MAURICE HELBRANT – Narcotic Agent. Ace Double-15, paperback, abridged, 1953. Originally published in hardcover by Vanguard Press, 1941.

   This is one of the most expensive books in my collection, so I read it carefully, but when I finished I had to wonder what all the fuss is about.

   Don’t get me wrong; Narcotic Agent is a tough, reasonably well-written book, and as a document from the days when attitudes towards drugs and drug-users were very different, it’s a vivid artifact of its time.

   Helbrant was a Federal Narcotics agent for more than 15 years, beginning in the days of Prohibition, and during that time he seems to have carried out his job with admirable professionalism, which comes through very effectively in his account of those days: calm, matter-of-fact, and untinged by that megalomania one finds in the ghost-written memoirs of J. Edgar Hoover. He’s just a guy doing a dangerous job and doing it well.

   It’s this professionalism in fact that mitigates against Narcotic Agent as literature. There’s no clear narrative line here, just a simple recounting of case after case (after case, after case…) of him working, usually undercover, with drug addicts and stool pigeons to catch their dealers and thence to the organized gangs of dealers.

   Helbrant occasionally stops to reflect on the nature of Narcotics and their effect on Society in his day, but not often; usually just a few lines about why he’s doing all this and then back to the job at hand. One appreciates the competence, and the absence of sanctimony — rare in books about Drugs in those days — but the result is only readable, not entertaining.

   All of which left me wondering why Narcotic Agent is such a valuable book. Copies can go for as much as $5,000, which is surprising for a tome as ordinary as this. Perhaps someday I’ll flip it over and see if the other side is any good….