This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here.
Donald Hamilton was prolific writer of hard-boiled espionage fiction. I've always classified him as slightly more macho than his contemporaries (especially Stephen Marlowe), but also, in his favour, a bit edgier.
Hamilton wasn't scared of writing flawed characters, and his success with the modern reader relies a great deal on how well those characters (and their flaws) have withstood the test of time. Novels I've previously reviewed include The Steel Mirror (another standalone, very good) and The Shadowers (part of the Matt Helm series and eergh). I've read about a half dozen more, and, to spoil the ending: I think Night Walker is a perfect expression of Hamilton's strengths and his weaknesses.
So let's get to it, shall we?
Night Walker (1951, Hard Case Crime in 2006) begins with Lieutenant David Young reluctantly returning to the Navy. He served with distinction in World War II, but his career ended when his ship caught on fire (and he, not without reason, had some serious PTSD). He's now been called back to active duty. After sacrificing his train fare to a drinking binge, David is stuck hitching his way to the base to report.
Fortunately, a kind-hearted stranger is there to give him a life. The two bond for a while and, just when David starts to relax, the stranger hits him on the head with a wrench, crashes the car and sets it (and David) on fire. KIDS, NEVER HITCHHIKE.
Amazingly, David lives through it, but, TWIST, he's completely swaddled in bandages and everyone thinks he's the other guy - Larry Wilson. The real Larry has made a run for it, leaving David to pick up the pieces of his life. Which, as David learns, could involve everything up to and including a massive Communist Conspiracy. Eep.
Still, things aren't all bad. David's also left with Larry's beautiful, lonely, unappreciated wife. She's also "fragile", which David likes in a woman. (David also doesn't like it when women are too confident or good with boats. David may have a few issues.)
Beautiful-fragile Elizabeth sparks something in David, so he plays along and pretends to be Larry for a little while. This is a surprisingly easy act. Elizabeth knows that David is David, and seems to like David-Larry more than she ever liked Larry-Larry. And by that, I mean like-like. The family doctor is also on board with the scheme, so they've got, er, medical approval. The only tricky parts involve fooling Bonita, a feisty redhead (as redheads are), who was Larry's "good friend". That and preventing any sort of interference from aunt Agatha (actually named Molly).
Plus, David's not exactly keen to get back to David-world. Larry-world may involve Communist plots and (gasp!) murder, but it also has him juggling two beautiful women with a full bank account and a lavish home. David-world, on the other hand, has him broke, single and going off to war. Worse yet, he'd be going off to war late. At best, he'd raise eyebrows. But as he drags his heels, David's delay becomes more and more like desertion.
Ultimately, Night Walker is a bit goofy. The big evil plot is spectacularly silly, especially to the 21st century, cynical, post-9/11 reader. Similarly, the big reveal and the criminal mastermind(s) are all... well... implausible. At best. So implausible, in fact, that the villain's concluding monologue has a note of the defensive about it.
Still, that makes the book succeed is its majestic balance of flawed characters. If the plot of the book is contrived, the text is punctuated by gloriously despairing passages like the following:
"Either way, they got along, and he knew suddenly that they always would, because neither of them would ever expect too much of the other. They would always make allowances. Bothof them knew that there was not a great deal to expect. Between them was the unspoken understanding that they were both second-rate people who, in some important respects, had failed themselves." (101)
But a truer, more heart-breaking summation of romance in noir fiction may have never been written. As indicated by the lines above, there's very little outright heroism in Night Walker, but there are multiple redemption arcs. David, Elizabeth, Bonita and even Larry - Mr. Hamilton never hesitates to show their weaknesses. The characters are all painfully aware of their own flaws and, one by one, given an opportunity to overcome them. However grim things appear (and things get very, very dark and claustrophobic), Hamilton does give his characters a chance to rise up and get out. Whether or not they take it is up to them...
Night Walker is a fascinating study of weakness and redemption. It provides an interesting contrast with the last Hard Case Crime novel, Ed McBain's The Gutter and the Grave. Whereas McBain's strength is his ability to write contemporary fiction that transcends its time period, Night Walker's setting (and the related plot elements) let the book down. That said, while McBain's Cordell is a compelling character, his flaws feel more convenient than Hamilton's David Young. Cordell's alcoholism comes and goes as the plot demands. Young's fear and self-loathing is a more integral part of his character.
Apologies to Tim Gabor, but this cover doesn't do it for me. It looks like it was generated by the Pulp-o-Mizer, which, although a completely legitimate approach to Night Walker, slightly undersells the intensity of the novel. One of my least favourites so far.
As a final note - Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series is coming back to print thanks to Titan Books (who also publish Hard Case Crime in the UK). The books sold over 20 million copies when they were first published, I hope they do as well this time around!
Next week I'll be skipping ahead again and looking at the newest Hard Case Crime, Stephen King's Joyland. (Yes, that was bragging.)