Writer at Work: Donald Hamilton
And after all, what else is the German Bildungsroman [development novel] than the sublimation and spiritualization of the novel of adventure?
It is not my place to say where, in the scale of literary quality, my own presentations stand, or fall.
“Well, I hate to hit a guy on the head when I’m shooting at his tires. That’s pretty wild.”
“Wild, hell!” said Crane.
He knew O’Malley was lying. This was one of the times he could put his finger on what O’Malley was. What O’Malley was he kept hidden most of the time. So did Doc Williams. And Eddie Burns. They were all alike. You learned about them only in an inverse manner. They boasted about how frightened they were of certain things, and you knew they had been brave.”
I loathe this misconception of writing down to the public just because you’re supposed to be working in a popular vein.
Conversations, vol. IV).
Donald Hamilton, at eighty-six the dean of American thriller writers, has had an unusually long and enviable career, and his books have been part of my own consciousness, on and off, for forty years.
He was one of the major—the greatest —generation of American thriller writers, who were born during or just after the so-called Great War, reached adulthood during the character-forming Thirties, served in the armed forces in World War II, and began their writing careers after being demobilized. He has outlived fellow professionals like John D. MacDonald, Kenneth Millar (a.k.a. Ross Macdonald), John McPartland, and Charles Williams, and went on writing until very recently. Only Mickey Spillane, so far as I know, is still hanging in there.
Hamilton has forty-two books to his credit, twenty-eight of them in the Matt Helm series, five of them Westerns, two of them non-fiction, one of them a selection of Western fiction edited by himself. Seven movies have been made from his books, and in 1975 a TV series briefly featured Helm, played, by Tony Franciosa, as a private eye.
The Helm books, with the iconic photo of Hamilton on the back cover in those reflecting aviator sunglasses, have apparently sold close to twenty million copies, and were obviously enjoyable to write.
He has been President of the Mystery Writers of America, no doubt with other honours from his fellow professionals, and come a long way since 1946 when he quit his occupation as chemist (in which capacity he had served in the Naval Reserve) and set out as a writer and freelance photographer at the age of thirty, with a wife and children to support.
There is a website on him called “The Donald Hamilton Worship Page.” I am writing as a fan myself, though this side of idolatry.
Obviously it wasn’t roses, roses all the way.
You can be sure that he didn’t get rich quick with his two hardcover novels, Date with Darkness (1947) and The Steel Mirror (1948), or the two novellas bound together in 1950 as Murder Twice Told., after magazine publication.
The action in those novels isn’t edge-of-the-seat unputdownable, nor are their heroes and heroines all that easy to empathize with. They are not comfortable novels, even though The Steel Mirror had made it into the Saturday Evening Post as a serial. Hamilton himself remarks that Date with Darkness “didn’t do much.”
And evidently he wasn’t a natural when it came to short stories. By his own account he had pounded out lots of them for pulps like Black Mask and Dime Detective (starting back in the Thirties? ; the chronology isn’t clear), all of them coming back to him. The first of the only two stories that were accepted in those years, both by Collier’s, both in 1946, both of them love stories, apparently required seven editorially prompted rewrites.
He was a long way in those days from the runaway success and manic certitude of Spillane’s Mike Hammer books, or the fertility of John D. MacDonald, who sold a couple of hundred stories to the pulps before coming out with the excellent The Brass Cupcake in 1950.
In the 1986 article “Shut Up and Write,” he recalls that there were some “tough patches” and “pretty bare” cupboards during those years and that “it’s a bleak country—the land of the learning writer.”
The two novellas, The Black Cross (1947) and Deadfall (1949) moved faster and along more familiar lines (Deadfall, too, appeared in Colliers), but no further books were published by Rinehart, and thereafter his works, apart from the non-fictional Cruises with Kathleen (1980), which was about sailing, appeared only as paperbacks, first with Dell, then in Fawcett Gold Medal Books.
Presumably this was a pondered career choice. Writers like MacDonald, Williams, and Millar/Macdonald would appear between both soft covers and the more prestigious hard ones.
But there may also have been a touch of defiance there, a nailing of his colours to the mast. And there may have been costs.
Reading between the lines, the Fifties, when he was doing some of his best work, remained an uncertain time for him financially. “While we were scraping by,” he observes (“Shut Up and Write”), “we certainly weren’t getting rich or famous.”
Four of the books were Westerns, starting with Smoky Valley (1954), his first book in four years, and Westerns, he remarked later, were not big sellers unless your name was Louis L’Amour. If my own experience is anything to go by, there was very little cross-over between readers of thrillers and readers of Westerns. Apart from Hamilton’s five, all of them good, I doubt if I have read half a dozen others.
Evidently it was a blow when Collier’s folded in 1957. His first short story in Collier’s back in 1946 had brought him a cheque for $750, which would be worth at least five times as much today. So the three novels serialized in it, if paid for at the same rate, would have made a substantial difference to the family fortunes. As it was, apparently, Kathleen Hamilton had to help out by teaching school.
Moreover, I have the impression that the superb Line of Fire, announced on the cover by Dell as “First Edition. Not a reprint,” and the very interesting Assignment: Murder (ditto) didn’t make the kind of splash at the time that they deserved to, especially the former, one of the finest and most elegant of American thriller.
I myself was reading a lot of thrillers in the Fifties. (Minneapolis was a city rich in used paperbacks, and a faux-Tudor reading room in the University library had a section for mysteries), but I didn’t become aware of Line of Fire — Hamilton’s own favourite, according to the one letter I have from him—until after the first Helm book appeared in 1960.
And there are no quotations from reviews of either book on the Gold Medal reissue of Assignment Murder as Assassins Have Starry Eyes (an appalling title, but apparently foisted upon it by Gold Medal to avoid confusion with their Sam Durrell “Assignment” series by Edward S. Aarons).
Anthony Boucher, reviewing thrillers and mysteries for the New York Times, was a fan of his. But paperbacks in those days weren’t bought by libraries.
And those were the years when slightly snobbish affections of the heart were being established that would put various thriller writers on the intellectual map and keep them there. Raymond Chandler and John Ross Macdonald, in hardcover as well as soft, were real, which is to say literate, which is to say intellectual writers. Line of Fire and Assignment;Murder, on the other hand, were simply paperbacks in drugstore racks.
In comparison with Chandler and Macdonald and Hammett, surprisingly little has been written about Hamilton. I talk about aspects of this in the Afterwords.
Nor did Hamilton have the intellectual-prestige breaks of Chandler, or Hammett, or various other writers, such as Cornell Woolrich and the dreadful Dorothy B. Hughes, when it came to the filming of his books.
The adaptation of Smoky Valley, his best Western, as The Violent Men (1955) was surprisingly faithful to the novel, starred Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, and was directed by Rudolph Maté, the great cinematographer for Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and director of noirs like D.O.A, (1950). But it was a Western, and not a noir, and I don’t imagine it was Cinématheque talk in Paris, where serious American reputations were increasingly made.
And William Wyler’s The Big Country (1958), a wide-screen “quality” Western with Gregory Peck as a sea-captain who has moved to cowboy country, so totally lacked the crispness and authenticity that made the good parts of the very filmic novel memorable as to be a virtual How-Not-To demonstration of missed opportunities.
Five Steps to Danger (1957), the movie adaptation of The Steel Mirror, has sunk virtually without a trace despite starring Sterling Hayden and Ruth Roman. The reviewer for the New York Times called it a “lax” and implausible melodrama, and Hamilton and his wife, as he recalls, almost missed seeing it, since it never got into the big theatres.
In addition, Hamilton’s fans, to judge from the websites, are still writhing in disgust over the campy dumbing-down of four of the best Helms in the Sixties, with Dean Martin particularly incongruous in the lead role. There was no way I myself was going to see them, I knew. Martin, in his urban-cool manifestation, was an ironical antithesis of the Helm of the books, and the movies probably put a lot of intelligent readers off from trying the books at all.
The lovely and highly cinematic Line of Fire has never been filmed. Nor, back in the Forties, were the two novellas, which would have made fine noirs.
Hamilton, like Jonathan Latimer, was always very conscious of the movies, I would say. He was a photographer himself.
Two big-name Westerns in three years. What a boost to morale and income! No wonder he would speak warmly later of The Big Country, despite his own contributions to the screenplay having been lost, as he recalls, in the multi-writer shuffle. (Apparently he had trouble writing additional dialogue for it.)
And as a thorough pro he obviously knew that what you couldn’t change you lived with, and that if you were in the business of providing entertainment, it was a lot better to be getting income from the Dean Martin movies than not to be getting it.
True, it would have been nice to have had a movie equivalent of the Mitchum/Peck, Cape Fear (1961).
But then, Hamilton himself hadn’t written an equivalent of the spine-tingling Cape Fear novel (originally The Executioners, 1957), and in fact only one of John D.MacDonald’s vastly popular thirty-volume Travis McGee series (begun in 1964, four years after the first Helm) was filmed for theatrical release—Darker Than Amber (1970), with Rod Taylor less than entirely adequate to MacDonald’s battered, rangy, sexually therapeutic knight-errant.
And after Hamilton’s agent had seen the possibility of making the first Helm novel (Death of a Citizen, 1960) the start of a series, rather than have Matt (originally George!) return to his normal peaceful life after his enforced departure from it, and Fawcett Gold Medal had given him a long-term contract (one a year), and Helm, by Hamilton’s own account, had taken on a life of his own so that the early books virtually wrote themselves, Hamilton was presumably fixed for life, so far as any writer ever is (“Over 16 million Matt Helm novels in print!” the back cover of The Revengers announced in 1982) and able to relax and enjoy a variety of activities when he wasn’t at the keyboard.
Which, to judge from his books and the worship page, included hunting, sailing, camping, photography, driving pick-up trucks and the occasional sports car, and raising with his wife Kathleen (they were married for almost fifty years) a family of two sons and two daughters.
Three of the children evidently enjoyed growing up with guns and hunting (Elise with particular gusto, by the sound of it), and Gordon, who also shared his enthusiasm for sailing, has been his partner over in Europe in a boat-refinishing business enterprise.
He has done a lot of traveling, in search of locations for the Helm books—Mexico, Scotland, the Caribbean, Norway, Canada, Hawaii among them. And found out a lot about the history of the American West.
And been based for most of his writing life in the New Mexico evoked with such evident pleasure in several of his novels.
A long, productive, and honourable career; a good family life; an enviable repertoire of outdoor skills; the respect of fellow writers of both thrillers and Westerns; the respect, too, of fellow aficionados of sailing, guns, and hunting, including the readers of his articles about them; a sufficiency, I imagine, of friends and friendly acquaintances, despite the probably judicious absence of dedications from the novels—well, you could go a lot farther and fare a lot worse, couldn’t you?
When things have gone well for a writer, it seems worth enquiring why. All the more so when you think of the melancholy arc of the careers of thriller writers like Hammett and Chandler. And Charles Williams. And Ted Lewis.
Let me see what I can do. This will take some time, but I shall do my best to be clear.
Hamilton’s thrillers (I will omit the Westerns, as too big a subject) group themselves conveniently into decades.
Date with Darkness (1947)—Philip Branch, Jeannette Lalevy-Duvall
The Black Cross (1947)—Hugh Phillips, Christine Wells, Janice Phillips.
The Steel Mirror (1948)—John Emmett, Ann Nicholson
Deadfall (1949)—Paul Weston, Marilyn George, Janie Collis
(Deadfall and The Black Cross were published together as Murder Twice Told in 1950)
Night Walker (1954)—Dave Young, Elizabeth WIlsan
Line of Fire (1955)—Paul Nyquist, Barbara (Babs) Wallace
Assignment: Murder, a.k.a. Assassins Have Starry Eyes (1956)—Jim Gregory, Natalie Gregory, Nina Rasmussen
1960s et seq.
Death of a Citizen (1960)—Matt Helm, Tina (no non-alias last name), Elizabeth (Beth) Helm
(And so on, through the rest of the Helm series, up to The Damagers in 1993.)
In the rest of these pages, I shall concentrate on the works of the Nineteen Forties, with a glance or two at others along the way.
I believe that it was how Hamilton thought his way through a number of issues in them that enabled him to advance with the confidence that he did in the wider-angle novels of the Fifties, especially Line of Fire, Assignment: Murder, and the Westerns, and to keep the Helm saga going so long.
