Friday, 8 May 2020


With the Korean War underway, Naval Lieutenant Dave Young has been called back into service. Young, who had been doing a graduate degree in engineering on the GI Bill, is not happy with this, and he has drunk through the train fare the Navy sent him. So he finds himself hitching in Maryland on his way to Newport News. He's picked up by Larry Wilson, a former employee of the Navy Department, who agrees to drive out of his way to Washington and front Young bus fare. But he also explains he was fired from his design job for having Red sympathies (in the days before Tim Russert simplified everything, Red meant communist or socialist, not Republican). Young gets nervous right away, but while he's looking over Wilson's design for a yacht, he's knocked unconscious. And when he wakes up he's in the hospital, his head wrapped in bandages, being called Mr Wilson, and told he's been lucky to survive the car crash and ensuing fire. Then the beautiful Elizabeth, Mrs Wilson, shows up and without even a moment of surprise, takes him home.

Night Walker reads like a pure pulp nightmare, but actually it was published first as a serial in the slick magazine Colliers in 1951, called Mask For Danger. Dell reissued it in 1954 under its present title. Hamilton may not have worked his way up the pulps, but he certainly absorbed both their sometime frenzied pace, and, as with the best of the noirish genre, their sense of confinement, paranoia and hopelessness.

Most readers will know Hamilton best as the writer of the Matt Helm series of novels, which began in 1960 and were often held up as America's grittier more realistic alternative to James Bond, something the movie-makers who adapted them with Dean Martin as Helm never seemed to notice. Hamilton also wrote western novels, including The Big Country, and another adapted as The Violent Men,which were treated with more respect by filmmakers. Helm's world is one of cynicism, hard-edged betrayal and more than a little male-chauvinistic. Those qualities are all present here, but there is also a nightmarish mystery here worthy of Mickey Spillane, as Young struggles to escape from the quicksand of Commie espionage.

The opening car scene is beautifully over-the-top: it reminds me of nothing as much as Detour, and if you were thinking of filming Night Walker, you might see a mix of that classic noir film with another, Pickup On South Street. Casting the film would be fun: if you'd made it then you might have Richard Widmark or Sterling Hayden as Young, and Susan Heyward or Joan Bennett as Elizabeth, a classic femme fatale with a seemingly vulnerable edge. The doctor who plays along with the deception has his own motives and Wilson's Aunt Molly, with whom Larry and Elizabeth live, is suspicious from the go, but the biggest enigma is Bonita 'Bunny' Decker, Wilson's 'old friend', for whom he was designing the boat, and whom Young keeps calling 'Red'. It's claustrophobic, and it's set on the waters of Chesapeake Bay, seemingly always at night, which is a masterful bit of noirish writing. I've gone back once or twice to the Matt Helm books, without the same satisfaction I had when I was a youngster devouring them, but in a sense, even though written in the previous decade, this is a more mature Donald Hamilton, working in a mature genre, and for all its madcap reversals and unlikely situations, Night Walker is a treat.

Night Walker by Donald Hamilton

Hard Case Crime 2006, £6.99 ISBN 9780857683489

This review will also appear in Crime Time (

1 comment :

fragments of noir said...

Great review.... Haven't read this yet but will put it on list. The comparison with Detour is good.. Tell me your opinion of my "Fragments of Noir" blog ... Keep these reviews comin !