, like the patrons of one of the low bars getting all set to gang-rape Angie at one point, licking their figurative chops and terrifying her. There is a powerful shoot-out in a house of horrors. There is an extended nighttime episode in a rocky area of woodland around a precipitous water-filled quarry, involving the attempted transfer of a large sum of stolen drug-related money that may have caused the kidnapping in the first place. Etcetera,
In other words, good solid action as well as convincing-sounding conversation. And there are unforced tragic dimensions to it all, as we learn by the end.
The action is firm enough to sustain a hiatus like “Five months passed,” normally a thriller no-no. Everything is being pulled forward urgently by the need to find, if she’s still alive, little Amanda. And the urgency is increased by our being given reminders of the atrocious things that adults can do to children, not all of them “lost,” but without the kind of drum-beating about the extent of the victimization that we get from Andrew V. Vachss. Here it’s the quality of the individual experience, the wrong to the individual soul, that counts. Lehane himself, by the sound of it, grew up Boston Irish Catholic, not necessarily a bad thing to be.
A Drink Before the War (1994) and Darkness Take My Hand (1996) aren’t as firmly packed, but they have enough of the same qualities to be gripping on a first reading. (Gone, Baby, Gone is in some ways richer on a second reading), and involve concerns like Black gangs, drugs, and spousal abuse. Sacred (1997) is lighter in tone (the dread Donald E. Westlake touch?) and thinner in substance, and could just as well have been about another couple. Kenzie and Gennaro are out of their element in sunny Florida.
The four-hundred-paperback-page Prayers for Rain (1999) begins as a familiar-seeming solo private-eye novel (Angie has left Patrick as a result of how Gone, Baby, Gone concluded), with Patrick obsessed, Lew Archer-like, with the suicide of the daughter of a well-heeled professional couple, and then segues in a complicated fashion, with Angie returning, plus a woman psychiatrist and a woman attorney, into murderous mind-games with a high-I.Q. sadistic psychopath.
George Orwell (to judge from his “Raffles and Miss Blandish”) would probably not have approved of the book. There is an understandable rage in it to break through the defences of the arrogant and make them suffer, but at times Patrick’s punitive cruelty seems only different in degree from that of the bad guys.
And the horrifying demonstration, at one point, of what the psychopath is truly capable of feels too close to what you get in unpleasant serial-killer movies like Seven (1995), where basically what you are waiting for is the next coldly-contrived scene-of-the-crime horror, since the in-between stuff is boring. Coming less than halfway through as it does, it also makes it harder to care about the ongoing, and ingeniously plotted detective-story-type revelations about things not being how they have seemed.
And we are too much invited to share in the delights of righteous punishment via Lehane’s increasing use (with some sentimentalizing) of Patrick and Angie’s buddy the huge, high-I.Q., incredibly fast-moving, and virtually indestructible sociopathic criminal Bubba Rogowski, who sounds as if he was based physically (there are a number of movie references in the book) on the actor Erland Van Lidth who figured in a couple of street-gang movies at the end of the Seventies.
Oh, and Angie has Mafia power-connections that trump the Mafia power-connections of the sociopath (no, not Bubba, the bad one).
The highly acclaimed Mystic River (2001) isn’t about Kenzie and Gennaro at all, perhaps because Lehane had reached an extreme with them, and it suffers from a major design flaw. We are made deeply anxious to learn what a particular character has done, but are forced (unless we do a no-no and skip) to sit through a lot of information about other characters before we get there, which we increasingly realize won’t be until the end of the novel.
Unfortunately, too, Lehane describes directly how the characters feel, rather than allowing us to infer it from what they say and do, and despite his reaching for a tragic pattern, it is all a bit too close to being a higher-level Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel.
Multiple point-of-view narrative is inevitably less taut than single p.o.v., which is why so many good thrillers are single p.o.v., and why a writer like Elleston Trevor is less his secret inner self (I’m sure) in the books over his own name than in the Quiller series. In single p.o.v. we can have the fullest fit with how we experience the actual world. We know how we ourselves feel when we are interacting with others and inferring, in an approximative non-verbal way, how they are feeling.
But obviously multiple p.o.v. has its allure for writers when they get tired of living inside a single mind, as witness Richard Stark’s Butcher’s Moon, Donald Hamilton’s The Mona Intercept, Howard D. Estleman’s Whisky River, and Ross Thomas in Chinaman’s Chance and The Eighth Dwarf.
Lehane is in good company.
The rain rained.
It hadn’t stopped since King’s Cross. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you’re doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking and not even fidgeting.
I was the only one in the compartment. My slip-ons were off. My feet were up. Penthouse was dead. I’d killed the Standard twice. I had three nails left. Doncaster was forty minutes off.
I looked along the black mohair to my socks. I flexed a toe. The toenail made a sharp ridge in the wool. I’d have to cut them when I got in. I might be doing a lot of footwork over the weekend.
I wondered if I’d have time to get some fags from the buffet at Doncaster before my connection left.
If it was open at five to five on a Thursday afternoon in mid-October.
I lit up anyway.
Jack’s Return Home (1970)
Lewis isn’t mentioned in the following books:
Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penxler’s Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976).
Kenneth and Valerie McLeish’s Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Murder, Crime Fiction, and Thrillers (1990).
William L. De Andrea’ Encyclopedia Mysteriosa: a Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Detection in Print, Film, Radio, and Television (1994),
Stephen A. Stillwell’s What Mystery Do I Read Next? (1997).
Catherine Aird, and John M. Reilly’s, The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999).
Jean Swanson and Dean James’ Killer Books: A Reader’s Guide to Exploring the Popular World of Mystery and Suspense (1998),
Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan’s Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage (1998).
Bruce F. Murphy’s The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery (1999).
Willeta L. Heising, all honour to her, includes him in Detecting Men; a Reader’s Guide and Checklist for Mystery Series Written by Men (1998).
But the only allusion to him in Mike Ripley and Maxim Jakubowski’s article on British neo-noir in Ed Gorman and others’ The Big Book of Noir (1998) is the following, about how things were before the “breakthrough” in the late-Eighties:
Isolated outbreaks of hard-boiled fever would occasionally manifest themselves. Robin Cook’s early novels of London bad people (before he became Derek Raymond), Ted Lewis’s Get Carter, Julian Barnes’s Duffy novels written as Dan Kavanagh, and John Milne’s Jimmy Jenner adventures all spring to mind…
Thirty-seven other noirish British writers are mentioned in the article, several of them more than once.
Ted Lewis gets four words. Four.
Another mystery, surely?—The Strange Case of Ted Lewis.
Has he been considered too violent, perhaps? But then, what about Spillane?
Were working-class heroes really not quite the thing, you know, for British thrillers as viewed from North America? Was the title of his masterpiece, Jack’s Return Home, so offputtingly redolent of Sixties Midland British realism that a lot of readers never sought it out? But then, it was paperbacked as Carter in 1971.
Did it suffer from guilt-by-association with several of Lewis’s really bad weaker works? Did Lewis make influential literary enemies during his tragically short life? (He certainly appears to have been an increasingly impossible man.) Are several of the novels, like his life, too sad? (But Jack’s Return Home is often funny.) Have there been problems with getting solid biographical information about him? Did… oh, I dunno. It really is a mystery.
Anyway, Jack’s Return Home (1970, a.k.a. Carter), first last and always. And then Jack Carter’s Law (1974), the prison part of Billy Rags (1973), and (for the unsqueamish) GBH (1980, a.k.a. Grievous Bodily Harm ). But don’t touch Boldt or Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon with a bargepole. Feeble stuff, way below what he was capable of.
I notice that Murphy also doesn’t include Derek Raymond, who shares some of Lewis’s strengths and obviously was intelligently influenced by him.
Jack’s Return Home and Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s Performance, with its compelling evocation of London gangsterdom, both appeared in 1970. Mike Hodges’ breakthrough filming of Jack’s Return Home as Get Carter, with Michael Caine definitive as Carter, came out a year later. Between them they made possible John Mackenzie’s marvellous The Long Good Friday (1980), with Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren...
I say more about Lewis in “The Best Thriller.”
Since terrorism had become normal, there were police No Parking cones along the streets outside every London barracks, but a guard sergeant who recognized Agnes Agar let her drive in and wait on the edge of the square itself. When it was past midnight, he brought her a mug of tea and chatted, in a confident but stilted way, because she was an officer’s girl-friend, not a wife.