The Forties works are works of discovery, works about finding things out about more than merely criminal goings-on—finding them out about other people, especially women, about yourself, about being a writer, about being “a man” in a self-respecting way—the rules, in a sense, of engagement. Development itself can be an adventure, a faring forward into the unknown, or the very imperfectly known, like Hamilton leaving the security of industrial chemistry.
They are also deeply moral (moral, not moralistic) love stories. “The Love Stories of Donald Hamilton”? It has a curious ring to it, doesn’t it? But then, lots of thrillers are basically love stories, and Hamilton himself went on writing novels (thrillers, Westerns) that are about love.
To risk some preliminary generalizations.
Obviously the Hamilton of these works had decided to stay pretty close to his own experiences and areas of competence; in other words, not to fake.
Apparently he had always written, on and off—scaring his kid sisters with ghost stories, doing a boyhood thriller with a sacred crocodile and an erupting sacred volcano in it, and spending so much time on writing as an undergraduate that he had to take an extra year before getting his B.Sc. at the University of Chicago in 1938. (Did any of it appear in student zines, I wonder?)
But he stayed on as a graduate student, paid his way as a lab assistant in a junior college, and got a job with an oil company, working on rust prevention. And his war service as a Naval Reserve ensign and subsequently lieutenant, j.g., had been stateside, “fixing up bad smells at a naval experiment station” at Annapolis, as he puts it, plus doing (or so I recall reading) some small-boat instructing on Chesapeake Bay.
(At least that’s the official version. Matt Helm too was demobilized with a conventional war record, and for fifteen years he refrained from ever hinting to Beth, “gentle wife and mother,” or anyone else, what in fact he had been up to in Occupied Europe. “Lie, Mac [his wartime boss] had said, look her in the eye and lie.” )
So the heroes of the Forties works are all young professional men, three of them without overseas war service, two of them chemists, one of them a Naval lieutenant, j.g., one (but his work doesn’t enter into the story) a sociology instructor in an unnamed university (Johns Hopkins?).
Physical skills? Oh, nothing much. Two of them are small-boat people, one of them knows which end of a rifle you pointed at the Japanese, one of them is a reasonably efficient long-distance driver. Nothing dramatic, no unarmed combat, no hand-gun expertise, no college sports, not even any hunting or fishing.
Not that Hamilton was indifferent to the charms of hyper-skills and hyper-effective heroes. Leslie Charteris’ Saint books, as he reports, had been among his own enjoyments, along with the works of John Buchan, Geoffrey Household, Dashiell Hammett, and others.
And in the unpublished novel about German spies that he wrote while in the Navy, and the short stories that he had pounded out on his Remington portable since college and fired off to the pulps, he was presumably having his go at conventional heroes and heroics.
And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. It’s beside the point, with respect to whether something in a book feels real or not, whether or not the author has had similar experiences. The Saint books aren’t made better or worse when we learn that Charteris himself, according to Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler’s Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, had led an adventurous life a cop, gold prospector, pearl fisher, seaman, and so forth, was a good horseman, and could throw knives (ah, enviable gift) “more or less accurately.”
On the other hand, though, it obviously helped Buchan and Household and Hammett to have had some of the experience of the physical world that they write about. And I suspect that when Hamilton was trying in vain to break into Black Mask and the like, he simply didn’t sufficiently know what he was talking about. And that it showed.
So, no faking.
Domestic locales. Midtown Manhattan, midtown Chicago, Chesapeake Bay, highways west from Chicago to Cheyenne and down to Santa Fe, with stops along the way.
First-person or single-point-of-view narration. A wise choice, that, making it easier to present things as they’re experienced, not authorially tidied up. The weak parts of the Westerns later would be when Hamilton shifts temporarily away from the central consciousnesses of the heroes.
Violences? Very few involving the heroes. No killings by the heroes. A few body-contact episodes. A car accident.
No chases in the two novels. No horses. No savage dogs. No knives. No brass knuckles.
No pool halls, no card games.
No nightclubs, no strip joints.
No Italians or Latinos, no Jews, only one Black that I can recall (the hotel maid in Date With Darkness, well two if you count a Pullman porter), no colourful newsies, or wisecracking newspaper reporters, or talkative cabbies, or philosophical bartenders, or salty fishermen.
Can these be thrillers? American thrillers?
Well, there are thriller plots and thriller characters, certainly.
A young Frenchwoman gets a young naval lieutenant (j.g.) to help her outwit four members of the Resistance who are over here in pursuit of her collaborationist husband (Date with Darkness).
A young chemist driving West to a new job helps a young American woman who had been in the Resistance and was tortured by the Gestapo meet a German physicist currently working in a top secret American establishment, so as to have him clear up her uncertainty as to whether or not she broke under torture and betrayed her comrades, in which quest she is being interfered with by…well, that’s enough about that.(The Steel Mirror).
A young American woman who has been identified as a traitor re-surfaces in the life of another young chemist and involves him with another spy ring (Deadfall).
A young sociology instructor’s wife, formerly a nightclub singer, has been (he believes) murdered before his eyes after a highway accident, leading to his involvement with criminals with whom she had been associated (The Black Cross).
Yes, there are indeed thriller elements, and each of the heroes, Philip Branch, John Emmett, Paul Weston, and Hugh Phillips (what WASP names!) is in serious risk of being killed at some point, and the love-interest women who drag them into trouble are all problematic in some way, and there is a good deal of lying and obfuscation by them and other parties.
So, then, these are works in which more or less conventionally thrillerish and romantic situations are experienced more or less realistically by more or less ordinary young men?
Well, yes and no.
Part of the difficulty of writing about these works now, after there has been so much sophistication and pseudo-sophistication about thriller conventions, and so many variations played on them, and so much reading of subtexts, and so much everything, is that to speak in those terms seems to imply a dichotomy that isn’t there in the works.
There is no sending up of a genre in them, no ironical juxtaposing of an ostensible fictive glamour and a seamy-side realism, I mean no ongoing programmatic juxtaposing.
When John Emmett in The Steel Mirror tries to cope with the fact that Ann Nicholson had been in the Resistance, we are indeed reminded of fictions:
He …tried to imagine her, in sweater and skirt, perhaps, or disguised as a boy,…slipping down darkened alleys with, at the end, always a large German sentry silhouetted against the light of the street; or crouching in the bushes in the rain while the lightning flashes showed the patrols searching for her; or standing by the window of a shabby room, her profile clear against the sunlight outside as she drew back the curtains minutely to look down at the street where a man in a trench coat, obviously a heavy, stood ostentatiously reading a newspaper. Because it always turned out Hollywood when you tried to imagine it. You knew it had not been like that, but you had no idea of how it really had been. When they said “underground” and “Gestapo” it came out Warner Brothers, passed by the state board of censors.
But that is where we, and Emmett, and Hamilton are, in the immediate post-war Forties.
Unlike the heroes of Hammett’s novels and Chandler’s, we have gone to the movies. We have seen (no doubt) movies like Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1942) and 13 Rue Madeleine, (1946). We are aware of heroic Humphrey Bogart (the Bogart of movies like Casablanca and Across the Pacific and To Have and Have Not, not the sneering pre-war hoodlum of Dead End and The Roaring Twenties). Bogart is mentioned several times in these works.
But if the just-ended war had been fictionalized, it hadn’t all been fiction.
The Gestapo had been all too real, Resistance fighters had behaved heroically, spying had gone on, atrocities had been perpetrated, flesh-and-blood men and women had died, sometimes horribly. There had been a whole ongoing clatter of information about what the war had been like, and what postwar Europe was like—magazine articles, memoirs, newsreels, radio broadcasts, and so on and so forth.
There were “facts” as well as “fictions.”
The problem, of course, was deciding which fictions were falsifications; which were functional because embodying truths, even if not literally; and which were “true.” Particularly, given the premium that had been put on courage, with respect to how individuals had comported themselves under the Nazis
Hamilton at age thirty when the war ended was obviously well aware of all this.
He may also have been conscious (not having seen action himself) of the paradox of movie actors like aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart and terribly decent David Niven having been genuine war heroes, and the quintessentially heroic John Wayne having been, alas, virtually a draft dodger. (Bogart, forty-one or so at the time of Pearl Harbor, had enlisted in the First World War.)
It was not a simple period. Particularly not if you were concerned, like Stephen Crane about the Civil War, and George Orwell after World War I, with the question of how you yourself might have behaved in the conflict that you missed, and had had warriors among your forebears.
There had already been thrillers about more or less ordinary men plunged into extraordinary situations, especially ones involving espionage—men, I mean, whose occupations didn’t require them to go looking for trouble, in contrast to journalists, insurance investigators, and the like.
In 1944 alone:
—Richard Powell’s contentedly deskbound Army Lieutenant Andy Blake had been dragged into spy-hunting in wartime Washington by his hyper-active gun-loving wife Arabella (Arab) in All Over But the Shooting,
—Kenneth Millar’s Robert Branch (sic) had become involved with murderous Nazi spies (one of them transvestite) at the Midwestern university where he was an English instructor, doing some heavy running around and at one point fighting a duel with fencing sabres (The Dark Tunnel, a.k.a. I Die Slowly).
—David Dodge’s tax-accountant Whit Whitney, with his just-married bride Kitty, had German spy-ring trouble in Reno, Nevada, in a novel that begins “There were four men in a dark little room. One of them had been shot several times in the chest and was about to die,” and has plenty of gun-play in it (Bullets for the Bridegroom).
—and Ray Milland had major spy trouble in Fritz Lang’s The Ministry of Fear, the film of Graham Greene’s novel of that name which had appeared the previous year and in which reclusive, guilt-haunted Arthur Rowe coped with German agents in bomb-damaged England.
I won’t even try recalling other movies, let alone Damsel in Distress thrillers about women (Dorothy B. Hughes’ for example) for whom the world has suddenly turned strange and menacing and you do not, of course, ever do the sensible thing and turn to the authorities for help. Or get it if you do.
I think that the ground rules that Hamilton set for himself—partly with respect to his own inexperience as an action writer, but partly also for moral reasons— when he sent his ordinary men in trouble were that
(a) he would make the action as little melodramatic as he reasonably could;
(b) he would try as far as possible to convey how things felt to the heroes as they were occurring—felt as they might also have felt to you or me had we been there in their place;
(c) spies, private investigators, black-marketeers, and other criminals existed in reality, and he would use them, but he would try to make them, too, as natural as they might well be;
(d) he would not simply take over unexamined the conventions of thrillers with respect to courage and “love” ; and
(e) he was absolutely not going to let himself go into a trance of self-congratulatory identification with heroic “action”.
His well-bred college graduates wouldn’t be having adrenalin surges like Andy Blake towards the end of All Over But the Shooting, taking out the fat, evil, judo-cunning master Nazi spy and saving a convoy from the U-boats:
I slammed hooks into his jaw without putting him down. It was like hitting a huge ball of putty. No clean sharp impact. No jolt tingling back to my elbows. Padded flesh squashed under my knuckles. I got reckless and threw a right at him from the bleachers. He was waiting for it. He pivoted, caught my arm over his shoulder, like a fielder taking a fly…Slow fire burned upward from my wrist.
I hooked a foot around his ankle to steady myself, ripped hooks into his left kidney with my free hand. His bent back was a sweet target. Like socking a drum. I pounded him three times. He grunted, jerked upright. Something tore agonizingly at my locked arm. I dug into his kidney once more and then he whirled around and let me fly off at the wall.
(f) there would be a strong romantic interest in the conventional sense of the term, which had been absent from most of the works that I have named.
Being an “ordinary” young man does not necessarily mean that only banal things will happen to you and that you are doomed to endure Wallace Stevens’ “malady of the quotidian.”
Relationships with women, especially young women, may be by no means ordinary for you. Any more than chucking up a safe career in chemistry at the age of thirty and setting out as a freelance writer-photographer, like Hamilton himself, was an everyday thing to do.
Date with Darkness, the most complex and at 246 paperback pages the longest of the books, is peculiarly difficult for someone with as bad a memory as mine to write about.
The prose is always shapely, and this is not at all an “experimental” novel stylistically, but things proceed in so subtly incremental a fashion that when you try to explain how real things feel in it in the earlier parts, I mean how well Hamilton establishes the rules of his own game, you run the risk of oversimplification.
