Monday, August 19, 2013


Hatchett, by Lee McGraw
October, 1976  Ballantine Books

This obscure paperback original features the first-person narrative of hardboiled private eye Madge Hatchett, who as you’ve no doubt guessed just happens to be a woman. A knockout of a woman at that, with other characters referring to her jawdropping good looks and her “big breasts,” even comparing her to Sophia Loren. But Hatchett’s female gender really doesn’t have much impact on Hatchett, and indeed you could read the first several pages of the novel and not even realize she is a woman.

The narrative voice is identical to that found in countless other hardboiled P.I. novels: a world-weary cynicism mixed with a bitter sense of humor. Hatchett carries herself just like Mike Hammer (and in fact it’s been wondered if this novel should be considered a sort of parody of Spillane’s Hammer novels), spouting off at the mouth and able to kick some shit when need be. Her femininity only comes up when she’s playing to the cliched image of the damsel in distress, usually to rope in some mark or to fool an overconfident opponent. Otherwise Hatchett goes through the novel knocking guys out, kicking them in the balls, or blowing them away with her Beretta (which of course she carries in her purse).

Hatchett was once a cop, but now works as a private eye in Chicago. She still makes use of her contacts on the police force, in particular Capt. Pete Connally, a guy who taught Hatchett everything she knew when she was a cop and who now feeds her information in exchange for info Hatchett has picked up in her own investigations. We don’t get much detail on past cases, but Hatchett opens with our narrator immediately on her latest case, which happens to be personal: an old friend of hers named Danny, a former convict who was trying to turn his life around, has had his throat slit in brutal fashion. Hatchett got Danny a job as a doorman in her apartment building, and she’s certain the guy had escaped his past life, so the running question throughout the novel is why he was killed.

Meanwhile McGraw serves up a host of other plots, all of which satisfactorily merge with the Danny murder as the novel progresses. For one there’s the mysterious Mr. Big, a shadowy entity who is supposedly heading up the entirety of Chicago’s ciminal underworld; the cops had a line-in on the man, with a star witness named Red Sharkey who was about to blab all he knew. But Sharkey was blown up (coincidentally, on the night Danny was killed), and the cops are trying to turn up the gorgeous blonde who was apparently behind the bombing of Sharkey’s “high security” apartment. There’s also the disappearance of Frank Flynn, a literary agent who lives in Hatchett’s apartment building; Flynn’s brother Mark is here visiting and approaches Hatchett, having read her name in the paper, to ask if she can find out what happened to him.

True to the private eye genre, Hatchett’s investigation leads her to a host of unusual characters, from a nebbish porn writer (who later turns out to be an agent from Bell’s security division!) to a Playboy Playmate of the Month. There’s even a talking parrot named Polly. The Flynn case gets the most narrative time, as it gradually develops that Flynn wasn’t just a literary agent, he was in fact a porn king, a publisher of kinky s&m paperbacks. (McGraw gives us a bit of foreshadowing on this; when Hatchett is confronted by a lecherous desk clerk early on, she sees that the guy’s reading a whips-and-chains porn book, and McGraw delivers an “excerpt” from it, displaying that his skills extend to sleaze parodies as well.)

All of the various plots (and a few more) are tossed into a blender, and it’s a lot of fun how McGraw handles them. As is mandatory for a hardboiled P.I., Hatchett barrels through the narrative with little fear or concern, threatening mobsters and dodging assassination attempts, blasting back at her attackers with her Beretta. She’s in danger throughout, and endures a lot of punishment, particularly when she is briefly captured in the finale. There’s only a bit of deus ex machina stuff, like when not once but twice Hatchett is sapped from behind, and her mysterious attackers don’t kill her, don’t even take her pistol. (This is later explained away with the old “I wasn’t considered a threat” copout.)

McGraw delivers some nice action setpieces, in particular that finale, which sees a bound and nude Hatchett locked in a room with Mr. Big (whose reveal is also nicely handled) on the top floor of a soundproofed building. This sequence ends with Hatchett escaping in a move that would make the Baroness proud, culminating with her setting the building on fire and walking out unscathed. There are also a few shootouts and chase scenes, but for the most part Hatchett uses her brains, in particular how she puts together Danny’s murder and who exactly was behind it, something McGraw saves for the very end.

An interesting note is that, even though Hatchett was published in 1976, there’s nothing in it that couldn’t have been published a few decades before. Other than a few f-bombs, Mr. Big’s high-tech (for the mid-‘70s) recording devices, and a brief moment where Hatchett smokes some dope, this whole novel comes off like a hardboiled pulp of the 1950s. You get little feel for the 1970s; in other words, the novel completely lacks the “shag rug” ambiance of other period novels, like the Killinger or Joe Rigg books.

As for the sex, it’s pretty much rated G. Hatchett sleeps with an old flame halfway through the novel, and it’s a fade to black scene, Hatchett out of it after smoking a joint. There’s also a bit later on where Hatchett tries to get it on with another male character, but this proves to be a ruse, and anyway McGraw again plays it conservative with the details. This means then that we have none of that strange stuff where a male author writes the first-person narrative of a female character as she has sex with a man, like you’ll encounter in the Cherry Delight books. So in other words, the sex here is much more tastefully described, which is to say it’s hardly described at all. However this results in huge demerits so far as the novel’s trash rating goes!

Finally there is the question of authorship. It’s been wondered if Lee McGraw is a male or female author. After some Googling I turned up a 1976 Catalog of Copyright Entries which states that “Lee McGraw” is the pseudonym of an author named Paul Zakaras. This at least puts to rest the gender of the author, however Zakaras has no other novels published to his name, and this was the only one to carry the Lee McGraw byline. I’d be curious to know why there was never a followup to Hatchett; the character is strong enough to carry another book at least, and obviously there are countless tales that can be told about a private eye, especially when the writer is as gifted as this.


Zwolf said...

I bought a copy of this a lonnnnnnng time ago (I'm talking decades) and still haven't read it, but always wondered if it was going to be as good as it looks. Looks like I may finally have to get around to reading it, since it sounds like it lives up to expectations. I'm a sucker for badass female protagonists, so this is right up my alley. I also wondered if it wasn't intended as maybe part of a series, but I never found a record of any follow-ups.

Joe Kenney said...

Zwolf, good to hear from you, thanks for the comment. I think you'll enjoy Hatchett. I too wonder why there was no followup. What makes it more curious is that it would appear that Hatchett was part of a new "Ballantine Suspense" line the publisher was rolling out. I have another book from this line, "A Nickel Jackpot" by JJ Lamb, which actually was the start of a series, even if there was only one other volume published (by Ballantine, at least).

Unknown said...

Was that cover by Boris Vallejo? .

Joe Kenney said...

Yep -- it's a Boris cover painting. It also (sort of) illustrates an actual scene in the novel.