At last a Land-Rover drove in followed by a Bedford truck, and parked neatly side-by-side some yards away. Two soldiers got out of the Land-Rover, carrying an array of haversacks and weapons, and she knew one of them must be Major Harry Maxim yet for a moment couldn’t tell which.
That brought a little twinge of isolation, realizing that she had never seen him in his camouflaged uniform, slung about with packs and webbing that he would wear if he ever went to the war he had spent his life training for.
Uncle Target (1988)
In early novels like The Wrong Side of the Sky (1961), The Most Dangerous Game (1963), and Shooting Script (1968), , Lyall provided loose-jointed entertainments involving planes, smugglers, locationing movie-companies caught up in Latino revolutions, rich gun nuts who’d read Richard Connell’s story about the man-hunting Count Zaroff or seen the movie, and wanted to put it into practice—those kinds of things. The narrative voices, sub-Buchan, sub-Welcome, sub-Francis, all sound pretty much the same—acceptable but undistinguished, like the novels.
In his Harry Maxim series in the Eighties—The Secret Servant (1980), The Conduct of Major Maxim (1982), The Crocus List (1985), and Uncle Target—things have firmed up remarkably The prose is crisp, the chapters shapely, the plots interestingly complex, the characters much more solid. He writes as if he really knows his government and Service types and the difference between bureaucratic games-playing and the violent or devious doings of persons elsewhere who are not interested in merely talking. He doesn’t condescend to America either.
Major Harry Maxim, a modest, civilized professional soldier, is one of the most admirable thriller heroes, and is given full rein in Uncle Target. His splendid desert goings-on in a captured tank are counterpointed amusingly with worried in-fighting back in Whitehall, where the admirable Agnes Agar, whose own career is on the line, handles herself very well. A perfect antidote to the Le Carré virus.
On a day when the February sun is indiscriminately painting all shades, from cherry red to tobacco-spit brown, on the shapes draped across our beaches…
On a morning when the tanned young things are striding down the beach foam line with a hip-roll strut, and a broker from Chicago cackles, points, and nudges a banker from Seattle with his elbow, finally daring a meek whistle when the tanned young things are well out of earshot…
On a morning when you are at last positive that nothing has ever happened to you and now, at the advanced age of thirty-three, it is pretty evident that nothing ever will…
On a sun-split morning when the recumbent forms seem to crackle and spit under the yellow fist of the sun and you sit on the edge of your bed and scratch the sole of one bare foot with the toes of the other and belch without pleasure and rub your grainy eyes with your knuckles…
It picks that morning to happen.
The Brass Cupcake (1950)
MacDonald’s thrillers were almost all enormously readable when they came out, once he got beyond the apprentice state that you can sample in the lousy stories reprinted in The Good Old Stuff (1982) and More Good Old Stuff. His novels really were unputdownable.
The villains most of the time were so villainous, and such nasty things could happen to nice people, and there was such a pervasive odour of carnality that you were up on a kind of surfboard on a great big wave and didn’t want to get off until the ride was over (even while telling yourself that you really ought to save some of the book for next day).
He wrote so confidently and knowledgeably, too, about so many things—fascistic small-town cops, “rough searches,” Communist spy rings, S-M shows, the kinds of bored dangerous Fifties teenagers who played chicken on the highway, the best gin (Plymouth), how to act drunk convincingly, the attributes of a really successful con artist, the tackier aspects of the credit-card culture, financial wheelings and dealings, and so on and so forth—that you felt that you were simply watching “our” more or less unpleasant world in the process of formation.
However, in one of J.F. Powers’ short stories worldly Father Burner remarks of Arthur Koestler that “He’s a writer who’s ahead of his time—about fifteen minutes.” And so, I suspect, was MacDonald.
It’s partly a matter of moral attitudes.
His books from the Fifties are so very Fifties, especially in their sexual attitudes.The big, joyous, wonderful girls are all certain to pair off with the heroes at the end and settle down happily to make bouncing small-town babies while their husbands peacably go about their wage-earning business as cops or real-estate men. And the law enforcement system, apart from a few rotten apples that get winkled out at the end, is always basically just and decent, with its wise old cops who’ve stayed honest and its able investigators from the State Capitol or the F.B.I.
There are exceptions, of course. One depressing novel, whose title I forget, has bored, bitchy, swinging wives in it, and A Flash of Green (1962) is bitterly disillusioned about the ability of concerned citizens to fight city hall where developers are concerned. (It was after that that MacDonald switched to the McGee series.)
But the problems as presented are still so much of the Fifties. And in Travis McGee, so carefully put together on the drawing board, MacDonald comes up with a hero who is always responding to, and often commenting at length on, the immediate, the whatever it is you see as you drive along this bit of the Florida coast or check into that airport in Dallas.
Moreover, everything, including the conversations, is conveyed through McGee’s always slightly manic prose, and isn’t simply allowed to be there, so that the earlier McGee novels are now doubly distanced. McGee, in fact, never spoke a distinguished paragraph, or perhaps even a distinguished sentence, in his life. And his creator’s ear for various kinds of speech—hippies, terrorists, Mexicans, Britishers among them—is always slightly, or more than slightly, off.
The sexual stuff can become pretty tedious too. Even McGee gets fed up towards the end with McGee the hyper-sexual therapist, wounded birds a specialty of his houseboat The Busted Flush.
However, three things that MacDonald knew and could do brilliantly, sometimes in the same character, were sociopaths, ruthless predators, and cruelty, often Southern. Give him a cheery, friendly wife-killer with a trail of murders behind him, or a torturer (on either side of the law) who really enjoys his, or occasionally her, work, or a stud-rapist, and he is unbeatable. He obviously knew and was frightened by such people and how their minds work—knew it in part from the inside, given his own Calvinist background and its emphasis on repression, guilt, and punishment.
A number of the monsters in our present real world were there earlier in the pages of MacDonald. And for twenty-five years, McGee as battered, rangy knight-errant, going up against those and other monsters on behalf of the vulnerable, was part of innumerable thriller-readers’ consciousness, and a reassuring presence. Relatively nice guys, if they were willing to be nasty at times, could win ball games.
The best McGee novel, for my money, and the only one that was filmed for theatrical release, though not filmed well, is Darker than Amber. But the twenty-one books all have their own identities—The Deep Blue Goodbye isn’t Bright Orange for the Shroud isn’t The Green Ripper isn’t A Tan and Sandy Silence—and if you get enjoy one you will want to read them all.
Three of the best pre-McGee thrillers are The Brass Cupcake, Murder for the Bride (1951) and Death Trap (1957), the latter a mystery as well as thriller.
There was a news story recently about a fifteen-person police department in an upstate New York town of about twenty-five-thousand inhabitants that sounded as corrupt, and sexist, and out of control, with city leaders as pusillanimous (or corrupt), as anything in MacDonald’s Florida half a century ago.
When MacDonald’s death was announced, it was as if a personal acquaintance who really mattered had died.
She was the kind of woman a man noticed, mostly because of her eyes. Dark, almost black pools, they had a warmth that I felt could turn to fire. She had turned her head, looking over the shoulder of the man she was with, and we looked at each other. The third or fourth time it happened he noticed it and I paid some attention to what he was like.
He was a type. You find guys like him driving ten-wheeler transport trucks, or flying, or sometimes as chief petty officers in the Navy, on a sub or a destroyer. Square-built, tough tanned skin, big hands with knuckles that are chunks of stone.The type—what makes him recognizable as a wanderer, a fighter, sometimes a killer—shows in his face.
Big white teeth, yellow a little from cigarettes like his fingers, and he smiles with his teeth closed, talking through them when he’s angry. A thin line of short black hairs for a mustache, sideburns of curling hair, hair black and curly, a face that is rough and yet young, and it won’t change much if he lives to be fifty. The eyes are fierce, amused, hard.
It’s a special breed of man, and the breed are men. Maybe a mixture of German, Irish, French-Canadian, with a streak of Comanche, Ute, or Cheyenne in there about three generations back. You meet men like this one in the truck-stop cafés along U.S. 40, with the diesels drumming outside; or you meet them walking toward the plane on the airstrip; or in jail, still smiling, still ready for a fight.
This guy was laughing as he swung off the bar stool. He was still laughing as he walked over to me.
The Face of Evil (1954)
McPartland is that rarity, a writer of tough novels who feels tough himself. (Was Spillane a barroom brawler? If so, did he win?)
