Night Boat to Paris

Night Boat to Paris

The 1950s were well before my time, but it must have been a golden age for readers of paperback spy, crime and adventure fiction. That decade had so many elements that make for exciting stories: the Cold War at its most intense, the CIA and KGB waging unfettered shadow wars across the globe, the American empire rising, the British empire falling, the Mafia’s invisible empire at its peak, and thousands of veterans of World War II and Korea still young and looking for action. It’s not surprising that the decade introduced so many genre greats, like Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Donald Westlake, Dan J. Marlowe and Lionel White. A more obscure author who got his start in the ’50s was Richard Jessup; I recently picked up his 1956 novel Night Boat to Paris in a lot of vintage spy paperbacks and gave it a quick read.

The novel’s protagonist is Duncan Reece, an ex-World War II British Intelligence operative who fell out of favor with the class-oriented Establishment after the war and turned to criminal work. He is approached by his old intel chief, who considers Reece the perfect man for a very sensitive mission. It seems that an ex-Nazi engineer has developed a nuclear satellite technology for the Reds, but the microfilmed blueprints have wound up in the possession of a wealthy Spaniard and a purchase has been arranged at a charity bazaar at his French villa later that month. Several intelligence agencies, most notably the Reds, are in hot pursuit of the film and are expected to be closely watching the villa. Reece’s mission is to stage a robbery at the bazaar, taking the party-goers’ valuables as well as the microfilm in order to fool the Reds into thinking it wasn’t enemy action. Reece agrees to the job for the very tidy sum in 1956 dollars of one hundred thousand, plus half the loot, an import-export license and his Scotland Yard file and fingerprint records.

Reece’s first task is to travel to France and assemble a crew for the heist. He enlists an old associate and all-around shady operator named Tookie, a desperate German gunman named Otto, a French muscle-man named Saumur, and two American mafiosi operating out of Marseilles named Gino and Marcus. There is considerable intrigue leading up to the main event, as Reece is pursued by mysterious assailants in black suits, and he suspects that one of his own men is an informant for the Reds. Several enemy operatives are killed, and there’s some interesting introspection from Reece about why he is doing this that speaks to the inner plight of the shadow warrior:

You’re a different man, Reece, from when you first started thinking for yourself. A man who has no principles, ascribing to no morality, who has perhaps had the morality knocked out of you. You’re a killer; a procurer and thief; a man who has great wit and wisdom when it comes to saving your own neck and feathering your nest. You see that the world is mad and are playing along with it.

Can such a man slip into the comfortable rut of a middle-class merchant?

Another question.

And no answer for it.

Finally the crew gets to the locale of the op and sets themselves up in a farmhouse, where they begin training for their commando-style raid on the villa. From here on out it’s a riveting thriller, as the crew, clad in identical black coveralls, berets, face paint and bandanas, assault the party with a rope ladder, grappling hook and Tommy guns, get the loot and the microfilm and try to make their escape. They get to the border and desperately try to find away across, while more men in black show up and they are forced to take drastic action in a mountain village. Conveniently, a village girl unhappy about her arranged marriage joins the crew and leads them on a secret route across the mountains. This finale is a bit less believable than the rest of the story, but it races to a suitably noir ending as the traitor is revealed and Reece makes a run for it into the shadows.

This is just the kind of novel I like: an old-school, hard-boiled adventure that combines espionage, a heist, desperate criminals and ruthless shadow operators. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, but with a more sophisticated style than you get in a typical men’s adventure novel. All in all, this was an excellent little thriller, and a glimpse back to a time when spy stories could be told in 158 pages instead of 400+, without all the bloated writing, technological gimmickry and over-the-top action that would plague the genre in later decades. I will certainly be reading more novels from this era, and can recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the early hardboiled spy work of authors like Donald Hamilton, Jack Higgins, Dan Marlowe and Edward Aarons.

Get a copy of Night Boat to Paris here.

