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April 23, 2019

NIGHT WATCH . . . Between the covers

 

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David C Taylor,
the author of Night Watch, has been around the block. He says that he and his brother:
“..were free-range children in New York who early on discovered the joys of Times Square, the games arcades, the pool halls, and the jazz clubs.”

Despite this, Taylor went on to graduate from Yale. After volunteering with The Peace Corps he scratched out a living teaching and writing short stories, but eventually had to bite the commercial bullet and had a successful career as a film and TV screenwriter in Los Angeles. He introduced us to the tough 1950s New York cop Michael Cassidy in Night Life (2015) and followed it with Night Work (2017). Cassidy returns now, in Night Watch. He has an unusual background for a New York cop. His father, a refugee from Eastern Europe, is a successful Broadway producer. His godfather is Frank Costello, a Mafia boss.

Night Watch coverCassidy is an ex-serviceman, and in Night Watch he becomes involved in an issue which is way, way above his pay-grade. The initial reaction of the USA to former Nazis in the months immediately following May 1945 was simple – Hang ‘Em High. But as the government realised that highly trained German scientists and engineers were being harvested by the new enemy – Soviet Russia – the bar was significantly lowered, with the philosophy that these men and women might be bastards, but at least they’re our bastards.

One of Cassidy’s buddies sums up the dilemma perfectly:

“We fight them for years,. We’re told that they’re the worst of the worst, the end of civilisation and freedom if they win, and when it’s all over, the same guys who’ve been telling that stuff start bringing them over here to work for us.”

A concentration camp survivor, ostensibly just an old guy driving tourists around Central Park in his horse cab, but secretly hunting down those who imprisoned him and killed his family, is found dead with strange puncture wounds in his neck. A businessman dives through the high window of his hotel – without bothering to open it first – and no-one saw anything. Not the concierge, and especially not the dead man’s co-workers, who were in an adjacent room. Two deaths. Two cases which Cassidy’s boss wants put to bed as quickly as possible. Two lives snuffed out, and Cassidy senses a connection. A connection leading to money, national security, powerful people – and big, big trouble for a humble NYPD cop.

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Not only does Cassidy face a shitstorm of fury from major league conspirators, he has a more personal problem. Someone, maybe a vengeful con, or someone with a huge grudge, is out to kill him. The killer plays with him by trying to push him in front of a subway train, and then reshaping the woodwork of his front door with slugs from a sniper rifle. With a narrative conjuring trick half way through the book, Taylor merges the two threats to Cassidy, and from that point on we must fasten our seat belts for a very fast and bumpy ride.

Like many people, I only know New York in the 1950s from novels and movies. I don’t know for certain David C Taylor’s age and I suspect his 1954 New York would have been viewed through the eyes of a youngster, but, my goodness, what a vivid scene he sets, and what a gritty backdrop he paints for the deeds – and misdeeds – of Michael Cassidy. Who knows if this description is accurate, but more importantly it works like a dream, so who cares?

(The diner) “ …was a Buck Rogers dream of curved aluminium, big slanted windows, Formica-topped tables in weird shapes, and waitresses in high-waisted slacks, ruffled white shirts with black bowties, and funny little hats that looked like fezzes. To pay for all that the joint charged an exorbitant buck twenty-five for a plate of ham and eggs, toast and potatoes, but they threw in the coffee for free.”

There are one or two significant name drops which help boost authenticity, amongst them a guest appearance by the sinister head of the CIA, Allen Dulles. Cassidy himself doesn’t do wisecracks, but there is plenty of snappy dialogue and verbal slaps in the face to keep us awake. This, after a post mortem:

“ ‘And a couple of other things make him interesting ….’
‘Okay. What?’
‘He had his underpants on backward.’
‘Sure. Why not? What else?’
‘I found someone’s fingertip in his stomach.’ ”

Taylor joins an elite bunch of writers whose novels are set in those turbulent post-war years of urban America. Jim Thompson, Ed McBain, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Micky Spillane – there are some big, big names there, but Taylor (below) doesn’t disgrace himself in their company. Cassidy is believable, flawed, but honest and with that elusive moral imperative that he shares with the better-known heroes in the genre. He has limited means, but he’ll be damned if he allows himself to be trampled on.

