Month: June 2013

“Death of a Citizen” by Donald Hamilton

matthelmVague memories of a Matt Helm movie as played by Dean Martin or some square-jawed male star from the Sixties. If I recall, the film was sexist and dimwitted. Maybe my memory fails. Maybe it was a TV thing, not sure.

Hamilton’s books are sure to be better.

Donald Hamilton was a good writer. A journeyman and a pro. A WWII vet. Started his paperback writing with Westerns, as did Elmore Leonard.

This novel in the Helm series (often recommended as the best one) doesn’t exactly start with a sizzling pace. Several chapters in, everyone is still hanging around the same dinner party that began the book.  The narrative voice is first person repetitive, sometimes overstated.  It came with the times. Back then, commercial writers made sure everyone got it.

But as the beginning dragged on, I wondered: Have things always been so damned exciting in New Mexico?

Not all is torpid. The descriptions of the “secret organization” are entertaining. You know, that secret organization to which Helm and the pretty gal in the black dress at the party are committed. This is the pretty gal who he just happens to encounter after all those years and who he had big espionage adventures and a roll in the hay with and who now taunts him with her beauty and darting eyes right in front of his wife.  And there are engaging scenes between man and wife. One notable moment occurs when the narrator’s description of how, in general, a lady always looks better after a party when she’s a bit worn out. This is about the extent of the suspenseful action in the opening fifty pages — until a woman (the citizen we assume) is found dead in Helms’ place, and he is set up. 

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“The Deep Blue Good-by”: John D. MacDonald

deepbluegoodbye“It’s right up your alley,” the pretty coworker said when she gave me a book, twenty years ago.

What color it was I don’t recall; it wasn’t the deep blue one shown here- maybe it was lime green or yellow. I do remember that the author was John D. MacDonald, and it was a Florida book, mainstream variety. It sat in my bookcase a few years and eventually found its way into the donation bag, unread. My mistake.

After the recent rigor of reading “The Flame Throwers” and other literati books, this is now the reading summer that includes so-called Middle-Grade fiction. Within that is the school of the Hardboiled. I chose Travis McGee as my first hero to read. He’s not a cop and not a private eye nor secret agent. He’s a “salvage consultant,” after the money and the adventure.

I started with first novel of the series. There’s a ton of great stuff, informal real world stuff packed inside, a fair share of it artful description by Trav about himself. The stuff is woven into a simple story of increasing tension featuring one helluva bad guy named Junior Allen. There are Lauderdale dock hounds and various hucksters and drunks. And girls and women. Plenty of women, from South Florida tourist girl bimbos, to yacht candy gals, to a sensible wise friend and dancer type, to victimized trailer park honeys, burger joint waitresses, alkies, and beyond.

The most important female in the book , as it turns out, is Patty Devlan, the young innocente who McGee saves, rescuing her with her virtue in tact. But this is not the girl he gets. She’s way too young. She is solely representative of his moral imperative. He was falling for another one, and she…well, that would tell too much.

McGee is an opinionated narrator, often buttressing his descriptions of people and actions with micro-essays about macro topics. The guy could really use space. He could tell a thousand words in a few hundred. MacDonald wraps in trips to the Texas Rio Valley and to New York, both of which would induce chapters of considerable length from us mortal writers. But MacDonald can give us the Rio Valley in two pages or so. We’re there. He became my kindred spirit. I’ve been to that area and tried to write it numerous times. His depiction is brief, redolent and spot-on.

The novel runs about 300 pages and is loaded with terrific writing. Of the pulp authors I’ve read (and I admire Chandler most) MacDonald’s the consummate professional writer and the most honest one. A detail guy, and an astute observer.

As of last week there’s a bottle of Boodles Gin on the bar table. I’m going to read a few more McGee’s before the summer’s over.  If I had only paid attention to my friend at work…