Operation Fireball

Operation Fireball

Dan J. Marlowe is one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction; his 1962 novel, The Name of the Game is Death, is an all-time classic of the genre, as riveting as Donald Westlake’s debut Parker novel, The Hunter, published the same year. In that novel Marlowe introduced the sharpshooting heistman known by the alias “Earl Drake”, and Drake’s lover and partner in crime, a fiery six-foot redhead named Hazel.  Drake returned in a 1969 sequel called One Endless Hour, written with input from a convicted bank robber named Al Nussbaum who was impressed with Marlowe’s work. That novel tells how Drake got his face reconstructed after the hellish climax of Name of the Game–hence the series subtitle “The man with nobody’s face”.

Marlowe published a third Drake novel in 1969 called Operation Fireball, which began Drake’s transition from an independent hard-boiled criminal like Parker to a government-affiliated adventurer-spy more like the Jack Higgins protagonist Sean Dillon. As the novel opens, Drake is reuniting with Hazel, who he hasn’t seen since he got a new face early in the previous novel. There’s some drama at her ranch with some nasty local kids who are abusing Hazel’s father, but Drake punishes them rather violently and has to make a quick exit.

Back in San Diego, bored and looking for action, Drake is contacted by a criminal associate named Slater and a six foot four ex-navy Viking of a man named Karl Erikson, who tell Drake an exciting story. Apparently two million dollars sent by the U.S. government to the Batista regime in the last days before Castro’s revolution is still at large. The cash was hijacked by Cuban gangsters, and Slater, who was in on the heist, is the only man who knows where it is. Erikson is assembling a crew to go get the money and he invites Drake to be on the team. But the mission is a formidable one: to infiltrate paranoid, revolutionary Cuba, find the cash, and get off the island without getting killed or thrown into Castro’s prisons. Drake accepts, on the condition that Hazel is included on the team.

The novel builds slowly as the crew gathers in a hotel in Key West and prepares for the mission. Gear and weapons are purchased, boats are test-driven, shortwave radios are assembled and plans are made with Erikson’s military precision. Meanwhile, the lecherous Latin boat captain Chico Wilson is making aggressive overtures toward Hazel and Slater is being a reckless drunk, scheming to cross the rest of the team. But Erikson is a commanding presence and he manages to keep the motley crew in line.

In the final third of the novel the narrative finally kicks into overdrive, as Drake’s crew sails to Cuba posing as navy men aboard a U.S. destroyer, Slater finds himself in the brig, and they have to free Slater, get off the heavily guarded Guantanomo Bay base and into Cuban territory. This is where Marlowe really excels: fast, tense action, with flawed, desperate, violent men letting nothing stop them from making a big score. For me he’s right up there with Donald Westlake in this regard, and the international intrigue only adds to the excitement. Because Cuba in the 1960s was a very tense place, controlled by fanatical revolutionaries, its population highly paranoid following the failed CIA-sponsored “Bay of Pigs” invasion in 1961 and on the look-out for foreign saboteurs. Marlowe does a great job of capturing the war-time feel of the mission, as the men have to move deep behind enemy lines to Havana and the location of the hidden cash. Once there, Drake takes the lead, using his talents as a thief to break into the facility and get to the loot. There’s a tense climactic scene as they try get off the island, their radio broken and unable to signal to their boatman to be picked up. Then there’s a final twist at the end, as Drake learns who Erikson really is and he doesn’t get what he bargained for from the mission.

After a slow opening, with a little too much time devoted to the setup of the mission, this book was riveting stuff. I questioned sometimes how four Americans, particularly a six foot four Viking, could move through paranoid Cuba without more problems, but Marlowe makes it fairly believable. While not an instant classic like The Name of the Game is Death, this was a great read. If you like the Parker series and the work of Jack Higgins, you should love this. I look forward to reading further installments of the Drake series.

Get a copy of Operation Fireball here.

The Sour Lemon Score

The Sour Lemon Score

The Sour Lemon Score is the twelfth entry in the legendary Parker crime fiction series, published in 1969. Like the phenomenal series opener, The Hunter, this isn’t really a heist novel, but a story about Parker trying to track down and get revenge on the man who double-crossed him, nearly killed him and took his money.

