Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Howard Hunt's House Dick

As a teenager in the 1960s I devoured crime fiction and thrillers. I bought hardbacks from the book clubs and I purchased a good number of paperbacks books from local bookstores.

I recall a second-hand bookstore where I picked up scores of vintage pulp paperbacks dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. With their lurid covers depicting guns, gore and girls, the novel’s atmosphere was established well before you turned to page one.

So I was pleased to discover that entrepreneur and author Charles Ardai, along with fellow author Max Philips, established Hard Case Crime, which publishes a line of affordable paperback crime novels that hearken back to that golden age of tough guy heroes, femme fatales and brutal bad guys.

Hard Case Crime offers the old classics of crime, from Philadelphia’s own David Goodis to Ed McBain, to modern crime writers like Lawrence Block and the recently deceased Donald E. Westlake. I love the book covers, which feature pulp art from the post-WWII era.

Crime novels were enormously popular from WWII to the 1960s, “but the pulp novels that first captured the public’s imagination weren’t hardcovers,” Hard Case Crime states on its web site “They were paperbacks you could fit in your back pocket, with jaw-dropping cover paintings and bare-knuckled prose that grabbed you by the collar with the first sentence and held you until the last page. No one’s published books like that in years — until now.”

One of the Hard Case Crime novels I read was E. Howard Hunt’s House Dick. Although today Hunt is known primarily as one of the Nixon White House “plumbers” who engineered the botched Watergate Hotel burglary, he was also a prolific writer of crime stories and spy thrillers.

Hunt served in the U.S. Navy and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WWII, and he later joined the CIA when it was created to replace the wartime OSS. He served in a variety of outposts around the world and he was involved in many of the CIA’s history-making actions.

After he retired from the CIA Hunt went to work for Nixon’s special investigation unit. The unit was tasked with “plugging” the many leaks to the press — hence the name “the White House plumbers.”

Along with G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, Hunt hired a handful of Cuban-Americans to break into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D. C. and plant listening devices. They were caught in the act and the rest is history. (I recall a Red Foxx joke from the 1970s — “I call my wife Watergate because she bugs me.”)

Hunt served 33 months in federal prison and he died in 2007. His last book was a memoir called American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond.

There has been much speculation about Hunt’s involvement in President Kennedy’s assassination and that conspiracy theory was fueled by none other than Hunt’s old adversary, the KGB.

According to The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archives, the KGB fabricated a letter from Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (yes, Virginia, Oswald did indeed killed Kennedy), to Hunt.

The New York Times authenticated the letter (ha!) and even Oswald’s widow believed it was his handwrtting. But we now know the KGB wrote the letter, as they wanted to foster the conspiracy theory that the CIA was behind the murder of the president, rather than a nitwit who admired Castro and had defected to the Soviet Union for two years.

The Mitrokhin Archives, written by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, is the official history of the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency and secret police, the KGB. Mitrokhin was the KGB’s chief archivist and he smuggled copies of the files out, several sheets at a time wrapped in his socks and other hiding places. He eventually defected to the British, bringing his mother load of KGB files with him.

Hunt didn’t have anything to do with President Kennedy’s murder, as he was too busy writing about murder and high crimes. While serving in the U.S. government Hunt wrote some 50 novels, including his crime novel House Dick in 1961.

Originally published under the name Gordon Davis (like a good spy), Hunt wrote a novel about a Washington D. C. hotel detective named Pete Novak. In the course of his duties in the hotel (no, not the Watergate), Novak encounters a small time hood, his beautiful and tough ex-wife, a rich couple from out of state, and a sham-doctor who pushes herbal tea laced with mind-altering drugs.

When the rich wife reports her jewels stolen from her hotel room, Novak becomes involved in mystery, romance, robbery and murder. He comes to the aid of the hood’s ex-wife when he believes she has been framed for murder.

When she questions whether his actions bend his professional ethics, Novak replies “After what I did for you last night, my ethics show more curves than a pretzel.”

Novak works with, and sometimes ducks, a tough, world-weary homicide detective, who calls the hotel “a mattress factory.”

Hunt is a good crime writer, but he falls short of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. No crime in that, I suppose.

So if you want to read a good, vintage crime novel, along with some soft jazz and hard liquor, check out Howard Hunt’s House Dick, as well as some of the other Hard Case Crime books.

No comments:

Post a Comment