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Night Watch is available in all formats and is published by Severn House.

David C Taylor has his own website, and you can find him on Twitter at @DTNewYorkNoir

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . . The CALLAN novels of James Mitchell (part 2)

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James Mitchell (1926 -2002) held a number of jobs, including actor, teacher and journalist, before his first novel was published in the mid ‘fifties. Between 1964 and 1969 (as James Munro)  he wrote four well-received thrillers featuring “John Craig of Department K, British Secret Service, whose activities involve jobs too dangerous – or too dirty – for anyone else to handle.”.  It’s unsurprising that Mitchell would wish to adapt a Craig-like character for a television audience.

Death and Bright Water (1974)

DABWThere had been big changes since the last novel appeared a year earlier. The tv series had finished and Callan had transferred to the cinema in a moderately successful feature film (apparently the first to utilise Dolby sound).  It seems that James Mitchell saw Callan’s future as on the big screen. The plots of this novel and the next one reflect that change.

The story begins with Callan once more out of the Section and this time working with a road building gang. He is approached, via the KGB, to rescue an important Greek communist’s daughter from house arrest on Crete. Callan turns down the job, but is persuaded to take it after some pressure from the Section.  A crack squad is assembled, but it’s soon clear that some team members have plans of their own.

 While Hunter and the Section play a much smaller role than before, Lonely, however, was far too valuable a character to omit; and so he is brought along to assist in the inevitable house-breaking that will be required for the Crete stronghold.

The story moves along at a cracking pace, but James Mitchell has moved into 1970s international thriller territory, and this involves exotic locales (well, Crete) and a certain amount of travelogue writing.

Smear Job (1975)

Smear JobBy now Callan (and Lonely) are more or less free agents, pursuing lucrative careers in the world of personal security. The Section exists only to tie them, and potential readers, to the TV series.

From the blurb:

“There were two little tasks which Callan had to carry out for Hunter; he had to make sure that Gunther Kleist lost a very large sum of money at cards, and he had to steal a book from Lord Hexham’s library, a paperback edition of Mein Kampf….but that was only the start, an appetiser to a plot of diabolical complexity weaved by Hunter; a plot that was to take Callan from Sicily to Las Vegas, then on to Mexico, with death waiting at every turn.”

We have come a long way from the swinging light bulb of seven years ago….perhaps too far. This was to be the last Callan novel for twenty-seven years. It’s not hard to see why; the TV series was over and with it the loyal army of viewers and readers. I don’t how the sales compared with the earlier novels, but I don’t think that either this book or Death and Bright Water ran to more than a single printing in paperback. James Mitchell and his publishers might well have concluded that, commercially at least, Callan had run his course…

In any event, James Mitchell turned his attention back to screen-writing (When the Boat Comes In) and to a three book series in the mid 1980s featuring reluctant adventurer Ron Hoggett, and his minder Dave – “ex-student, ex-paratrooper, ex drop-out”.

To summarise – James Mitchell was incapable of writing a dull book and the last two novels are fast moving adventure thrillers. Seen from the present day they perhaps don’t capture the authentic atmosphere of the TV series in the way that the first two novels do. But all four books remain very readable.

Bonfire Night (2002)

Bonfire NightWritten when James Mitchell was old and unwell, and published a  year before his death, this is something of a curio. Callan has been free of the Section for at least a decade, and in that time he and Lonely have made vast fortunes in the electronics business. This at least follows on from the conclusion of the previous novel, when Callan and Lonely were establishing something  of a living outside the Section.  But the plot, which need not detain us here, is difficult to credit when it’s not merely confusing.   The book is not without its moments, but is for Callan completists only.

 

 

Stuart Radmore, April 2019

The first part of Stuart’s account of the Callan novels is here.

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