Line of Fire

Line of Fire



The Pequod Review:

Donald Hamilton (1916-2006) was best known for his spy/action series featuring the secret agent Matt Helm, but Line of Fire is an excellent standalone thriller. The story is told in the first person, and involves a hired hit man (Paul) whose assassination attempt goes bad when a female bystander witnesses the murder. The book is a delight from page one, with a tense opening scene, intelligent discussions of guns and ballistics (and other hit man trade secrets), unexpectedly rich characters (especially the flawed but principled hero), and strong writing:

I had worked out the range from the window to the yellow fire hydrant down at the intersection three blocks away. It was four hundred and twenty-six yards on a scale map of the city; four hundred and twenty-two by counting paces and calculating angles. The difference wasn’t enough to worry about. I had a sandbag rest for the gun just inside the window and a six-power telescopic sight. The gun itself was a star-gauge Springfield they had picked up for me; it would shoot better than inch groups at a hundred yards now that I had tuned it and learned what ammunition it liked. Most people don’t seem to know it, but guns are very particular about what you feed them; what’ll shoot like a dream through one musket will spray all over the landscape from another. This particular gas pipe liked the hundred-and-eighty-grain of Hi Vel No.2 powder which pushed it along, I figured, at better than twenty-eight hundred feet per second.

At a quarter of three I eased the window open. The day was fine for the job. There was an overcast that might have made trouble if I'd had to judge the range; it's hard to estimate distance accurately on a cloudy day. Since I knew the distance already, this did not matter. What was important was that there wasn't a breath of wind. I had told them that if there was more than a five-mile breeze the deal was off for the day. I wasn't going to do any fancy four-hundred-yard shooting with a wind blowing -- not in a city street where it'll change directions six times a minute.


It was a good face except for the mouth... under other circumstances I suppose I'd have had no complaints about the mouth, either.  The weakness it betrayed -- the slight, moist fullness to the lower lip that any man would recognize -- was not, I was aware, considered a handicap in the circles in which she moved. It was all in the point of view.

Several mid-century crime writers have realized various forms of rediscovery and reappreciation in recent decades, including John D. MacDonald, Patricia Highsmith, Ross Macdonald, and Jim Thompson. Donald Hamilton is waiting for his turn, which surely deserves to come.