Friday means Friday’s Forgotten Books hosted by Patti Abbott. Please welcome back Barry Ergang and make sure you check out the other reading possibilities here after you read the review below……
THE VANISHERS (1986) by Donald Hamilton
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
I've been a fan of Donald Hamilton's novels about secret agent Matt Helm since I was in my teens, which means over the course of fifty years, give or take a year or two. Paperback originals under the Fawcett Gold Label imprint, the Helm novels date back to 1960, starting with Death of a Citizen and ending in 1993 with The Damagers. Those who only know Helm via the (admittedly entertaining) movie spoofs starring Dean Martin do not begin to know the character. The Helm of the novels is a tough, canny, no-nonsense professional who makes the James Bond of Ian Fleming's novels look like a callow, sentimental, incautious amateur. Helm's enemies are also far more plausible than Bond's, however diverting and cartoon-like the latter's may be.
The Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks included detective stories by the likes of Richard S. Prather and Stephen Marlowe, spy thrillers by Edward S. Aarons and Philip Atlee, and noir by David Goodis and Peter Rabe. These were, in the main, slim fast-paced novels that typically ran between 144 and 160 pages in length. A few exceptions ran close to or slightly over 200 pages. But then, over time, some of Fawcett's authors started writing longer books. I don't know if it's true or not, but I've often suspected that many publishers demand longer books so they can charge higher prices for them.
In the novel under consideration here, a number of relatively prominent people—scientists, businessmen, and politicians—have vanished (or have been vanished) during the course of the year, and Matt Helm's boss, Mac, expects to be among the next to disappear. He assigns Helm to check on the well-being of the hospitalized Astrid Watrous, who may have been poisoned by a woman named Karin Segerby. Astrid's oceanographer husband is among those who have vanished. After putting emergency routines in place against the possibility of Mac's disappearance, and then being told to "scramble" by a trusted colleague, Helm and Astrid fly to Norway to begin a perilous journey through Scandinavia to a mysterious installation known as the Darkroom. Besides having to worry about attacks from possible terrorists, Helm has to deal with Swedish relatives whose loyalties are hard to determine. To further complicate his situation, a man named Bennett, an old enemy, has been appointed temporary head of the agency in Mac's absence, and aims to make his position permanent. He's declared Helm a traitor and defector, and has assigned agents to kill him. Beset from all sides, Helm isn't sure whom he can trust.
Sounds like a tense, exciting read, doesn't it? For this reader it is and it isn't.
First-person narrator Helm retains the wry manner that was established in Death of a Citizen, and which I've always found appealing. E.g., "A man who says he isn't going to take any chances, as he jabs a gun amateurishly into the back of a trained agent, makes it very hard for said agent to take him seriously. It's one of the situations for which we're taught several responses, mostly lethal, even though no sensible person with a firearm is going to move in that close. After all, the whole point of guns is that they can hurt at a distance."
The problem with The Vanishers is its length. At 295 pages, it lacks the pace of so many of the other books in the series, especially the first thirteen. It's filled with protracted passages that describe the various routes Helm takes driving through Norway, Finland and Sweden, often sounding more like travelogue than fiction. It reinforces the suspicion I voiced earlier, that the publisher may have insisted on longer work and Donald Hamilton therefore padded the story with lots of filler. Even some of the dialogue exchanges seem to go on longer than necessary. Padding dilutes tension rather than prolonging it. Another notable feature is that, being occupied with entirely different matters, Helm isn't at all involved in the resolution of the vanishings.
Did I dislike the novel? No. It was fun to visit with Matt Helm again, even if aspects of the visit were disappointing. Would I recommend it? Yes—with the caveat about padded passages and the suggestion that some readers might want to skim or even skip over them.
Barry Ergang © 2013
The reviewer would like to thank Karen Mayers for kindly loaning him The Vanishers.
Many of the Matt Helm novels are among the books from his personal collection that Barry has for sale at http://www.barryergangbooksforsale.yolasite.com/. He contributes 20% of the price of the books to our fund, so please have a look. A Derringer Award winner, some of Barry's written work is available at Amazon and Smashwords.