Donald 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”
It 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”
After 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: www.hardcasecrime.com. 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
- 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)
- Queen in Danger (1952) by Adam Hall