Monday, December 01, 2014

Donald Hamilton, Line of Fire

I'm in that happy after-vacation state where I have recovered both from post-travel disorientation and from the giddy panic over which book to read from among the many I bought or otherwise acquired at Bouchercon and after.

This year's first post-Bouchercon reading, Donald Hamilton's 1955 novel Line of Fire, is an adventure story, a love story, a mob story, a political story, a revenge tale, and a buddy story at the same time, with a fair amount of dry, dry wit.

I'm still a novice when it comes to mid-twentieth-century paperback originals, but I'm guessing there may have been a school of writers back then who wrote crime/adventure stories narrated in a deadpan style without, however, going over the edge into comic crime. Hamilton did so in Line of Fire, and Richard Powell did it in Say It With Bullets, republished a few years ago by Hard Case Crime.

Line of Fire is a beautiful piece of storytelling, its central conflicts laid out early, but their origins revealed only gradually. Another writer may have foamed and salivated over those origins and turned the protagonist, a gunsmith named Paul Nyquist, into a bloodthirsty killer. Hamilton makes of Nyquist a amiable, if serious sort who shoots only when he has to, and not always for reasons the reader might expect.

The novel is driven to an unusual extent by the revelations alluded to above, so I'll shut up on the subject of plot, for fear of introducing spoilers. The novel's low-key wit that manages always to remain hard-boiled as jell.  is easier to discuss, and there's plenty of it. Here are some examples:
"There were a couple of jerks in the outer office. There were always a couple of jerks in the outer office."

"It was a good face except for the mouth ... under other circumstances I suppose I'd have had no complaints about the mouth, either.  The weakness it betrayed--the slight, moist fullness to the lower lip that any man would recognize--was not, I was aware, considered a handicap in the circles in which she moved. It was all in the point of view."

This, as Nyquist enumerated the types one is likely to find at a hunting lodge: "There'll be the get-away-form-it-all boys who simply want to commune with nature for a couple of weeks each year--I don't know why this always involved leaving the razor at home."

"Being surprised at Marge is always a waste of time"
Read Bill Crider's review of Line of Fire. Read John Fraser's "Writer at Work: Donald Hamilton" at http://www.jottings.ca/john/thriller_writ1.html and a shorter piece at http://www.jottings.ca/john/thriller_quik1.html#DonaldHamilton

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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21 Comments:

Blogger Bill Crider said...

A terrific book.

December 01, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That it is. It, and your review, make me want to read more Hamilton, though I think I want to read his non-Matt Helm books first. Suggestions are welcome.

December 01, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

Those golden days of paperback originals seem to be gone. Now publishers flood me with paperback originals of a different species: really lousy cozy mysteries. I understand people reading the Hamilton's, and I might have to head down to my used bookstore for a Hamilton search, but I cannot bring myself to read the PB cozies that find their way into my slush pile these days.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, some folks are still writing noir and hard-boiled crime fiction thsse days, though the stuff can be hard to find. Not every contemporary hard-boiled or noir story, "neo" or otherwise, is an exercise to show how often the writer can say, "fuck."

December 02, 2014  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

I was a big fan of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm thrillers when I was a teenager in the 1960's, and I was pleased to reread a couple of them not long ago - http://www.pauldavisoncrime.com/2013/02/the-return-of-matt-helmtitan-books.html - but I've not read "Line of Fire."

I have to check it out.

Thanks for the tip.

Paul

December 02, 2014  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

I have been finding noir in unusual places lately. To make a long story long, Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire recently died at the age of 94. I had always wanted to read her book "Counting My Chickens" so I did. In her book she mentions how much she enjoyed Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" because the illustrations reminded her of her northern garden. It was when she mentioned the plot that I realized that - Holy Cow! - Beatrix Potter wrote noir for children. She mentions that Peter's father was caught by Mr. McGregor and cut up and baked in a pie by Mrs. McGregor, he had a close call with a cat, and he lost his clothes during his escape. Not to mention that he was a bunny burglar looking to steal Mr. McGregor's veggies.

