Friday, November 18, 2016

And no, we are not going to talk about the movie version

I have a pet theory that you can get some of the best insights into a period, not from the serious novels and plays of the era, but from good, successful popular art. You can learn a lot about a group by studying the stories that connected with them. You can also see how those people change over time

Case in point, in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, it was remarkably easy to find Soviet bogeymen in movies and television. By the mid 60s, sympathetic and even lovable Russian characters were commonplace in movies and television. Think the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Chekov from Star Trek and many others.

Even James Bond changed with the times. In the 50s, he battled SMERSH, a fictionalized version of a real Soviet organization combined with elements of the KGB. In the 60s it was SPECTRE, a cartoonish terrorist network with a propensity for playing East against West.

I originally assumed that the change in attitude was a reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the more I look, the more it seems the shift started earlier.

Which takes us to Matt Helm. Donald Hamilton's Helm wasn't just the American answer to James Bond; he was the Fawcett Gold Medal answer. A contemporary of Travis McGee and part of a tradition that stretched back to the film noirs of the 40s and the pulps of the 20s and 30s. As Anthony Boucher pointed out, Hamilton brought the sensibility of Hammett to the novels. Helm was as unsentimental and clear-eyed as the Continental Op.

This exchange from the 1960 novel the Wrecking Crew illustrates that sensibility, and you'll notice that the tough-mindedness extends to the political as well. Helm doesn't claim to be fighting on the side of the angels nor does he demonize his opponent. Instead he explicitly equates his role and motives with those of the man he was sent to kill.

Donald Hamilton wasn't John LeCarre and this isn't The Spy who Came in from the Cold. The Helm novels are meant to be fast-moving adventure novels with great mass appeal. That makes the lack of jingoism all the more interesting.

Page 107

"If you got other orders," she said, "would you really – –"

I said irritably, "let's not go into the morality lecture, honey. I've heard it before."

"But it doesn't make sense!" She cried with sudden vigor. "You're a… an intelligent person. You're even kind of… kind of nice at times. And still you'd hunt down the human being like… like…" She drew a long breath. "Don't you realize that if this man Caselius is so evil and dangerous that he must be removed, there are other ways, legal ways… Can't you see that I resorting to violence, you just bring yourself down to his level, the level of the animals? Even if you should win that way, it wouldn't mean anything!"

There was a change in her attitude that puzzled me, a kind of honest indignation that was incongruous and disconcerting under the circumstances. A day earlier, a few hours earlier, I have spent some time trying to figure it out, but it was too late now.

There comes a time in every operation when the wheels are turning, the die is cast, the cards are dealt, if you please, and you got to go on as planned and hope for the best. I can name you names, too many of them, of men I've known – – and women, two – – who died because some last-minute piece of information made them try to pull a switcheroo after the ball had been snapped and the back field was in motion. When that point comes, to scramble the similes even further, you just take the phone off the hook and walk away from it. You don't want to hear what the guy at the other end of the line has to say. You've done your best, you've learned everything possible in the time at your disposal, and you don't want anymore dope on any part of the situation, because it's too late and you can't do anything about it, anyway.

I said, "That's kind of a funny speech from you, Lou. It seems to be kind of a set speech in these parts. Sarah Lundgren – – I think you've heard the name – – made it to, a few minutes before your Caselius put a nice accurate burst from a machine pistol into her face and chest."

I made an impatient gesture. "What the hell makes everybody feel so damn superior to this fellow Caselius? As far as I can make out, he's a bright, ruthless guy working like hell for his country, just like I'm a bright, ruthless guy working like hell for mine. His country doesn't happen to like my country. He's responsible for the deaths of a couple of people I'd rather have seen keep on living. I even got some sentimental objections to his methods. Therefore it's not going to grieve me deeply if I get orders to go ahead and make the touch.

"But as far as feeling superior to the guy, nuts! I'm perfectly happy to be on his level, doll. It's the level of a tough, intelligent, courageous man who could probably make a better living selling automobiles or insurance or whatever they sell in Russia, but who prefers to serve his country in the front lines, such as they are today. I don't hate him. I don't despise him. I don't look down upon him, as everybody else seems to, from some kind of a higher moral plane. I'm just prepared to kill him when and if I get the instructions to do so, whether it means anything or not. Meanwhile, I'd like to find out who he is."

No comments:

Post a Comment