McPartland was one of the Gold Medal blue-collar writers; had served in Korea; obviously knew the black-market milieu of that war; came back and wrote raw, rugged, at times very powerful novels; obviously drank, lived with a mistress and illegitimate kids before it was OK to do so; and died young of a heart attack. He was the kind of person who knew what it meant to be in trouble with the law, doing dumb impetuous things, getting into fights.
What comes across again and again in his novels is his understanding of power, the hard masculine will to dominate others, break them, destroy them. His bad guys are some of the most frightening in thriller fiction: Southern rednecks, syndicate “troopers,” the Mob. His fights are fights in which the loser can get hurt very badly.
When a black-marketing non-com says he’s going to scramble someone’s eggs with his combat boots (crush his testicles), or the middle-echelon syndicate enforcer Whitey Darcy tells the fixer Bill Oxford, “We’re going to make you cry, feller,” or when Buddy Brown, the twenty-year-old petty crook in Big Red’s Daughter (1955) tells Jim Work that he’s going to make him crawl, we know that’s just what they intend to do.
They are hard men.
King McCarthy in The Face of Evil (1955) is a natural fighter. Buddy Brown wins his first two fights with the hero—knocks him down with a sucker punch; gets a painful lock on his knuckles and punches him in the throat while they’re sitting drinking beer in a barroom booth. And the Syndicate, the Mafia, punish offenders ruthlessly. Oxford knows what it will be like to go to prison and have your kidneys smashed by an inmate, crippled with pain for the rest of your life every time you pee. Johnny Cool’s end in The Kingdom of Johnny Cool is dreadful.
However, in most of the novels there isn’t just violence, there’s also love, and things work out all right in the end for the hero and heroine. They very easily couldn’t, though. A strong, focussed counter-energy on the part of the heroes is necessary.
McPartland’s best book is The Face of Evil, about the fixer Bill Oxford, who’s been on the long downward slide of compromise, complicity, corruption, and has been sent to Long Beach by the PR agency to which he’s attached to ruin a genuinely decent reform candidate, upon pain of being stripped of all his high-living perks and slammed into prison. It is tense and well-made throughout.
The Kingdom of Johnny Cool is his other best novel. When it appeared, I wrote to Ross Macdonald (a total stranger, but he’d done a Ph.D. in English himself) to ask him to review it for a student journal I was co-editing. He declined, saying that it seemed to be simply Spillane-type melodrama. He was wrong.
The novel is a powerful account of a Sicilian criminal’s rise and fall in America—a more interesting one than W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1929)—and it takes us into dark cold waters full of predators. McPartland was on to the Mafia as a subject twelve years before The Godfather, and his attitude towards it is far healthier than Puzo’s sentimental power worship. There’s nothing cute or admirable about McPartland’s Italianos.
It began with the telephone call, but before that there was a stillness, and later Ben was to recall that stillness and how he had felt in the hushed cave of that Manhattan apartment. He had been depressed. It was nothing functional, merely one of those spiritual ebbs that sometimes afflict shy men. He lay awhile staring at wallpaper, contemplating the myth that electric clocks are silent, and wondering what it was he was trying to remember. He was sailing tomorrow, of course, but it wasn’t that…
A table calendar beside the clock caught his eye. He remembered.
Cairo Intrigue (1958)
William Manchester’s Cairo Intrigue (.a k.a. Beard the Lion) is one of those literate and graceful entertainments from a vanished America that one almost feels guilty about having enjoyed so much at the time.
It is probably the finest flowering of the mostly irritating East Coast school of suspense novels that assured you with their tone that nothing was really going to go badly wrong for the likeable and more or less ordinary W.A.S.P.s who got caught up in alien plottings, here Middle Eastern ones.
And it really is entertaining.
The first three-fifths takes place in the unfamiliar but reassuringly finite spaces of an ocean liner en route from New York to London, managed in the nannyish Cunard fashion
A couple of Egyptians (one with the girth and facial hair of ex-King Farouk, the other a skinny, acne-scarred, murderous stowaway) make things difficult for thirty-five-year-old widower Ben Sparks, who is on his way to do business in Israel for the pharmaceutical company that employs him.
But the thirtieish-but-youthful woman, Ames, who strikes up a friendship with him, is good-scout company, and an enigmatic Englishman helps out at one or two junctures.
By the time Ben jumps ship off Southampton, he’s survived so much already, ranging from embarrassing run-ins with a prissy purser to thirteen pages (very well written) of entrapment in the ship’s Turkish bath with the heat escalating beyond control, that we know he’ll come through the faster-moving dangers in London and Israel all right, but with enough anxiety for us because of the nearness of some of the misses.
So it’s a good ride, with plenty of events and social texture, the writing really worked at, intelligent dialogue, political sophistication (or what feels like it), and, well, a pervasive air of respect for the reader.
Yes, this is the same William Manchester who went on to do big biographies of Kennedy, Churchill, and others.
Charlton was talking as we walked up the Strand. It’s compulsive with him at the start of a job—like some parachutists can’t stop yawning before a jump. Smoking helps, but he’d heard somewhere that no gentleman smokes in the street, and he was strong on gentility. There was a fine soaking rain falling, but he would no more have thought of opening his umbrella than of closing his bottom waistcoat button. Outside the Savoy, thank God, we got a taxi and I gave him a cigarette and said unkindly, “Shut up, Carlovich,” and he lapsed into a hurt silence for a minute and a half, then, near Somerset House, he said, “They’ll confirm in there that it’s Charlton. Deed-poll, sure, but is there any need to be bloody offensive?”
A Spy for a Spy (1968)
Mather’s A Spy for a Spy (1968) is an oddity. It’s a carefully executed first-person narrative of a British intelligence agent getting a Russian-born safecracker and his daughter from England to Hong Kong, in which the protagonists are continually at odds with each other and the narrator’s tone is one of almost unrelieved exasperation. You are irritated with all three or them, the action always moves more slowly than you want, and yet you keep reading. It’s a kind of slowed down and thinned-out redoing of Cleeve’s Vice Isn’t Private (1966).
All the time you’ve been away from a town where you lived when you were a kid, you think about it and talk about it as if the air there were sweeter in the nostrils than other air. When you meet a man from that town you feel a kind of brotherhood with him, till the talk runs down and you can’t remember any more names.
The city started sooner than I expected it to. In ten years it had crawled out along the highway, covering new farms with the concrete squares of suburban developments. On both sides of the highway I could see the rows of little frame houses, all alike, as if there were only one architect in the city.
“It won’t be long now,” the transport driver said. He yawned over the wheel, keeping his eyes on the road. “I don’t need any dago red to put me to sleep tonight.”
“You live here?”
“I got a room in a boardinghouse at this end. You could call it a living, I guess.”
Blue City (1947)
Kenneth Millar wrote four novels before turning into John Ross Macdonald and then into plain Ross Macdonald. The Three Roads (1949) is a low-keyed and unremarkable novel about amnesia. But The Dark Tunnel (1944) and Trouble Follows Me (1946) especially the latter, are interesting for the concern with evil in them.
The Dark Corridor is a campus novel with an English instructor for hero and Nazi spies as villains, and for awhile it moves along with very creditable tautness, but then it collapses into on-the-run hysteria. Trouble Follows Me is wider-angle—aircraft carrier, naval base, long-distance train ride, the Black area of Detroit, a showdown in Tijuana—and is steadily paranoid in its tone. People behave oddly, killings keep happening, and only at the end are the villains (Axis spies) caught up with and violently disposed of. It’s quite effective, actually.
Blue City (1947) is the best book of the four. It features a chronically angry and violent young veteran (“I hadn’t had a fight for weeks and I was spoiling for one”) who returns to his home town, finds out that the father from whom he had been estranged has been murdered a couple of years previously, and becomes violently and punitively involved with the crooks and corrupt cops now managing things.
With its hard anger, its fast pace, its unrelievedly unpleasant criminals, and its unsparing and at times shocking violences, it’s like an intelligent Spillane novel. But its hero-narrator sounds older than the years attributed to him, and the prose is mannered, as if everything has to be made over in the light of the hero’s pessimistic view of everything.
After that, Millar channeled his moralism into Lew Archer, and the rest, as we know, is thriller history.
The best of the “tough” Archer novels is probably The Barbarous Coast (1956), followed by The Drowning Pool and The Moving Target (both 1949). Subsequently, as William Goldman noted in a famous review, Millar/Macdonald wasn’t writing hardboiled novels but novels (detective novels) of character.
