Saturday, December 07, 2013

COMES THE DARK STRANGER by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Comes the Dark Stranger is the fourth novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1962.  It is an anomaly in Mr Patterson’s body of work because it is less adventure and more noir than anything else he wrote.

Martin Shane came to Burnham to kill a man.  Eight years earlier he and five other volunteered for Korea in Burnham, and were later captured by the Chinese.  They were questioned and tortured by a slight, club-footed Chinese officer named Colonel Li.  The men were captive for only a few days, but it was long enough for one of the men to be summarily executed and another to give Colonel Li what he wanted.  And Shane came back to Burnham because he needs to know who spilled to Colonel Li, and punish him with his life.

Comes a Dark Stranger is an interesting study of cold war paranoia.  Martin Shane received a severe head wound in Korea when American bombers raided the monastery where he was held captive, which took his memory for seven long years.  The seven years between the last day at the monastery and a few weeks before the story begins are a blank, and the war is fresh on his mind.  The cast of characters is straight from a 1950s film noir—a deformed millionaire, a shifty nightclub owner, a sweet but worldly club girl, a drunk and his bitter greedy wife, and the mandatory seemingly honest middle class lady.

The prose is an interesting mixture of Mr Patterson’s normal, almost lyrical prose, and a more straight forward dark, shadowy prose.  An example of the former is the opening lines—

“He was drowning in a dark pool.  The hands of the damned were pulling him down, but he kicked and struggled and fought his way to the surface.”
And an example from the later—

“There was a narrow, dark opening in the opposite wall, and he crossed the street and plunged into it as the car flashed back.”
The deep shadows and stark flesh of an urban underbelly is palpable in much of the prose, and as I read the novel I was reminded of the shadowy lighted films popular in the era heavy with paranoia, betrayal, and fear.  The paranoia is central to the plot and the throughout the novel Shane hears the scrape and slide sound of Colonel Li walking.  It is a sound he hasn’t heard since the Korea, but it is a sound that literally represents the narrow edge between sanity and madness.

Comes the Dark Stranger is different than most of Mr Patterson’s novels, and while it seems rushed in spots and a tad over plotted, it is an entertaining diversion.  Its atmosphere and tone is rich, and Martin Shane is an engaging protagonist—if seemingly unreliable much of the time—who the reader easily identifies.  But the most interesting element of the novel is its experimental nature.  Not experimental in the macro sense, but rather in the micro sense—i. e. Mr Patterson’s own body of work.   
There is an interesting correlation between Harry Patterson and Martin Shane.  Shane regained his memory when he fell and the shrapnel lodged in his brain shifted.  Harry Patterson was diagnosed with something called essential tremor syndrome in his early seventies, which is a neurological disease that caused shaking so severe he was unable to hold a pen.  He suffered a seizure at a friend’s house, fell and struck his head, and the tremors stopped nearly instantly.  In an interview with Reuters Mr Patterson said, “In a way it is a bit like Lazarus.  It has been a blessing late in life—this unprecedented cure.”

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