Saturday, February 23, 2013

Donald Hamilton's The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew was the second of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels. Matt Helm is a US spy, he works for an ultra-secret intelligence agency, his boss is named Mac and he uses his work as a photographer as a cover. Those are the only real resemblances between the novel and the movie of the same name, in fact they’re the only resemblances between the Matt Helm novels as a whole and the Matt Helm movies.

Not only is the plot entirely different, the tone of the novel is a million miles away from that of the films. The Matt Helm novels were intended as serious hardboiled spy stories and on that level they work pretty well. They were obviously influenced by the success of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels - there’s plenty of sex, plenty of violence and also plenty of glamour. Both Fleming and Hamilton were surprisingly successful in combining glamour with hard-edged and often brutal stories. Hamilton’s novels might not be quite as good as Fleming’s but they’re certainly not without interest.

The early novels in this series have to be read in sequence. Matt Helm had been a wartime operative (with the code-name Eric) for a very hush-hush US agency that the Germans nicknamed the Mordgruppe. They were also known in some quarters as the Wrecking Crew. Their boss was known only as Mac. They operated behind enemy lines and their speciality was assassination. After the war Helm retired into civilian life, moved to New Mexico, married and had a family and made a living as both a photographer and an author of western novels. How he came to find himself working for Mac’s outfit again well over a decade later is told in considerable detail in the first novel in the series, Death of a Citizen. That novel provides essential and detailed background information on the kind of man Matt Helm is and on his wartime career and the beginnings of his new career as a Cold War spy.

The Wrecking Crew sees Helm is Sweden, tracking a shadowy Soviet agent named Caselius. An American journalist named Taylor had uncovered some facts about this Soviet spy and as a result had been gunned down with a machine pistol in East Germany. His wife Louise survived the attack and she’s now the best lead they have. She’s writing an article about industrial and mining developments in northern Sweden for a magazine so Helm is off to Sweden where he will be taking the photographs to accompany the article. His mission is to kill Caselius.

There’s no namby-pamby nonsense about bringing Caselius to justice. Mac’s agency doesn’t work that way. They deal with people who are much too dangerous to be allowed to live. Helm accepts this as part of his job. He killed in the cause of freedom during the war and he sees no problem in killing in the cause of freedom in this new undeclared war, the Cold War. The stakes are just as high, the dangers are just as real, and his targets are just as much of a threat to civilisation.

Helm got the assignment because his cover as a photographer is perfect for the job and he speaks Swedish (he is in fact of Swedish ancestry).

First Matt has to make contact with the resident American intelligence agent in Sweden, or rather she makes contact with him. Sara Lundgren doesn’t like Helm and she doesn’t approve of his methods. Working with her is going to be a challenge. Working with Louise Taylor will be a challenge of a different sort. Both are, in their very different ways, dangerous women. And they’re not the only dangerous women Matt will encounter. There’s also Elin, a very very distant cousin of his.
Helm will also encounter some very dangerous men, some of whom may or may not be on his side. In fact it becomes more and more difficult to tell who is on his side. Everyone seems to have their own agenda and everyone he meets could turn out to be really working for the Russians. The ones who are simply working for the Soviets aren’t the problem. Much more difficult are the people with personal agendas. Most difficult of all are the starry-eyed idealists who think they are saving the world. Matt doesn’t trust anyone who thinks they are saving the world, and it’s a sound policy.

Matt Helm is a professional assassin and he’s a tough guy. He has his own personal problems to deal with and compared to many fictional secret agents he’s a remarkably well-rounded character. He has a personal life and he has emotions, and he doesn’t always enjoy the things he has to do. He is not troubled by killing; he believes that the people he kills are being killed for good reasons and he doesn’t lose any sleep over it. He’s not a conscienceless killer; he simply believes that sometimes it is necessary. But in operations of this kind other people can get killed as well, and that does sometimes bother him.

These novels lack the kind of tedious nihilistic cynicism that started to afflict spy fiction during the 60s. They don’t have that “both sides are just as bad as each other” kind of attitude. Matt Helm moves in a world where there are good guys and bad guys. The good guys aren’t perfect but they’re still the good guys and the bad guys aren’t necessarily psychopathic monsters but they’re still the bad guys. Personally I find that refreshing.

It has other things going for it, but most all all, The Wrecking Crew is fast-paced action-filled fun. Recommended, but if you read Death of a Citizen first you’ll appreciate The Wrecking Crew even more.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

S. S. Van Dine’s The Scarab Murder Case

The Scarab Murder Case, published in 1929, was the fifth of S. S. Van Dine’s twelve Philo Vance mysteries. This one has, as the title suggests, an Egyptology background to it. I’m a sucker for anything to do with Egyptology and since I’ve loved the other Philo Vance books I’ve read it was pretty near a dead set certainty that I’d love this one. Which I did.

The very wealthy Benjamin H. Kyle is found murdered with his skull crushed by a statue of the Egyptian goddess Sakhmet. Kyle owned two adjoining brownstones in East Twentieth Street in New York. One of the houses had been converted into a museum of Egyptian antiquities, under the directorship of Dr Mindrum W. C. Bliss. Kyle’s body was found in the museum. The other house, the one next door to the museum, is occupied by Dr Bliss, his half-Egyptian wife, an old family retainer of Mrs Bliss’s named Hani and Kyle’s nephew Salveter. The body was discovered by Donald Scarlett, an Englishman and an amateur Egyptologist who had acted as a technical adviser on most of Dr Bliss’s archaeological digs.