As the story opens, Parker and three accomplices are about to execute a heist of a cash delivery at a bank. This was a great scene; the clever use of radio-controlled explosives, smoke grenades, deception and professional violence made it the kind of well-planned commando-theft operation that makes Parker novels so fun to read.

Equally fun are the inevitable f*k-ups and double-crosses that turn a smooth heist job into a twisted, violent novel-length adventure. In this case, the cross comes courtesy of the twitchy, sketchy driver George Uhl, who decides to try to take the whole pie by eliminating the other heisters just as they’re about to divvy it up. Unfortunately for him, Parker gets away, and the rest of the novel is basically a detective story from the point of view of a ruthless, sociopathic criminal. Because Parker is a detective from hell, who will beat, threaten, rob, vandalize, deceive or kill anyone he damn well pleases until he gets what he wants: his loot, and George Uhl’s head.

Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), author of over a hundred mystery and crime novels, excels at tight plotting and detailed, realistic procedurals. We are taken step-by-step through Parker’s investigation as he relentlessly pursues Uhl’s associates across the eastern seaboard, always seemingly one step behind Uhl. His task is complicated when a psychopathic associate of Uhl named Matthew Rosenstein gets involved in the chase, and soon the three very dangerous men are converging on the quiet suburban family home of a high school fan-boy of Uhl’s who gets far more excitement than he bargained for. The conclusion was slightly out of character for Parker, but it did leave loose ends that would be tied up in the 20th entry in the series, Firebreak, when some of these characters return to bother Parker 30 years later.

Another thing that makes Westlake such a great writer is his gift for creating incredibly well-drawn, memorable characters. The old-fashioned granny who sells Parker black market guns, the whiny single urban female who can’t say no to her abusive ex-boyfriend, the brutal, sadistic Rosenstein and his foppish gay partner Brock, the square family man Saugherty who fantasizes about running with the bad boys, the slimy, psychopathic George Uhl–this short novel has an amazing array of characters who are damaged and dangerous in totally believable ways.

After the relatively weak previous entry in the series, The Black Ice Score, The Sour Lemon Score is a return to form for author Westlake, and a return to the brutal, unstoppable force that is Parker when someone has screwed him over.  Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled crime fiction or just plain great story-telling.

Get a copy of The Sour Lemon Score here.

The Black Ice Score

The Black Ice Score

Black Ice Score, published in 1968 by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), is the eleventh entry in the incomparable Parker series about an ultra-tough but likeable heist-man.

This time the target of Parker’s heist is $700k worth of diamonds smuggled into New York by the corrupt leader of a small African nation called Dhaba. The diamonds are being kept on the top floor of a museum where the leader’s brutal brothers-in-law have taken residence and guard them 24/7. A diplomat from Dhaba wishes to steal the diamonds back on behalf of his countrymen, so he finds the best man in the business and hires him as a consultant. Parker’s task is to devise a plan to get into the building, past the guards and grab the diamonds. His job is complicated by a group of white colonials allied with a black general from Dhaba, who have learned about the diamonds and want them to fund their own takeover of the country. They are trying to strong-arm Parker into telling them where the diamonds are, going so far as to kidnap his steady girlfriend Claire and forcing him to cooperate. There’s also a joker in the pack in the form of a shifty, unpredictable character named Hoskins who has a bad habit of annoying Parker and appearing at inopportune times (Westlake loves these characters).

This is an atypical entry in the series in several respects. For one, Parker is not doing the job himself, but is only acting as a paid consultant for amateurs. He plans the heist and trains the Africans, but doesn’t participate directly in the theft. This is obviously a let down for Parker fans, sort of like going to an Elvis concert and being told that an impersonator is going to perform instead—though the author does a pretty good job of making the amateurs’ point of view interesting. The international political angle is also unusual for this series, which is normally apolitical and focused entirely on the all-American business of taking down big scores. In the spy-crazy 1960s it seemed that every thief and thug was getting a piece of the geopolitical action. Third, Parker seems strangely charitable and caring at times compared to his brutal sociopathic persona earlier in the series. Apparently his long-term relationship with Claire is softening him and making him a bit less Terminator-like than before.