If you like them, you evidently can’t have too many of them. But Archer’s unrelenting eye for phoniness—people lying to themselves, lying to others, trying unsuccessfully for roles and stances to inhabit without a gnawing self-consciousness—can get pretty tedious, as can his near-chronic loneliness and his Mister Half-Clean concern with unmasking others.
One of his interrogatees observed that some people are voyeurs but Archer’s an auditeur, which seems about right. His predominant voice is the interrogative.
Robin Winks splendidly remarked that each of Macdonald’s later novels reads
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.
Donald E. Westlake (Richard Stark) drily observed that Macdonald had excellent carbon paper.
The dogs were not so dangerous as the panther, but they were more disgusting. Besides, she loved the panther, loved and feared, but the panther was not there, not this time; only the dogs; yellow-toothed, mangy, obscene with the obscenity of mediaeval demons: incubi that rubbed and touched her even as she ran across the harshness of the desert, seeking the panther that she loved and feared, calling out to him even: but there were only the dogs, mangy and obscene: touching—
The desert was hard to her feet, the heat hurt her body like a physical thing, pressing in on her, aching, so that she called out again to the panther, loving, fearing, begging him to make an end. But he would not come. Only the dogs tormented, the desert light hurt her eyes even though they were tight-shut. Brighter than a thousand suns she said aloud, but they were only words, and meaningless: not even true. The light on her eyelids was a small light, but it was cruel, too.
A man’s voice said, “Baby, baby,” and the dogs fell back, the desert landscape misted.
Smear Job (1975)
Mitchell’s Callan novels, Callan (1969, a.k.a. Red File for Callan), Russian Roulette (1973), Death and Bright Water (1974), and Smear Job (1975) are all good, especially the second and the fourth.
His physically very tough ex-convict Callan, employed under duress for unpleasant tasks by a particularly unpleasant branch of the British government, is an original creation, as is his relation with the easily terrifed little safecracker Lonely. (Well, almost original. The relationship was may have been suggested by the one between Sean Ryan and Harry Marks in Vice Isn’t Private.)
There’s a frustration-dream feeling to the first two books.
In the first of them Callan earns his living by working as a bookkeeper for a boorish small-businessman, and prepares himself for the assassination (a.k.a. murder) of a German-born businessman in the same building who is involved, not especially nefariously, in illegal export dealings, and whom he comes more and more to like,
In the second he is jettisoned by his government masters and must survive the attentions of three Russian assassins in a London where all the normal sources to which he would turn for a gun (his own, along with his cache of money and alternative identity papers having been lifted by his masters) have dried up. His comings and goings are further complicated by the fact that his eyes require periodical medical attention if he isn’t to go permanently blind. Mitchell turns all the screws very nicely.
In Smear Job he cuts loose and gives us a wonderfully generous book involving enough characters and interwoven plots for at least two novels. It is one of the very best British thrillers.
His Jonathan Craig series written under the name of James Munro are not in the same league as the Callan ones, and demonstrate among other things the unwisdom of having two male heroes in a thriller. But the books have their moment.
Fraser adjusted his spectacles to the angle which he knew would reproduce the effect of prim stupidity he favoured most. Running a finger down his nose, he stared obtusely at the open dossier in his hands.
“I would suppose, sir,” he said cautiously, “that Modesty Blaise might be a person awfully difficult for us—er—actually to get.” He blinked towards the big grey-haired man who stood by the window, looking down at the night traffic hurrying along Whitehall.
“For a moment,” Tarrant said, turning from the window, “I hoped you might split that infinitive, Fraser.”
“I’m sorry, Sir Gerald.” Fraser registered contrition. “Another time, perhaps.”
O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise and Willy Garvin must have given more unalloyed delight to more readers than almost any other thriller characters.
The first two, Modesty Blaise (1965) and Sabre Tooth (1966). are almost flawless entertainments (though you do rather doubt that Gabriel and his henchmen would have let Willy Garvin get by with those hidden necessities for escaping from very bad guys).
O’Donnell has thought through Modesty and Willy backwards and forwards (apart from the question of Modesty’s periods—there don’t appear to be any), and part of the delight of the two books is the progressive disclosure of their histories, tastes, interests, skills. They get such fun out of life, they so unsnobbishly enjoy nice expensive things (and simpler pleasures too), they are such genuinely likable people, and their asexual cooperation with each other is a remarkable study in friendship and uncompetitive mutual esteem.
For aficionados, their richly detailed lives have the three-dimensionality that those of Holmes and Watson have for aficionados of the Holmes saga, and invite Trivia questions.
What dish did Modesty cook in the rented villa near Cannes? What ballet was she watching at Covent Garden when Sir Gerald Tarrant—head of the British Secret Service—came in search of her services? From what guru did Willy learn the art of whatever it was? How long were the handles of Willy’s throwing knives? What were the first words Willy said when Tarrant’s chief assistant, John Fraser (sic), turned up unexpectedly at Modesty’s villa outside Tangiers? What paintings were on the walls of her penthouse overlooking Hyde Park when Tarrant and Fraser first called on her?
In these two classics, moreover, O’Donnell had ideal super-villains, with highly efficient organizations and interesting henchmen, engaged in intricately worked out and feasible super-plots. And scene after scene is vivid and shapely, down to the smallest details Each episode pushes to the limits of its frame, and each adds significantly to what has gone before. Both the long-range plannings and the up-the-sharp-end violent improvisings of Modesty and Willy are thoroughly satisfying.
Their violences are the highly skilled problem-solving violences of martial arts experts, duellists with a variety of weapons, snap-shooters (Modesty, not Willy), and the like, not “mere” violences.
The weather is always splendid too. There is a Sixties suummeriness to it all.
The standard that O’Donnell set for himself in these two classics was too high to go on living up to. It obviously became increasingly difficult for him to keep dreaming up interesting villains, and I don’t think it’s simply jealousy (though of course none of them is worthy of her) that makes me irritated by the miscellaneous single males that Modesty takes under her wing and into her bed.
The Woody Allenish (but heroic, of course, when it comes to the crunch) mathematician Steve Collier and his blind-but-incredibly-plucky Canadian wife the clairvoyant Dinah (who persists in calling him “Tiger”), whom O’Donnell introduces into the mythos to add an extra dimension, become increasingly insufferable. At times, too, so many figures from previous books are reintroduced that it feels like Old Home Week.
The last two novels, The Night of Morningstar (1982) and Dead Man’s Handle (1985), are for the most part downright bad. But The Xanadu Talisman (1981) wears surprisingly well. O’Donnell has worked his way back into the problem-solving thought processes of Modesty and Willy, and Dr. Giles Pennyfeather (O’Donnell’s best go at a virtuous person) isn’t just a bundle of attitudes.
I, Lucifer (1967), A Taste for Death (1969), The Impossible Virgin (1971), and The Silver Mistress (1973) all invited reading with rapt attention when they first appeared, and all have unforgettable episodes in them.
Wartime Washington was quite restful until my wife Arab arrived. Of course, there had been a certain upsetting quality about it, like living inside a concrete mixer, but until Arab came there had been positively no chance for me to win a decoration for valor…posthumously.
I didn’t realize all that at the time. In fact, when she appeared, my thoughts went skipping off in a very different direction. I had visions of First Lieutenant Andrew Blake coming home from the War Department to a quiet apartment furnished with an adoring blonde creature who could turn heads in a blackout. I pictured Arab bringing my slippers and getting three drops of bitters in my old-fashioned and nipping my left ear just hard enough. I figured that my troubles were over. I must have been nuts. Five months of life with Arab should have taught me better. Any time Mrs. Arabella Blake wraps a guy in cotton wool he’d better not strike a match. It’s likely to be gun cotton.
All Over But The Shooting (1944)
Powell played variations on a limited number of situations and effects, and his women, whether wholesome-perky or slinky-seductive, can be very irritating. But his novels are smooth, workmanlike, and deliberately light in tone, and usually have a Forties and early Fifties charm. They can also be genuinely suspenseful at time, in contrast to a one-note comedy thriller like Craig Rice’s tedious The Sunday Pigeon Murders.
The best of Powell’s Andy and Arab books (Andrew and Arabella Blake, the former a gangly natural-born lounger who at times springs into effective action, the latter all field-hockey manic energy interspersed with bouts of kittenishness) is the espionage-in-wartime-Washington All Over But the Shooting. His non-series Say It with Bullets (1953), Shell Game (1950), and A Shot in the Dark (1952) are—or should I perhaps say were?— also quite readable.