Later on, when Philip Branch is down at Queen’s Harbor, on Chesapeake Bay, waiting, along with the French group, for the enigmatic Jeannette Duval to turn up, there are passages of clear, calm, unfussy locale-evoking description that it is a pleasure to quote. For example:
From the screened porch that ran the front of the bungalow one could look down through the trees into a small cove where a rambling long narrow wooden pier on pilings jutted far out into the water. From the end of the pier a line led to the stern of a motorboat moored to a white-painted conical buoy; the boat lying quite still between the two lines on the sheltered water of the cove, covered from cabin to stern by a dingy gray tarpaulin. The wind that drove through the trees about the bungalow reached down to make small dark darting cat’s-paws on the water.
We follow, without being told, the movements of Branch’s eye, noting the relevant nautical physical details—the pier you would walk along, the mooring of the boat, the stillness in the sheltered bay, the hints of wind in the trees and in those small dark darting cat’s-paws on the water.
I am reminded of Ford Madox Ford’s once well-known analysis of the opening of one of Lawrence’s earliest short stories that he had read in manuscript around 1910, the “just-sufficient” details, without any of the tedious local colour of scene-painters. Had Hamilton read it, perhaps? We know that he read Hemingway, as who didn’t? But this isn’t Hemingway pastiche.
I suspect that there are writers who would kill (figuratively) to be able to write prose as good.
But earlier, when there are no set-piece descriptions of restaurants, or bars, or hotel rooms (“Presently they found a small bar done in black and chrome and sat down at a table by a pillar of black tile, facing each other,” and that’s it), what makes you know what it would be like if you were there yourself in those generic sites?
Well, I suppose partly because most American sites like that were generic if you were concerned with something else, a relationship maybe, and not novelistically registering details, particularly in those austerity years.
And right from the outset we’re in the consciousness of a young man who’s concerned about a young woman and registering details about her.
Here is the opening of the book. Quoting at some length here will permit me to be more economical later.
He took down her suitcase and her fur coat. She said she did not have a hat. She let him put the coat over her narrow shoulders like a cape, and sat down beside the suitcase on the seat to wait out the uncomfortable last minutes while he braced himself, in the aisle, against the people crowding past. Daylight was snatched from the windows as, slowing, they entered the station.
He followed her along the platform with the two suitcases and they climbed the stairs into the rotunda where, stepping out of the flood of people into an eddy behind a pillar, she stretched out her hand for her bag.
“Can’t I—?” he asked.
“No, I’m taking a taxi. This is fine,” she said. “Thanks an awful lot.” Even in the low-heeled pumps she reached to a level with his eyes. He could just see over her and no more.
“Well,” he said, “thanks for the company.”
“I’ll call you if I can,” she said. “The Cooper. I’m sorry to be so indefinite.”
“That’s all right,” he said.
“Well,” she said, “so long.”
He watched her, tucking the purse under her arm, carry the small black suitcase away from him. Her name, she had said, was Janet Haskell. He did not for a moment believe she would call him. He felt very lonely and thrust his unlighted pipe into his mouth for company.
Well, this is “cinema,” isn’t it, but without being at all pictorial and with only one (effective) literary-expressive touch with the precision of “Daylight was snatched from the windows …” These are things that you do on a train or plane or bus, with clothes and bags, feeling the momentum of the slowing train, waiting sensibly for the crowd to leave, finding a spot in the station to talk for a moment.
But they are particular things. He civilly drapes her fur coat around her narrow shoulders, and carries her suitcase as well as his own like a gentleman. She stretches out her hand for hers, she is tall, her pumps are low-heeled, it’s a small black suitcase, so presumably she’s not doing major traveling.
The talk on the train appears to have been casual and compatible (“Thanks for the company”), there are only a few light words of dialogue, there’s no obvious “tone” to the writing, but at the end, “He felt very lonely and thrust his unlighted pipe into his mouth for company.”
The loneliness of the young male, hoping that something will happen, that a girl will call him, having found him interesting, but sure that she won’t.
No drama. No writerly hooking of your reader’s sympathetic attention with maximum “establishing” information, as in:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
Thus Chandler, of course, opening The Big Sleep eight years previously.
No thesis-statement won’t-we-have-fun cuteness, either, as in:
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. (Powell, All Over but the Shooting)
Nor the literary-intellectual-at-work density of:
Detroit is usually hot and sticky in the summer, and in the winter the snow in the streets is like a dirty, worn-out blanket. Like most other big cities it is best in the fall, when there is still some summer mellowness in the air and the bleak winds have not yet started blowing down the long, wide streets. The heart of the city was clean and sunlit on the September afternoon that Alec Judd and I drove over from Arbana. The skyscrapers stood together against the powder-blue sky with a certain grotesque dignity, like a herd of frozen dinosaurs waiting for a thaw. (Kenneth Millar, The Dark Tunnel, a.k.a. I Die Slowly, 1944)
Of course, if I had wanted to buy three paperbacks in the Fifties for a long-distance ride on a Greyhound bus or coach-class in a train, I know which ones I’d have picked, and Date with Darkness wouldn’t have been one of them.
But then, I hadn’t wanted to keep reading A Farewell to Arms in 1947 after getting through the opening paragraph of that.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Pebbles, leaves, trees, dust—what on earth was this about? This was a war novel?
So Hamilton, who was not a symbolist writer in that way, was able to keep unfussily adding details about this young man (this hero?) incrementally—without our feeling that we already know from the outset who and what he is and how we are expected to be viewing him.
Within a dozen pages, after Jeannette has phoned him at his hotel, the focus is on him focussing on her, and on his sense of himself in relation to her, the unknown or little known on one side, and on the other the familiar—the Navy from which he is on leave prior to demobilization; his mother back home in Chicago expecting his return.
I will quote again, to illustrate the process of filling in, a process that keeps his body there for us, in part because of the language of the body, the inhabited body. When Jeannette Duvall’s call comes to his hotel room, Philip is lying on the bed:
He sat quite still for a moment. Then he said, “Well, hello,” and swung his feet to the floor and pulled his dressing gown about him. He found his glasses on the bedside table and put them on, bringing the room into focus. He could feel his heart beating rather more heavily than usual.
And then, after an appointment’s made without our being given more dialogue,
Dressing, he watched the narrow dark face in the mirror contort itself as he wrestled the starched regulation collar about the rather long and knobby neck. The gold-rimmed glasses supplied him by the naval dispensary when he had broken the old horn-rimmed pair reflected back to him the light from the ceiling fixture. Dressed, he brushed himself off with a small whisk broom. In the Navy you were always brushing at yourself. It became automatic.
He looked at himself in the ribbonless undecorated uniform and thought, Well, it’s too late now. Anyway, I lived through it. What did you do in the Great War, daddy? Well, I was an officer in the Navy. Yes, but what did you do?
This isn’t a Jack Lemmon part, though, or the Jack Lemmon of those years, Bob Hope. The slightly fumbling and diffident but not weak Jimmy Stewart, perhaps—the Stewart of the Thirties, not the war-hardened simmering Air Force veteran (man, not characters) of Call Northside 777 or Winchester’73.
It could have been Stewart physically, in the remaining part of the opening chapter, who hesitantly, but with growing firmness, down in the hotel dining room, conscious that he might be making a fool of himself, “feeling the blood singing in his ears,” asks to see the I.D. card of the young naval lieutenant who, with his tired young wife, has been not so subtly playing on his sympathy with a view to getting him to give up his room to them, but who has made significant errors about his supposed Navy experience.
But it isn’t Jimmy Stewart either, not really, who at the outset of the encounter
felt a slow, trapped resentment as he looked from one to the other of them. He watched the girl taste her drink and thought, I wonder at what rummage sale she picked up that skirt? The bulkiness of the skirt, the ill-fitting looseness of the shirt, and the low-heeled flatness of her laced brown oxfords gave her a dumpy look that annoyed him because she was quite a nice-looking girl.
I don’t really know who you would have wanted to cast? A younger Henry Fonda? A young William Holden, perhaps? Not any of the other emergent noir familiars, surely, like Mitchum (too strong-bodied), or Alan Ladd (too the reverse), or Robert Mongomery (too pretty, though himself a brave man), or even, I think, Glenn Ford.
Well, maybe Ford. Yes, why not Ford?
Or even, come to think of it, the younger Hamilton himself of those years, whose face, to judge from the long, narrow, rather apprehensive-looking one in the photo on the back of the Helm books until 1964, was a long way from the bearded Hemingwayesque tough in the silvered aviator sunglasses, head thrown back and foreshortened, who replaced him in a good marketing move.
In any event, it is to this young man that the thrillerish elements more or less come in the first third or so of the book: We have:
(a) Jeannette, with whom he goes to bed that night (“When he came out [next morning] the tall buildings had the beautiful clarity that always came to things afterwards”), and whose bag he takes down to Chesapeake Bay in the expectation that she will turn up to reclaim it;
(b) the French Resistance quartet—chinless middle-aged Mr. Hahn, middle-aged former pianist Madam Faubel, and the younger pair, Paul Laflin, now out of his masquerade uniform, and Constance Bellamann, still in her graceless clothes—all of them here in the States to seize Jeannette’s collaborationist husband Louis when he turns up;
(c) the private detective A.J. Dickerson, trying to “persuade” Philip to stop helping Jeannette, with the assistance of infrared photos of their lovemaking that he’s taken over the transom (a heavily built man with “a square fleshy face with the pores of the skin greatly emphasized,” in “a very well-pressed suit of grey with a fine colored stripe, an immaculate white shirt, and a conservative silk tie”);
(d) the large, prosperous, slightly dangerous-feeling New York racketeer, Dickerson’s employer, Mr. Sellers, who offers Philip a handsome bribe after he says “Nuts “ to the blackmail threat.
Information, and misinformation, comes to Philip bit by bit—about Jeannette; about the Resistance group, especially Madame Faubel and Constance, both of them tortured by the Gestapo; about himself, about his own values and capacities and attitudes.
This is particularly important, this question of courage, particularly political courage, and I shall dwell on it for a bit.
When I first read Date with Darkness in the late Fifties or early Sixties, I remember being disconcerted by Branch’s reactions to what he was told about the treatment of Constance by the Nazis:
Mr. Hahn said slowly, “Rochemont was hell, Lieutenant. Hell on earth.”
“A camp?” Branch asked irritably, refusing to be impressed. There was always that special tone of voice that people used in referring to those places, and he was a little tired of hearing about them. After all, the Nazis had not invented evil. It was not as if Roman emperors and Spanish priests had not thoroughly explored the methods of inflicting pain on the human body centuries before. He listened unsympathetically while Mr. Hahn described Rochemont in the pedantic tone laden with unspoken moral superiority that he might have used in discussing sexual perversion in a psychology class in a coeducational university.
I myself, during those wonderful movie-going years in the early Forties, had seen the kinds of movies that John Emmett had seen; had read in those days about Dachau; had commissioned in 1945, as a schoolboy editor, a description by a young army doctor of the newly liberated Belsen; had been overwhelmed by that quintessential Resistance-and-torture movie, Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945); had taught English (very badly) in the marvelous Israel of 1951-53; had read Egon Kogon’s extraordinary Theory and Practice of Hell about Buchenwald; and so on and so forth.
It did not seem quite right to be irritated by talk about life in hell.
And things didn’t get better a page or two further on:
At the back of his mind was the feeling he always had when hearing about it, that he could not really feel indignant about it, because the thousands who had experienced this personal malevolence were relatively insignificant against the millions who had known the blind inquisition of the battlefield. It was a legalism to draw an arbitrary line and say, this is a crime, and this is war. It was all war. You could blame them for starting it, but to itemize the horrors, now that they were defeated and it was over, seemed petty.
Conscious as I was of the extreme unlikelihood of my having behaved heroically myself during the Occupation, let alone under torture or the threat of it, it seemed imperative to keep holding on to the image of a Germany of absolute evil, and of Resistance heroes as models of Jean-Gabinesque valour, along the lines (though I didn’t come upon them until recently) of Izis’ portrait photos of actual Maquisards, Ceux de Grammont, all looking remarkably like those heroic workers and revolutionary soldiers in the Russian silent movies of Eisenstein and Pudovkin.
That was a long time ago, however, before Marcel Ophuls’ revelation in his four-hour documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1971) of how much more complicated the actual history of wartime France had been; before, well, before a number of other revisitings, none of them leaving the Germans and their French-Gestapo assistants looking any better than before, but not making the ordinary French all that wonderful either, and reminding us of what a political train-wreck the France of the Thirties had been.