There were some interesting moments in this story for students of shadow operations. The planning of the heist, the social engineering used to case the building, and the tools and tactics employed were reminiscent of the antics of real-world master jewel thief William Mason that I discussed in this review. This is the most ninja-like op in the series so far: the use of deception to gain entry to a stronghold, crossing from rooftop to rooftop, roping down an elevator shaft, using gas bombs to incapacitate guards, dressing all in black, surprise attacks, are all classic ninja tactics, handled with Westlake’s trademark realism.

The short novel moves quickly to a climax as the theft gets very bloody, bodies pile up, and Parker makes his re-appearance just in time. Hoskins is still a joker, the colonialists still hold the trump card Claire, and Parker has to bluff and go all-in to win with the hand he’s dealt. While risking his neck to save a woman wasn’t the old Parker’s style, this slightly kinder, gentler Parker does just that to try to save Claire from the clutches of the enemy.

This was definitely a lesser entry in the series, but still entertaining and worth the few hours spent reading it if you like heist novels and appreciate quality writing. Westlake is the genre’s master and Parker its greatest character, so even a sub-par installment is a cut above most other novels of its kind.

Get a copy of The Black Ice Score here.

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew is the second book in the brilliant Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton, published in 1960. It takes place not long after the events of Death of a Citizen, in which World War II assassin Matt Helm was reactivated after 15 years of quiet family life for a new assignment: eliminating America’s Cold War enemies. At this point Helm’s wife Beth has separated from him, taking their three children and filing for a divorce. Apparently her shock at learning that Helm was a brutal professional killer before he became a photo-journalist was too much for her to process—particularly after the horrific events of Citizen.

As the story opens, Helm arrives in Sweden on a dangerous new mission: to draw out a notorious Soviet assassin known as “Caselius” and if possible, take him out. His contact in Sweden, a young woman from another agency named Sara, objects to his mission on moral grounds, prompting Helm to get philosophical in his Shadow Warrior’s way:

Well, we’re all capable of deeds we can barely imagine. Beth’s attitude still had the power to annoy me a little, because I was quite sure she’d never have dreamed of breaking up our home if she’d merely discovered, say, that I was the bombardier who’d pushed the button over Hiroshima. I must say that I don’t get it. Why honor and respect a guy who drops a great indiscriminate bomb, and recoil in horror from a guy who shoots a small, selective bullet? Sara Lundgren had had the same attitude. She’d been perfectly willing, presumably, to collect data, as part of her job, for the use of the Strategic Air Command—that might lead to the eventual obliteration of a city or two—but she’d balked violently at the idea of feeding information to a lone man with a gun.

This difference in mindset between Daylight Warriors and Shadow Warriors is a recurring theme in the series—as is the fact that when Daylight methods fail, leaders will always look to men like Helm to do the dirty jobs in the shadows that moralists are unable or unwilling to do.

Matt and Sara are soon attacked by unknown assailants and she is shot from the trees, presumably by Caselius—providing a lethal lesson in the necessity of Shadow Warriors. The stoic Helm shrugs it off and continues with his mission, posing as a a photo-journalist to accompany an American woman named Lou who is doing a story on mines in northern Sweden. Lou’s husband, who published an expose that brought Caselius into public awareness, was gunned down in Germany, and Helm hopes to draw the assassin out through her. There is also a beautiful young Swedish girl who claims to be Helm’s distant cousin, who turns out to be the story’s most fascinating character.

In typical Helm fashion, the characters’ motives and allegiances are unclear and treachery is an ever-present danger. Also in typical fashion, he beds down or lusts after some of them and this complicates his work. There is a long stretch of intrigue, deceptions and twists along with several killings, before the identity of Caselius is finally revealed and Helm moves in for the kill. The final stretch moves fast toward the climax, as Helm tracks Caselius across the desolate moors of northern Sweden.

