NIGHT WALKER (1954) by Donald Hamilton

Night-Walker-dellDonald Hamilton (1916-2006) produced many different types of adventure books including Westerns such as The Big Country (filmed in 1958 with Gregory Peck). He is best known for his series of 27 Matt Helm novels, four of which were adapted (with scant regard for the originals) into lame Bond parodies starring Dean Martin (a later TV version with Anthony Franciosa has even less to do with the books). Night Walker however is a stand-alone spy thriller in which naval reserve officer David Young is recalled to active service. One night, on his way to report for duty, he thumbs a car ride but en route gets beaten senseless by the driver. When Young awakens his face is in bandages and he is being called by his assailant’s name  …

I offer the following as the concluding part of my contribution to Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge focusing on stories dealing with amnesia. I also offer it as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her Pattinase blog – you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“It was the same old nightmare. Young recognised it at once …”

It’s the height of the Cold War and Young is the victim of Lawrence Wilson, a disgruntled ex-Navy engineer fallen into disgrace after being kicked out for subversive activities. He clubbed Young with an iron bar, switched clothes and set fire to the car, planning to make it look like he had died before making his escape. In the hospital Young suffers from blackouts as he tries to recover from concussion, several broken ribs and a bashed-in face. He eventually realises that he has been mistaken for Wilson, but doesn’t say anything. Traumatised after being torpedoed during the war in the Pacific, Young had got roaring drunk after being recalled and, feeling ambivalent about the pressures of the Navy, is prepared to put off the day a little further. Then Larry Wilson’s wife Elizabeth arrives and takes him home, and reveals that not only does she know who he really is – but that she shot her husband the same night he assaulted him.

“Never mind the mess you made of your life just now, Lizzy. Let’s just hear about the mess you made of your husband”

Night-Walker-gold-medalIt seems Wilson really was a Communist agent and had come home to get his wife to identify Young’s body before making his escape – when she refused there was an argument and she shot him. With the help of her friend, and Young’s doctor, Bob Hesnhaw, they disposed of the body, to then discover that Young had survived and so decided that it would be best to pass him off as Wilson. Henshaw makes it clear that Young will have to continue to pretend to be Wilson or else he’ll be framed for the man’s murder. Matters are further complicated by the appearance of Wilson’s young red-haired girlfriend Bunny, a secret list with the details of seven boats found hidden inside the dead man’s wallet, Young’s attraction to Elizabeth even though she is clearly not very trustworthy.

“I declare, this is no time for you to get an attack of patriotism”

In one sense she fulfills the classic ‘femme fatale’ role well enough, but she is also depicted in a boorish and stereotypical fashion as a Southern woman forever saying “I declare”, “honey” and so on. Hamilton’s later Matt Helm books could get pretty grouchy and he did espouse fairly ‘traditional’ (sic) views about women in particular. These are already well in evidence here as in one priceless moment when he has Young ruminate that, “he did not like competent, athletic young women, especially round a boat …” and more such dated nonsense. Having said that, the book works pretty well as a claustrophobic spy thriller with a strong noirish feel to it, with Young confined either to Wilson’s house or his yacht moored just in front for practically the entire narrative. There is a big twist at the halfway mark (which I did see it coming) and a bigger one near the end (which I didn’t). The book is certainly dated but Hamilton was a more than capable writer and he certainly knows how to tighten the screws in his suspense sequences to great effect.

“He found himself wryly amused at the thought that his personal tragedy could mean so little to someone else”

Night-Walker-hccAfter appearing in 1951 as a  five-part serial in Collier’s Magazine entitled Mask For Danger, in the UK the book was first published as Hard Company. It was recently reprinted as part of the fabulous Hard Case Crime series – for further details, visit their site at: The book was recommended to me by Colin, the generous host of that fine movie blog, Riding the High Country and I thank him heartily for this greatly entertaining read. Incidentally, this book is not to be confused with The Night Walker, the Barbara Stanwyck movie written by Robert Bloch released in 1964 which had a tie-in novelisation by Michael Avallone (under his Sidney Stuart pseudonym) published the same year. I hope to review the movie itself early in 2013.