And it seems to me now that Hamilton was engaged in a brave and prescient questioning, I am almost tempted to say a deconstructing, of ideological simplicities, the simplicities of the Good Side/ Bad Side paradigm, as you find it in Kenneth Millar, with his horrified-but-fascinated sense of the other side as pure evil (evil being a subject that continued to obsess him and that permitted a savage intensity in the punishment of evil), or the simpler pieties of Richard Powell as Andy Blake deals with the grotesquely fat master spy and his thuggish American-Nazi assistants.
I am speaking of the invocation of that kind of dichotomy as a way of enforcing compliance.
The Nazis had been pure evil, Jeannette’s husband had been a collaborator, the four pursuers are now here (clandestinely) as agents of the Central Committee (Communist committee?), to bring him back to France for judgment and execution, and therefore it is incumbent on Branch to cooperate with them and shut out Jeannette from his sympathies.
We have all, it seems to me, become a bit more sophisticated about such claims for total allegiance.
And when you think of the agonies of body and mind endured by ground troops during the ferocious Pacific campaign, or the Battle of the Bulge, or the siege of Stalingrad, the phrase “blind inquisition of the battlefield” doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
Hamilton isn’t being a moral relativist, however, let alone taking the everything’s-a-fiction-and-therefore-insubstantial line beloved by a lot of American academics for a while, before they moved on to everything’s-political-and-about-POWER-and-when-are-we- going-to-get-that-salary-increase-that-we-workers-deserve?.
The cruelties referred to here and in The Steel Mirror were all- too-real.
Madame Faubel had been tortured herself (telling them that she knew but wouldn’t tell, and braving it out); Constance Bellamann had been tortured, and didn’t know, and made up conflicting stories, and was turned into walking-wounded, and goes into nauseated shock when Branch, in his ignorance, kisses her down by the water’s edge at Queen’s Harbor. And he pities her.
What is in question is whether you should surrender yourself and your own moral judgments, at the command of others, when confronted with, in a sense, fictive narratives (like the Hollywood ones) about things of which you have had no first-hand experience.
The here and now, the here and now that Branch is experiencing, is the here-and-now of that slightly too tall, too thin, untrustworthy yet oddly likeable girl Jeannette trying to save a husband that Branch also has no personal knowledge of.
And dowdy diffident Constance Bellamann. And chinless Mr. Hahn, and big Paul Laflin, and middle-aged Madame Faubel, a pianist before the war, who, in pursuit of their own moral (and in American terms illegal) ends, applies a heated poker to the soles of his feet.
Before that had happened:
Branch said, “Listen, tell me just this: did she, I mean Jeannette, have anything to do with what happened to”—he gestured in the direction of the smaller girl’s room—“her?”
Madame Faubel hesitated. “No,” she said finally. “She did not.”
“Did her husband?”
She shook her head. “No, not directly, but—”
“I don’t,” Branch said, “like people who pull a long and irrelevant sob story on me before asking me to do something for them. I’m very sorry about the girl—”
“There are hundreds of others like her,” Madame Faubel said angrily. “Thousands of others.”
“And the way to cure them is to drag them around the country and expose them to passes by every wolf in naval uniform who comes along?” He laughed sharply and went on before she could retort, “Anyway, I don’t see the connection, if neither of them had anything to do with it.”
The woman’s narrow face was quite expressionless. “We are not free agents, Mr. Branch,” she said. “We take our orders from the Central Committee… We are not agents of revenge but of justice… Would it seem better to you if we were avenging mere personal injuries?”
“By God it would,” Branch admitted. “Anyway, it would seem nice and normal and natural.” He laughed uncomfortably. “Tell me—”
“If you could, would you shave her head like in the pictures?”
I would say that Hamilton’s primary concern is with how you yourself are behaving, and how virtuous you are yourself, and how you might behave under various circumstances, as victor or vanquished. The self in question here being a particular experiencing consciousness that happens to be called Philip Branch, but which may subsequently be called Paul Weston, or John Emmett, or Hugh Phillips.
And the resistance here in Philip Branch to the felt pressure of the French orthodoxy will extend later to the resistance of other Hamilton heroes to the claims of the American state, or at least of sub-systems in it, such as the F.B.I.
But still (the question inevitably intruded), what about the Jews? Wasn’t Branch being a tad premature in feeling that it was time to turn away from the horrors and get back to ordinary living?
Well, I think I see something now that I was overlooking when I first read Date with Darkness at the end of the Fifties. Novels are not normally published in the year in which they are written, and Date with Darkness, completed (according to a Rinehart blurb) in the fall of 1945, is evidently set in 1945.
The image of the concentration camps around at that time, the generic image, the widely accessible image, the image of wartime books and reports, was still essentially that of the camps as incarceration and punishment camps, cruelty camps, at times unspeakable cruelty camps, camps in which, in Orwell’s words, you might have “elderly Jews drowned in cesspools,” camps in which (as in the Belsen of my high-school magazine report) prisoners might die in dreadful quantities from starvation, overwork, disease—but not, in the gas-chamber sense, extermination camps.
They were terrible places into which anyone might be put, anyone offering resistance to the Nazis, whether inside Germany itself or in the occupied countries of Europe, anyone considered to be an enemy of the Nazi state.
Including Jews. Including Jews generically, as part of that monstrous persecution that in the Thirties was driving German and Austrian Jews into exile. Like the two German-Jewish boys in my own pre-war day-school, where another boy had somehow or other acquired a rubber truncheon (but it may have been American) that he displayed one day at lunch.
The camps could happen to you, they could happen to me. Which was why they were such effective instruments of terror.
Eric Ambler, who had provided a couple of memorable episodes of Fascist torturings in Dark Journey and Background to Danger, has a fascinating passage somewhere in which someone who had been in a concentration camp in the Thirties (and released) explains that part of their effectiveness was their infantilization of you, their reduction of you to someone who could be beaten at any point; like a naughty child.
And even during the war, to judge from Victor Klemperer’s remarkable diaries (I Will Bear Witness, 1999), anyone, anyone in Germany itself, could be put into them at any time for almost anything.
Hell isn’t hell because you die there, but because you have to live there.
It was easy enough, it is easy enough now, to be anti-Nazi in Britain or America, with all the appropriate horror and indignation.
But it required almost superhuman moral courage, which some Germans, particularly the young Germans of the White Rose resistance movement in fact possessed, to do anything at the time which, if it came to the notice of the Gestapo, could rip you suddenly away from all that you were and thrust you into the horrors of a camp from which you would probably never emerge, except (with official regrets) as the ashes of someone who had died from “heart attack.”
The full-scale atrociousness of the extermination machine in Poland—the Final Solution— had not yet, to the best of my own recollection, become generally known when Hamilton was writing Date with Darkness. Not all information travels with electronic speed. Auschwitz-Bierkenau, Sobibor, Treblinka were not yet on our mental maps. Branch speaks of thousands, not millions.
Viktor Klemperer himself during the war, a Jew living in Germany with the shaky protection of being a World War I veteran with a Gentile wife, did not, seemingly, know of the gas chambers. And the editors of the massive and almost unendurably poignant The Holocaust Chronicle (2000) report of the 1946 Nuremberg war crimes trials that “Making no mention of the Holocaust or the Shoah—such terms were not yet widespread—[the] indictments did not identify specifically what had happened to the Jews or to other civilian populations targeted by the Nazis and their collaborators.”
In any event, it is not the death camps that the French group in Date with Darkness were talking about and that Madame Faubel and Constance Bellamann had been in. The fictitious Rochemont was a French Camp. Historically, by the sound of it, though the word is “camp,” it could even have been a prison, one of the dreadful prisons in which the torturing of Resistance members like Jean Moulin went on, often at the hands of the French Gestapo.
When Branch and Constance Ballamann emerge from a movie that they’ve gone to, Constance says, apropos of the newsreel,
“With all the other people who are starving, to give them food!”…
“Don’t be so bloodthirsty,” he said, laughing uncomfortably. “After all, the war’s over. You can’t let people starve.”
“They also beat up Jews and tortured people. Do we have to do that, too?”
Nor is Branch allowed to get away unchallenged in his attitude. As Madame Faubel points out to him, he had not been in a camp, he had not been tortured, he did not know what it was like. (She also tartly reminds the pedantic Mr. Hahn that he too hadn’t been in a camp.) And as to their cruelly dragging poor Constance around and not allowing her to get back to a normal life, she had been so badly traumatized by her experiences that their current bonding was the nearest thing to normality that was possible for her at the moment.
She was with people, especially Madame Faubel, who understood, as others could not, what she had been through, and what it could reduce you to, and who were not sitting in judgment on her or demanding things of her of which she was incapable.
In The Steel Mirror Ann Nicholson, at stage center, is a woman who had been tortured by the Gestapo with a dentist’s drill.
I would say, now, that all this was pretty sophisticated.
I would also guess that Hamilton, if he read, as I did, around 1954, Gustav Herling’s remarkable A World Apart (trans 1951) about his experiences in the Russian camps, a decade and a half before French intellectuals were shocked, yes shocked, by the revelation, if that is what it was, that if the wartime images of all-black Germans may have been a bit simplistic, so too may the images of heroic Communists glowing with socialist virtue.
As were the images of the heroic punishment of collaborators, including those women with shaven heads, one of them in a memorable photo by Robert Capa. I mean, how virtuous had all the applauders of the head-shavings in fact been themselves? How would you and I have behaved during the Occupation?
Moreover, when Hamilton himself presents torturers in the novel the torturers are the same persons with whom we are now familiar—Madame Faubel, chinless Mr. Hahn, Paul Laflin— who, if they don’t at all answer physically to the generic image of heroic Resistance figures, are also not the conventional sadists of our instinctive imaginings.
They are not evil. They want certain information, for what they consider moral reasons, and Branch has it, they believe, and since he won’t tell them otherwise, Madame Faubel applies a hot poker to the soles of his feet.
And while this angers him, as well it might, there is no sense of any mystery, any puzzlement about how people could possibly do this to one another. Any more than there was for the anonymous hero of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1939) with respect to his torturing by the house guards at Hitler’s Bavarian eyrie in order to find out the facts about what appears to be a plot to assassinate the Fuehrer. The novel begins with the words, “I cannot blame them.”
It is perfectly obvious why the French group are doing it, and while it is clear that the unpleasant Paul Laflin, whom Branch has previously knocked down and kicked in a fight, enjoys seeing Branch suffer, there is no enjoyment on Madame Faubel’s part.
Nor is Branch thereafter out for revenge. Torture is what people do, particularly people in search of information. Hamilton would go on thinking about it in The Steel Mirror, in Death of a Citizen (where Matt Helm tortures his wartime comrade Tina in order to save his kidnapped baby daughter Betsy from certain death, just as Household’s Roger Mayne tortures a man in A Time to Kill in order to get back his boy and girl), and in two or three other Helms, including one in which Helm himself is tortured with a soldering iron.
7. Middle Tones
So it is an interesting pattern in this novel, and one that would continue in Hamilton’s works—no evil villains, evil by virtue of belonging to some kind of alien and mysterious and innately wicked system; evil by temperament.
America’s own internal wartime corruption, the corruption of black marketeers and crooked defence contractors, is present in Date with Darkness via the two men who have been involved with Jeannette Duval and her husband. And it is clear that Mr. Sellers, the very big man “with the smooth, pale, smiling face of a successful minister” who talks with Branch in his long gray Packard sedan in Manhattan is potentially dangerous, so that Branch is taking a risk when he flushes down the toilet the ten one-hundred dollar bills that Sellers has given him.
But Sellers himself is someone with whom Branch can negotiate, and he positively enjoys coping later on with the blackmarketeer Frank Haskell down from Evanston, “a short man with a smooth, well-fed stoutness and the pink clear skin of a child,” with a sensation of coming back home, coming back to the other crooked contractors and their subtly offered bribes whom he had had to deal with in his wartime capacity.
The continuing absence of evil villains is partly why Hamilton’s novels, including the Helm ones, were less compulsively thrilling, than John D. MacDonald’s. MacDonald’s galaxy of sociopathic villains—smiling Max Cady in The Executioners (those dreadful false teeth!), Junior Allen in The Deep Blue Goodbye, Boone Waxwell in Bright Orange for the Shroud (a real Robert Mitchum part, that), Howie Brindle in The Turquoise Lament, others, others, are genuinely scary.
A good villain generates action and drives the plot forward, because he’s out there doing things, some of them horrible, and at some point he may get to you. MacDonald obviously knew his Southern sociopaths, maybe partly from the army, partly because (to judge from the prominence of money in his novels, he understood from the inside the sensual thrill of greed, and could keep dipping into those wells.
Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise books, on the other hand, progressively ran down as O’Donnell became less and less able to come up with memorable plot-driving villains.
And there are no good systems here either, in these early novels of Hamilton’s, I mean the kind you can plug into and immediately they will be helpful in the right sort of way.
Lieutenant Branch, unlike Richard Powell’s Lieutenant Andy Blake (U.S. Army), has no contacts that he can turn to, no-one in naval security, no former office mate, no sympathetic commanding officer. He doesn’t know who he might have reported the initial deception by Paul Laflin and Constance to, and his C.O., Commander Tollifer, referred to briefly, is simply someone who would feel a slightly weary confirmation of his suspicions about reserve officers had the dirty photos turned up on his desk.
No good mental systems either (“I’m one of the good guys”), whether patriotism or “justice,” meaning the punishment of the wicked.
There isn’t even the conventional thrillerish energizing of love, the imagined future of creative happiness with another person, such as is under threat in Charles Williams’ Scorpion Reef and Dead Calm. Philip Branch knows by page seventeen that it isn’t his long narrow face or knobby neck or gold-rimmed glasses or lint-free blues (dress uniform), or unscintillating personality that has drawn Jeannette back to him. Nor has he himself made any emotional commitment to her.
When Jeannette tells him in the small Manhattan bar with its black-and-white decor that she’s from Evanston,
he felt a small disappointment. He did not want her to be from Evanston. If she was from Evanston he would have to look her up when he got back to Chicago; or decide not to look her up. He would rather have their acquaintanceship terminate itself automatically when the time came.
“Well, he said heartily, “well, that’s practically next door to home, isn’t it?”
She looked up and smiled and he was uncomfortably afraid that she knew what he had been thinking. The waitress returned with their drinks. Janet Haskell picked up her old-fashioned and tasted it thoughtfully, watching him across the small table. It seemed to him the shape of her mouth was suddenly a little strained through the very even, unobtrusive lipstick.
“Could you lend me two hundred dollars?” she asked abruptly, not ceasing to watch him.
My own first full-time academic job in the early Fifties paid me $3600 a year. I would guess that $200 in 1946 would carry the emotional charge of at least a thousand dollars now. (“Could you lend me a thousand dollars?” she asked abruptly, biting into her Big Mac”)
He was proud of himself that his voice did not falter. “Say that again. It seemed to me you said two hundred dollars.”
She did not say anything, only putting down her drink and regarding him, her face calm and preoccupied.
“Do you need some money?” he asked stupidly.
“Yes,” she said. “Two hundred dollars.”
She continues to use him, to manipulate him, to rely on his taking her abandoned bag down to Queen’s Harbor, to assume that he will help her smuggle her collaborationist husband Louis into the country, that he will save both their lives.
She despises him for not being sufficiently brave and inventive when they are the prisoners of Madame Faubel, Paul Laflin, and Mr. Hahn.
She takes an ill-concealed malicious pleasure in watching him suffer at their hands, after he has expressed his irritation at finding her (who had screamed to him for help over the phone) not particularly roughed up, and witnessed her being knocked around a bit by Paul Laflin.
She is simply not a very likeable or admirable thriller heroine at all.
Yet there is no quasi or pseudo nihilism here in the novel, no debilitating relativism (who’s to say who’s really right or wrong?), no inhibiting self-scrutiny of the kind that Conrad and E.M.Forster had regarded with such mistrust, no ironical passivity. Branch in fact acts, acts in a long-term purposeful way, acts decisively, acts effectively, and saves both himself and Jeannette without recourse to physical violence.
So what, then, is the “self” of this in a sense solitary individual, unsupported by power systems, not bonded in a partnership of conventional sympathy and understanding, not fuelled by moral indignation and a passion for justice, not even driven forward by romantic imaginings of himself as a quasi-Bogart?
What values are at work here?
Well, I guess I cannot avoid saying that they are to some extent chivalric ones. But that is not at all the same as saying that they are simple.
When Philip Branch, after Jeannette has been made to scream for his benefit over the phone, goes out to the Resistance group’s hideaway down by the water, “Americans must be a very chivalrous race,” [Mr Hahn] said dryly, considering Branch for a moment. “I didn’t think you’d be fool enough to come.”
One of Hamilton’s fundamental preoccupations, here and in his other fictions, is the problem of what it means to behave honourably in modern American society without becoming hampered—or hamstrung—by inappropriate rules.
He was interrogating a cliché set of values—a gentleman is clean, modest, brave, truthful, polite, respectful to women, fights fair, and so forth—and redefining them in a way that brought them in line with some of the actual martial ideals of the past.
Which is to say, he was getting beyond the simplified East Coast prep-school version of them, the kind that leads John McPartland’s sardonic fixer Bill Oxford in his powerful The Face of Evil (1954) to remark of a reform politician, “I could have told him that being a gentleman is sometimes foolish and expensive,” the kind touched on when Holden Caulfield’s old history teacher asks him what his headmaster had talked about during their farewell chat:
“Oh …well, about Life being a game and all. And how you should play it according to the rules”…
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
“Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.”
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right—I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.
After their escape from Sheriff Patman, John Emmett tells Ann Nicholson irritably, “Don’t be formal… You know me. I’m the guy who wipes the goo off your shoes after you’ve coughed up your breakfast. Just call me Galahad for short.”
There had been quite a tradition in American literature of the gentleman-loser, the gentleman as the man of finer perceptions or nobler values who is incapacitated by them from effective action—Hawthorne’s Miles Coverdale in The Blithedale Romance, John P. Marquand’s Henry Pulham in H.M. Pulham, Esq, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Faulkner’s Hightower in Light in August, the gentlemanly ranchers in that first wide-screen Western novel, Frank Norris’s The Octopus, going down to defeat by the railroad robber barons, and, oh, others, others, the list could keep extending.
Of course there had also been the gentleman-swashbuckler, the gentleman-jock (Tom Buchanan, breaking Myrtle WIlsan’s nose in The Great Gatsby with “a short deft movement of his hand”), the gentleman-gambler (Hammett’s Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key), the gentleman-detective (Philo Vance), and other variants.
I am talking about the gentlemanly gentleman, the kind of stereotype that poor Hemingway, growing up in the squeaky-clean Chicago suburb of Oak Park with a mother who wanted him to be her little knight, expended so much energy in breaking free of, with the assistance of the “wicked” liquor that finally destroyed him.
But Hamilton was the real thing.
He didn’t have to pretend to be, or yearn to be, “really” an aristocrat. He was one, at least by birth. And he had been born a count in a Sweden where (to judge from a passage in, as I recall, The Revengers) one could still take pride in a Viking heritage. And the title was weighty enough for relatives of his back home to be indignant, as he recalls, about his not using the title in the States.
But he was an aristocrat with a difference.
Evidently (doesn’t Hamilton or Helm say something to that effect somewhere?), when they came to the States, Hamilton’s father, himself a professional—a pediatrician taking up a position in the Harvard Medical School— had impressed upon them all that they were Americans, not aristocrats manqués, that they were not in any game of status-seeking, and that the only kind of quality that counted was the quality of your performance in this or that task, as you knew it yourself to be.
Obviously, too, they went on receiving a decent education in the stoical decencies. If you hurt yourself while out in the woods with the grown-ups (another Helm book?), you didn’t whine about it. You didn’t make excuses for yourself. You were not aggrieved.
So Hamilton’s heroes in these early books are always unfussily aware of what decent conduct is like, and don’t feel oppressed by its rules. Nor are they faking.
They know what it is like to behave politely, to be polite, not merely talk politely like Hammett’s Op dealing in a professionally even key—formal, orderly—with a respectable client whom he has been sent to interview, or Marlowe, whose natural mode is rudeness, showing momentarily (look, Ma, no wisecracks!) that he knows the verbal equivalent of the right clothes to be calling on the rich in.
Branch, reclining on his hotel bed, sits up, adjusts his dressing gown, and puts on his glasses to have a phone conversation with Jeannette. He wears pajamas. After being tortured, he puts on socks over his ointment-smeared burned feet to prevent her nightie getting greasy. He carries bags and helps on with coats. He is prepared to give up his hotel room to the seemingly tired young couple. He is ultra-courteous to Madam Faubel at one point.
And these aren’t role-playings. He isn’t the unwillingly, protestingly socialized young American barbarian. He can be naturally considerate.
As can, later on, in The Steel Mirror, John Emmett, who is scrupulous at the outset about not seeming in any way to be imposing upon Ann Nicholson when she offers him a lift in her convertible, and who at one point hesitates to wake her after the long night’s drive. “It was always embarrassing to wake up a stranger from a sound sleep; it was not quite fair to look at anybody you did not know well before they had got themselves assembled for the day.”
9. Reading signs
Branch and Emmett are indeed conscious of codes of speech, dress, body language, and what they indicate about the standards—standards, not status—of others. But it is more as pointers, than as instant revelations of deep character, and it is part of their general alertness to signs and codes. About which I shall now talk for a bit, since these are novels in which small details can pack large charges of meanings.
The braid on Paul Laflin’s masquerade uniform, one of three possible naval kinds, hints at how long he may have been in the service. Ann Nicholson isn’t dressed for long-distance driving, so may have got out onto the highway in a hurry. When Constance Bellamann reappears in the hotel dining room the morning after her literally vomit-inducing experience with Branch the night before, she
came into the dining-room and he watched her hesitate inside the doorway, wearing again the short high-necked brown print dress, so that at a distance she looked about fifteen years old. She saw him and came toward him between the busy tables, and he rose as she stopped beside him.
“Hello,” she said, smiling up at him.
“Hello,” he said, and heard himself ask her if she would care to join him; and he seated her and returned to his chair. She spread a napkin in her lap and looked about the room, smiling a little, the haphazard lipstick very bright in her pale face. Her short brown hair was, on either side, held back from her face with the kind of narrow silver clips the girls had been wearing the last year of the war.
She isn’t styling herself (does she have only the one dress?), her lipstick is put on carelessly, her clips are a bit out-of-date.
In dramatic contrast, when Helene Bethke, the unforgettable Miss Bethke, psychiatric nurse, comes into The Steel Mirror for the first time, in the diner, in her vividly flowered black silk dress,
Her hair was the color of polished brass, glossy and almost metallic, without looking at all artificial. It had once during the day been built into a smooth roll over her forehead, but this was loosening now, and she looked rather as if she had pulled a hat off her head without bothering to remove the pins. Waiting for her coffee, she pushed idly at the trailing strands, unconcerned about their untidiness. She picked up the mug as it came to her, drained it as if it were a shot-glass of whisky, sat it down hastily, and passed her hand across her chin.
She herself is a space-invader and.pats Emmett’s wrist at the end of their conversation, lightly, condescendingly.
Women’s appearances deteriorate when they are tired. Lipstick starts to flake. Seated on the hotel bed, Ann Nicholson pushes one shoe slowly off, then the other. “Then she sat rubbing her foot in her lap, unaware or too hot and tired to care that her skirt had worked up to reveal the limp folds of a white slip and the tops of her stockings.”
Men too can get tired and irritable and be in need of a shave.
But if someone lets herself go without those excuses, like Elizabeth (Lizzie) WIlsan in Night Walker (1954), it may be more serious, though Lieutenant David Young doesn’t share the social snobbery of her relatives by marriage:
He found himself suddenly noticing certain disillusioning details of her appearance that he had missed earlier, or discounted, because you always gave a beautiful woman the breaks, wanting her to be perfect. It shocked him a little to realize, now, that Elizabeth WIlsan missed perfection by a significant margin, even when you made allowances for her emotional state and the early hour of the morning.
It was not just a matter of hair and make-up. The gold satin housecoat had made a fine impression on a man just awakening from drugged slumber; but at close range you could not help noticing that the regal garment had been worn at least once too often since its last trip to the cleaners.
There was even a small, but noticeable gap in the seam behind the left shoulder, once clumsily mended but opening again; and the bright cloth of the sash was dull and threadbare where it knotted at the waist.
But no, this isn’t simply male snobbishness. “He stopped the inventory, suddenly ashamed, aware again of the odd sense of kinship that he had felt upon seeing the fear-sickness in her eyes.”
Environments, too, can be “read,”.
In a lovely Hopperesque passage at the Illinois gas station where Ann Nicholson has gone to freshen up,
Emmett accepted the gas-tank key and stood for a moment, after closing the trunk, looking at the white clapboard station with the little wings of lattice-work that modestly concealed the [toilet] doors on either side; everything very white and clean, the pumps, oil cans, and water cans looking very new in the fading red light; only the hydraulic lift at the side showing enough grease to prove that they actually did business in this place. The white gravel expanse was bordered by a low white picket fence. Behind the station, on the hill, was a farmhouse not nearly as neat and tidy as the station, and there were other farms as far as you could see in all directions. The concrete highway ran arbitrarily through them as if laid down, not necessarily with a ruler but at least with a French curve, after everything else had been there for years except the filling station which belonged to the highway rather than to the Illinois countryside.
It is a Hopper counterman in the all-night diner who “came over and wiped a space in front of Emmett, not as if it needed wiping but as if the gesture were a formality, like shaking hands,” and a Hopper sergeant and lieutenant who later on squatted in the shade of their olive-green Chevrolet sedan at the gate of the atomic research centre to which Hammett and Ann Nicholson had been traveling: “They looked as if they had been talking some time earlier, but had run out of conversation and were merely waiting to finish their cigarettes before rising.”
There is something here of the immigrant’s continuing love for his new, his adopted, his chosen country.
Hopper too, and Walker Evans, those most American of American artists (the greatest American painter, greatest American photographer), didn’t really look at, didn’t see America, and the beauty of the “ordinary,” until they had come back to it from Europe and could perceive its differentness.
For that matter, Hemingway and Fitzgerald did their own greatest writing about America in Europe, Hemingway in France and Switzerland, Fitzgerald (Gatsby) on the French Mediterranean, revisiting in his head the un-French textures of American body English, speech patterns, iconography.
Where language too is concerned, there’s a sense in these early Hamilton works of the ordinary as being, to just the slightest degree, exotic; of the American language being something that you make and use, not simply a medium that you swim in.
The passionate knowledgeability about guns in the mid-Fifties Line of Fire and Assignment: Murder, we learn from Hamilton’s non-fictional On Guns and Hunting, was the passion of someone who had actually only come to shotguns and high-powered rifles a year or two previously. Hamilton was a discoverer of guns and hunting, as he was of the cowboy West (using that term generically) that he carefully researched for his novels.
Obviously as an immigrant he had also discovered the English language, learned and loved its patterns and potentials; its precision, when rightly used.
At the outset, as an eight-year-old in what must have been a good school in the Cambridge area, he had possessed, by his own account, little English, and piquantly failed to understand the fluttering of the hencoop when he turned up on the first day with the sheath-knife that every normal Swedish boy, like Sikh ones still, carried in those years.
Hamilton’s own expository prose is scrupulously correct (much more so than Hemingway’s); meticulous in its syntax, meticulously punctuated. He is at home with the semi-colon.
And one of the pleasures later on in the Helm series is the linguistic precision of Mac, his chief, and Mac’s irritation when others speak imprecisely. When Helm, in the Seventies, asks about an enemy agent, “Do we know who he really is, sir?” Mac dryly replies, “We should. I do. And you would if you’d done the required amount of work in the recognition room.” (Had Dr. Hamilton perhaps said things like that?)
The plot of The Intriguers (1972) hinges, at a key point, on the misuse over the phone of the word “presently” by someone impersonating Mac. I myself had noticed it when it occurred, and wondered if Hamilton was slipping a little.
But clearly, an intelligent concern with “correctness” is a matter of the functional rules and structures of a particular linguistic system. As it was for the ante-bellum father of the narrator in the Southern poet and critic Allen Tate’s one novel, The Fathers (1938), of whom the narrator recalls in a classic passage that:
He used the double negative in conversation, as well as ain’t, and he spoke the language with great ease at four levels: first, the level just described, conversation among family and friends; second, the speech of the “plain people” abounding in many archaisms; third, the speech of the negroes, which was merely late seventeenth or early eighteenth century English ossified; and, fourth, the Johnsonian diction appropriate to formal occasions, a style that he could wield in perfect sentences four hundred words long. He would not have understood our conception of “correct” English. Speech was like manners, an expression of sensibility and taste.
And also, like manners, a matter of occasion and of respecting the persons to whom you were speaking.
So Emmett downshifts from his more formal mode with Ann Nicholson to a road self of small transactions with other males, the common-language self who says things like, “You and me both” and tells a gas-station attendant to “Put the damn thing on the hoist. Grease. Never mind the oil. And get that crap off the windshield, will you? There are more damn bugs in this country!”.
And later on, when he is being driven to the lodge of the pre-war family friend Mrs Pruitt’s lodge out west after being picked up by a local at the bus depot, “‘Still digging up the creek, I see,’ he said in a conscious attempt to establish himself as an old-timer, as the station wagon bounced over the wooden bridge.”
There are more significant shifts in name games: the use of the comfortably familiar generic “Mac” (as in, “Hey, Mac, you forgot your change”); the ascribing or claiming of less-than-wholly-adult status with terms like “Sonny,” “Pop,” and, as used by a parent to a younger daughter in that curious American idiom, “Sister”; the generic slight discourtesy of “fella”; the personalized rudeness of addressing a woman by her last name—rudeness or worse, as Ann reminds Emmett at one point:
“Please,” she whispered. “Please don’t call me Nicholson. It sounds as if—” She choked down a laugh that had come dangerously close to hysteria. “Besides, it isn’t even right! I’m Mrs. Emmett. Mrs. John Emmett. Remember?”
When he is with Helene Bethke on another occasion, “‘For God’s sake call me Helene,’ she snapped. ‘Miss Bethke this, Miss Bethke that. As if I were a housekeeper or something.’”
There are more complicated shiftings, too, more complex language games. Straightforward information-giving dialogue in Hamilton is uninteresting, as in his Guns and Hunting and Cruises with ‘Kathleen’, or in too many of the later Helm books. Uninteresting, that is if you’re not interested in what’s being talked about. Nothing is going on in them between the speakers.
No, the more characteristic Hamilton dialogue is that in which things are going on—in some degree agonistic, adversarial dialogue. And by that I don’t mean the compulsive wisecracking that Chandler employs in an effort to give the essentially hollow Marlowe a distinctive character.
I mean dialogue in which people are trying to learn things from and about each other. Trying to find where they stand in relation to them. Trying to get them to reveal more about themselves. Challenging some too easy assumption, some undeserved claim to moral superiority.
Other good thrillers contain such encounters, of course,
Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male is concerned with the states of mind and physical doings of his anonymous upper-class hero on the run through the late-Thirties German and English countrysides, but it comes to a moral focus in the exchanges between the anonymous upper-class hero trapped in his West Country burrow and his nemesis the urbane Nazi agent Quive-Smith.
Adam Hall’s Quiller novels are full, at times to the point of mannerism, with Quiller’s adrenalin-charged consciousness as he waits impatiently for missions, drives at ferociously high speeds, tails people relentlessly under exhausting conditions, escapes, at times by the skin of his teeth, from captors and pursuers.
But along with the episodes of high speed action, we have the conversations in which something important is happening; in which a wrong turn of phrase or wrong facial expression in an exchange with an NKVD officer, or a professional terrorist, or a fellow agent gone bad may be literally a matter of life or death, and in which each party is bringing total concentration to bear on the task of disarming suspicion, or finding out what the other is up to, or aiming the other in a certain direction.
And works like Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File, and Martin Woodhouse’s Tree Frog, and Ted Lewis’s Jack’s Return Home, and Simon Harvester’s Dorian Silk novels, and the novels of Ross Thomas and Dashiell Hammett, especially Hammett’s, are full of memorably adversarial conversations.
But Hamilton’s dialogue seems to me the most subtle, not only in its formal shapeliness, but in the shiftings between codes that go on, the shifts in self-presentation, shiftings in which both parties are vulnerable, so that it isn’t simply a ping-pong game.
There is a lot of good dialogue in Hamilton, and I would like to do a lot of quoting. Instead, I will offer a single long example at this point, from Date with Darkness, with one or two shorter ones to come later. You can see in it what Hamilton had learned from Hammett, particularly from a couple of the exchanges between Sam Spade and the exasperating Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. But the tone is very different, and what Hamilton does here seems to me richer and deeper than what you find in Hammett’s novel.
Spade is dealing with Brigid de haut en bas, and gives no sign of being disturbed by her pathological lying and masking. Philip Branch and Jeannette Duval are meeting as equals, and (though I shall not try to characterize them) there are at least four major shifts in the dialogue with respect to how they stand in relation to each other: four barrier-breachings that I have marked.
With its shiftings with respect to role-playing and “sincerity,” it seems to me a masterly piece of writing.
It is the dialogue of persons who are behaving theatrically and manipulatively, but in a theatrical situation (Branch has just been visited by the private detective who took photos of their love-making the previous night in order to get him to leave town), and without full control over their moves.
Essentially Philip and Jeannette would like things to come out at the same point—his staying to help her—but for what are partly “impure” reasons: he because their relationship is spicing up an otherwise lonely leave, she because she would like him to give her the money he has promised her.
But it isn’t all impure, for they would prefer if possible to preserve the romantic elements. And each of them is intelligent enough, and recognizes that the other is intelligent enough, for them to know that continuing the sexual relationship depends upon each of them being able to preserve a sufficiency of self-esteem.
So there is an obvious uncertainty and experimentation throughout as to how much frankness is possible—given the conflict between manipulative needs and “personal” feelings—in a situation charged with role-playing (nobly self-sacrificing woman; accusatory male realist; calmly commonsensical female realist) and the kind of hurt vanity that issues in a less armoured bitchiness and directness on both sides.
And it is pleasant seeing them able to survive the transactions..
(1) She touched her tongue to her lips. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “How nasty. You’d better go, hadn’t you?”… She touched his arm, looking up at him. “Don’t—” she paused. “Don’t stay—on my account.” Her voice was a little uncertain, her eyes very wide and helpless, watching him.
He slapped the side of her face smartly.
(2) He stood quite still, hardly breathing, watching her after a moment step back and reach slowly behind to retrieve the jacket the impact of the blow had jarred loose from her shoulder.
He heard his voice mimic the tragic breathlessness of hers. “Don’t stay—on my account.” He laughed.
“Philip,” she whispered.
“Cut it out,” he said. “Cut it out. Quit it.”
“Please,” she whispered. “Philip. It was so nice and now it’s spoiled, but don't make it worse.”
He waited, a little frightened at having started this.
(3) “Oh, all right,” she said, turning away. “Oh, all right,” and he let himself breathe again. She sat down on the side of the bed facing the window. “Cigarette?”
“Sure,” he said, giving her one.
“Sit down,” she said, patting the space beside her. He lit her cigarette and sat down. “Oh, for heaven’s sake relax,” she said irritably, looking at him. “Please relax. Don’t act like a—”.
“You should talk about acting.”
“Well, stop trying to look so—so tough. You’re not really very hard-boiled, you know, even if you did slap me.” She glanced at him again. “Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry?”
“I told you to go, didn’t I?”
“Like that,” he said. “With tears in your eyes. Nuts.”
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
“The mystery woman,” he said. “God, come out from behind that mask.”
(4) She smiled a little. “You didn’t seem to mind it, Philip. In fact, there were times when you seemed rather to enjoy it. Tell me—”
“How many times have you—?”
He looked at her quickly. “I don’t know,” he said stiffly. “Should I keep count?”
She smiled again, clearly knowing that he was lying. “Does your mother know about it?” she asked sharply.
“I’m sorry, Philip,” she said smoothly. “You’re really very sweet. But you shouldn’t accuse people of acting after putting on an imitation of a class-A roué. The way you took me in your arms. And carried me to the bed. It was really very masterful.”
(5) He sat looking at the geometric pattern of windows on the far side of the airshaft. Presently he reached for his pipe.
“Well,” he said, drawing a long breath, “well, we’ve pretty well taken that apart.”
She said in a small voice, “Yes. We have rather, haven’t we?”
“It’s kind of too bad,” he said. Looking at her, he saw that she was crying. “Don’t do that,” he protested.
“I can’t help it. I’m not acting,” she gasped, blinking her eyelids and biting at her lips as, the tears running down her face, she stared blankly at the confined emptiness of the airshaft. “It’s so nasty,” she whispered.