He was found in the shrubbery in front of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirtieth of March, during the evening rush-hour. It was bloody cold, and an office worker had tripped over the body when he was caught short going home. I don’t know if you know Albatross Road where it runs into Hanger Lane, but if you do you’ll appreciate what a ghastly lonely area it is, with the surface-level tube-station on one side of the street, and dank, blind buildings, weeping with damp, on the other. That evening there was yet another go-slow on, and when I arrived at seven there were people still massing to get down the tube stairs to the trains, which were running very late.
It was pelting with rain on an east wind when I got there. I found Bowman from Serious Crimes standing over the corpse with a torch, talking to the two coppers off the beat who had been called by the man who had stumbled on him. Water ran off the brim of Bowman’s trilby and dribbled down the helmets of the wooden-tops to end up in their collars.
He Died With His Eyes Open (1984)
Derek Raymond, successor to Ted Lewis and the nearest thing to an English Jim Thompson in his power to disturb, is understandably a cult figure.
Stuck from choice at the rank of sergeant, and driven by an intense pity for innocent victims and a hatred of bullies, the anonymous narrator of his five best books works out of The Factory, the Poland Street police station in Soho, and deals single-handedly with cases passed on by Serious Crimes at Scotland Yard—nasty killings, or suspected killing, of unimportant victims that ambitious young Detective-Inspector Charlie Bowman has no interest in.
In the best of the series, The Devil’s Home on Leave (1984), he is saddled with a particularly gruesome contract killing of a police informer by a convincingly dangerous ex-army Irish sociopath, whom he’s marked down for it from the outset, and whose seemingly impermeable self-control he hopes to crack.
The criminal milieu, as we experience it here, is one of almost uniformly aggressive and immature personalities, dangerous to nosy police officers as well as to one another. And a steady aggressiveness (mostly, but not always, verbal) is his own mode of dealing with them, as well as with cocky Charlie Bowman (nice dialogues there), and, as wider political ramifications of the case become apparent, with higher-ups.
It is all richly textured and knowledgeable-seeming, with strong characterization and sharply delineated episodes. And the reflective, articulate, and melancholy narrator, whose wife has been confined in an asylum after murdering their young daughter, is a sympathetic figure.
In the other two principal works in the Factory series, He Died with His Eyes Open (1984) and How the Dead Live (1986), we are taken deeper into more chaotic modes of craziness than McGruder’s, principally those of a couple of victims, though there are two highly unpleasant sadists (one male, one female) in He Died with His Eyes Open.
In the former the narrator himself is sucked into the craziness via the taped diaries of the murdered man and an affair with his mistress. In the small-town setting of the latter, the corruption and cruelty, including police corruption, are thoroughly nasty. In both, we are made more aware of Raymond’s horror of the body, or at least his sense of the horrible things that can happen to it through illness, accidents, and ferocious violence.s
I Was Donna Suarez (1990) and Dead Man Upright (1993), with nominally the same hero, take us deeper into homicidal insanity (sexually driven), and there are longish passages of slightly out-of-control reflection and recall by the narrator.
Raymond himself apparently had some first-hand experience of crime, and his extended sojourn in France wasn’t simply because he preferred the cuisine and climate. I was told once that he had driven for the Krays, a piquant activity for a former public schoolboy. However, an ex-copper to whom I mentioned this remarked drily that a number of people were said to have driven for the Krays.
It was 1:00 P.M. of the second Monday in August, and five hours of Patrolman Kenneth Steele’s first day on duty had passed. Except for routine calls by the sheriff’s department, which used the same wave length, his radio had been silent. The other two city cars had reported back on duty after lunch. It was his turn to eat now, but he was driving PC-1—Pursuit 1, a new Dodge with a big engine and heavy-duty suspension—and he was enjoying himself too much to eat.
The Looters (1968)
Reese’s The Looters, excellently filmed by Don Siegal as Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau as the small-time bank-robber protagonist, has configurations and details that I’ve not encountered in other thrillers. Reese cuts back and forth successfully between the doings of Varrick, of the cops, and of the highly and believably unpleasant Vegas-related mob types whose money-laundering bank Varrick has unwittingly robbed. The ending is different from Varrick’s ingenious final getaway with his loot in the movie, the execution of which you might think would attract the attention of passing drivers.
In that carefully manicured section of Moscow’s Novo-Devichy Cemetery reserved for aliens who have rendered the state some service, there lies a modest gravel plot, frosted, at this time of year, with uncertain snow, like the icing on a Christmas cake. The grave is surmounted by a smooth, grey granitic headstone that bears the simple legend, albeit inscribed in gold with red borders:
George Michael Stevens
It is a month since the funeral; fifty-seven years to the day since the Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace in another city, another era. Now the streets of Moscow and the Lenin Hills are clad in red bunting. There will be a military parade, a celebration of a kind; speeches in Red Square, drinking and toasting, lots of that, and possibly, if the atmosphere is not altogether too sodden with vodka-induced toasts, some remembrance of things past. And there will also be the customary batch of annual pardons—for the long dead, the Old Guard; for those who condemned them and were in turn condemned, for those who knew no such resting place as George Michael Stevens—posthumous rehabilitation.
To Catch a Spy (1978)
Scott’s carefully crafted To Catch a Spy is one of the best of the grey-toned novels of intricate espionage manoeuvrings and counter-manoeuvrings. It is far better than Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. It is much less mannered than John Le Carré’s various admiring demonstrations of John Le Carré’s cleverness. It deserves to last.
Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other. Grofield was out and running too, and Laufman stayed hunched over the wheel, his foot tapping the accelerator.
The armored car lay on its side in a snowbank, its wheels turning like a dog chasing rabbits in its sleep. The mine had hit it just right, flipping it over without blowing it apart. There was a sharp metallic smell all around, and the echo of the explosion seemed to twang in the cold air, ricocheting from the telephone wires up above. Cold winter afternoon sunlight made all the shadows sharp and black.
Parker ran to the rear door of the armored car, slapped the packet of explosive against the metal near the lock so that the suction cups grabbed, then pulled the cord and stepped back out of sight. The armored car’s right rear tire turned slowly beside his head.
When they started appearing in the early Sixties, Stark’s Parker novels seemed so bleak, and so knowing about the ways of professional criminals, that they felt as if they’d been written by one, like Donald Mackenzie’s. (Who was Richard Stark?) Crime paid, robbery was a way to make a living, and very few real professionals got caught. When people became too dangerous to him, Parker killed them and didn’t lose any sleep over it.
He also didn’t enjoy life much. For someone whose only interests were carrying out heists, planning new ones, and having sex in between, America was an endless succession of highways, hotel and motel rooms, diners, steak-and-potatoes restaurants, occasional cocktail lounges and office buildings, linked by a network of criminal activities that gave them what significance they had.
An office building was where you went to get up-front funding from a tax-dodging dentist, a shabby apartment was where you met with thieves to plan a heist, a small town in Maine was where a retired professional lived who could pass on messages. Parker “had seen all the towns and cities, and there was nothing good to be said of any of them.”
But the books kept coming, the heists got more elaborate (a coin convention, an Army base, a heavily protected gambling casino on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, a mining town in North Dakota) and at times things went spectacularly wrong—an amateur killer dogged Parker’s steps, a partner absconded with the loot, Parker was trapped in a closed amusement park in the winter and hunted by local Syndicate hoods.
And when Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake, intelligently articulate author of terminally unfunny “humorous” novels about capers by total incompetents) switched to Gold Medal Books, Parker even acquired a permanent and wholly unviolent woman, Claire, with whom he could be more human between jobs. Earlier the series had been enriched by the cheerful actor Alan Grofield.
It’s a whole mythos, with recurring characters in it, and Parker is one of the great American thriller creations.
He concentrates single-mindedly on problem solving, without backward glances, is impatient with small talk, easily exasperated but able to control his exasperation, and aware that you’re never going to put together an ideal string for a heist.
He’s aware, too, that things can always go wrong but that damage can usually be controlled, and restless when not creating something (a heist) and coping with the problems that arise. A true workaholic professional with whom others of that ilk (thriller writers among them can identify.
Stark’s primary criminal milieu is oddly comforting, too, essentially the same one that Hammett wrote about, the milieu of free-lance professionals who for the most part aren’t trying to prove something, aren’t sadistic, aren’t sociopaths (not even Parker), and don’t talk in compulsively ugly ways, any more than do Hammett’s. There’s none of that ghastly “I’ll break ya fuckin’ legs!” stuff.
