President’s Agent, by Joseph Hilton
No month stated, 1963 Lancer Books
Look everyone, yet another ‘60s spy series that tried to tap into the success of James Bond! But judging from the publication date, Bart Gould was one of the first on the bandwagon, coming out a year earlier than even the long-running Nick Carter: Killmaster. A big thanks to the Spy Guys And Gals site, which clears up the mystery of authorship on Bart Gould; this first volume was written by (and credited to) an author named Joseph Hilton, but the remaining seven volumes were written by a variety of authors and credited to the house name “Joseph Milton.”*
This initial volume was written by Joseph Hilton, then, and it looks like he returned for one more installment: Baron Sinister, which was the fifth volume of the series and published in 1965. His writing is fast-moving and economical and brings to mind the work of J.E. MacDonnell in the similar ‘60s spy series Mark Hood. And, like Mark Hood, this series starts off on relatively realistic ground before getting into more fantastical realms (juding from the back cover synopses of later volumes, Bart Gould doesn’t seem to get as fantastical as Mark Hood, though). Hilton does a fine job of introducing us to the titular character and bringing to life the settings and the characters, and also doles out more action than I expected in the final quarter, including gunplay. Unlike Mark Hood and other swinging ‘60s spies (ie Jonas Wilde), Bart Gould doesn’t just rely on his martial arts skills and is fine with blowing off the faces of his enemies.
An also unlike those other characters, Gould is not a secret agent when we meet him. Rather, he’s an international playboy type, one with a varied background (race car driving, some military service, big game hunting, etc). Hilton doesn’t dwell on Gould’s backstory, which is one of the things I dig about vintage pulp; he just leaves it that Gould’s been around the world – even getting a Medal of Honor at one point – and now at 36 he’s bored with it all. He grew up in wealth and now lives in a luxurious pad near Washington, DC; when we meet him one of his servants is giving him a rubdown after a quick boxing match. That night Gould gets a call from a former Senator named Titus Banning, an older man who now works in an unstated capacity for “the new President.” Banning has some business he wants to discuss with Gould.
The never-named “new President” is clearly John F. Kennedy, and likely President’s Agent was written in 1962: he’s nine years older than Bart Gould, and also was sort of a mentor to Gould when they both were kids in Cape Cod. The President even makes an appearance in the text, but he’s not described and is presented more as dashing figure from myth, someone everyone looks up to regardless of partisan politics. He personally has tasked Titus Banning with summoning Gould and offering him this particular job: to go down to San Barrios, a fictional Caribbean country, and look into a plot that might entail sending a bunch of uniformed troops across the border into the US as a veritable invading army.
Gould’s offered the assignment not only because he knows the President – and also because the President is aware of Gould’s military record and all-around adventuring skills – but also because he owns land in San Barrios. As mentioned Gould comes from wealth, and has inherited land down there, so it makes for perfect cover for him to abruptly visit the country. So then, Bart Gould in President’s Agent isn’t your typical secret agent; he has no training, and has literally been sent on the job by the President himself, mostly due to their past friendship. Also it’s interesting to note that Gould is a lot more hot-tempered than your average ‘60s spy protagonist, with none of the calm, cool, professionalism of someone like James Bond.
Hilton brings to life the tropical paradise that is San Barrios, with Gould going about the capitol city and trying to find out what happened to the Foreign Service ambassador here – whom we already know has been killed, thanks to a suspenseful opening which features a memorable villain (an oversized muscular dwarf who serves as henchman for the novel’s main villain). Action is not really frequent, but at least it’s not a slow-moving dirge like another ‘60s spy paperback set in Latin America: The Survivor. Gould isn’t even that focused on the local beauties, though he “promises himself” he’ll find the time for some of them as he flies into San Barrios. As it turns out, Bart Gould won’t get lucky until novel’s end.
Hilton seems to be taking us into that direction early on; Gould on the street is approached by a sexy young lady (whose name turns out to be Paquita), but she’s just a cover for some guy who tries to shove a knife in Gould’s back. Our hero defends himself, gets the knife, but both the attacker and Paquita take off. This leads into more of the vibe of a private eye yarn, as Gould hooks up with a local contact and goes on the hunt for Paquita, to find out who hired her. Eventually Hilton works in a plot featuring a local commie rabble-rouser, and Paquita’s boyfriend is involved with this guy’s group. All this turns out to be a red herring, as Gould ultimately learns that the threat comes from a German named Norden who owns the land near Gould’s own, and indeed is looking to take over Gould’s land. (How very German!)
An interesting thing about President’s Agent is that, while there isn’t much in the way of action, it still moves along very quickly, and holds the reader’s interest. The action really doesn’t come along until Gould is captured by Norden and breaks free, escaping across the camp of Norden’s soldiers. It’s a thrilling sequence, but I did feel that Hilton didn’t suitably exploit some of his characters. For example the muscular dwarf, with the deformed face; he’s much built up, but Gould dispenses of him rather perfunctorily. And in fact Gould’s first kill isn’t until page 119. However, this escape sequence features more action than many other ‘60s spy novels, with Gould blasting away with a .45 and other appropriated weapons. He also manages to shoot a helicopter out of the sky at novel’s end – one that happens to be carrying the traitorous wife of an American dignitary, indicating that Bart Gould doesn’t let things like gender get in the way of completing an assignment.
And speaking of which, Gould finally finds the time for one of those native beauties once the job’s been completed, the act occuring well off-page given the publication date…and for that matter, Hilton doesn’t much exploit his female characters. He does set up another volume, with Titus Banning informing Gould of a potential assignment in Austria – that is, after the President and Gould have gotten to play a little tennis. I liked this “personal agent” setup for the series and will be curious to see if it continues into the next volumes, whether they stick with the “new President” angle or change it given Kennedy’s assassination.
*Lancer Books attempted to clear up the confusion, though; I have the third printing of President’s Agent, dated 1967, and the cover credits the book to “Joseph Milton,” not Joseph Hilton. The ’67 reprint date is interesting, given that the last volume of the series, The Death Makers, was published in 1966. Maybe Lancer was trying to drum up enthusiasm for the series to see if more volumes were warranted? Here’s the cover of my reprint edition: