Writer at Work: Donald Hamilton (contd.)
But “reality” here in these books isn’t something that’s given, any more than language is. You don’t simply see what a situation is, assess it, and then (rationally) take the necessary steps.
In the three works that followed Date with Darkness, particularly The Steel Mirror and The Black Cross, Hamilton. went on to complicate the nature of commitment and action.
By the time Philip Branch is out there with Jeannette in the boat things are (almost) all clear. The problem for him is definite, the solution feasible (incapacitate Hahn, Laflin, and Faubel with sea-sickness, lock them in the cabin). And he knows what Jeannette is like; there are no more surprises to come there. And he hasn’t broken any laws or disgraced his uniform.
The continuing uncertainties have been the reader’s, largely because of a technical feature. Hamilton has simply not told us what Branch’s plan is.
Partly, I think, this is so that we can share the uncertainty of the trio (and Jeannette) about what he is up to and whether he is being dumb, or cowardly, or what.
But partly too, I think, Hamilton wants to stay always close in his narrative to what Branch is thinking and feeling now, the actual sequences of his mind-flow when facing what is immediately physically in front of him (something derived, probably, from Hemingway and Hammett).
Describing authorially how his plan forms itself, and the weighing and balancings, hopes and fears, that it entails, swould be impossible to do concretely.
Furthermore, Branch’s own thought processes aren’t neat and tidy.
Challenged by Madame Faubel about his motivations,
To explain your behavior to other people it was necessary to use simple words like love or hate. But it was not as simple as that, you merely went on doing what was easiest or most pleasant until something said, Stop, this is far enough in this direction; try again, bud, this isn’t quite right.
Not until you were pushed into a corner did you bother to think out a course of action that satisfied all the strange little taboos and prohibitions that were half-buried in your subconscious, and the sense of what was right and just that you never examined too closely because, while it never seemed quite to correspond with what other people thought right and just, it was yours and you were stuck with it, when they finally got you penned in a corner. When the chips were down. When you had to decide what to do instead of letting the decision make itself. Then you found that this man that you had never examined very closely was you, and he did not hate or love anybody in particular, but he had this sense of what was equitable, and a feeling for what ought to be done and what ought not to be allowed; and you weren’t particularly impressed with his intelligence or the logic of his line of reasoning but he was you and you were stuck with him. He had grown this way while you were not looking, and now you were stuck with him.
In The Black Cross and The Steel Mirror, both the exterior and the interior difficulties are more amorphous.
The Black Cross, which reads a bit like a movie treatment (I don’t say that disparagingly; I would have liked to see the movie) is another of those noir stories of the man who has witnessed something that he can’t (it appears) get the authorities to believe, and which after a bit even he himself isn’t sure about; and who (he realizes) is viewed as someone who may in fact have committed a murder himself.
And in his post-accident traumatized and headachy state, Hugh Philips isn’t, for awhile, totally sure himself of his own innocence.
And he finds that the woman to whom he had been married for a year wasn’t what he had assumed, and that the “facts” about her that he had taken for granted were all (seemingly) wrong.
It is ably done, and I shall be returning to it shortly in connection with the love interest in these works. But The Steel Mirror is more complicated, and more interesting, and contains some of Hamilton’s finest writing.
Not everything in The Steel Mirror is at the same level of excellence. The last section, after John and Ann reach Los Alamos is a bit thinner than what has gone before, and I have the feeling that Ann‘s father isn’t as fully developed as he might be.
But in the predominantly best parts of the book, the writing has a reality that lasts, a realism that you don’t fully get in Date with Darkness, where there can be a shade of doubt as to whether all the dialogue given to the French group is exactly how even the most bilingual of conspirators would have spoken in English. Paul Laflin and Constance are almost too perfectly American during the opening encounter in the bar.
(Eight years later, in Assignment: Murder, a furious Nina Rasmussen is going to shoot Jim Gregory in his hospital bed, with a cop outside the door, until Natalie wacks her on the head with a vase of flowers. It is a fine scene. Unfortunately, it is nonsensical in the light of what we learn about Nina subsequently. But he does a nifty variation on this pattern in the 1985 Helm book The Detonators.)
John Emmett, despite those flurries of dramatic action that I’ve mentioned, is a much more self-doubting hero than Branch. He hasn’t been in the services at all, and.feels guilty and uncomfortable about that, particularly since he’s conscious of the Bogart stereotype that he isn’t—conscious, too, of the heroic images, courtesy of Warner Brothers, of resistance fighters in occupied France.
And he is out there on the highway in the slightly strange alternative America of motels, and gas-stations, and lunch-counters that in those days you inhabited during long-distance driving, particularly if you were between jobs.
And he is there with this elusive and well-heeled girl, in her expensive fawn-coloured Mercury convertible, someone who’s on the run and goes into a total tooth-and-nail panic attack with the small-town Illinois sheriff, who simply wants to hold her for questioning, as he’s been instructed to do by the Chicago police. And who’s a lousy driver. And irritable. And selfish, downplaying his heroism with the sheriff and expecting him to wipe the goo off her pump.
For a moment, while she’s fighting with Sheriff Patman, “he hated the girl more than he had hated anything in his whole life—for getting him into this, for not being fifty years old and ugly, and for making an obscene display of herself on a public street in broad daylight.”
And she’s not glamorous like the rich girls of road movies, such as Claudette Colbert in A Night to Remember, And people come and tell him disquieting things about her—her psychiatrist, her psychiatrist’s nurse, Miss Bethke.
And he isn’t always on top of things.
This is one of those commendable and uncommon thrillers in which heroes get really and truly tired.
John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, on the run through the Highlands in The Thirty-Nine Steps, goes down with a bout of his recurring South African malaria and becomes weak as a kitten.
Eric Ambler’s civil-engineer Nicholas Marlowe, on the run in Fascist Italy in Cause for Alarm, reaches that point of utter exhaustion in which it becomes impossible to take another step though your life depends upon it.
Simon Harvester’s Dorian Silk, the most convincing of all spies, suffers from the early-morning numbness and blankness of someone who is essentially a night person.( Napoleon nicely remarked of one of his generals that he had “that rarest form of military courage, the courage of early morning.”)
No doubt there are other examples.
And a hero can find his interpreting of events shifting too, as they do from time to time for Hannay, especially in Mr. Standfast, when he loses his conviction of the worth of what he is doing and fears that he may simply be making an ass of himself.
As Branch would have done (or so he felt) had he flung himself to the Manhattan sidewalk when Mr. Sellers’ big Packard sedan drew up alongside him.
Things feel different in daylight from how they do at night..
Altitude can affect you. After getting off the bus at night in Colorado and being met by an old-timer, “Emmett followed him with camera and fishing-rod case, feeling awkward and a little lost. He could feel the mountains all around him in the darkness, and his lungs were aware of the altitude.”
Other people can fade.
For a moment, seated across the hotel dining-room table from the pseudo-naval couple, Branch has “a momentary feeling of being completely out of touch with them, as if there had been a pane of glass between them and him.” And after Jeannette has, as he thinks, left him for good, he “could recall the sound of her voice and the shape of her mouth and the texture of her hair, but like a girl met in a dream, she had only physical characteristics.”
At one point, for Emmett, “the solid hours of rest seemed to draw a curtain over the events of the past days; shaving, he found that he could hardly recall Ann Nicholson’s face.”
People’s images can also be changed by others. When Helene Bethke refers to her as a “feeb,” “The crude term for imbecile seemed to put Ann Nicholson immeasurably far away from him; she was no longer a pretty girl he had known, but only a warped brain capable of a certain perverse, vicious cunning.”
And your mental circuits can be overloaded.
Near the end of his long intense conversation with Ann in the hotel room in Cheyenne, in which she gives him a seemingly candid explanation of her erratic behaviour, Emmett finds that he
had been in the little room too long. He could no longer feel anything for her; she had made too many demands on his emotions already, and it was too hot. When she buried her face in her hands, he found himself wondering whether or not she was peeking through her fingers to see how the gesture affected him.”
The demand for intense responses and commitment here is too strong, since there is too frail a base of first-hand knowledge and experience to sustain them.
Near the end of The Black Cross, Hugh Phillips reflects that “Everybody was six other people,” a formulation that he likes enough to repeat it a little later, and that Hamilton himself obviously liked. David Young in Night Walker reflects that the cocky red-headed Navy brat Bonito (“Bunny”) Dekker is “too young to know that everyone is six other people”—and that “a man shows a different face to every person he meets.”
And the game rules for transactions between multifaceted individuals may be uncertain.
When Ann Nicholson’s condescendingly asks what he knows about amnesia, Emmett replies irritably “That it’s generally faked,” and goes on to develop the point in detail. But he does so with some uneasiness:
He was afraid to look at the girl. He had let his resentment carry him into depths he knew nothing about. If her mind was really ill, his skepticism could easily bring on some reaction he would be quite incapable of coping with, not being a psychiatrist.
Changing the rules of the game means embarking on a new stretch whose outcome is uncertain and in which you can’t foresee the details of your own behaviour.
But this doesn’t mean that you have to be wholly at sea.
A couple of times in these works Hamilton reminds us of the possibility of madness. At one point Ann Nicholson says,
“It’s like a nightmare… You’re with people you know, and maybe you like them and maybe you don’t, but they’re still civilized human beings, and you wouldn’t dream of being afraid of them; then you look at them and suddenly their faces have changed and their teeth have changed and they start to close in on you like vicious animals.”
And it’s not just a woman who can feel so disturbed.
When Hugh Phillips climbs up the steps to where Shirley Carlson waits for him,
He looked at the girl again, and her face did not look the same; it had a blunt, blurred, animal-like quality, and there was something sinuous and boneless in the way she moved, coming toward him. He told himself that it was part of going crazy to imagine everyone against you, but he drew back instinctively. In his mind, as his foot slipped, he saw the precipitous stairs behind him…
John Franklin Bardin had got a good deal of mileage out of that kind of thing in The Deadly Percheron (1946), with its pervasive big-city nightmarishness and the uncertainty as to what is really real, and what is madness, and how, if at all, you can tell them apart (very serious, very modern, no?).
And paranoia, or the possibility of it, was part of the stock-in-trade of “quality” mystery writers like Cornell Woolrich and Dorothy B. Hughes, and of Alfred Hitchcock in movies like The Lady Vanishes (1938), Suspicion (1941, and Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
But Emmett dryly undercuts Ann’s dread at that point.
And Hugh Phillips, who is aware of these odd fadings in his own consciousness, has also been doing his best to behave rationally after he finds, on returning home from the hospital, that things aren’t as they seem.
These states of dread aren’t ones that you want to indulge in. What you’re trying to do, or should be, is try and arrive at more or less solid facts and act upon them.
Behaving rationally here, though, isn’t a neat and tidy business, like that of the detectives in the so-called classic-puzzlers of Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and others, beloved of American detective-fiction aficionados like Jacques Barzun. It’s more a set of predispositions, a loose constellation of strategies for coping.
If Hamilton hasn’t endowed his heroes with a wartime expertise in violence, he also, scrupulously, doesn’t belabour the fact that two of them are scientists. Which could have been a useful gimmick to enhance their status for Rinehart’s hardcover New York Times-reading mystery buyers.
Halfway through The Steel Mirror, however,
Emmett found that things people told him seemed to have stopped carrying conviction some time ago. He had stopped trying to sort out the truths from the falsehoods; he no longer believed anything, he merely filed it for reference. He was merely collecting information and waiting for a hunch. As a chemist you learned that, contrary to the popular idea of scientific procedure, one good hunch was often worth a ream of data.s
And I suspect there are other ways, in which having been professionally a chemist might involve some competence with respect to truth-seeking.
Just as being a college teacher of the odd medley of readings and writings that we call literature can develop in you a certain sophistication about the nature of “facts,” and about the smooth certitude with which at times we are told what was said and felt and thought on some occasion by some political personage.
Shortly thereafter, by dint of listening carefully to what Helene Bethke is saying, and recalling with reasonable certainty what he himself had seen in the contents of Ann’s handbag, Emmett does indeed come upon an inconsistency that solidly establishes that Helene is lying about Ann’s apparent suicide attempt
But a hunch isn’t necessarily a simple matter, and when you are dealing with people, particularly people of a kind you’re unfamiliar with, there may be nothing definite or conclusive about one at all.
As late as chapter 21, with only five more chapters to go, Emmett, out alone under the desert stars with Ann in New Mexico, after imposing marriage on her to gain a legal stake in her defense, is still not sure whether or not she is a murderer. He has deliberately left the pistol taken from that man out on the mountain road where she can get hold of it, and he “could not remember ever having been so scared in his life.”
So what you’ve been doing is playing hunches, watching what Ann is like, watching how people behave when they tell you things, like Dr. Kaufman and Nurse Bethke telling you early on in the diner about their escaped patient now asleep (or so Emmett assumes) out in her car.
The man had removed, and was polishing, his glasses. He looked curiously unruffled beside the gaudy dishevelment of the girl; a small compact man with a neat square face, smoothly shaven except for a short moustache. His hair, when he removed his hat, proved to be dark and thick and glossy. He was wearing a black suit with a fine white stripe, a white shirt, and a silk tie printed with a fine pattern of white and blue. He was somewhere around forty years of age. The girl, Emmett decided, was about fifteen years younger.
By the end of the conversation, you’ve believed them and have agreed to accompany the patient down to New Mexico. But “they had taken the girl named Ann Nicholson apart in front of his eyes. She was no longer a girl and a human being, she was a case for the medical journals,” and Emmett doesn’t particularly like them, and “felt a sense of loss. He had begun to like the girl named Ann Nicholson.”
So at a deeper level your mind stays alert for possible inconsistencies in what you’re told by anyone, including “experts,” including Ann herself.
And knowledge, of a sort, continues to come. A little further on,
He glanced at her and was suddenly aware that he did not really know what kind of girl she was. He had only known her for twenty-four hours, although it seemed much longer. He glanced at her and realized that, in thinking about her, he had actually been thinking about an imaginary person—not even the quiet, well-dressed if slightly hot and rumpled girl he had met in the garage the previous evening, but the girl he had never seen, who had gone to the cocktail party where something had happened to send her rushing off across country without exchanging her party clothing for something more suitable for traveling. He had been thinking of her as the girl he thought her to have been the day before, not as the girl he was actually seeing, sitting rather carelessly on the bed, shoeless, her expensive skirt and blouse showing clearly that she had not had them off for twenty-four hot breathless hours.
He had not been thinking of her as the girl who would pick up a strange man by the roadside, who would flee from a sheriff in utter panic and fight him like an alley cat when he caught her; whose voice could hold a sharp, vixenish note when referring to another girl whom, a few hours earlier, she had claimed to like very much.s
There are about six other selves there, I’d say.
But knowledge, firm knowledge, trustworthy knowledge, the kind you can base action on, has to be sought. And there has to be a predisposition that makes its seeking possible and permits you to have some trust in yourself as an investigator, and not to be imprisoned in idées fixes about what people “really” are.
One of the constants in Hamilton, in his heroes anyway, is the unfussy awareness that people may not be homogeneous.
And when I say unfussy, I mean that the heroes don’t think in terms of a binary system in which either people are basically good (yourself included) or else, when you look more carefully, you realize that they’re actually lousy.
—as does young Goodman Brown, in Hawthorne’s famous story of that name, whose relationship with his fellow townsmen in Puritan New England is darkened beyond recovery by his night out in the woods witnessing (dreaming?) their participation a witches’ Sabbath.
—or Ross Macdonald’s increasingly depressive Lew Archer, for whom, by the end, virtually everyone (himself included?) is a phony role-player once you’ve correctly read that tenseness around their eyes, or nervous licking of the too loose or too tight lips or whatever the betraying signs are.
Hamilton has no problem with the fact that most of us usually want to be viewed in a favourable light, whether by others or by ourselves (it is a mode of persuasion and of self-energizing), and that sometimes we may be caught out.
While Emmett is being driven out to Mrs. Pruitt’s lodge and tries to sound like an old-timer (“Still digging up that creek, I see”),
Pete Mack spat through the window beside him. “Young fellow just started up again. Veteran. Expected to make a fortune by Christmas.” After a moment he added, “Last Christmas.”
Emmett glanced back at the great futile mounds of bluish clay illuminated by the lights of the shovel in the ravaged stream-bed bordered by cottonwoods. It seemed to him they were so obviously symbolical as to be merely silly. Then it occurred to him that he had no very strong position from which to criticize the other man; his own reasons for coming up here were not exactly brilliant.
But this is not the same as happening upon a symbolic flaw in himself that shows that he is fundamentally phony.
And next morning, when he picks on Mrs. Pruitt, whom he genuinely likes from way back when his family stayed there for vacations, and who sounds a bit like Jane Darnell in a variation on her Grapes of Wrath part and has been genuinely nice and helpful this time, it isn’t any kind of deep write-off, and the exchange doesn’t just go one way:
Mrs. Pruitt said, “I’m betting that girl’s all right.”
He was a little tired of Mrs. Pruitt’s carefully rough-hewn picturesqueness, and he reflected that it was very easy to be magnanimous and kindly about a girl you weren’t ever going to see again. “You are?” he asked. “What the hell do you think I’m doing?”
She laughed at his irritability. “So long,” she said. “And watch your step, Sonny.”
“So long. And thanks a lot.” he said. “Mom.”
Being “six other people” need not imply falsity or falsification. Like levels or modes of discourse, it can simply be part of the everyday process of interacting with a variety of other people.
And if you are one of these young men of Hamilton’s who aren’t going to implode, you also resist being intimidated, by “authorities”—the police, FBI agents, medical “experts”—and by the moral claims of authority figures, including parents. I say “resist,” since there isn’t the jaunty stance of untroubled irreverence here that makes Ross Thomas’s heroes appealing.
Authority figures want to marginalize you; they want you to leave things in their expert hands. And when other things are equal you may go along with them, being conscious of how much you yourself don’t know. (Emmett is in fact all ready to withdraw from the Nicholson “case” at one point, before the first piece of really solid empirical evidence comes his way.)
But the experts may not be right. In The Black Cross there are too many things that don’t square for Hugh Phillips with the official version of Janice’s death, so he persists along his own track. As does Emmett.
And you may at times have to be rude, or impolite, breaching barriers that most of us normally respect because breaching them may involve refusing to take someone on their own terms, not necessarily at the level that invites “Are you calling me a liar?” but with the unavoidable implication that you may not be fully believing them, particularly when they speak ex cathedra.
And you may need to push, to annoy, to search for fault lines, to elicit inconsistencies.
And you may have to become a masquerader yourself, like Branch with Hahn and Laflin and Faubel out at the summer cottage, and afterwards in their boat, committing yourself to a private agenda, hidden if necessary from everyone else, as Branch hides even from Jeannette what he is up to.
And doing so with the awareness that what you’re up to may not necessarily be right, may not be based on a correct reading of a situation, may not achieve the result sought, may not be what someone better than yourself might be doing in the same situations.
But it’s the best that you can do.
At bottom, perhaps, there’s something here in Hamilton like Spinoza’s central concept of the conatus, that disposition of everything to persist in its own being.
It’s essentially what we see in Wuthering Heights, that great proto-modern novel, in which young Nelly Dean has to make her way among the conflicting, at times destructive, at times grievously in error, selves of those around them in that closed system up on the moors, away from police, from magistrates, from priests or ministers, and try to minimize disasters, even while recognizing that “Well, we must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering.”
The deep inner conviction that you’re not going to self-destruct, not going to undermine yourself, not going to end up in a state of moral or emotional paralysis, particularly when you’re young, is one of the important threads in that tapestry that we loosely call modernism, whether in Nietzsche, or Yeats, or Stephen Crane, or the Conrad of The Secret Sharer and The Shadow Line, or D.H. Lawrence passim, or the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or dear lovely Jean Rhys.
And as I have said, it is a major element in thrillers generally. Thrillers themselves, which came of first-person-narrative age with Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and reached their flowering with John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), are a peculiarly modern form.
When Paul Nyquist at the end of Line of Fire contemplates suicide and sticks the barrel of the little .22 target pistol (less messy than the .45 automatic) in his mouth, “It seemed like an awkward shot to make; and I took it out and placed the muzzle against my temple. I felt remarkably silly, and knew that I couldn’t pull the trigger if I stood there a million years.”
Nyquist has indeed been taking substantial risks in his dealings with his friend city boss Carl Gunderman and Gunderman’s hoods, his “jerks,” especially his right-hand man Brooks, enough to make Gunderman comment that he just doesn’t care.
But when he drives out to Gunderman’s house for the final showdown, he can’t bring himself, despite the urgency, to drive as recklessly as the jerks.
You’d think a man who had nothing to live for wouldn’t mind a little thing like passing blind on the curves. It occurred to me that I had been singing that dirge for quite a while now, but I never quite seemed to get around to blowing my brains out. There was something significant in that, I was sure, and I’d have to give it some thought, later.
A man with nothing to live for indeed. Well, not very much.
Like Jake Barnes, in The Sun Also Rises, which Nyquist himself invokes to his just-married bride, he would appear to have been permanently shut out by his hunting accident from the possibility of a forward-reaching, future-changing, marriage relationship, that intimate, complicated intertwining of Plato’s parable.
Which brings me back to the subject of sex, the primary relationships in these novels being with women.
Despite that tediously repeated cliché about Woman as Angel, Woman as Whore, this is simply not how things are in a lot of thrillers.
Much more often, it’s women as companions, potentially companions for life, that we’re seeing in thrillers, as distinct from the depressive crime novels of writers like James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and, apart from The Getaway, Jim Thompson.
The thriller, the speeded-up novel of action, is much more often than not a novel with a happy ending. Difficulties have been faced, difficulties have been overcome, and the hero has either achieved a longed for security—the emotional security of a secure relationship with a woman—or is able to relax back into a relationship that has been threatened, like that of the newly-wedded John and Rae Ingram in Charles Williams’ Dead Calm.
And predominantly the achieved women are highly desirable, corresponding, I suppose, to your belief, particularly if not yet married, that you deserve, or hope to obtain, the best.
The alternative feeling that you’re such an awful person that you’ll be lucky to find anyone at all also gets its gratification from time to time. Wade Miller’s battered, aging soldier-of-fortune Biggo Venn is happy to be able to settle down at the end of Devil May Care (1950) with the nice but unremarkable fallen sparrow Jinny, who cares for him, and whom he can care for.
But this pattern is much less common.
Thrillers have some lovely women in them, as wives or more or less long-term companions.
Richard Hannay’s calm grey-eyed Mary Lamington in Buchan’s Mr. Standfast is the perfect energizing agent for that slightly unsure of himself knight-errant. When he first sees her during the house party at Fosse Manor, “There was more than good looks in her young face. Her broad, low brow and her laughing eyes were amazingly intelligent. She had an uncanny power of making her eyes go suddenly grave and deep, like a glittering river narrowing into a pool.” What a catch!
And how nice it is for Andy McClintock at the end of John D. MacDonald’s pre-McGee Dead Low Tide (1953), when
The door opened and my long-legged, brown-eyed blonde came in. My life came walking back through the door. My warm life stood there, just inside the door, and her eyes found mine first and they were filled with gladness.
He had been given to understand that she was dead.
I don’t need to multiply examples.
There may be a bit of a problem with respect to marriage, though.
There isn’t in the pre-McGees, of course. You know that the strong, honourable small-town Florida cops and so forth are going to marry their handsome wholesome young Florida women and settle down to raising a brood of tow-headed kids with whom they’ll go to the unspoiled Florida beaches and do all the other things that wholesome families did in the Fifties, like the Bowdens in MacDonald’s Cape Fear, and which servicemen had very understandably yearned for during the tedium and horrors of World War II.
But once McGee comes along in 1964, the more individuated and admirable and all-round desirable the women are with whom he becomes involved (as distinct from the beach bunnies), the more marriage becomes a trap for him and for us, since obviously we don’t want to see him settle down and have someone rearranging the drawers and closet space aboard The Busted Flush (assuming she wants to live on a houseboat at all) and getting him to drive her to the supermarket in his picturesquely converted Rolls Royce, Miss Aggie.
Hence the remarkably high death rate among them.
Intelligent married couples in thrillers, unless they’re under threat, have pretty well only been acceptable, if they’re detecting, I mean if she’s sharing his work, like the Nick Charleses in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, or Andy and the insufferably jaunty Arabella (Arab) Blake in three or four of Richard Powell’s books, or John and Suzy Marshall in James M. Fox’s workmanlike sub-Chandleresque series.
Ross Thomas’s Mac, in the McCorkle and Padillo series, may be happily married to the polyglot, widely cultured, and all-round gorgeous German political journalist, Frau Doktor Fredl. But all we really know from before her early kidnapping in Cast a Yellow Shadow (the best book in the series) is that they used to enjoy long leisurely companionable Sundays together, with the N.Y. Times and all.
The also blissful marriage of young Lucifer Dye with “the most unselfish person I have ever known” in Thomas’s magnificent The Fools in Town are on Our Side (1970) ends soon enough, with her murder by East German agents.
James Lee Burke was obviously making a brave try at showing that in the Eighties and Nineties a relatively complex hero could too be married when he introduced Bootsie (dreadful name!) and their adopted Latin American daughter Alafair into his Dave Robichaux series.
But I doubt that I’m the only reader to have found them increasingly irritating once they had ceased to be imperiled plot elements, and there is less of them in the later books, and you can simply skip the pages in which they are conveniently confined..
We don’t go to thrillers to read about married life.
Thrillers are about dynamic processes, speeded-up processes, outcome-oriented processes, not the ongoing trudge, however amiable, of everyday.
By far the best treatment of these problems is in the Dorian Silk spy novels of Simon Harvester, I mean the clearest recognition of the problems.
Dorian knows, reluctantly, that he cannot risk involving permanently in his dangerous profession any of the remarkable women he encounters, such as the magnificent and well-educated Afghan Shamz Nayim in Silk Road, and that marriage with the convincingly nice and very wealthy Fatima Fahmy of Cairo Road and Zion Road, which they talk about frankly, simply wouldn’t work—that he couldn’t retire from his honourable government service and settle down, with the help of her money, to resume his career as a failed playwright.
But the enjoyment of normal heterosexual relationships at more than a merely physical level is strong and convincing in these novels (Silk and his creator obviously like women), and the question of Dorian’s work isn’t just a cop-out, a pretext hiding a fear of commitment.
In those admirable books we are into exotic territories, both literally and figuratively, as Harvester himself, a working journalist, appears to have been.
With Hamilton’s heroes, and their jobs, and the women with whom they become involved, we are into much more familiar ones.
At one point in The Steel Mirror, John Emmett reflects on
the unpublicized side of adventure: you got tired, you got sleepy, and you could not keep from worrying how what you were doing now would affect what you would like to be doing a year from now. Or ten years from now.
Hamilton’s heroes are young men with jobs, ordinary (but, for them, interesting) jobs and professional lives. And with colleagues here and there. And parents here and there. And friends and families here and there, with whom they have normal social relationships, as Hugh Phillips does with Christine Wells’s family in The Black Cross..
I say “here and there” because not all these things are true of each of them, but all four characters inhabit this kind of social space.
And the women too may have, or appear to have, parents, parents who in one instance answer to the conventional image of the take-charge American male, uneasy when it comes to human relationships, particularly with daughters. Ann Nicholson’s war-profiteer, ex-WWI Marine father, with his “lined, brown, rectangular face, a little too big for his body, and stiff short graying dark hair,” is obtusely uncomprehending about Ann herself, and has no trouble pigeonholing Emmett as a young blackmailer exploiting a rich girl in trouble.
The Hamilton of these novels, indeed of most of his novels, among them The Wrecking Crew and Smoky Valley, doesn’t much care for conventionally “masculine” males of that sort, especially large ones, unless they are emotionally vulnerable like Carl Gunderman or the land-hungry rancher Lew Wilkison in Smoky Valley.
Nuclear physicist James Gregory in Assignment; Murder tolerates Natalie’s self-assertive businessman father, but, as he says, “I don’t know anything about men like William Walsh, and I make no effort to learn.”
John Emmet’s spirits don’t experience any lift when “government” enters the action out in Denver and
He saw a big man with the look of a college athlete—sunburned, with cropped dark hair and the type of regular, handsome, rather heavy features that, during the fall, could be seen bursting out of the rotogravure sections of papers all over the country, framed by a football helmet and occasionally adorned by a nose-guard.....
We are not, to use a word that Hamilton himself obviously disliked, in conventional macho country here, I mean country of the mind.
And marriage, for these young men, is not going to be, or be sought as, a dramatic transformation, a disclosure of entirely new capacities in themselves, a liberating of their true potentials, and the rest of it. Nor are the romantic heroines in these books ones with whom you and I would particularly care to become entangled, at least I don’t imagine so... They are difficult, and not just because they are involved in more or less complicated plottings and counter-plottings.
They are difficult personally in the way that women often are for young men. They have clearly individuated personalities of their own, and concerns of their own, and are not, at the outset, particularly interested in the young men for themselves.
You don’t look at them and think, Oh, I would love to be there and be involved with them, and of course they’d really appreciate me, and turn their laughing and amazingly intelligent eyes upon me, and love me for myself alone.
These are relationships that need to be worked at.
The men in the post-war novels, especially Philip Branch and John Emmett, do not receive that conventional pay-off of heroes who have behaved, or are behaving, heroically on behalf of women.
Jeannette Duval is quite offhand about Branch’s blistered feet (“It’s a nuisance, darling, but it will be all right in a week or two”), and Ann Nicholson’s reaction after they have put some highway distance between themselves and Sheriff Patman is to ask Branch to clean off the vomit that splashed on her shoe when she threw up. After trying to downplay the danger he faces if caught, she remarks that he appears to be scared.
The women—Ann Nicholson, Jeannette Duvall, Marilyn George—have been living more heroically than the men, taking more risks, facing more dangers.
Nor is there any firm instant bonding of camaraderie, any more than there was in Hitchcock’s version of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) where Robert Donat was on the run, linked literally by handcuffs to the spoiled rich blonde Madeleine Carroll. Hamilton’s men have to figure out on their own what to do with respect to the problems they face. The women themselves (who are obviously lying at times or in other ways unreliable) are part of the problems.
There is a fair amount of mutual antagonism and annoyance in these books, too.
Temperamental incompatabilities drive the orderly Hugh Phillips and his wife the vivacious ex-nightclub-singer Janice beyond the bounds of marital decorum.
Jeannette Duval’s face wears a look of “bright eager malice” when Branch, having come to rescue her, is beaten up by Paul Laflin.
John and Ann, breakfasting in the Nebraska diner after Emmett has been driving all night, find themselves suddenly “regarding each other across the table, their glances locked in a curious sexual conflict. Some impulse of cruelty born of sleeplessness made Emmett hold his steady until the girl’s eyes broke away.”
Gaps of one kind or another keep opening between the couples.
At the same time, the urge to communicate, to understand what’s going on, is there, at least on the men’s part.
As in D.H. Lawrence’s fiction, especially Women in Love, the past is not allowed to take moral precedence over the present.
Wartime atrocities, the revealed “truths” of psychoanalysis (as embodied in Ann Nicholson’s Dr. Kaufman), the complex manoeuvrings of FBI agents in the name of national security, are all in a sense remote.
The here and now is this person with whom you’re talking, and how they are saying what they are saying; how credibly or otherwise they seem to be speaking; what large or small details of speech or gesture or clothing hint at a less than a perfect transparency or reveal (not always to their discredit) more than they may have intended.
And if you really care about arriving at an objective “fact” or at a sense of where the other persons stand and what they are up to, you push.
This pushing isn’t simply an affair of one separate and distinct self engaged in resisting or deflating the pretensions of another, or trying, with that “weary objectivity” that Emmett feels at one point, to extract information. (The presence of torture in these works reminds us of what one end of the spectrum of “extraction” looks like.)
In a number of the passages of extended dialogue, such as the long one that I quoted earlier between Jeannette Duvall and Philip Branch in the hotel room, we see the characters meeting as equals, without their merely sexual selves, especially not male sexual selves, controlling the conversations.
Seeing and relating to women as equals, or on a level of equality, is not a simple matter, though.
Part of Emmett’s trouble with Ann, of course, is the moral pressure he feels—she a war heroine, he something close to a draft dodger—to regard her as a superior. And there are other barriers that have to be breached before you can see the heroines as individuals whom you neither condescend to nor flatter; individuals whom you can speak to plainly.
There is no conventional erotic idealization in these works. Sexual intercourse in them isn’t something magical, mysterious, sacred and/or taboo.
The earth doesn’t move. We don’t have anything resembling the Travis McGee Ineffable Orgasm Machine, with all its murmurings, strokings, groanings, cryings, soarings, breakings, collapsings. Or to Ross Thomas’s clutchings and tonguings and (implied) fifty-seven-different-positions manoeuvrings between his expert cocksmen and their female counterparts.
Nor is nakedness aestheticized or theatricalized.
Nakedness or partial nakedness indeed occurs in these pages, as they do elsewhere in Hamilton. But they do so realistically. It is simply a fact that when people want to make love, they usually remove some or all of their clothes. In Assignment Murder, Jim Gregory, as he picks up some of Natalie’s garments after their captive reunion in the underground survival shelter, remarks that:
I could not help reflecting that a great many of the crises of married life can never be portrayed accurately on the stage or in the movies, because the costumes of the principals generally wind up something less than adequate.
No, there is no conventional eroticism here. The only eroticized woman is Helene Bethke, of whose spectacular nudity, in her green high-heeled sandals, Emmett is uncomfortably reminded later on when he notices a Varga-type pin-up on a garage wall.
But Helene, with her sturdy muscular body and her brisk movements, is in fact the most self-confident of the women, tossing down a mug of diner coffee as if it were a shot-glass of whisky, dragging Emmett through the Denver hotel lobby by his wrist in a grip that it would need force to get free of, and talking to him more or less man to man.
And the enigmatic Jeanntte Duvall, with her “long pointed chin,” is rather too tall and thin. And Resistance-heroine Ann Nicholson and the athletic and utterly wholesome Christine Wells in The Black Cross are not erotic at all.
Nor, for that matter, are Philip Branch and John Emmett what you would call highly sexed.
But if the women aren’t made conventionally glamorous for us, this doesn’t prevent the males from romanticizing women.
Hugh Phillips may be grieving sincerely after he has returned to his home with all its reminders of the gone-for-ever Janice: “He had never been so lonely in his life and there was nobody he wanted to see except one person, and she would not come.”
But in fact he isn’t heartbroken, as Christine Wells, whom he had dumped for Janice the year before, tartly suggests in her challenge to his “heartbreak routine.” As he acknowledges to himself a little later,
He missed [Janice], of course, as you would miss anybody you had got used to living with; but he had wanted to be rid of her and now, although he would have preferred to have it happen some other way, he was relieved that she was gone. It gave him a nasty sense of disloyalty to admit it at last, but he knew that it was the truth.
And though near the end, when Chris seems to have withdrawn from him again, he wishes momentarily that Janice were back, since “when she was good she was very, very good. And at any rate he had known her, and could talk to her,” he acknowledges to himself that “even this was not true and he had no idea what the real Janice had been like... He had lived a year with a woman who had not existed.”
There is a darker side to romantic idealizing, too.
The differences between the glamorous Janice whom Hugh had married “in search of a nameless excitement,” and the flesh-and-blood woman of emphatic likes and dislikes and a certain bold carelessness who messed up his orderly routines, had led to the fights, physical as well as verbal, between them.
And Paul Weston in Deadfall, his own career now seemingly wrecked beyond repair, is exasperated beyond endurance by the seeming complacency of the returned Marilyn George in the luxury of her lakeside apartment.
He recalls ironically to himself “a way he had had of thinking of her–hunted, fleeing, walking the streets in run-over shoes and snagged stockings, like him looking for a job where nobody would question her past.” And his deep underlying bitterness towards her soon surfaces.
He knocks her down when she holds a gun on him (“Next time you try that, … you two-bit Mata Hari, I’ll ram the damn thing down your throat butt first!”); sneers at her as a lush; mauls her “to hurt and humble her.”
And she calls him on it, and not just because “he still had his hat on and was therefore no gentleman.” In a fascinating passage, fascinating even though less than perfectly executed, she rounds on him with:
“Do you think I like having you around with that hangdog look, blaming me for everything that’s happened to you since the day you were born, Paul...? Do you think I like being needled and insulted and sneered at, yes, even struck … just so you can keep on telling yourself you’re not still in love with me?... Have I used my—my sex on you to make you do anything but get the hell out of something you don’t know anything about and haven’t the experience to handle? Or, if you’re going to be stubborn and get your fool head shot off, to treat me with ordinary human decency until it happens? I haven’t, have I?”
“No,” he said stiffly.
“All right,” she said. “And another thing. I don’t like to be looked at and handled as if I were some kind of a tart.”
In effect Paul has put her inside the frame labeled “romantic love,” assumed that the normal codes of social behavior don’t apply within it, become outraged when she fails to conform to the rules of “love,” and gone on behaving as if those were still the operative ones.
22. Breaking Out
However, you don’t have to stay self-trapped like that.
At times you may be touched by a glimpse of someone’s vulnerability when they aren’t making a spectacle of themselves; may perceive a common humanity, beneath the structured social self.
Sitting in Marilyn George’s apartment beside “a girl he had every reason to hate,” Paul Weston catches himself feeling “disturbed by her thinness, worried by the small signs that kept cropping up to show that her nervous system had been taking a terrible beating.”
When Shirley Carlson in The Black Cross bursts into tears because of the strain of the performance she’s been putting on to snare him for the crooked nightclub-owner Karl Lewis, Hugh Phillips “wished she did not look so very much like a small disheveled child crying because a larger child had beat her up.”
And Emmett and Branch (“For a moment he had broken through the guarded reserve that [Jeannette] carried like an armor, and beneath it she was quite young and rather frightened.”) are similarly affected by glimpses of child-like vulnerability.
But such feelings by themselves would lead nowhere. Or if succumbed to (as Paul Morel knows in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers in his tormented relationship with sweet Miriam Leivers) they would land you in a morass of pity, guilt, and eventual resentment—resentment at feeling guilty because you couldn’t love enough, if at all.
What matters much more is the quality that is so uncommon in thrillers, and which is present to so high a degree in Hamilton’s work, namely a concern with equity.
It is easy enough—seductively easy—to be concerned with “justice,” meaning the punishment of the unjust. It’s something else to be able to see that you and others are bound together by common principles, and that you can’t reasonably complain about others’ behaviour if you refuse to condemn the same faults in yourself.
Simon Harvester’s heroes have this capacity quite often, as do, at times, Martin Woodhouse’s, and Dick Francis’, and Adam Hall’s Quiller, and Gavin Lyall’s Harry Maxim. But it isn’t common, especially not in American thrillers.
There’s nothing wishy-washy about it. Nor is it the same as that chronic sense of your own imperfections and your lack of a right to strong moral convictions that pervades the later Lew Archer novels, probably because of what Macdonald (Millar) had learned about himself, not necessarily to his credit, during his real-life difficulties with his daughter.
In Hamilton, it’s not a simple binary system of “my” values (good) and “their” values (bad).
Paul Weston acknowledges, “stiffly,” the truth of what Marilyn has said.
Hugh Phillips recognizes the unfairness of his own typically male assumption that, after treating Christine unforgivably earlier (love justifying all) by upping and marrying Marilyn without any warning, he can now simply go back to her for old-friendly comfort.
And when Ann Nicholson makes some of her challenges to Emmett, he doesn’t simply assent and let the matter drop. He goes further and opens up more, exposing himself and making himself more vulnerable.
Here they are, for instance, at the close of his sardonic analysis of faked amnesia:
She kicked the car out of gear and braked to a halt at the side of the road. A truck swerved past, its horn blaring. She glanced at it, startled, as it went on to the west, and turned to face Emmett.
“Does it occur to you that you’re being rather cruel, Mr. Emmett?”
He took his pipe from his mouth and looked at it with distaste. He did not say anything.
“Why do you dislike me?” she asked.
He looked up. “I don’t,” he said quickly. “I think you’re probably a fine girl, Miss Nicholson. But God damn it—!” He rubbed his eyes. He had a headache now. “Oh forget it,” he said. “Please forget the whole thing.”
“What were you going to say?”
He turned to her. “Listen,” he said angrily, “I’ve spent the whole damn war and a couple of years more being respectful and sympathetic to guys who looked down on me because—”
“—So then I think I’m getting away from it,” he said savagely, “and I pick up a girl on the Lincoln Highway and damn if she doesn’t turn out to be a lousy heroine.”
He knew his face was quite red, and he could not make himself look at her. He cranked down the window beside him, knocked the hot ashes out of his pipe into his hand, and pitched them out before they could burn him. He heard the girl begin to laugh, looked up, and found himself grinning wryly.
“I think you’d better climb in back and get some sleep,” Ann Nicholson said.
What is going on in such exchanges and elsewhere is a progressive, though not always steady, emergence of the others as they really are at this point, replacing the constructions that the men have in their heads.
When Paul Weston in Deadfall sees Marilyn’s face for the first time without any make-up on, “somehow it made her more of a person to him, and less of a romantic idea, than she had ever been.”
And after he has knocked her down, and finds her crying on the bed,
He sat down beside her, for some reason that was not quite clear to him. There were times when you had to make it up as you went along; he had hit her and now he was sitting down to comfort her. It did not make sense, but then, nothing else did either.
And he apologizes.
Later on, after he learns how she had set him up to be arrested with the confidential scientific papers on him, and pulls the “lousy little tramp” to him roughly “somehow the kiss did not turn out like that at all; and after a while he released her abruptly, bewildered and a little frightened by what had happened to his angry intentions.”
And when Ann Nicholson abruptly remarks to John Emmett that Helene Bethke is “a vulgar oversexed bitch, and I think they sleep together. Not that it’s any of my business,”
The quick viciousness of her voice brought [Emmett’s] mind abruptly to attention. He was a little shocked. There were girls who could talk about certain things and use certain words and you would think nothing of it; and then there were girls, like her who could not.
But he doesn’t simply stop at that point. He goes on into the realization that I quoted earlier, that he had really been thinking about an imaginary person when he viewed her in that way, and not about the complex nest of selves that had been emerging during their time together.
There is a strong presence of everyday socio-sexual relations in these works, too.
Taking Constance Bellamann out for the evening, Philip Branch
had the uncomfortable feeling that he was talking to himself, and he remembered once, under pressure from his mother, taking the daughter of some family friends to a dance: I don’t see why you don’t take Ellen, she’s such a sweet girl and the McIntyres are our best friends. She had been a sweet girl, all right, in the stiff pink taffeta all sweet girls wore, and she had smiled at him in just that shy helpless way when he had tried to talk to her.
He recalls, too, when Jeannette asks him about it in bed, his own “first time”:
“It was a mess,” he said. “After a dance. Freshman year. She didn’t know a damned thing about it either. It took me two hours to get her calmed down and pinned together afterwards, enough that she could sneak back into the dorm; but it was a month before she gave up the idea that she was going to have a baby. Cured me until senior year.”
For Emmett and Hugh Phillips, too, girls come attached to parents, and they don’t want the parents to feel that they have been misbehaving towards their daughters—a feeling that even Matt Helm suffers from on one memorable occasion (in The Removers, 1961).
And there are gaps between the sexes, and not just dramatic ones.
When Jeannette, at Branch’s urging (with her safety in mind) has, as he thinks, left him for good, “suddenly it seemed to him that he knew very little about her, after all; he did not know the thing that, in the normal course of events, you always learned first about a girl: whether she was punctual or would keep you waiting.”
And earlier, when he is returning to his New York hotel after he and Jeannette have made love and “the tall buildings had the beautiful clarity that always came to things afterwards,” he reminds himself that “You never really knew what a girl thought about it.”
The uncertainty is still there subsequently when Jeannette, in bed, whispers:
“You’re very gentle.”
“Am I?” He had not thought of himself as gentle and he was not sure that he liked it; nor was he sure that she really liked it. “What am I supposed to do, black your eyes?”
“No, you shouldn’t change,” she said.
Hamilton also catches the irritation of the young male with the seemingly unruffleable young female, epitomized by healthy wholesome Christine Wells.
But if women are not men and can be problematical for men, there is none of the thrillerish fear here of being trapped and tamed by them. There is no sense of sex as a wounding or as a tacit declaration of undying love, with marriage lying further down the road as the only “honourable” thing to do.
Branch and Jeannette are very comfortable with each other sexually even though when she asks him if he loves her,
He smiled and shook his head minutely, looking at her. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s nice to be frank, isn’t it?” she said with just a touch of tartness in her voice.
Nor do we have any intimations in these works that the real business of women is sexual, that they are essentially waiting to find completion in marriage, and that if they pull back from that completion, or are denied it by the man, there will be a wrenching or break in their real nature.
No, the principal women in Hamilton’s Forties works are committed to the pursuit of certain ends, in relation to which if it enters at all, sex is only incidental.
If they are problematic for the heroes it is because they are pursuing their own ends, not the heroes’. They are not programatically hostile to men, nor are they hard, nor are they, like Richard Powell’s insufferable Arabella Blake, compulsively looking for opportunities to “prove” themselves.
They are not “unwomanly” at all They simply have their own sharp focuses. They are operating largely outside the law, and coping with real dangers that occupy a good deal of their psychic energy, and are not at all in the emotional surrender business.
They are also as honest as their circumstances permit. And in their various ways they are brave.
Not all of them have the “pure” courage of Marilyn George in Deadfall, infiltrating a dangerous organization and enduring the contempt of her former colleagues, or Madame Faubel stubbornly holding out against the Geatapo torturers.
But Ann Nicholson, regardless of what her own war record may really have been, and uncertain and afraid though she may be at times (with good reason), stubbornly persists in getting down to New Mexico in the hope of clearing up her problems, just as Jeannette Duval, weak and duplicitous though she may be at times, persists in the dangerous task of getting her husband into the country with Branch’s help.
And young Shirley Carlson in The Black Cross preserves her aplomb and lies through her teeth in one improvisation after another when the armed and obviously disturbed Hugh Phillips comes calling on her at night and interrogates her.
And timid Constance Bellamann, revulsed from physical contact though she is, lures Branch out to where the others are hiding, grips him desperately when they move in on him, and is prepared to kill Jeannette by herself when she knows that the others have failed.
These strengths would be apparent subsequently in Jim Gregory’s opinionated young peacenik wife Natalie and the Communist agent Nina Rasmussen in Assignment: Murder, and in Matt Helm’s former wartime associate Tina in Death of a Citizen, and the idealistic young Swedish aristocrat Elin von Hoffman in The Wrecking Crew, and the aristocratic American Robin Rosten in three more Halm books, and the Russian agent Vadya in three books, and, oh, the list could be tripled.
Moreover, the difficulty of a relationship may at times be inseparable from its long-term success.
When Philip Branch and Jeannette Duvall are separating for the last time and she accuses him of loving her but being afraid of what people would think about someone with a background like hers, “He glanced at her irritably. ‘It’s too damned complicated,’ he said. ‘And it isn’t worth it. I could love you twice as much as I do and it still wouldn’t be worth it.’”
But while you can’t really see Jeannette back home in Illinois as Mrs. Engineer Branch, let alone as cookie-baking Mom, in a sense the relationship has also been too simple.
Virtually from the start Branch has been able to relax with Jeannette to an uncommon extent.
Going to bed together has happened quickly and been mutually enjoyable. They can talk comfortably with one another in bed. They can have fun together afterwards. When she says he sees through her:
“No,” he said. “Not all the way. It’s sort of like peeling an onion. There’s one layer after another.”
She said “Heavens, couldn’t you make it a little more romantic, like an artichoke, perhaps?”
They laughed foolishly, unable to stop, and the waitress came with more coffee and took away their empty plates.
More importantly, they can engage in the kind of self-exposing risk-taking dialogue in the long passage that I quoted earlier and emerge untraumatized, since right from the start they have had almost no romantic illusions about one another.
Jeannette knows that he has a possessive-protective mother, he’s had a safe war behind a desk, and is returning to his job in his father’s firm. Branch knows, after that request of hers for two hundred bucks, that she is on the make.s
But in consequence, certain creative tensions are lacking.
And in Night Walker Hamilton takes David Young even further into the comforts of such a relationship with the slightly desperate, somewhat slatternly Elizabeth WIlsan, only to pull him back from them at a crucial point in the action.
She looked, in that moment, pretty and desirable beyond belief; she represented affection of sorts, and an escape from respectability. She was, he knew, the one person in the world before whom he would ever be able to appear as himself. She knew him for what he was, as he knew her; and she would never demand anything of him that he could not perform. All other women he would meet would expect him to live up to certain arbitrary standards of courage and loyalty; and the trouble was he would be fool enough to try.
Young pulls away from her (and from the espionage doings in which she has been entangled) and by the end is inclining towards the cocksure, boat-crazy, passionately moralistic, red-haired Navy brat Bonita (Bunny) Dekker, the kind of person who says things like “You scramble a mean egg, sailor.”
“Certain standards of courage and loyalty”:
In a sense, the erotics in these works, and those of the Fifties, are an erotics of loyalty, an erotics of concern— the concern that brings Christine Wells to Hugh Phillips’ aid even though he may be a murderer—the concern that causes Marilyn George to stop the bullet intended for Paul Weston, after doing her best to save him from the consequences of his reinvolvement with her.
After Jeannette Duvall has jumped off the train to Baltimore as it starts gathering speed in the New York station, Branch finds it
disconcerting to realize that [she] had estimated accurately the mixture of curiosity and adventurousness, of stubbornness and perhaps loyalty, and certainly of expectation, that would make him take the traveling-bag she had left behind to the place she had told him to go and wait for her as long as there was any reasonable chance of her coming. He did not love her, there were too many questions yet to be answered, but he could not by his own action cut himself off from any chance of ever seeing her again. There was a certain fascination about a girl who had the courage and recklessness to throw herself off a moving train and the foresight to bring along a spare pair of hose when she did it.
Nor do you always have to be remarkable in a Hamilton novel—a Resistance heroine, a government agent, a spy—to be admired. Or to stay married.
Just as the kind of humour that remains funny longest, like Laurel and Hardy’s in contrast to Keaton’s (does anyone laugh at Keaton still?) emerges realistically from character, so sexual realism can sometimes be a by-product of drama.
Assisgnment: Murder is Hamilton’s fullest marriage novel, credible and touching in its presentation of two wildly mismatched individuals who are nevertheless able to make a go of it because of mutual liking and respect, charmingly captured in the dialogue. (It is also feels very credible in its presentation of scientists.).
But Line of Fire is the most enjoyable of his novels, and understandably his own favourite,
And in it what appears at first to be the least active, least goal-oriented, most ordinary of his heroines, the young widow and office secretary Barbara (Babs) Wallace, who is horrified when Paul Nyquist shoots the jerk who is about to shoot her, and believes that right is right and wrong is wrong and the line between them perfectly clear, turns out, while still being genuinely nice, not to be the classic Nice Girl.
She doesn’t get fussed when she is introduced to the details of Paul’s gunsmith business, is not afraid to shoot a pistol at an al fresco target when shown how, isn’t horrified by her glimpses of criminals, brings her spike heel firmly down on Carl Gunderman’s foot when his wedding-celebration kiss in his nightclub has gone on too long, and behaves bravely and with a quick understanding of what is involved during the later mess in which she and Paul come close to losing their lives.
She cares about Paul.
She is still on his side even when her media-influenced conscience compels her to go to the police, as she has made clear that she will, when an “innocent” man is arrested for the shooting that she has seen, or thinks she sees, Paul carry out.
And she is prepared, in a decent, civilized, undogmatic way, to challenge him about his less-than-wholly-heroic reaction to the traumatizing contempt of his first wife with respect to his sexual impotence.
Let’s hope the marriage works out. I wonder if Hamilton will let us know sometime.
It certainly deserves to.
The dialogue is pitch-perfect in Paul’s apartment after their largely silent drive following the brief marriage ceremony— the marriage that this still enigmatic man, I mean enigmatic for her, has pretty well forced on her to protect her against the city boss with whom he may (she’s still not sure) be criminally involved.
It is delightful seeing her starting to establish herself there, engaging in the necessary small transactions of two people sharing the same space; each of them almost entirely ignorant of what the other’s really like, in a situation whose rules are as yet almost wholly unclear.
Very much, in fact, like what you or I could have experienced in those days after less dramatic marryings.
As she tells Paul further on, “lots of other married people have the same....I mean, Hank and I had a simply awful time, and it was weeks before....It doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
Here they are, just after arriving back at his small hot apartment over the store.
I put the phone down, and looked up. The girl was standing in the kitchen doorway, although I had not been aware of her coming out of the bedroom. I could tell nothing from her expression. She had removed her hat, the sleeves of her jacket were pushed above her elbows, and she was holding a spatula.
“I put on some coffee,” she said. “Do you like your eggs up or over?” We hadn’t stopped for breakfast.
“Up,” I said.
“Two,” I said. “But you don’t have to do it. There’s a place right around the corner.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “But you’d better come in and show me how to work the toaster. It looks to me as if it’s wired for sound.” Ten minutes later, when we were sitting down at the kitchen table to eat, she said, “You’re not being quite fair, are you?”
“You haven’t given me a single opportunity to apologize.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for.”
“Don’t be noble,” she said. “I acted like a prissy little fool yesterday. I seem to have a positive genius for jumping at the wrong conclusions.”
I said, “It was a perfectly natural jump to make.”
She said, “Oh, stop being polite or I’ll throw this egg at you.”
I looked at her, startled. Then I grinned. She flushed and laughed. After that we talked about different things.
All five of the couples who look as if they have a chance of making their marriages work—Paul Weston and Marilyn George, Hugh Phillips and Christine Wells, John Emmett and Ann Nicholson, Paul Nyquist and Babs Wallace, Jim and Natalie Gregory—have been far apart at times.
And with respect to three of them, at least, it is obvious that there will always be some gaps between them.
Nyquist’s impotence may (though I hope not) be irreversible. the Easterner Natalie is still going to dislike dusty New Mexico and disapprove of Greg’s weapons-related scientific work. And Hugh Phillips will always be the man who chucked Chris over for sexy Janice, and whom Chris, despite having grown up with him, believed for awhile to be a murderer.
But the gaps are still different from the fundamental one that Branch defines to Jeannette after he’s explained that things are too complicated:
Her laughter was a little shrill. “That’s what I said about—about Louis, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Yes. He wasn’t worth it, to you. Not when it started to hurt. And I wasn’t worth it when you thought I might let you swim ashore.”
It’s the same basic gap that opens up in the contempt of spoiled Patricia Terrill in The Big Country for her young ex-sea-captain fiancé Jim McKay when she believes him to be insufficiently manly in Western terms—a contempt for his fundamental self. And it can’t be retracted after she learns, angrily, of the courage that he in fact displayed privately, for himself alone, in taming an unridable horse, in an episode recalling the one with Hammett’s Op during his Western stay in ”Nightmare Town.”
Ann Nicholson-Emmett quite rightly tells Emmett, “Until you make up your mind about me, you haven’t any right to kiss me as you did this morning, or touch me as you did just now. As if you liked me. That’s dirty.”
There are experiences that cannot be shared, behaviours that it can become too destructive to explain, conversations that you will never have. Two people cannot become one mind, any more than they can become one flesh.
But they can still have the kind of ongoing being-there in marriage that comes with the undeluded, rules-of-the-game mutual respect and acceptance that Hamilton has been defining, one way and another, in these complex early works.
Ann Nicholson, now Ann Emmett, will still have to go on living inside her head with the consequences of what went on in the Gestapo’s cell with the portable dentist’s chair and the steel mirror on the wall. But John’s non-judgmental acceptance of that fact, of her “failure,” obviously applies to more than just her.
It could apply to himself.
You could not help what you saw in the steel mirror, and the mirror would not break. There were those who could be proud of what they had seen in it—and there were the others, who simply had to live with it.
The movement from a falsifying idealization to a true, unsentimentalizing, unegotistical respect is brought out especially movingly in Deadfall, in Paul’s reaction after Marilyn George has been shot by Janie Collis during their tussle in Janie’s apartment:
Then he was kneeling at Marilyn’s side. She was still breathing very carefully, as if it hurt her. She made no sign that she knew he was there and he did not speak to her. She had a silent battle of her own to fight and he knew that she would not thank him for distracting her from the grim business of staying alive.
And when a coming together does occur, it can be deeply moving and a token of things to come, like the passage in Lawrence’s Women in Love in which Rupert Birkin and Ursula Brangwyn, out driving at night, truly come together after a flaming row.
[Emmett] shaved from a cup of water, crouching a little to use his reflection in the side window of the convertible as a guide. It was still just barely morning. There was a heavy dawn mist that looked as if it might very well become rain later on; you could not feel the sun behind it. The plains were flat and gray, the buttes colorless in the weak, directionless light. He knew when she came around the car and when she stopped behind him. He found himself thinking that if she were to come quite silently into a perfectly dark room where he was waiting, he would know when she was near him. Then he thought that this was really getting pretty corny.
“I thought you were going to change your suit,” he said…
You have no doubt at all by the end of the novel that the two of them are married for life.
Things aren’t brought to clear, end-of-the-tunnel, peace-is-here-to-stay resolutions at the ends of these Forties works..
Near the end of The Steel Mirror, after the seemingly satisfactory resolution of Ann’s problems at the research center,
Emmett listened with a flat sense of anticlimax. Everything had been much easier than he had anticipated. His fears of the day before seemed in retrospect melodramatic and rather silly; no one had tried to trap them or hurt them. It was hard to remember that a man had been murdered in Chicago. The nightmare quality of the situation had been dissolved, as if by daylight, and it was hard to keep from wondering if the whole thing had not existed only in the tortured imagination of a girl obsessed with the question of an older guilt, now answered.
But that other world has not been an illusion. Its menaces have been real, and it continues to exist elsewhere, with its at times conflicting claims on your loyalties, and the possibility that counter-violence may be necessary in it.
Though Emmett in a sense debriefs himself at the end of the novel—“He thought, You were getting to be pretty hot stuff, kneeing people, throwing drinks at them, and slugging them with jack handles. It’s just as well somebody’s reminded you that you aren’t Humphrey Bogart, or there would be no living with you”—the guilty, freely admitting their guilt, remain unpunished and at large.
It is not a safe world, and there is no magical safety to be found in love and marriage.
But just because it isn’t a safe world, the events leading up to the coming together of the several couples provide their own kind of reassurance.
All the couples have been involved in compressed and speeded-up mutual testings-out under conditions of stress.
All have done some things with complete commitment together.
All, despite strains, slippages, antagonisms, misunderstandings, have behaved essentially honourably towards each other.
And all have shown themselves willing when faced with danger and the need for violence, to go the limit with and on behalf of each other.
In Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars (1939), which I have not revisited for fifty years, there’s a statement to the effect that a good marriage relationship is one in which, rather than gazing inward at one another, you’re both looking outward together.
It is surely that kind of thing that Hamilton is implicitly talking about.
It seems to me, though he might find the word pretentious when applied to a mere writer of entertainments, in contrast to, you know, real novelists, real deep literary thinkers like Norman Mailer, and John Updike, and Saul Bellow, to be what is customarily called wisdom.
During the past decade, I myself stopped going to Hamilton for my relaxation reading, and two unsuccessful attempts at the present article remained unfinished, I assumed permanently.
But then, I was no longer reading various other thriller writers either, among them John D. MacDonald, and Charles Williams, and Wade Miller, and John McPartland, and Raymond Chandler, and lots of others that at one time gave me a lot of pleasure.
The books that went on working for me as bedtime reading were ones like Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, and the earlier books of Ross Thomas, and Harvester’s Dorian Silk novels, and Household’s Rogue Male, and Deighton’s The Ipcress File, and Ambler’s The Light of Day, and Ted Lewis’s Jack’s Return Home and Jack Carter’s Law, and John Welcome’s Stop at Nothing, and Hammett’s Red Harvest, and Latimer’s The Lady in the Morgue and The Dead Don’t Care and Solomon’s Vineyard.
All of them had narrative voices with which I felt at home. All gave the world, and consciousness, something of the unproblematic substantiality that I wanted. None of them, not even Jack’s Return Home, allowed tragedy a toe-hold.
I was no longer an academic. I did not require certain kinds of seriousness. Besides, I was engaged in a very different kind of work, with a seriousness of its own, but a more dispersed, a slower, a less conventionally structured seriousness.
And I no longer felt, or wanted to feel, the kind of focused energy of Matt Helm, who I felt, as from time to time I’ve felt about his creator, might very well not approve of me.
But previously, and especially in the re-politicized Sixties and Seventies, Hamilton’s books had been a vital part of my consciousness as an academic, with their unintimidated interrogating of fashionable pieties, their invigorating moral challenges, their alertness to self-righteousness and hypocrisy, their ongoing self-renewals and re-examinations of previously taken positions, and in general the feeling they gave you of a writer who went on taking risks, a writer always at work.
And, as with the Travis McGee novels, it was good to have someone, year after year, reacting to and commenting on more or less current events and concerns, not necessarily always in ways that you agreed with, but always intelligently, so that it could help a bit in one’s own thinking, or at least in maintaining your own stance in the world.
Also, of course, there was the sheer lovely craftsmanship of Hamilton’s writing when he was “on,” as in various passages that I have quoted in this article, or the beautifully paced and shapely penultimate chapter of Line of Fire, in the seven pages of which he does more in the way of packed but controlled and shapely dramatic action, action in which character is never lost sight of, than almost any other writer, not just thriller writers, could have accomplished.
Or those moments, large and small, those moments of phrasing, in which something, small or large, is brought to powerful life, such as young Moira Fredericks’ Afghan hound Sheik that she and Helm are watching out in the Nevada desert in The Removers:
The dog was out there, all right. I just hadn’t looked far enough out. I found him with the naked eye, first. He didn’t seem to be moving very fast, just kind of ambling along. Then I put the glasses on him, and drew my breath sharply. You hear loose talk about how beautiful deer are, running, but actually it’s kind of a bunchy progress, if you know what I mean: great big muscles going off in great big explosions of power. This animal was running faster than any deer ever dreamed of, and he didn’t seem to be expending any energy at all…
I had the rabbit in sight now. The big jack was going flat out, running for his life, every muscle straining. and behind him came the lean gray dog, running silently, its long fur rippling with the wind of its own motion, its head well forward, its long hound ears streaming back. There was no strain here, no effort; there was just pale death flowing over the ground.. …It was over in an instant, just a snap and a toss of the head. I started breathing again and turned away.
Or there’s that “great, low, black, wet, monstrous shape” of the nuclear submarine surfacing for a moment in the Canadian dusk at the end of The Ravagers and slipping back down out of sight again.
Or the three superb pages on the ambush at the pass in Smoky Valley, and ex-Union Army major John Parrish’s culminatory main-street showdown with Cole Hansen in the same novel, at the end in which “Suddenly he became aware of silence. He came out of the closed marksman’s world into which he had retreated …”
Or Paul Nyquist out at the farm where Babs Wallace has just been seized by Gunderman’s jerks:
They were leaving now. Two of them had the girl and were leading her to the car. I might as well have saved myself the trouble of teaching her to shoot. The third man had the sister and kids backed up against the kitchen door like a family portrait. I could just barely make it all out at the distance, as I ran diagonally across the field toward a spot from which I could cover the dirt road leading out of the place. The furrows were straight, and deep for running. The young corn was just coming up. Habit had me trying to avoid the plants as I ran, which made it something like a game of hopscotch. I stopped that foolishness.
Or, well, I seem to keep coming back to The Steel Mirror, perhaps because there is so much else out there in the other books to draw on,
He was aware of the counterman in the corner having difficulty with his crossword puzzle, and he heard, outside, the rising whine of a car leaving the town at well over the legal speed limit and accelerating to still higher speeds as it swept past. The diner was alive with the constant flicker of lights on the highway
America of the heart! My America.
The aspects of Hamilton’s work that I have been defining reinforced for me what I also derived from the great American literary critic Yvor Winters, and from one of my favourite American poets J.V. Cunningham, for both of whom, as for Hamilton, there was no sharp division between the everyday (but not banal) physical world of common experience and the higher reaches of heroic aspiration and articulate moral judgment.
Both of those writers were movingly conscious, as was D.H. Lawrence, of some of the unique challenges, and beauties, and dangers of the North American continent, and of how so much in its post-Columbus civilization was an affair of things consciously chosen and made, sometimes almost overnight, instead of the often slow and incremental growth of shared habits and attitudes, over the centuries, on the other side of the Atlantic.
Both were aware, too, of the possibility of the kind of psychological implosion that writers like Hawthorne and Melville had been afflicted by, and that we saw so terribly in action in 1961 when poor burned-out, impotent, despairing Ernest Hemingway rested his forehead on the twin muzzles of his Boss shotgun and pulled both triggers, that Sunday morning in Ketchum, Idaho.
The history of twentieth-century American writing is, in part, a history of burn-outs and wreckage. Or declines into pretentious gabbiness.
But as Winters and Cunningham and other writers affirmed and demonstrated, those fates were not inevitable.
In his unegotistical ongoing career, Donald Hamilton seems to me a heartening exemplar of the literary life, someone who was conscious of the lurking darkness and emptiness but did not allow his heroes, or himself, to implode. And who did not have to maintain himself in his occupation (“Occupation: writer,” to borrow Robert Graves’ phrase) by a tense and finally insupportable effort of will.
If the young Hamilton may have aspired to some of the virtues of Hemingway—a popular and a serious writer at the same time— perhaps the Hemingway of those dreadful final years, had he been given the option, might have preferred to have been a Donald Hamilton and been able to reserve his guns for their natural targets.
Halifax, Nova Scotia