This is the eight and final review that forms part of my contribution to the 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge, completing my plan to read pre-1960 mysteries with the theme of memory loss / amnesia (albeit a bit loosely here, I admit). Here are the links to my other reviews:

Murderous Miscellany: Amnesia

  1. Nightmare (1940) by Cornell Woolrich
  2. Traitor’s Purse (1941) by Margery Allingham
  3. The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) by John Dickson Carr
  4. The Scarf (1947 / 1966) by Robert Bloch
  5. The Long Wait (1951) by Mickey Spillane
  6. Fallen Angel (1952) by Walter Ericson (aka Howard Fast)
  7. Queen in Danger (1952) by Adam Hall

***** ( 2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Amnesia, Donald Hamilton, Friday's Forgotten Book, Hard Case Crime, Scene of the crime, Virginia. Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to NIGHT WALKER (1954) by Donald Hamilton

  1. Colin says:

    Phew! Glad you got some enjoyment out of this Sergio, seeing as I was responsible for recommending it to you.
    It’s not a perfect book by any means – I had about the same experience as you regarding the effectiveness of the two twists – but it is pretty entertaining. I didn’t get too bothered by some of the dated aspects, I pretty much take that sort of stuff in my stride when it comes to vintage literature. I figure it goes with the territory – others may be less forgiving though.

    • Thanks again Colin I really enjoyed it – a great piece of 50s pulp fiction, told with great skill. Hamilton’s views on women’s roles (and how they should do their hair and whether they looked good in trousers etc. etc.) would follow him for the rest of his later Matt Helm series so not s surprise. I was surprised about how small scale it is and yet, even with such a small cast of characters and locations, he makes it work to his advantage, which is definitely a sign of talent!

      • Colin says:

        Yes, he really makes the limited setting and characters work to enhance the claustrophobia and danger. It actually makes the success of the ultimate twist all the more impressive.

        • Precisely – I just didn’t think there would be room for any ingenuity of that type and in fact the finale is much more complicated than I anticipated, which I really liked. I kept thinking that Jimmy Sangster would have loved it for one of his Hammer thrillers in the early 60s, though probably would have made the hero’s identity a bit more of a mystery (which I must admit is what I thought was going to happen – indeed it was a bit of a cheat to include this in my amnesia challenge but …)

  2. Colin says:

    BTW, seeing as we were discussing covers the other day, I wanted to say how much I like the presentation of the Hard Case Crime edition.

    • I am a big fan of the HCC style and have a dozen of them now – oddly enough, the one for Night Walker is actually one I like a little less. But usually they are spectacular – just look at this one for the Stephen king original, Joyland, which they are publishing next year – who cares about the book, I just want the cover!

      • Colin says:

        That is terrific! I plan to pick up the new James M Cain they published as soon as I can.

        • I am very curious about the Cain, especially after reading MILDRED PIERCE which threw me completely by not having a crime element like the movie though I did like it by the end – it sounds more in that vein I think.

          • Colin says:

            I think you’re right there. I enjoys Cain’s writing style very much anyway.

          • Genuinely operatic but in a good way – which of course makes sense as he trained to be a singer. I haven’t read SERENADE though it’s on the shelf (never seen the movie either – Anthony Mann right?)

          • Colin says:

            Never read it either. And yes, one of the few Anthony Mann pictures I’ve yet to see. I’m not a huge fan of Joan Fontaine so…

          • Yeah, I know what you mean as it’s a bit too easy too easy to pick out the films in which Fontaine gives a decent performance, isn’t it … though I have not seen THE CONSTANT NYMPH, which apparently is a terrific movie and now out from Warner Archive (groan)

          • Colin says:

            I liked her in her two Hitchcock movies, where the characters she played suited her, and Jane Eyre is pretty good.

          • That’s pretty much it along with LETTER TO AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and of course they are all variations on the same character (I think she is better in SUSPICION though REBECCA is the better movie but JANE EYRE may be her best for me) – I quite like her in BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT but more because Lang exploited, it seem to me, the fact that actually she is rarely that sympathetic.

          • Colin says:

            I think BARD is a very underrated movie in general.

          • Never seen that acronym used before – cool! I must admit, I didn’t really ‘get it’ the first time round either when I saw it in my teens. I think you do have to be a bit older to appreciate what it’s really getting at and see past the apparently rather flat and unadorned presentation. By the time you have seen earlier Lang movies it all makes a lot more sense and I now rate it very highly. Haven;t seen the remake (and I usually like Peter Hyams’ B movies but I can’t see it working)

          • Colin says:

            I had a similar reaction when I too first saw the movie in my teens. I actually think all of Lang’s pictures improve when you view them with a (slightly) more mature eye.