So, to return from this sizeable detour, being in some sense a gentleman isn’t a matter of always being “gentlemanly,” as the term is used later on, jokingly, by Carl Gunderman to Paul Nyquist in Line of Fire. (“So what did you do, boy, make like a gentleman?”) apropos of the pouty-lipped little sexpot Jeanie whom he had inflicted on Paul in the lakeside motel as part of Paul’s alibi.
Nor is it a class thing. It isn’t a matter of defining yourself, by speech and other markers, against your environment, your American environment. There are no fond memories here of dear old Dartmouth (as in Powell’s All Over But the Shooting), or dear old Yale, as in Gatsby.
Naval Lieutenant Dave Young in Night Walker (1954) is, if anything, uncomfortable himself in the snobbish environment of “good” families that he finds himself in, down in Maryland, after having been murderously assaulted while hitchhiking and coming to in hospital, his face masked in bandages, with another man’s identity imposed upon him.
Hugh Phillips, in The Black Cross, doesn’t remind himself about campus life in the university where he teaches sociology.
The only reference that Matt Helm ever makes to his college years that I can recall is to the occasion when he virtually cut off the hand of a would-be hazer, part of a student mob trying to break into his freshman room after he has given them due warning not to.
But then Helm, you would say, is no gentleman? Or Emmett when he knees Sheriff Patman in the groin to protect Ann Nicholson?
He watched the man come forward and made certain plans, on a purely theoretical basis. He had not fought with, or struck, another human being since he was sixteen years old. The man outweighed him by well over fifty pounds and was at least four inches taller. He felt his stomach as a tight knot of nausea just below his ribs.
“Look,” he said weakly. “Look, Sheriff, Miss Nicholson’s been sick. She lost her head. She didn’t mean—”
Then the man was reaching for his shoulder to sweep him aside, and he moved forward inside the long arm and felt the other hand strike him a passing blow on the chest; and he was inside that, too, his arms wrapped around the other’s body. He brought his knee up with all the strength that was in him. With the jolt he felt the larger man’s body contract as if the whole body were a muscle in spasm. He stepped back, startled at what he had accomplished, and saw the sheriff bend over and grab at himself, groaning, and sit down on the sidewalk, doubled over.”
Well, perhaps that can be considered what Emmett himself called it later, in his head, an impulse of stupid chivalry, as he drives away westward as fast as he can, frighteningly conscious of the beating awaiting him, and the ruination of his career, if Patman catches up with them.
If he catches me, he’ll take me apart, Emmett thought. If he catches me, he’ll kill me with his bare hands. There was not a doubt in his mind as to what would happen if the freckled sheriff caught him. Somehow he knew with utter certainty how a man like that thought and felt with respect to certain fundamentals, of which being kneed in the groin was definitely one.
But how about when Branch kicks the fallen Paul Laflin in the head? Or when research chemist Paul Weston, fighting for his life out in the dark rain-drenched city park in Deadfall, stamps on the spymaster Louis’ face?
He felt no more compunction than if it had been a snake in the path. A hand caught his trousers leg; a pale oval the size of a face turned up to him; and he drove the hard leather heel of his other foot directly at the light target, striking with a terrible unexpected accuracy, and feeling bone and cartilage smash beneath the blow.
Or the unforgettable episode in which Emmett is up in the hotel room to which Helene Bethke has dragged him, and his chemist’s nose detects an incongruous odor in the rum-and-coke that she has handed him?
He was a little embarrassed. He could feel his blood singing in his ears, and he was aware of a sense of outrage, but he could not see precisely what he was going to do about it. Her eyes followed his face as he rose; her face turning up to him was expressionless, the hazel eyes blank, as if a shade had dropped. He knew that he was in the presence of something primitive and unfamiliar. People who cared much for human life did not use chloral; it was an unreliable agent. Helene Bethke looked cool and self-possessed and a little contemptuous. Her composure angered him unendurably; when she moved, he flung the drugged drink in her face.
There was ice in it. He saw her through a singing haze, thrown off balance by the shock of the cascade of ice and cold liquid; when she started again toward the purse on the table, he was ahead of her. She did not stop. He put his shoulder and hip into her with deliberate violence, taking the impact of her compact body with a savage pleasure that derived from sources he was aware weren’t very nice. She was hurled across the cocktail table to strike against the sofa and roll off onto the floor in a flurry of green sandals and bare muscular legs and stained white dress. He took a small gun from the green purse, looked at it for a moment, and recalled how to pull the slide back to check the loads. There was a shell in the chamber.
Gentlemanly? Chivalrous? Well, no. And yes.
12. Peace and War
In The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the twenty-four-year-old Stephen Crane had thought his way through some central issues concerning the war, the Civil War, at that time the war, that he himself had not seen action in.
How would he have behaved during that supreme testing out in battle? Particularly since he, like his young hero Henry Fleming, had grown up with a divided consciousness in which, on the one hand, heroic action could be glorious, but on the other (his mother’s side), violence was evil and vigorous self-affirmation was to be mistrusted as prideful.
And the demonstration of the book, as it develops, is that when you are in a war situation, it is that kind of split that is the destructive element— it causes Henry’s own panicked flight—and that the healing of that split, during Henry’s self-lacerating wanderings behind the line, makes possible the real and unselfconscious courage that he displays after his return to his regiment, and the service that he now now to his comrades.
You have to be a liberal-left American academic prig to despise Henry for his heroism, as has occurred in various critical discussions of the book.
The question of the values of peace and the values of war, the “rules” of war, had come up strongly during and after that greatest of American wars, the War between the States, in which the nature of war itself was changing, partly because of the advantages that the increase in fire-power now gave to defenders over attackers.
Had Grant been a butcher? Had Sherman, during his march to the sea, or Phil Sheridan devastating the Shenandoah Valley, not fought fair? Was the North in general not fighting war as it ought to be fought, namely as, like the duel, a test of moral courage in which, once honour had been satisfied with respect to whose conviction was the stronger, an honourable peace could be concluded?
Well, the war had amply demonstrated that being a Southern gentleman like Virginia’s Lee or a Northern one like Maine’s Joshua Chamberlain was not in the least incompatible with the most complete and focused military energy, over and above the essential requirement of personal courage.
But it was Sherman, whose daring war-shortening march had involved amazingly few violences to civilians, who had been the least wasteful of the lives of his men, and that chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, Robert E. Lee, who caused the insensate butchery of Gettysburg.
And dreadful though the casualties had been during the Wilderness campaign and elsewhere, if it hadn’t been for Grant’s implacable persistence against a determined foe under conditions that at times were new in warfare and whose rules had to be figured out as you went along, the North would not have won the war, and slavery as such would not have been abolished, at least not for a good many of years.
So Sherman, who said of his troops in 1864 that “they will march to certain death if I order it, because they know and feel that night and day I labor that not a life shall be lost in vain,” was in the right when he insisted that he and Grant and the other great Northern generals had fought an honourable war, given the nature now of war.
And, problematic as is the idea of total war, he seems to me to have been also right when he insisted that when the South seceded, it stepped outside the customary protections of peace and could not now reasonably complain if war was made unpleasant for civilians too, so wholeheartedly, for the most part, behind the fighting men.
And that once it returned within the border of peace it would, as Lincoln too said and meant— Lincoln who welcomed the playing of “Dixie” at the victory ball in Washington— be treated civilly once more.
This may have seemed a long way round to the similar and often repeated position in Hamilton’s works. And I have no idea what reading Hamilton himself had done, or what he had thought about the campaigns of World War II, including the horrors of the yard-by-yard, island-by-island advance, with dreadful casualty rates, against the entrenched Japanese defenders in the Pacific.
But his position has always been clear, namely that if someone uses violence against you, they have no right to complain if you use it against them; and that you have a perfect right to defend yourself violently if there is no workable alternative.
And this applies just as much to violences or attempted violences by women as by men. There are no magic shields, no benefits of clergy that put women in an automatically good category, any more than there are for former members of the French Resistance.
Nor is this, as we see it in these early novels, a morally crude position. This isn’t Mickey Spillane, whose first novel, I, the Jury, came out in 1947, in the same year as Date with Darkness, and notoriously concluded with Mike Hammer putting a .45 slug into the naked belly of beautiful, blonde Park Avenue psychiatrist Charlotte Manning (“young and delicious and exciting”) who admittedly was all set to off him with a gun of her own.
“How c-could you?” she gasped.
I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy.”
One of the novelties of these books of Hamilton’s is that some of the violences inflicted by the heroes are ones that we too can feel, I mean at the receiving end.
At times, as we well know, thriller violences have some of the unbloody neatness of physical comedy.
A number of the killings in Red Harvest, that book of many deaths, are like that: “He agreeably trotted off..., and was shot down at his third step.” Or again: “I steadied my gun-arm on the floor. Nick’s body showed over the front sight. I squeezed the gun [sic]. Nick stopped shooting. He crossed his guns on his chest and went down in a pile on the sidewalk.”
So too, very often, are Richard Stark’s, killings which at times have the effect of extra-heavy punctuation marks:
Shevely read his intentions and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself, shouting, “I’m only the messenger!”
“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him. [End of chapter]
But when Sheriff Patman’s body contracts “as if the whole body were a muscle in spasm,” or Paul Laflin, after being kicked behind the ear by Branch, flops down in a rocking-chair and, “oblivious of everyone else, was rocking himself minutely back and forth, bent forward to hold his head in his hands,” or Louis (no last name) in “Deadfall” is found lying on the sofa in little near-sighted Janie Colis’s apartment, “oblivious to everything but the agony of his smashed face,” these are pains that could be experienced by us as well.
They are not cause for satisfaction, let alone for an exultant feeling that it’s payback time, as it is when Sam Drake deals with the heavy-set Nazi spymaster Anderson near the end of Kenneth Millar’s Trouble Follows Me (a.k.a.Night Train ).
When he got up I hit him again with my left. The lower half of his face was bright with blood. Now a flap came loose over his eye and hung down showing the white bone. I hit him again with my left and he went down moaning. I pulled him to his feet and hit him again with my left. He kicked at me but lost his balance and fell on his back. I helped him to his feet and hit him again. My fist caught him in the center of the throat and broke his larynx. I heard it snap. When he fell down I let him lie. I was very happy.
The body, the feeling, experiencing body, is very real in these early books of Hamilton’s.
People get hot and tired and irritable from lack of sleep, the air gets colder or hotter, things feel different as the altitude changes.
In The Steel Mirror, when Emmett and Ann are on the way to the justice of the peace,
She reached up to pry gently at the fingers that gripped her arm. The satin of her sleeve was quite wet where he had been holding her. He hesitated, and released her. She walked along beside him, silent, plucking the thin material free of her skin. It began to dry almost instantly in the hot, dry air.”
Earlier, Helene Bethke, in her white dress and bright green hat and gloves and high-heeled sandals, had dragged him almost at a run through a Denver hotel lobby with a grip so tight that he would have had to use force to break loose from it.
The bodies are clothed bodies, too, like yours and mine.
Hamilton has a sharp and knowledgeable eye for clothing.
Clothes are partly how individuals express themselves, along with their hair-styles and other possessions. In Line of Fire Paul Nyquist catches himself wondering whether the young crusading news reporter Jack Williams has chosen the two-tone green of his car to match his red hair; “You get a very odd slant on people, sometimes,” he reflects, “from the cars they pick to drive.”
There are a lot of references to women’s clothes in the Helm books, obviously deriving in part from Helm’s (and his creator’s) stints in fashion photography.
Clothing also matters as a boundary-definer, a separating off of selves; an armouring, or at least protecting, of the self, though weakening in that regard when you get tired and careless. After the episode with Sheriff Patman, Ann Nicholson throws up and Emmett has to wipe the “goo” (his term) from her pump.
So it is all the more transgressive, all the more a violating of decorum, a stepping into a different space, a space of violence, when Emmett, after catching the scent of chloral, throws his doctored rum-and-coke in Helene Bethke’s face.
And when she impatiently tears at the dress and steps out of it, defiantly exposing herself as the kind of girl who doesn’t wear any underwear at all, it is just about the most erotic smoment that I can recall in any thriller.
She had pulled herself up to kneel beside the sofa, her forehead pressed against her folded arms. Her shoulders shook swith the force of her breathing as she kneeled there, her disheveled bright hair matted and sticky, her dress splashed and awry and ripped at the waist. Her dishevelment embarrassed him and made him want to turn his head while she pulled herself together.
