Donald Hamilton is another respected crime/mystery novelist who I’d never heard of prior to reading Hard Case Crime. Hamilton’s most famous work was about Matt Helm, under-cover counter-agent/assassin for the U.S. government, a series which ran for 33 years (1960-1993). Noteworthy critic Anthony Boucher said of Hamilton and Matt Helm:
Donald Hamilton has brought to the spy novel the authentic hard realism of Dashiell Hammett; and his stories are as compelling, and probably as close to the sordid truth of espionage, as any now being told.
Sounds amazing; that’s enough to put me on the lookout for Matt Helm novels. But what about this one, Night Walker? While not involving Matt Helm at all, it is another 1950s spy-crime novel, so at least it fits Hamilton’s specialty. It appeared three times back in the day—serialized in Collier’s magazine in 1951, Dell books in 1954, and Fawcett ten years later—before falling into obscurity. At least, before Hard Case Crime picked it up.
David Young makes the mistake of his life when he decides to hitchhike back to his naval base when he’s recalled to active duty to serve in Korea. The guy who picks him up is a subversive Red bordering on the neurotic; the next thing David knows, he wakes up covered in bandages, is told he was in a car crash, and everyone is calling him Larry Wilson. Which happens to be the name of the guy who picked him up off the side of the freeway. Larry’s trampy wife Elizabeth knows about this mistake, but she’s keeping her lips sealed in that department: she has secrets of her own. David’s unauthorized absence (UA) is the least of his problems, including Larry’s redheaded tomboy hanger-on, some Commie saboteurs, and an unknown assailant lurking just outside the house…
The strongest aspect of this novel is its setting. David is too injured to do much moving around, so he spends half the book stuck in the bedroom, and the other half within a stone’s throw of the house. That feeling of fixed isolation works to the novel’s advantage: David is in the middle of something big here, something he doesn’t know much about, and there’s an unknown assailant and Red Insurgents lurking nearby who wish him harm. While it limits the amount of action it can contain, it does increase the suspense and atmosphere, which I think added to the mystery. This claustrophobia from the framed setting worked well with the wounded protagonist, and built some great tension. And having David as an injured normal person instead of a guns-blazing pulp hero made all the suspense and tension work.
I also like how the relationship between Elizabeth and the other characters is built up. Did she love her husband, the crazed Commie subversive? Is she after the doctor, who is in on the fake Larry Wilson bandaged bit? Most of all, is she in love with David? At first, I wondered if she knew this wasn’t her real husband under those bandages; later, I wasn’t sure if she was keeping up the act or if she was falling for him. Or if she was leading him into a trap. She’s as good, if not better, at this deceit stuff than her husband was, a great femme fatale.
However. Elizabeth’s personality leaves a lot to be desired; she’s a good old Southern gal, you see, and thus bits of country vernacular such as “I reckon” show up with more frequency than is sensible. It’s also dated itself to the 1950s in its misogyny; of our two female leads, we have a weak-willed hausfrau meets bad Southern stereotype, and a rebellious redheaded tomboy youth who we know as “Red” for most of the book. Red falls somewhere between being Larry’s hanger-on, following his beliefs like a little sister crossed with an idealistic college student, and being Larry’s teenage sex-kitten lover. (I don’t remember if the book actually implied that, but it’s the feeling I got from reading it. Red’s really attached to Larry and his ideals. Which builds some great tension when she starts chatting up David when he’s in his bandaged Larry act.)
This is, from an objective standpoint, the worst Hard Case cover I’ve seen yet. I don’t hate it, but I don’t think Tim Gabor’s effort was on-par with the rest of the line. There’s just too much going on: a gun goes off about two feet away, a woman screams and looks over the man’s shoulder, the man looks startled at his hand while his flashlight floats away in a cloud of flour. All at the same time. The style doesn’t match the book’s suspenseful noir tone very well. There’s not much you can do to make a mummified protagonist look cool, but the original has a campy charm from the look of horror on David’s face:
Night Walker has a lot of little flaws that gang up on an otherwise solid book. Seeing “I declare!” and “I reckon!” three to a page got tiresome; the characters were under-developed, the plot was under-defined. That said, I did really enjoy it; Night Walker grabbed enough of my attention that I burned through it in a few nights. What can I say; I’m a sucker for Cold War intrigue stories, even though this one’s Red Menace angle was lurking and subdued. The novel may have flaws, but I had a lot of fun reading it. I’m surprised at how low Night Walker is rated on Amazon and Goodreads, since I enjoyed the hell out of it.