The thing to realize about Matt Helm books is that though they might look like just another pulp spy series to the uninitiated, they are very smart, well-written, realistic thrillers that have more in common with hard-boiled crime novels than James Bond or Nick Carter spy stories. If you’re looking for over the top action, explicit sex, cutting-edge technologies or cartoon villains, this series will probably disappoint you. Like the equally brilliant Quiller series, this is a spy series for a literate adult reader who likes realism, tight writing, wit and the occasional philosophical insight with his tough-guy action. But make no mistake: Matt Helm is as tough as they come; a stone-cold killer who won’t hesitate to carve you up with his knife, torture your wife or shoot you in the head if honor and duty require it.

I found this installment slightly less riveting than the other two Helm novels I’ve reviewed to date, Death of a Citizen and The Betrayers. The writing was just as good, but the story and setting weren’t quite as interesting. Sweden seemed like a duller setting for a hard-boiled espionage adventure compared to the American Southwest or Hawaii—at least until the final confrontation in the arctic moors. Nevertheless, this was a solid entry in a brilliant series, and well worth your time.

Get a copy of The Wrecking Crew here.

Hijack

Hijack

I’m fascinated by shadow ops that involve hijackingskyjacking, train robberies, piracy, etc.—so when I ran across the 1969 novel Hijack by Lionel White I was immediately intrigued. The first thing I noticed was the striking cover: the image of a giant upraised pistol next  to the single word “HIJACK” emblazoned in red, with a jet airliner and a couple in erotic embrace in the foreground, is a minor masterpiece of paperback cover design. On the strength of the cover alone I might have bought the book; knowing that the author was Lionel White, one of the old masters of crime noir fiction known particularly for his heist stories—which have been called precursors to the brilliant Parker novels by Donald Westlake—I simply had to have it.

Does the story live up to the cover? Almost. As you can probably guess, it involves the hijacking of an airliner, sparked by the steamy encounter between a beautiful, money-hungry ex-stewardess called “Sis” and an ex-Air Force pilot recently returned from Vietnam nicknamed “Dude”. Sis has inside information that a particular route transports millions of dollars in small bills in its cargo hold every month, and she uses her considerable charms to convince Dude to help her get it. So Dude assembles a team and plans an audacious air-heist.

Along the way we learn the backstory of the hijackers, most of whom were ‘Nam buddies of the rogue pilot Dude. We also learn more about several of the  VIP passengers; it turns out (rather unrealistically) that on board the ill-fated flight are a French movie star, a top American scientist, a Russian defector, his CIA escort, the airline’s majority stockholder and a famous preacher. In standard crime noir fashion, at some point everything goes sideways, as the all-too-flawed characters turn a carefully laid plan into a clusterf*k of foul-ups, betrayals and desperation moves. There’s some brutal violence, loose sex, nasty rape and heavy drinking as the various players crack under pressure and revert to their primal instincts. The offbeat ending is slightly anti-climactic and felt a bit rushed, but it’s probably as good as any for this offbeat tale.

I’m a little surprised Hollywood never made a film out of this novel. Several of Lionel White’s earlier works were made into movies, but maybe by 1969 the 64 year-old author was no longer a hot property. Or maybe a story about skyjackers—in an era when revolutionaries, terrorists, criminals and crazies were hijacking airplanes with alarming frequency—hit too close to home. Apparently Quentin Tarantino is a big White fan; this would make a great Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction-style noir thriller. No matter, though; classic crime paperbacks like this one are an art form of their own and deserve to be read and enjoyed on their own terms. The biggest crime is that this book is so obscure and difficult to find; if you can track it down for a reasonable price (I paid $10), I would advise picking it up. Hijack is recommended for fans of classic crime noir and heist thrillers.

Breakout

Breakout

Breakout is the 21st book of the “Parker” series, by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). If you’ve never read any Parker novels, I recommend that you start with the first one, The Hunter, and proceed from there. Few books capture the intensity and drama of criminal shadow ops as realistically as these. Parker is a professional thief, but he’s no non-violent cat burglar, stealthily infiltrating buildings, cracking safes and getting away cleanly with the loot. He threatens, pistol-whips, beats, binds, gags, and occasionally kills to complete his missions, but always with an almost robotic level of efficiency and cool.