She rose with a last shuddering intake of breath; standing, she regarded the gun for a moment, then his face. Then she looked down at her ruined dress and, gingerly, as if not liking to touch it, her fingers marking the silk where it was still clean, tugged at the knot of the sash. Her face contracted with impatience, something tore, and she stripped the dress off over her head. She had nothing at all on beneath it. She stood there without anything on but the green sandals, using the dress to dry her hands and face and hair. Then she threw it at him.
So we have a funny kind of paradox in these novels. When Paul Weston and Marilyn George, after their narrow escape from death in the rain-wet Chicago park, go to Janie Colis’s apartment where her spymaster Louis (no last name) is lying on her sofa in agony, Janie
went on her knees beside him and looked at Weston. “You lousy coward,” she gasped. “To kick a man in the face like that! I wish I had killed you. I would have, if she hadn’t interfered!”
This after having just put a bullet into Marilyn George.
And in a funny way we can understand her attitude, just as we can in Assignment: Murder, when Nina Rasmussen demands, apropos of her brother Tony,
“Granted that you were justified in defending yourself, Dr. Gregory, did you have to be so—so brutal? After all, you’re a fairly big man and he’s only a boy!”
The previous night, the tough, wiry, twenty-year old “boy” had done his level best to kill Jim Gregory outside his house with a switchblade knife. And it had been an accomplice of his who shot Gregory during the fake hunting accident that cost him weeks of hospitalization and slow recovery.
But now it is somehow the still convalescent Gregory, barely saving his life by means of desperate punching, butting, kneeing, and with an eight-inch gash in his back, who is the “violent” person, just as it is Paul Weston in Deadfall who is the violent, the cowardly violent person for having, in a chaotic desperate scramble out in the dark wet park, saved himself and Marilyn George from being cold-bloodedly murdered.
And it is Emmett who is being, shall we say, unchivalrous in bodychecking a nicely clothed woman like that—a woman who has tried to knock him out—or worse— with chloral hydrate, and who in her dash for her purse is presumably not going in search of a kleenex.
The two male victims here, as it happens, are Communist agents—as is Helene Bethke—, and the implicit emotional logic is clear and by now familiar, I mean the logic whereby it is the self-defenders who become in some “objective” political sense the aggressors.
It is the same kind of logic by means of which the appalling, the monstrous death-tolls and torturings in Stalin’s prisons and up in the wastes of Siberia, like the millions of deaths by starvation during the artificially induced famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, are somehow not “cruel” or wicked in the same way as those in the camps and prisons of the Nazis.
For what the Communists were trying to do, Stalin included, was good, don’t you know? They weren’t evil sadistic persons, they weren’t “aggressive,” they weren’t selfish, even if they may have made some mistakes and gone at times a bit too far. They were idealists.
So somehow it was the duty of the innocent (but who is to say which of us is really innocent?), well, the “innocent” victims (but isn’t “victims” a loaded term?), well, let’s just say the eggs that happened to get broken during the making of the historically inevitably omelet, to recognize, uncomplainingly, that they were being sacrificed in a good cause.
There was nothing personal about it. The would-be killers of Ann Nicholson and John Emmett didn’t dislike them, any more than Faubel and Laflin and Hahn in Date With Darkness had anything personal against Branch and Jeannette, who they were also going to kill.
Besides, Communists were nice, compared with those dreadful low-life Nazis swaggering around in their jackboots.. Commnists were clean. And not, absolutely not (this was a good while before Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago) sadistic.
The self-defensive violences of Hamilton’s victims or would-be victims here are messy and look strange, since they aren’t professionals of violence.
Philip’s fight with Paul Laflin is an affair of clumsy wrestling and butting, not the conventional straight-left, right-hook, Queensberry rules stuff of innumerable man-to-man encounters.
In The Black Cross, when Hugh Phillips, still shaky during his post-accident recuperation, realizes that he and his tall, nice, former girlfriend Christine Wells have been trapped by the night-club owner Karl Lewis in his rented cottage on the bay and will be killed,
he swung his arms backward with a helpless desperation that was not courage but simply a refusal to stay alive and take the responsibility for what was going to happen to [Chris] at the hands of Janice’s murderer.
He felt the barrel of the revolver against his wrist and the blast from the cylinder scorched him and he was not dead. He was pushing and kicking, shoving death back into the cottage, and closing the door on it; and he had not been able to get his hands on the gun but neither had the tall man been able to turn the unwieldy weapon against him.
Violences can spin out of control, too, once the figurative door has been opened.
If fully civilized relationships involve a respect for the personal spaces of other (properly clothed) civilized individuals, and if breaching those barriers is an affair of spectrums, degrees, symbolic weightings, including slaps, kicks, punches, rape (Jeannette Duvall is raped by Paul Laflin and Mr. Hahn), torture, poisoning, and shooting, at some point you may indeed get a full “animal” ferocity even in a normally peaceable man:
Down at the water’s edge in The Black Cross, when Hugh Phillips desperately swings Chris’s wet skirt at Karl Lewis, covering his face, and they go down among the reeds together and Lewis’s Colt .38 automatic goes off while choked with mud, and explodes,
The body beneath [Hugh] twisted and squirmed and, sobbing for breath, he reached for the throat and hung on. A hand came up to beat at his face, and he gagged and hid his face against the other’s chest, because the hand was ragged and incomplete, shattered by the explosion of the pistol. The broken hand tried to claw away the slippery folds that muffled the face, and the fingers crushing the throat.
The blood singing in his ears, he would have choked him to death had not black-haired and hitherto rather irritating Mr. Holt from the sheriff’s office intervened.
However, in the—dare I venture?—dialectical explorings that Hamilton was engaged in, this kind of loss of control isn’t moralized into a good in itself.
In Deadfall, when Paul Weston, Hamilton’s most violent hero, slams a metal rod down on the wrist of the FBI man searching his locker, a lab technician’s scream brings home to him that
he was stepping forward with every intention of bringing the rod down across the bowed head of the larger man with every bit of strength he possessed [he] checked himself with an effort that left him sick and blinded. I almost killed him, he thought. I almost killed him.
I have the feeling that in that story, Hamilton was deliberately swinging a number of degrees away from the pattern of Date with Darkness, the way Shakespeare swung away from a man acting too slowly (Hamlet) to a man acting too fast (Othello). Weston, who has fought in the Pacific (though almost nothing is made of this) and knows the comfort of a gun, is also savagely, woundingly aggressive towards Marilyn George—and, as it transpires, entirely wrong about her.
Hamilton was, perhaps, having a look at what can happen when a good guy steps a bit too readily, if understandably (his career in “sensitive” research is being wrecked by Marilyn) out of the box.
But after black-haired Mr. Holt (no first name) takes over at the end of The Black Cross, it emerges that the cops had known for some time about the bad guys, and that it had been quite unnecessary for Hugh Phillips to put Chris and himself in danger at all.
Back in bed, in the home now of Chris’s parents, Hugh does not feel self-congratulatory. He hasn’t proved something. If anything, he understands Chris’s earlier distrust of him (not at all the instant good-girl supportiveness) when she feels that he may in fact have murdered his dead wife Janice.
He tried to think what was in her mind and his own, but he could not feel anything but a vague tired bitterness. He did not blame her for anything. The war was still close enough that you remembered that almost anybody, given an opportunity and an excuse, would kill; it did not anger him that she had thought him a murderer.
And in fact there had been domestic violence on one occasion between himself and Janice that Chris had known about:
He had asked Janice politely to turn the radio down a little, and she had turned it up instead, so he came out of the study and jerked the plug from the wall and she slapped him and he slapped her back and she threw an ash tray at him. It went through the big front window. He grabbed her and she struck at him with her nails. She was screaming at him. He had never been so angry in his life. They had been building up to it for weeks…
“She did have a habit of swinging at me occasionally,” he admitted. “It didn’t mean anything. After awhile I just started swinging back.”
But there might, might there not? have been something a bit simplistic about his reflection, at the time of that earlier conversation, that “Chris thought that if you hit a person you must hate them. Chris had probably never even kicked a wastepaper basket across the room in a temper; she would have thought it showed a dreadful lack of self-restraint.”
And Hamilton’s heroes feel uneasy about other violences.
John Emmett feels very uneasy indeed when, up on the mountain road in Colorado after leaving Mrs. Pruitt’s lodge, he uses a jack handle to break the collar-bone of the ordinary-seeming man who has been tailing himself and Ann Nicholson.
Had he in fact, in a paranoid panic, assaulted a perfectly innocent man who was getting ready to help Ann with what looked like a punctured tire?
The shock of the blow going home left Emmett as surprised as the man he had struck. Part of his mind had been calmly certain that he would never get away with it, that he would find himself standing there flatfooted, holding the bar or iron, while the man pointed a gun at him, and told him to drop it and stop acting like a jackass. Instead, the man in the Stetson hat gave a little grunt and grabbed for his shoulder, then staggered as the pain got to him, swayed against the car, and sat down in the road.
It is only later, when he has “stupidly” asked Helene Bethke what the man had been planning to do, that, “‘Well, darling,’ Helene Bethke said, smiling, ‘if he saw the opportunity, he was going to kill you.’” Just as Helene herself had tried to kill Ann Nicholson with sleeping pills.
But that, in a way, that kind of uncertainty, both about what is visibly in front of you and about the question of what lies behind it, how you should “read” it—and then how you should act —is what these books are about. They are about coping, about figuring out, about, in a sense, thought.
Date with Darkness is a thriller about a young man doing everything that he can to save a young woman and himself without significant violence. Branch’s violence score (if tallied by one of those earnest souls who count the “violences” on TV) would be four, I think:
Two slaps (Jeannette, Constance), one of them heavy enough to knock someone down.
One brief fight with another man, including kicking.
One spray-drenched middle-aged gun-holding woman (Madam Faubel) thrown into a corner of a boat’s cockpit.
Not a lot of violence there.
Date with Darkness is in fact a heartening demonstration of effective intelligence, effective long-term planning. involving a successful reading of other’s intentions, detailed knowledge of an environment, personal skills, psychological misdirection, and stoical courage.
It is also a narrative in which, as it progresses, Hamilton moves away from situations that remind us, to some extent, of earlier thrillers—masquerading couple (spies?), sinister-genial big criminal in fancy car, enigmatic foreign woman, blackmailing private detective— into ones that are more uniquely his own, down on the Chesapeake Bay that he himself had obviously become well acquainted with before and during the war.
As Branch sits in the train taking him south alone from New York,
he sat smoking and watched the landscape roll by in the sunlight outside the dirty window of the car. You could see it was fall out there, and the wind was strong enough to send swirls of dust across the dirt road that for a little paralleled the tracks. The single houses stood naked among bare fields and did not look like places where people lived.
It is a lovely, Hopperesque evocation of an entirely native America, without foreign entanglements.
And later on, Hamilton gives us some of the best kinaesthetic writing in any American thriller (better than anything in John D. MacDonald, better than anything in James Lee Burke) as the power-boat makes its nighttime way down the increasingly choppy bay, with Branch at the wheel initially feeling the complex physical pressures of waves and wind, and Paul Laflin taking over and being unable (like you or me) to cope with them, and Branch taking over again.
I will quote only one paragraph:
As they ran out of the shelter of the creek, the boat came heavily to life, rolling regularly, like a pendulum, with a fixed period of its own that was independent of the impact of the short, steep, crested chop of the river. The wind took on weight and sharpness; and Branch was aware of Paul Laflin turning up the collar of his coat to reinforce the turtle-necked sweater; the man standing spreadlegged beyond the cabin door, prevented by some pride from taking his hands from his pockets to steady himself, so that he weaved from side to side, in a curious static dance movement, with the rolling of the boat.
Oh well, one more. This is such damn good writing, and Hamilton isn’t in the least pretending to be Hemingway stylistically:
As they approached the center of the river he let the boat swing gradually away to the left, downstream, and the rolling stopped as they raced away before the wind, to be replaced by a slow pitching motion as each wave raised the stern, forcing the boat ahead, then passed forward. With the wind astern, steering became a monotonous cranking of the wheel from left to right and back again as the waves passed. In the darkness the speed seemed tremendous, but the leisurely movement of the lights on shore, that only slowly came abeam and fell astern, belied the surging pounding confusion of sound in the boat. It was a little like creeping down a broad highway in low gear.