Wednesday, November 24, 2010

62. Murder Twice Told by Donald Hamilton

Snagged this little gem at Chainon, our local thrift store (which helps to support the larger organization, a women's shelter). Their used books section has really improved over the years.

This book is actually two novellas of Donald Hamilton, Deadfall and Black Cross. Both were initially published in magazines (Deadfall serialized in Collier's in 3 issues in September '49 and The Black Cross in The American Magazine in September '47; thanks to this website for that info). The paperback I read has a minimal colophon, saying only copyright Donald Hamilton 1948, 1949, 1950. I guess it must be some later printing of the paperback. On the inside of the back cover, the original owner wrote "acq. 22 sep. 1967 fin. 1 sep. 1967". That was cool to see. A gesture motivated by the same thing that motivates me to do this blog, I suspect. I also think it was a francophone based on the order of the dates and the use of acq (acquiré) and fin (fini), though both could have been abbreviations of english words, they don't seem that obvious choice.

I'm a bit wary of Donald Hamilton. Donald Westlake spoke of him as a big early influence and I found a couple of those novels and really enjoyed them. I then went and bought a bunch of his later novels, including some of the Matt Helm series. When I finally got around to reading them, I found them almost unreadable. They were clunky and obvious, not as truly terrible as some of that numbered paperback adventure fiction, but pretty uninteresting to me. This one looked promising, though, with minimal commitment (the two stories make up less than 200 pages). Plus, they were early on in his career.

And interestingly enough, the two stories perfectly encapsulated all that is good and all this bad about Donald Hamilton. Deadfall is the story of a chemist who is under suspicion by the FBI for having associated with a woman. It has some cool moments, but overall I found it kind of forced. Way too much time is spent on his feelings about this woman or that and whether or not he can trust them. It was obvious too me early on who was the real bad guy. There was some nice bitterness in the main character, but I just really didn't care about the story all that much. It's not bad, just not great.

The Black Cross, on the other hand, was superb. It was really dark and mature, with an excellent, unravelling plot that brings all its elements together at the end in a very satisfying way. It's the story of a young professor who is driving home with his tight wife after she made another scene at a party. They get in a terrible accident and she dies. Except he remembers seeing her still alive and the trucker beating her down with a black cross. Things get very interesting from there. I'll leave it at that because you should really try and track this little gem down. This is classic noir with a hard edge.

I need someone with similar taste to mine to sort all of Donald Hamilton's work into good and bad. The bad is really not terrible, just on the mediocre side and not to my liking. But the good is pretty hardcore and I want to read more of it!

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