Mafia figures, when they appear from time to time, are usually the enemy (though not dehumanized) and fail in their attempts to wipe Parker out. There are virtually no Blacks, junkies, pushers, muggers, rapists. Stark’s criminals, the Mafiosi included, lead normal unsociopathic lives when they aren’t breaking into banks or knocking over armoured cars.
The writing is quietly amusing at times. Stark/Westlake has a fine eye for body English and for disjunctions between what people are doing and how they see themselves. His amusement is friendly. He likes people—likes them a lot more than does Ross Macdonald, with his chronic sense that if you look closely enough at anyone you will see something to their disadvantage. (cf. W.H. Auden’s “There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.”)
Even the earlier books look less bleak as the years go by, in part because of Stark’s classical precision of generalization and analogy-drawing. He is particularly good on the multiple role-playings in everyday life, and their incongruous persistence when things turn abnormal, such as in a hold-up.
The richest Parker book is Butcher’s Moon (1974), into which Stark packed so much that he probably felt that he had nothing more to do in this mode. And for a long while it looked as though this were indeed the end of the line, since it is so good. You will enjoy it more, though, if you have read some of the earlier ones first.
Such as? Well Point Blank, of course, where it all began a hard-to-believe forty-some years ago. And The Rare Coin Score (1967), Stark’s first book with Fawcett Gold Medal, in which Claire is introduced. And Slay-Ground (1969), where the motive for the action in Butcher’s Moon is laid down. And—but no, it’s impossible to attempt quality picks. All the Parker books have merit in their different ways, the early ones more bleakly so. But the books about Grofield on his own are weak.
Amazingly, Stark has managed to resurrect Parker after a twenty-three year absence, and, after a fumbled first attempt, get him fully back to form in Backflash (1998). The three-hundred-page Firebreak (2001) is the richest Parker book next to Butcher’s Moon, a maze of problems that make the intended score appear both imperative and impossible.
Parker, too, now feels entirely consistent in speech and thought-processes again—slightly warmer and less laconic than in the old days, but as focused, professional, and effective as ever. He is at his most likable, relatively speaking, in Flashfire.
[NEW] But Ask the Parrot is woefully misconceived, with Parker reduced to virtually a supporting player. We go to the Parker books for Parker, not for the lives and loves of unremarkable others. And what were they sniffing at Mysterious Press, quoting a Booker-Prize-winning novelist calling Stark one of “the greatest writers of the twentieth century”? What was he sniffing, for that matter? This all feels suspiciously like an attempt at Significance. You know, the thriller that is more-than-just-a-thriller.
When we’re reading a Parker book we shouldn’t have to be wondering whether it will be on the exam.
Actually the book in which Parker made his return, Comeback (1997), is strong in its own right and much better than Ask the Parrot. A lot of work obviously went into it. With so many other characters, however, it just isn’t sufficiently a Parker novel.
I was on my second glass of Würzberger when Al Healy, a little thinner and more nearsighted than I remembered him, pushed his way into the amiable smells of the rathskeller and started peering around for me. He wore a tweed suit, quiet and well-made. I got up and plucked at his sleeve.
“Looking for somebody, mister?”
Al’s face broke up into wrinkles of good humor and he wrung my hand with a surprising amount of power for one who had the general configuration of a bridge lamp. “Barney,” he said, staring at me in ostentatious concern, “your hair, old man. What’s become of it?”
I signaled for more Würzberger and steered him to the booth. “I still have just as much hair as always,” I said coldly. “And,” I added pointedly, “it’s still pink. No gray in my locks.”
The Other Body in Grant’s Tomb (1951)
Richard Starnes wrote three novels in the Forties and early Fifties featuring journalist-narrator Barney Forge and bon-vivant Dr St. George.Peachy, both Washington based.The first two books are average (the second, And When She Was Bad She Was Murdered, 1950, maybe a bit above average) whodunits. The third, The Other Body in Grant’s Tomb (1951), is a firmly packed mystery thriller involving Forge doing a job of investigative reporting into civic corruption in a city that sounds like Baltimore, and joined there, when things get too rough for him, by Peachy.
Chunks of the action take place in a movie-set-like waterfront alley with a nice variety of characters and buildings—a drink-sodden crashed journalist with a photographic memory, a beautiful young blonde who loves him and plays the piano in the bar where he souses himself, a sinister blind beggar, a Turkish bath, a clergyman worthily running a mission for the down-and-out, and a not unlikable police lieutenant too well-dressed for his salary.
The novel is at its best before Peachy shows up. There’s some agreeable journalistic camaraderie between Forge and an old friend, and Forge is pleasantly buoyant when bloodhounding in his own right. There are some strong dramatic episodes, including a heroic rescue in the bay at night (longer than the Continental Op’s involuntary dip in San Francisco Bay in “The Tenth Clue”), a mouth-watering gourmet dinner; and lots of booze, principally Wild Turkey and I.W. Harper bourbon.
The debriefing took ten days in a sealed-off suite in the old section of the Army’s Letterman General Hospital on the Presidio in San Francisco and when it was finished, so was my career—if it could be called that.
They were polite enough throughout, perhaps even a bit embarrassed, providing that they felt anything at all, which I doubted, and the embarrassment may have prompted their unusual generosity when it came to the matter of severance pay. It amounted to twenty thousand dollars and, as Carmingler kept saying, it was all tax-free so that really ran it up to the equivalent of twenty-eight or even thirty thousand.
It was Carmingler himself who handed me the new passport along with the certified check drawn on something called the Brookhaven Corporation. He did it quickly, without comment, much in the same manner as he would shoot a crippled horse—a favorite perhaps, and when it was done, that last official act, he even unbent enough to pick up the phone and call a cab. I was almost sure it was the first time he had ever called a cab for someone other than himself.
The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (1970)
After the Hammett of Red Harvest and the Op stories, Ross Thomas is the Grand Master of inventive plotting and deft execution.
Someone said of that most intelligent of French moviemakers Georges Franju (Godard is Swiss) that he produced movies the way a healthy apple tree produces fruit. Thomas’s mind (and you sense that his IQ runs off the upper edge of the scale) has that kind of fertility.
Starting with The Cold War Swap in 1966, he has
— given us a quartet of books about “Mac” McCorkadale, and Michael Padillo, saloon-keepers-extraordinary, caught up in political skullduggery because of Padillo’s enforced activities for the CIA;
— branched out into dirty union politics (The Yellow Dog Contract, The Porkchoppers), financial shenanigans (The Money Harvest), African politics (The Seersucker Whipsaw), postwar Germany (The Eighth Dwarf), and political muckraking (If You Can’t Be Good);
— done five novels, as Oliver Bleeck, about Philip St.Ives, former newspaper columnist and now professional go-between (for a percentage) between thieves or kidnappers and the victims who are prepared to pay handsomely to recover what they have lost;
—soared up to the baroque heights of his masterpiece The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (1970) which is not only the best take-on-a-whole-city novel after Red Harvest but a brilliant interweaving of what are virtually two novels;
— soared even higher, so far as complexity is concerned, with Chinaman’s Chance (1978);
— and kept going, through not at the same level, with a run of other books.
He can handle first-person and third-person narration with equal aplomb (though on the whole he is at his best in the former). He has pulled off successfully the feat of writing good two-hero narratives (Mac and Padillo, Quincy Durant and Artie Wu in Chinaman’s Chance). And he is insider-knowledgeable about the Washington political-bureaucratic scene and about what the rich and powerful are capable of (at times the actual political scene seems to have been scripted by him), but without becoming depressive.
His deepest interest is in clever devious people trying to outfox one another. His two best novels are The Fools in Town (which could serve as the title for a study of his works) and Chinaman’s Chance, with If You Can’t Be Good (1973) some distance below them. His best Padillo-McCorkadale novel is Cast a Yellow Shadow (1967), his best St.-Ives novel Protocol for a Kidnapping (1971).
None of his novels is boring, but there is a fading of exuberance towards the end.
Well, they are all gone now, all but me: all those clear-eyed, clear-thinking people—people with their heads in the clouds and their feet firmly on the ground—who comprise the editorial staff of the Pacific City Courier. Warmed with the knowledge of a day’s work well done, they have retired to their homes. They have fled to the sweet refuge of their families, to the welcoming arms of brave little women and the joyous embrace of laughing kiddies. And with them has gone the clearest-eyed, clearest-thinking of them all, Dave Randall, none other than the Courier’s city editor.
