Wed 19 Nov 2008
by George Kelley
Joe Gall is the Cadillac of hardass spies. Sure, Matt Helm can crush a foe’s kidneys with a crowbar, but would Helm allow himself to be turned into a heroin addict as Gall does in The Death Bird Contract (Fawcett, 1966), surely one of the best books James Atlee Phillips (who writes the Joe Gall series as “Philip Atlee”) ever wrote?
I started the Joe Gall series early on with The Green Wound (Fawcett, 1963) and The Paper Pistol Contract (Fawcett, 1966). I was immediately impressed by the quality of the writing:
We find out later that the man was carrying nearly half a kilo of uncut heroin in his butt, sealed in pliofilm and insertion surgically assisted. However, something went wrong: the bundle busted and a pound of pure heroin blasted into the tissues of the man’s body without warning. And the description of the event is graphic, yet at the same time poetic.
The other trademark of the Joe Gall series is detailed references to local food, buildings, streets, and exotic customs. The reason is that James Atlee Phillips visited each of the sites of the novels in the series, many times writing the first draft on location to be sure to capture faithfully the local flavor. (Details of Phillips’ writing habits were related to me by a friend of his, Tom Van Zandt.)
From Van Zandt’s information, Joe Gall is a projection of Phillips’ own fiery personality and style. Early in the series, Phillips has a minor character describe Joe Gall’s role that remains more or less consistant throughout the series:
Joe Gall has class. He works only on a contract basis for large sums of money and spends most of his time in a fabulous mountain retreat in the Ozarks. He’s similar in style and flair to that legendary Western “consultant,” Paladin.
In terms of quality, I like the first four books in the series best. The Skeleton Coast Contract (Fawcett, 1968) features my favorite Joe Gall scene: Joe’s staked out on an anthill, and I assure you the description will make you itchy and wiggly for weeks. I have a certain amount of sentimental fondness for The Canadian Bomber Contract (Fawcett, 1971) because my home town is Niagara Falls, New York and I appreciate the fact that Phillips took the time to write an adventure taking place in my backyard and get it right.
I recommend all the books in the Joe Gall series without reservation, but you have my preferences. The later books seemed to lack vitality and The Last Domino Contract (Fawcett, 1976) has Joe Gall calling it quits. Whether Phillips brings Gall out of retirement remains to be seen; however we have several top quality books to continue to enjoy while they remain in print.
Bibliographic data: The JOE GALL books. [Expanded from Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin.]
Pagoda, as by James Atlee Phillips. Macmillan, hardcover, 1951. Bantam 1055, paperback, 1952. [Burma]. Joe Gall is an independent soldier of fortune.
All later books are paperback originals:
The Green Wound. Gold Medal k1321, July 1963 [New Orleans, LA] Joe Gall is now a semi-retired contract agent for the CIA. Reprinted as The Green Wound Contract, Gold Medal, 1967.
The Silken Baroness. Gold Medal k1489, 1964 [Canary Islands] Reprinted as The Silken Baroness Contract, Gold Medal, 1966
The Death Bird Contract. Gold Medal d1632, 1966 [Mexico]
The Paper Pistol Contract. Gold Medal d1634, 1966 [Tahiti]
The Irish Beauty Contract. Gold Medal d1694, 1966 [Bolivia]
The Star Ruby Contract. Gold Medal d1770, 1967 [Burma]
The Rockabye Contract. Gold Medal d1901, 1968 [Caribbean]
The Skeleton Coast Contract. Gold Medal D1977, 1968 [Africa]
The Ill Wind Contract. Gold Medal R2087, 1969 [Indonesia]
The Trembling Earth Contract. Gold Medal, 1969 [U.S. South]
The Fer-de-Lance Contract. Gold Medal, Jan 1971 [Caribbean]
The Canadian Bomber Contract. Gold Medal T2450, August 1971 [Montreal, Canada]
The White Wolverine Contract. Gold Medal T2508, Dec 1971 [Vancouver, Canada]
The Kiwi Contract. Gold Medal T2530, Feb 1972 [New Zealand]
The Judah Lion Contract. Gold Medal T2608, Sept 1972 [Ethiopia]
The Spice Route Contract. Gold Medal T2697, April 1973 [Middle East]
The Shankill Road Contract. Gold Medal T2819, Sept 1973 [Ireland]
The Underground Cities Contract. Gold Medal M2925, Feb 1974 [Turkey]
The Kowloon Contract. Gold Medal M3028, August 1974 [Hong Kong]
The Black Venus Contract. Gold Medal M3187, Feb 1975 [South America]
The Makassar Strait Contract. Gold Medal P3477, March 1976 [Indonesia]
The Last Domino Contract. Gold Medal 1-3587, 1976 [Korea]
Note: In a chart created by R. Jeff Banks accompanying the first appearance of this article, he points out that the background of the unnamed hero of The Deadly Mermaid by James Atlee Phillips (Dell 1st Edn #26, pb, 1954) is very similar to that of Joe Gall’s.