Sat 15 Nov 2014
by Francis M. Nevins
PHILIP ATLEE – The Green Wound. Gold Medal k1321, paperback original, 1963. Reprinted later as The Green Wound Contract, Gold Medal, paperback, 1967.
Joseph Liam Gall’s first appearance in print was as a free-lance soldier of fortune embroiled in a Burmese civil war in Pagoda (1951), a hardcover adventure novel published under James Atlee Phillips’s full name. A dozen years later, writing as Philip Atlee, the author revived Gall, made him a disillusioned contract killer for the CIA, and put him through more than twenty paperback spy thrillers, of which the first and best was The Green Wound.
The crime writer with whom Phillips seems to have the most in common is Raymond Chandler. Both men use a cinematically vivid first-person style (although Phillips avoids the profusions of metaphor and simile that make Chandler so easy to parody) and eschew careful plotting in favor of strong individual scenes and memorable moments.
Almost all the Joe Gall novels suffer from near-chaotic structure, but Phillips’s finest scenes are so fresh and alive that, as Chandler said of Dashiell Hammett’s, they seem never to have been written before.
Phillips’s treatment of his main character is a brilliant study in schizophrenia. On one level Gall is the stoic code hero of the Hemingway tradition, and on another he stems from Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the professional killer for his government, the larger-than-life secret agent forever besting villains of the mythological-monster sort.
In the conventional patriotic thriller of this type, we are never allowed to doubt that whatever our side does is right because we are by definition the good guys. Phillips at his best subverts this nonsense and approaches the insight of John Le Carre that perhaps at bottom We and They are mirror images of each other.
Witness,for instance, the story line of The Green Wound. Gall is paid a huge sum by his former bosses at the CIA to come out of idyllic semi-retirement in an Ozark castle, infiltrate a quiet Texas community, and frustrate a plot to ruin the politically connected millionaire who runs the city. From his vantage point as manager of the local country club, Gall dispassionately observes the viciousness of the ruling class and the institutionalized racism that keeps the blacks in a shantytown on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.
In due course Gall learns that the blacks have secretly organized, with the help of federal civil-rights enforcers, to register to vote at the last possible minute and then oust the white politicians at the polls. On Election Day a bloody race war erupts, leaving the city in flames. Later Gall pursues the instigator of the revolt, a horribly disfigured black veteran who was used by army doctors as an experimental animal and is aching for revenge on the entire power structure.
The action swings from Mexico to Texas to New Orleans to the Caribbean and back again, but Phillips never resolves the tension between Gall the good soldier and Gall the man who knows he’s on the wrong side. This tension, rather than its considerable virtues as an action thriller, is what makes The Green Wound one of the finest spy novels ever written by an American.
In most of the later Galls, Phillips downplays or eliminates the structural schizophrenia, and the lesser exploits overstress local color and exotic settings — Sweden, Tahiti, Thailand, Haiti, British Columbia, Korea, and elsewhere — at the expense of story and action. But even the weaker Phillips novels are usually redeemed by several powerful individual scenes that stick in the memory long after the book as a whole is forgotten.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.
Note: Posted earlier on this blog was a comprehensive overview of the Joe Gall series by George Kelley, including a complete checklist. Check it out here.
Besides the large number of comments left in response to George’s article, additional replies by David Vineyard and Mark Lazenby appear in a later post of their own. You may find it here.