In true golden age detective style we have been introduced to all the possible suspects within the first few pages, and any one of the characters enumerated above could have had both motive and opportunity for killing Mr Kyle. The obvious evidence points to Dr Bliss and both the District Attorney John F.-X. Markham and Sergeant Heath of the Homicide Bureau (characters who appear in virtually all the Philo Vance novels) are inclined to make an early arrest, but Markham’s old friend and frequent colleague, the brilliant amateur detective Philo Vance, has a deep and abiding suspicion of obvious evidence. He persuades Markham and Heath to hold off.

It soon becomes obvious that the evidence is less clear-cut than first appeared and it will take all Philo Vance’s talents to unravel this mystery.

This is classic, almost textbook, golden age detective fiction. The plotting is ingenious and fiendishly convoluted. The characters are colourful enough but in this type of detective fiction characterisation takes a back seat to the working out of the puzzle at the heart of the book. And this one has an undeniably clever puzzle, leading on to a very clever and somewhat surprising conclusion (surprising not in terms of the identity of the murderer so much as the manner in which the said murderer is brought to justice).

Whether you actually enjoy the book or not depends almost entirely on how you feel about Philo Vance. If you find him insufferable, and many people do, you will this book a chore to get through. If, like me, you simply adore Philo Vance then you’ll find the book to be an absolute delight. If you haven’t read any of the Philo Vance mysteries I’d be inclined to recommend that you start with the first of them, The Benson Murder Case, and then work through them in chronological order.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

John Buchan’s The Power-House

John Buchan’s The Power-House precedes The Thirty-Nine Steps, the first of his Richard Hannay novels, by two years. It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1913 and was published in book form in 1916. Like the Hannay novels it is a spy novel, although it is really little more than a novella.

The book features another Buchan hero, the barrister Sir Edward Leithen. What makes it interesting is that Leithen is most definitely not a man of action. He describes himself as a sedentary, settled sort of man and that’s what he is. He has rarely been out of London, and has never ventured further afield than Monte Carlo. In a spy novel you expect exotic locations and this novella provides them, but curiously enough the hero never leaves London apart for a brief foray which takes him no further than Dorset.

The novel does provide us with a fairly memorable diabolical criminal mastermind in the person of Edward Lumley. Lumley is a man in his 60s, a collector of old Wedgewood and a keen bibliophile and scholar. He is an urbane and civilised man but he heads an organisation known as the Power-House, an organisation that threatens the very existence of western civilisation.

Like many of the heroes of early spy fiction Sir Edward Leithen is drawn into the world of espionage by accident and against his will, although he has to admit that he rather enjoys himself. Leithen is a rising barrister and a Member of Parliament. It’s fitting that Buchan should choose a politician as his hero given that Buchan himself had an active career in politics which culminated in his appointment as Governor-General of Canada as the first Baron Tweedsmuir. 

Leithen’s pal Tommy Deloraine, also an MP, tells him of the strange behaviour of their old friend Charles Pitt-Heron. Pitt-Heron has suddenly converted a room in his house into a laboratory, has remained closeted in the laboratory performing mysterious experiments, and has then abruptly vanished. Tommy is convinced that there is something fishy going on, that Pitt-Heron has become involved, probably unwittingly (since he is a decent fellow), in something foolhardy and possibly even sinister. Tommy believes Pitt-Heron is in Moscow and sets off to find him.

While Tommy is off in foreign parts Leithen is becoming more and more heavily involved, mostly through a chain of coincidences which seem to keep leading him to an old gentleman named Edward Lumley. Lumley is clearly an educated and cultured man, a connoisseur of the arts, but there is something about him that suggests to Leithen that he may be very dangerous indeed. Lumley’s ideas quite frankly terrify Leithen. Leithen also finds that the trail leads to a sinister international organisation know as the Power-House.

Tommy follows Pitt-Heron’s trail to Bokhara but although he imagines that this is his adventure the crucial events of the story will unfold in London, and it is the sedentary Leithen who will be the hero of the hour.

Interestingly, given that Buchan was a staunch Tory, Leithen’s main ally in the struggle against the Power-House is a patriotic and courageous Labour MP.

This is in many ways typical Edwardian spy fiction, but told with Buchan’s inimitable style and verve. Sir Edward Leithen is an unconventional spy fiction hero, certainly not an action  hero like Richard Hannay, but that’s part of the charm of this short novel. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Stanislaw Lem, The Invincible

A spacecraft lands on a distant planet, in search of answers to the mysterious disappearance of an earlier spacecraft and its crew.  At first the planet seems relatively benign.  They soon notice a few puzzling things, but nothing that seems likely to be really threatening.  But the puzzling things become more puzzling, and they start to realise they’re in the presence of something very alien indeed.

Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible, published in 1964, explores similar themes to Lem’s better-known novel Solaris. Lem had a gift for creating aliens that are truly alien, so alien that we’re not even sure that they’re actually alive in the sense that we understand the word. They are so alien that any kind of communication with them is virtually impossible. They appear to be intelligent, but it is intelligence of a kind that we can never hope to understand. Their intelligence is not necessarily superior to ours, it's simply different in the most profound way.

It’s a gripping read, very disturbing. This is superb ideas-based science fiction.