Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Night Walker by Donald Hamilton (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Hard Case Crime's line of crime novels is not just entertaining; it's also educational. Reading each one as it comes out has broadened by knowledge of hard-boiled crime fiction considerably — a field in which I thought I was already well-versed. Those looking for more than just the same names over and over again (Chandler, Hammett, Woolrich, Cain, Thompson, etc.) need look no further than the yellow ribbon. I look forward to each new entry with eagerness. Who knew that educating oneself could be so much fun? (But then again, who else thinks of reading a series of crime novels as "educational"?)

Night Walker is a reprint of an early novel by Donald Hamilton (who will turn 90 in 2006); one that doesn't feature his most famous creation, secret government agent Matt Helm, whom Hamilton wrote about for over thirty years in almost thirty novels.

Those who only know Hamilton's work from the series of Helm films starring Dean Martin may be surprised by the lack of blatant comedy, but they won't miss out on any of the international intrigue in this standalone nail-biting suspense thriller with plenty of tension to go around.

Hitchhiking his way back to active duty in the Navy after only five years off (WWII ended in 1945, Korea began in 1950), Lieutenant David Young is given a much needed ride by Larry Wilson, a man with some subversive politics and a plan that involves Young, involuntarily. By the time Young realizes that he is a pawn in another man's game, he has awakened in a hospital bed with bandages covering his entire face, and with a new identity: Larry Wilson.

It seems that Mrs. Wilson had some plans of her own....

Featuring wonderfully naturalistic dialogue with just the right amount of stammering repetition and hesitant stops and starts (one could call it Mamet-ian, if that weren't shamefully anachronistic), Night Walker moves along at a satisfying pace. The plotline is nicely complicated, and shows a real feel for the period (though it is a little too politically focused for my taste).

Hamilton also makes some interesting choices in Night Walker that make it more than just your average crime novel. First, he has all his major characters refer to each other by nicknames of sorts; "Sailor," "Red," "Honey," and others are bandied about as if these people weren't being completely betrayed by each other left and right, leading to a familiarity that instantly connected me to them. Also, there's a fascinating MacGuffin that I was trying to suss out the significance of for several chapters. I thought I had it figured out pretty soon (thinking I had an advantage due to my familiarity with acrostics), but it had nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the plot.

On a related note, the kinetic cover art by Tim Gabor seems at first to be a little... well, silly (is that Claude Rains under there?), but it actually illustrates one of the more shocking scenes in the novel. Who that gun belongs to and its connection to the other characters is at the heart of what keeps Night Walker's pages turning well into the night and makes it yet another fine addition to the Hard Case Crime curriculum.

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