When I was a child I was just rooting for Peter to escape and loving the illustrations.

I thought "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" might be an anomaly in her stories, so I checked out some of her other stories on gutenberg.org. It wasn't. Ms. Potter was not afraid to give children a large portion of reality. She makes Maurice Sendak and his wild things look like a sissy.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger FreeLiverFree said...

If your new to paperback originals, Hamilton is a good place to start. The only problem is that some of the writers will pale in comparison. You might also like Edward Aarons, who while not as good as Hamilton had some of the same strengths. Like being able to pack more into two hundred pages than most writers nowadays do four.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mary Beth: The dark background to fairy tales and some children's stories is old news, but I confess that Beatrix Potter is one name I never expected to read here.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Free, it looks as if Aarons moves in Matt Helm-like territory. My first step, after trying to track down some of Donald Hamilton's non-Helm books, will be to see if the Matt Helm titles contain some of the same qualities I liked so much in Line of Fire. Then it might be time for some Aarons. Thanks for cluing me in.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, Line of Fire might well expand your idea of Hamilton's range. At I read it, I was also reading the second of Don Pendleton's Executioner books (Men's adventure seems to be much more widely available in Southern California than it us up our way.), and there's just no comparison. Both could write nicely plotted, tough-guy adventure stories, but Hamilton knew how to infuse the story with heart and humor, even romance, without going soft. I'll need to read a lot more of his work, of course, but I suspect he may be one of our underrated crime and thriller writers--though not to Hard Case Crime, which reprinted one of his novels.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger FreeLiverFree said...

Yeah, Aarons's Sam Durell are fairly Helm like, though in general the Helm books were better.

Hamilton was a better Pendleton, but interestingly Pendleton always considered Hamilton one of his major influences (the other being Mickey Spillane.)

December 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, that is interesting. To the point I've reached in Death Squad, Mack Bolan is all tactics and revenge. There has been none of the subtlety and humor that made Line of Fire such a pleasant surprise. But I hold out hope now that I know Pendleton admired Hamilton.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Things converge. Speaking of Spillane, the Bouchercon panel I moderated that got me thinking about men's adventure included Max Allan Collins.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger FreeLiverFree said...

I'm afraid Pendleton never quite reaches Hamilton does. The thing that the Executioner has is tons of action. They are fun and exciting but after you are done with them you turn them in to the used bookstore for credit. I don't want to part with any of my Hamilton books.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Apparently you're not the only one who turns the Executioner books in for credit. One shop I visited in California had a shelf of about the entire series from about #39 on up, and another had, as far as I could tell, all but Book #1. I bought three or four of the books all told.

But yep, Line of Fire was enough to prove that Hamilton was something special.

December 02, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Seems like a fruitful topic. I'm just posting in to say that the post-Bouchercon perplexity is new to me, not that perplexity itself is new to me. For now, though, I can report that I finished John McFetridge's Black Rock on my way home from the Thanksgiving weekend visit and I thought it was terrific.

December 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You might like the second in McFetridge's series when it appears, too. I augmented the book giddiness with a post-convention itinerary that consisted in large measure of visits to book stores, so I had it bad. And that's good.

December 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I followed your trek. I have also done some post B'Con buying although not just mysteries.

December 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You'll know that not all my post-Bouchercon buying was mysteries. I bought the Jane Jacobs, plus two by Wodehouse and a book by E.O. Wilson.

I expect a box full of purchases, mailed from California, to arrive in the next few days.

December 03, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Did you use the Bouchercon mailing service? I thought about it, but realized that this would only mean that I'd have to slog the books home from the post office anyway.

December 03, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, because I had not bought that many books by the time Bouchercon finished. It was only when I tried to pack for the trop home from L.A., a week and a half after Bouchercon, that I realized mailing would be an excellent idea.

December 03, 2014  

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