Parker novels are what you might call “criminal procedurals”—they give detailed, realistic accounts of the planning and execution of Parker’s heists and associated criminal activity. We learn about the minutia of getaway routes, entrances and exits, guards, escape vehicles, etc. Parker prefers low-tech, direct means to assault his targets, never relying on gadgetry when good old guns, threats and surprise are so much more reliable. But as in real life, nothing ever goes according to plan; much of the fun of these stories is finding out how Parker improvises when an op goes badly wrong or someone crosses him.

Breakout offers a new twist on the Parker formula: this time he has to break out of a facility instead of in—the facility in question being a prison, where he finds himself for the first time since the series began. Parker, being a guy who doesn’t take well to involuntary confinement, and being linked to the murder of a prison guard decades ago, immediately starts angling to escape. Recruiting two other inmates and with help from outside, he makes a harrowing but highly believable escape. And that’s just part one of this tale. The crew, now free and short of cash, decides to take on a heist that one of them had previously scoped out: breaking into a former armory loaded with jewelry that is as impregnable as the prison they just got out of. The ensuing break-in is as gripping as the break-out; author Stark describes both in such photographic detail that you could swear he has done them himself! There are further escapes, evasions, murders, police procedural work, hostage-taking, and a climactic manhunt for Parker the fugitive. The ending is particularly well done.

After reading five early Parker novels from the 1960s, it’s a bit jarring to read about him operating in a 21st century world of cell phones, internet and security cameras. But as always, Parker adapts to his circumstances and relies on the tried-and-true methods of his trade, so it doesn’t really affect the narrative. Forty years after the first novel, Westlake is still the master of hard-boiled crime fiction, and Parker is still the master of hard-boiled crime. “Breakout” is a top-notch addition to the best crime series ever written. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Breakout here.

The Betrayers

The Betrayers

Matt Helm was America’s answer to James Bond: a hard-boiled, no-nonsense killer who dispensed with the goofy gadgets and “shaken not stirred” pretensions and got down to the brutal business of espionage the old-fashioned way: with his knife, gun, wits and fists. An assassin behind enemy lines during World War II, Helm was re-activated 15 years later by an unnamed, ultra-secret agency to start disposing of America’s enemies during the height of the Cold War.

The Betrayers, published in 1966, is the the tenth novel in the series, but the first one I’ve read. It concerns Helm’s vacation to Hawaii, which turns into a mission to expose and eliminate a traitorous fellow agent who is suspected of working for the Red Chinese. Along the way, he encounters two beautiful but treacherous women, the allegiances of whom are far from clear. Is beautiful blonde beach girl Jill really an ally out to expose the rogue agent called Monk, or is it an elaborate ruse? Is the sultry brunette society woman Isobel an enemy operative or an independent femme fatale? While he is trying to sort them out (and bed them down), Helm learns of Monk’s plot, which involves a transport ship full of American troops visiting Honolulu. There are some nice descriptions of the Hawaiian culture and environment, visceral violence, an intense inter-island sailboard ride, clever ruses, car chases, gun lore, wisecracks, tradecraft, and a final showdown with the Monk. But Hamilton always keeps it real; there is no supervillain in a hollow volcano, seven foot two henchman with steel teeth or nuclear bomb about to blow up a major city. I loved Fleming’s James Bond novels when I was younger, but Hamilton’s Matt Helm is Cold War spy fiction for adults.

One of the novel’s more interesting passages comes during a little rant by Monk near the end. At a time when Russians were considered the great menace to America and the free world, Monk identifies the Chinese as the real threat, in a way that some might consider prescient:

“There’s the true enemy, Eric!” he said grimly. “They’re arrogant bastards. They think they can use and outsmart anybody. They thought they could use and outsmart me. They figure civilization started with them and will end with them. And unless something’s done with them soon, they may be right.”

But there isn’t much editorializing in this novel. Donald Hamilton writes the way Matt Helm acts: no-nonsense, gritty, witty, fast-moving, direct and to the point. This was a highly enjoyable introduction to the series; I will be reading and reviewing more Helm novels in the near future. Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled espionage action.

Buy a copy of The Betrayers here.