Easter, Smoke and Steam
The Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist

Underground Reading: The Steel Mirror by Donald Hamilton

Steel MirrorThe Steel Mirror (1948) is an early work from Donald Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton was the versatile author of several non-fiction works, a handful of Westerns and the long-running Matt Helm series, a 27-book cycle of espionage adventures.* Although The Steel Mirror is set against a backdrop of post-WWII, early Cold War espionage, the adventure is less about paranoia than it is inadequacy.

Emmett is a chemist, taking time off between government jobs to meander across the country. Outside of Chicago, his car dies. Spying a pretty woman at the service station, Emmett makes a half-hearted pitch to play navigator for her. To his surprise, she accepts, and, suddenly, Emmett's hitch-hiking with lovely Ann Nicholson.

There's no such thing as a free ride, and Emmett is suddenly awash in Ann's intrigues. He quickly realises that she's in an extraordinary position: although well-dressed, she carries no baggage. And although she carries a lot of cash, she's awfully shy about being spotted by any sort of authority figure. Ann's evasive about her past and her future - she's going west, and that's all Emmett knows.

Evasive or not, Emmett starts to warm to Ann. But quickly into their shared journey, he discovers that they've attracted some unwanted attention. An soft-spoken older man and his leggy female assistant announce themselves as Ann's psychiatrist and nurse. Apparently she's been under their attention for months - after returning from her time as an agent of the French Resistance (she's not French, she was just married to a French soldier). Emmett's also contacted by both police officers and FBI agents. As well as being a crazy ex-spy, she's also a Communist murdering traitor.

From the information he's given, Emmett pieces together that Ann's on some sort of lunatic mission. While battling the Germans, she was captured and tortured. She may have betrayed her husband to the Nazis, but she doesn't remember. After the war, her wealthy father has been keeping her sheltered and protected. But she's learned of a Nazi scientist, brought over by the US and housed in a New Mexico laboratory. She remembers seeing him while a captive - perhaps he can tell her the truth.

Steel MirrorEmmett's torn a thousand ways. He's a quiet, risk-adverse man and his sudden trouble with the Powers That Be has him at the end of his tether. Furthermore, he's starting to full for his quiet companion, at least, during her less screamy, slappy, scary periods. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Emmett's uncertain about his own relationship with the war. His brothers both served - and died in service. Emmett had a civilian job, doing chemistry stuff. He could've gone, but took the path of least resistance and stayed where he was: safely stateside.

For Emmett, Ann's story becomes a distorted inversion of his own. He never tested his courage - she did. He's upset that she (a frail young woman) is a hero, while he is not. In a savage way, the stories of her weakness make him feel better about himself. The Steel Mirror ostensibly refers to the mirror in Ann's cell, but it also encapsulates her relationship to Emmett: an unbreakable reflection of his inner self-loathing. Fittingly, Mr. Hamilton ends the book with more ambiguity than fairytale resolution. This isn't a novel about triumph, but one where acceptance is the ultimate goal.

Whereas the Matt Helm books are largely forgettable (and occasionally putrid), The Steel Mirror is a successfully haunting noir. Ann and Emmett are caught in a spiral of love, hatred and, most of all, need. They're pulled together on a self-destructive journey. The espionage-related subplot provides the story the propulsion it needs, but is largely a distraction. The noir masters like Goodis and Woolrich were able to generate the atmosphere (and tension) they needed without the global tinsel. Mr. Hamilton isn't quite that good - although, if The Steel Mirror is any sort of indication, he wasn't that far off.

*Mr. Hamilton also graduated from the University of Chicago. Woohoo!

Incidentally, the Dell cover predates the Gold Medal cover by about 20 years, but, although depicting a scene from the book, is still wrong. If you'd believe the Dell cover, it is about a crazy mugger partnering with Harley Quinn, or, at the very least, all about Emmett getting involved in fisticuffs. Whereas the Gold Medal makes the interesting (and correct) call to focus on a non-(physically)-violent scene that's not even in the book - Ann's imprisonment. That scene is the critical one, not the bit where Emmett thumps someone.