          • Must admit, after reading your review of RANCHO NOTORIOUS it made me think that I definitely needed to give it ‘another go’ so to speak

          • Colin says:

            Do so – definitely.

      • Todd Mason says:

        That’s probably the sensible response to most King novels. That is a well-rendered and designed cover, however.

        • I’ll admit to not being as up on my King novels as I used to be, having dropped out (as it were) sometime in the early 90s though I do like a lot of his books all the same. I have heard nothing but good things about his Kennedy assassination book 11.12.63 (despite it being the second hokiest time-travel plot known to SF) – in some cases, as with Dolores Claiborne, I definitely preferred the movie adaptations! In the case of Joyland, HCC seems to be crediting the art to both Robert McGinnis and Glen Orbik …

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I have to admit I was never a Matt Helm fan, either of the series or the television adaptation. But that said I find the case here of switched identities and amnesia, etc., interesting as plot points. It’s a fascinating premise actually. Of course, I’ll be honest and say that I could do without the dated attitudes. But that’s a fact of life of certain kinds of crime fiction…

    • It’s a quick and lively read – but it would be wrong to pretend that there aren’t things that need forgiving but they are minor and I think Hamilton remained consistent throughout his life on certain subjects, which in a way makes them more about him and less about whatever ‘age’ the books might belong to. I actually found the Commie-bashing more annoying, but how could it nor be …

  4. I was a Matt Helm fan despite his sexist and misanthropic ways. Donald Hamilton wrote compelling novels, even the non-Matt Helm ones. NIGHT WALKER is a very early title. Hamilton wrote a lot better in the Sixties and Seventies. I’m impressed with the books you read for that challenge: Nightmare (1940) by Cornell Woolrich, Traitor’s Purse (1941) by Margery Allingham, The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) by John Dickson Carr, The Scarf (1947 / 1966) by Robert Bloch, The Long Wait (1951) by Mickey Spillane, Fallen Angel (1952) by Walter Ericson (aka Howard Fast), and Queen in Danger (1952) by Adam Hall. Nice list!

    • Thanks George – and Hamilton did I think earn a place of honour in espionage fiction with the later Helm books, which I really should see about reviewing sometime in the future …

  5. Mention “spy thriller” and my ears start pricking up, Sergio. Given your fine review, especially the amnesia angle, this book definitely merits a read. The story does have a noirish feel about it. Is this novel available on the ebook circuit? John Dickson Carr and Robert Bloch are two more authors I intend reading in the new year, a couple of books each to start with. And a Very Happy New Year to you, Sergio. I hope 2013 is a fun-filled year for you and the rest of the family.

    • Thanks Prashant – as far as I know, this is not yet available as an e-book though paperback copies are pretty easy t find – you can however read the exciting opening chapter for free at the Hard Case Crime website here. I envy your first reading of such masters as Bloch and Carr – they are wonderful writers. All the best for the new year chum.


  6. TracyK says:

    Well, I have to read this. I am with Prashant, say “spy thriller”‘ and I cannot resist. And I like the Hard Case Crime editions. May even try some Matt Helm. Thanks for pointing this out.

    • Glad it’s also to your liking TracyK – this is a book that manages to go off in several directions but never loses sight of the plot, as you might say, and in my opinion pays off very nicely – would love to know what you make of it.

  7. neer says:

    I am not too fond of Spy thrillers but this seems to be something extra too. I am intrigued by the twist in he end and wonder whether it is what I am thinking. Thanks for a great review Sergio and have a very happy 2013.

  8. Todd Mason says:

    Happy new year, Sergio…and, indeed, it’s Next Year in Sweet Freedom, as our Jewish friends don’t quite toast. Or, at least, 4 Jan’s roundup.

  9. Pingback: THE HORIZONTAL MAN (1946) by Helen Eustis | Tipping My Fedora

  10. On a tangent: without defending the Matt Helm films per se, I wrote an article on the CINEMA RETRO website examining their transition from page to screen ( I offer this tidbit not only in my usual spirit of shameless self-promotion, but also because I feel that people rarely discuss which material from Hamilton’s five novels actually made it into the four films, since THE SILENCERS is technically based on the first book, DEATH OF A CITIZEN, as well as the eponymous entry.

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