He stopped by my desk on his way out, his feet firmly on the ground—or, I should say, the city room floor—but I did not lookup immediately. I was too shaken with emotion. As you have doubtless suspected, I have a poet’s heart; I think in allegories. And in my mind was an image of countless father birds, flapping their weary wings to the nests where the patient mother birds and the wee little birdies awaited them. And—and I say this unashamed—I could not look up. All the papa birds flapping toward their nests, while I—
Ah, well. I forced a cheery smile. I had my family; I was a member of the happy Courier family—clear-eyed, clear-thinking. And what bride could be finer than my own, what better than to be wed to one’s work.
The Nothing Man (1954)
Jim Thompson’s only fun novel, I mean one in which you’re looking forward pleasurably to whatever comes next, is The Getaway (1958), filmed by Sam Peckinpah with Steve McQueen and (alas) Ali McGraw. For me it is his only “real” thriller, as distinct from novels about crime and criminals, like James M. Cain’s depressing forays into crime and punishment in which the punishment, like the alcoholic’s hangover, is the real pay-off.
Thompson does everything freshly in it—the bank robbery at the beginning; the character of the associate (in the movie, the admirably sinister Al Lattieri) whom Doc McCoy tries to bump off and who afterwards gets on his trail; the other problems that Doc and his wife Carol encounter along the way, including a petty crook’s railroad-depot theft of the bag with their loot in it; an appalling paid-for hiding place en route to Mexico; and the even more appalling haven for criminals in which they end up and which (omitted from the movie) could be the subject of a movie in itself—one of the most unforgettable imaginings in any thriller.
Nor is the relationship between the genially conscienceless Doc and Carol a simple one. They deserve one another, knife-cut-knife; but they also, up to a point, love one another.
After The Getaway, it’s proceed at your own risk.
All you can be sure of each time you embark on another Thompson novel, is that you will have no idea where it will take you plot-wise, but that you will be entering into some unpleasant, at times highly unpleasant, consciousnesses, and that some pretty nasty things will be happening to some of the characters, and that there will be some remarkable stretches of writing.
Thompson came to thrillers late, in his early Forties, probably inspired by the first-person sociopathic narrative of Horace McCoy’s Kiss Tomorrow Good-Bye (1948), and with a lot of Depression-era experiences and resentments to draw on. Basically his characters are either losers and suckers or predators, the latter by no means always as smart and in control as they take themselves to be.
Ironically, the narratives by outright sociopaths like the homicidal sheriffs in The Killer Inside Me (his most powerful work) and Pop.1280 can be less disturbing than some of the others, where you are sucked into the vortex of characters who hate and yearn and plot intensely but simply don’t have it together, and where there is no together to have. You’re into real nihilism here, as distinct from the one-note depressiveness of a writer like David Goodis.
Thompson’s screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) was masterful, especially in its dialogue. The experience of projecting himself into the minds of likable characters in a stable system of relationship and values no doubt led to the relative poise and warmth of The Getaway two years later.
It was a wind-created hell in which the man who called himself Joe Fisher walked northward towards the small township of Carie, in the far west of New South Wales.
Somewhere west of Central Australia was born the gale of wind this day lifting high the sand from Sturt’s country—that desert of sand ranges lying along the north-eastern frontier of South Australia—to carry it eastward into New South Wales, across the Gutter of Australia, even to the Blue Mountains, and then into the distant Pacific.
Now and then the dark red-brown fog thinned sufficiently to reveal the sun as a huge orb of blood. That was when a trough passed between the waves of sand particles for ever rushing eastward. The wind was steady in its velocity. It was hot, too, but its heat constantly alternated, so that it was like standing before a continuously opened and closed oven door.
It was not always possible for Fisher to keep his eyes open. Although he could not see it, he knew he was crossing a wide, treeless plain supporting only low annual saltbush. The track he was following could be seen, on the average, for about six yards. On his left ran a boundary-fence, wire-netted and barbed-topped—a fence which had caught a rampart of wind-quickened dead buckbush, up and over which came charging like hunters the filigree balls of dead and brittle straw.
Quite abruptly, and without warning, a large touring car appeared in the red murk. It stopped at the precise moment that Fisher saw it, and from it the driver clambered, bring with him a four-gallon petrol-tin.
Winds of Evil (1937)
Reading the twenty-nine Bony books of Arthur Upfield can become a way of life, an addiction; like reading Dickens. And you could do a lot worse.
Personally, if I were cast away on a desert island, I’d far rather have the Bony books than the works of “serious” novelists like, oh, you know, Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Doris Lessing, the usual suspects, to nourish my imagination and keep my spirit warm.
(“Bony”= half-aboriginal Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. His name was given him at the mission where he was raised as an orphan.)
The novels vary widely in quality. The prose can be flat and thin, simply covering the ground, laying out facts, introducing characters. It can be clumsy. In my opening quotation, do we really need to be told that the car appeared “quite abruptly,” and also “without warning” ?
But the prose can also blaze into life and you are simply there. (as happens, likewise, in the lesser novels of B.Traven, such as General from the Jungle).
You’re feeling a majestic old bull near death from starvation before the powerless eyes of its owner on a drought-ravaged homestead. Or watching from afar the mutual suicide of a loving young couple. Or inside the tormented consciousness of a murderer holed up in a forest and experiencing the growing horror of isolation, silence, and, perhaps, aboriginal telepathy.
Things matter in these books, lives matter, loves matter. And despite Bony’s and Upfield’s moralizings, they aren’t ethically neat. Killing someone doesn’t necessarily put you beyond a moral pale. At times there’s a moving interplay between the letter of the law, which Bony is required to enforce, and the profounder dimensions of individual cases.
I am surprised that Erik Routley didn’t talk about Upfield in his The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story (1972).
The Bushman Who Came Back (1957, a.k.a. Bony Buys a Woman) is the best of the books, the tautest, the clearest in its basic situation. A young woman is murdered at a homestead (a ranch) in the outback, her seven-year-old daughter has been carried off by one of the handful of local whites, and Bony must engage in complex dealings with the local aborigines, who like the abductor, in order to find out where she is.
There is a lovely,unsentimentalized vitality to the homestead aborigines (Meena, Sarah, Charlie), some high comedy in Bony’s dealings with the tribe of King Canute, and real danger with the so-called wild aborigines. These relationships are presented without any condescension.
The five-chapter sequence near the end, out under a remorselessly hot sky on the imperfectly dried out bed of Lake Eyrie, has a sustained hallucinatory vividness for which I can think of no parallel in any other thriller.
The book’s a beaut. Read it.
After that? The Will of the Tribe (1962), coming near the end of Upfield’s career, is the fullest and most worked-at of the other books in which aborigines play a major role. They are also particularly strong and interesting presences in The Bone is Pointed (1938) and Bony and the Mouse (1959)
The Bachelors of Broken Hill (1950) and The Widows of Broome (1951) are more conventional detective novels. But there is a strong sense of place in them, and a disturbing feeling of homicidal craziness at work. The Widows of Broome is particularly fine in its evocation of a small coastal community in northwestern Australia where British traditions, including a public-school-type boys’ school, are maintained in near-tropical heat. Both books have dramatic conclusions.
The Battling Prophet (1956), with its Iron-Curtain agents and Bony at odds with the obnoxious Australian security forces, has some longuers, but becomes increasingly entertaining from chapter 14 on—suspenseful, funny, compassionate.
The bulk of Upfield’s books are detective novels, not thrillers. But there are suspenseful stretches in almost all of them. And personally I would rather be judged by Arthur Upfield, and seem good in his eyes, than by detection moralists like G.K. Chesterton and Ross Macdonald.
I was forty and I felt it. It’s a bad age for an active man to be and I had always thought of myself as that. It’s the first year you really feel the rot setting in and the timbers beginning to creak. It’s a sort of climacteric; after your fortieth birthday you suddenly realize you are mortal.
I only decided to go to Mantovelli’s party because I wanted to see what he was like and I wanted to see his house. Mildred, of course, was on for it from the beginning. She set off early in the D.K.W., driving it up through the gears as she always did. Automatically my ear tuned in to the changes. I looked out the window and watched the little green car tearing down the long avenue between the elms. However well you drove, I reflected, you could never change as crisply with a stalk on the steering column as with a short, rigid lever on the floor. And just for the record, Mildred did drive well as she did most physical things well. It was a pity we were all washed up.
Stop at Nothing (1959)
John Welcome’s best novel by far is Stop at Nothing, and by now it is something of a period piece, with a slightly under-developed heroine, a bit of surprisingly inaccurate map-reading, and a six-foot-four villain, wicked Colonel Jason, who occasionally has really terrible lines.
But the novel is full of the charm of being rich (even if embittered because your car-racing career has ended), having a nice country house in Ireland and a pied-à-terre with a view of the Mediterranean near Hyères), and driving fast and expertly in a Bentley along blessedly uncrowded roads in Provence, with appropriate eating and drinking along the way.
Simon Herald’s Hannayish-Householdish narrative voice is a real one, as are his interchanges with his plane-flying super-rich friend Maurice Kenway and the tough, quick-tempered young gentleman-rider Roddy Marston. Welcome, who cooperated on a book with Dick Francis, knows his cars and horses and how people associated with them speak and feel.
The action moves along at a fine clip, and you can smell Provence and feel that lovely dry summer air.
Welcome’s first novel, Go for Broke (1958) isn’t as good (it feels like a first novel) but there’s enough Provence there too to keep you going until the full meal.
His later books are disappointing. Once Herald has married Sue Marston and become contented, there is nowhere left for him to go. And Richard Graham, from Go for Broke, is out-of-focus and uninteresting away from the jockey stuff and his ongoing difficult relationship with his renegade former idol Rupert Rawle in the first novel.
Beware of Midnight starts promisingly in Ireland, but fades.
I stopped the Ford on a bench halfway down a long, gentle hill and got out and stretched and felt suddenly warm outside and inside; the morning sun was climbing higher now, and I was almost home. It was October and the colors were running down the hillsides and along the little creek bottoms like a fire that couldn’t make up its mind where it wanted to go.
There had been a light frost and now all that was left of it was where the shadows still lay a little dark and cool behind the old fence posts and in the borrow pit beside the dry red clay and dust of the road. The dewberry vines didn’t have any leaves now and their runners were a dead tangle, white rimed with frost in the shade and shiny and black and wet where the sun had struck them.
Part of the big field on the left had been in cotton that year, and I could look down the rows for a long way until they curved around, following the contour of the slope and the terrace rows. The stalks were dead now, and bare, and the sharp bolls empty, and they were all wet with the melted frost. It was the old Eilers place and I wondered idly if Sam Harley were still farming it.
Hill Girl (1950)
If Hammett, Thomas, and Hamilton are the three best American thriller writers, Williams is the fourth. (His prose is better than John D. MacDonald’s, and Jim Thompson’s remarkable novels, apart from The Getaway, seem to me books about criminality, rather than thrillers).
Like Conrad, he came to writing after doing other things, including ten years at sea as a wireless operator. He took his writing (but not himself as A Writer) very seriously, was an always scrupulous craftsman, lived, so far as one can tell, honourably, and took his own life.
Several of his earlier novels were strongly influenced by James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Ring Twice and Double Indemnity, but without ever becoming pastiche. He was obviously interested at that time in the hero as heel, with doom-laden, hoist-by-one’s-own-petard endings. (He would obviously have read Thompson.) The French loved him as a noir novelist and filmed three of his works.
But he is at his best in Scorpion Reef (1955, a.k.a. Gulf Coast Girl ), with its tips of the hat to Conrad, the lovingly crafted Talk of the Town (1959, a.k.a. Stain of Suspicion), which is one of the very best works of its kind, and his later thriller about the sea, Dead Calm (1963).
His voice does not have the instant recognisability of the other three writers, and he fell flat on his face when he tried for the comic in The Wrong Venus (1966). But he wrote some of the best prose to be found in any thriller, and at his best, in the works that I have named, he is very good indeed.
I say more about him in “A Philosophical Thriller.”
It was getting on for midnight.
“The trouble with scientists,” said Andy, “is that they think they’ve got some private, personal hot line to truth.”
“I don’t think it’s exclusive to scientists,” I told him. He looked as though he might be going to pursue the matter, but he caught Driver’s eye and subsided into his chair. Driver, it was quite clear, regarded him with the lack of enthusiasm of a C.O. surveying a junior officer drunk on Mess Night. Also, since Driver and McBride were trying hard to sell me something, he didn’t want Andy Dylan raising prickles on my back. As a matter of fact I could take a good deal more of Andy drunk than Driver sober, but I didn’t say so since this was a Guest Dinner and they were paying for it. I leaned back and stared upward, waiting for somebody to make another pitch.
Bush Baby (1968)
Woodhouse’s first two novels, Tree Frog (1966) and Bush Baby (a.k.a. Rock Baby), are an unalloyed delight. They belong up there with Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana as lovely, perfect, funny, sophisticated spy novels.
In part he’s playing variations on themes in The Ipcress File—genially manipulative and unscrupulous spymasters, knowledgeable and insolent underling, old-shoe headquarters in unfashionable part of town, friendly-but Americans, brainwashing, scientific-technological goings on in hot foreign parts.
But in constructing his scientist-hero Giles Yeoman, he was obviously able to draw on various of his own expertises (medical, aviational, mountaineering), and Yeoman is a more solid figure than Deighton’s nameless narrator. The variations are brilliant too, the outlines of the plots firmer, the characters absolutely “there,” each scene a genuine scene and realized down to the smallest details. Woodhouse knows his bureaucrats, scientists, doctors, R.A.F. types. He can even , like Deighton, do American speech convincingly.
They are great books to read when you’re having problems with administrators yourself.
The next Yeoman novel, Mama Doll (1972), isn’t quite so lovingly crafted, but is still fine and fully voiced. At the end of Blue Bone (1973), with its bravura crashing-the-Iron-Curtain sequence, Woodhouse makes Yeoman and his two partners the richest people in the world, which effectively finishes them as usable thriller characters.
In Moon Hill (1976) Yeoman and Yancey Brightwell try conclusions with a volcano that is threatening to erupt on a tropical island, with guerillas popping up from behind the vegetation, but it’s simply adventure stuff. You can’t really empathize with the problems of super-duper-mega-multi-billionaires, even if they’re wearing ordinary clothes like you and me.There’s no grip of necessity there.
By that time Woodhouse was into his trilogy of novels in collaboration with Andrew Ross—really just one novel in installments— about Leonardo da Vinci, starting with The Medici Guns (1974), in “quality” boys’-story prose.
After that he gave up on Yeoman and, figuratively speaking, lost his thriller voice—or voices. The assorted English crooks and cops in The Remington Set, which he published as John Charlton in the same year as Moon Hill, aren’t sufficiently individuated in their speech patterns, not to my ear anyway.
Which matters, since he’s employing the technique of George V. Higgins’ groundbreaking The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), which Elmore Leonard also profited from, namely providing minimal continuity and allowing who and what his characters are, and what they’re up to, to emerge from conversation that reads as if it had been lifted straight from a tape-recorder. I found it hard to follow what was going on—and didn’t really care. But at least I had guessed that the novel was by Woodhouse before it became official.
In 1980 he did a multiple-point-of-view and long time-span novel, The Traders, about an English-educated Afghanistan prince who ends up controlling a worldwide firearms empire with an annual turnover of nearly a billion dollars. Lots of incidents, lots of characters, lots of technical information, but the jog-trot prose is a long way from the vibrant charm of his two masterpieces.
It’s an odd career pattern.
On the dust-jacket of Rock Baby (a.k.a. Bush Baby), Alastair MacLean is quoted as saying that
Martin Woodhouse is going to be a very big name indeed. He has a combination of originality, inventiveness, characterization, technical expertise, dead-pan humour and world-weary cynicism that is so rare as to be almost unique.
There are also some enthusiastic quotations there from British reviewers of Tree Frog.
But Woodhouse never caught on in America.
Maybe if Tree Frog and/or Bush Baby had been filmed? With a hero to set beside Fleming’s Connery and Deighton’s Caine?
You can practically see Tom Courtney as Yeoman, Nigel Green as Driver, John LeMesurier as McBride, George Segal as Yancy Brightwell, Klaus Kinsky as Maris or Braun, the young Herbert Lom as Drakon, Max Von Sydow in a guest appearance as the old scientist Mikulicz.
My own guess would be that Woodhouse simply got bored. Or that he ceased being able to identify with Yeoman’s, relatively speaking, little-guy problems. Or that he lost a certain tension when he moved to the West Indies. Or all three.
In any event, don’t miss Tree Frog and Bush Baby (a much better title than Rock Baby).
Ajijic, Jalisco, 1990—Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2002