Showing posts with label Richard Helms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Helms. Show all posts

20 March 2020

Geezer, PI


We have a special treat today.  Richard Helms is a retired forensic psychologist and college professor. He has been a finalist for the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Derringer Award six times, winning it twice; and has had five nominations for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award; two for the ITW Thriller Award, with one win; and one  nomination for the Mystery Readers International Macavity Award. He is also a frequent contributor to periodicals and anthologies, and he recently sold his third screenplay. His 20th novel, Brittle Karma, comes out this summer. An avid woodworker, Helms enjoys travel, gourmet cooking, playing with his grandchildren, and rooting for his beloved Carolina Tar Heels and Panthers.
— Robert Lopresti

Geezer, P.I.
by Richard Helms


Last July 4th, my wife and I were relaxing at home, reveling in the lullaby of pyrotechnic explosions echoing across the neighborhood, when our daughter called to report she’d just experienced an earthquake. Rachel moved to Los Angeles six years ago for an internship with the Conan O’Brien Show, and stayed to make a go of comedy writing. On July 4th, however, she rocked and rolled with the swarm of 6.0 and higher tremors radiating from Ridgecrest, about 125 miles away. She was safe, when all was said and done, but thinking about the potential for earthquakes reminded me that I inadvertently wrote my San Francisco PI Eamon Gold (Grass Sandal, 2003; Cordite Wine, 2005) into a Spenser-style age conundrum because of another earthquake.

When Robert B. Parker originated the Spenser PI series in 1972, he depicted Spenser as a Korean War veteran who also boxed professionally against Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott retired from the ring in 1953. Presuming Spenser was at least 20 when the Korean War ended, he was born no later than 1933. That means today's Ace Atkins version of Spenser is 87 years old!

When I started writing Eamon Gold stories in 1999, he was in his early forties. Part of his backstory was that the house he inherited from his parents, in the Marina District of San Francisco, was destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. No problem, since it was only 10 years earlier, right?

Wrong. It's a problem. The third Eamon Gold novel, Brittle Karma, will be released by Black Arch Books this summer. It’s now twenty-one years after I first wrote Grass Sandal. By my best estimate, Gold and I are now both in our middle 60s. He was always at least a decade older than his girlfriend, Heidi Fluhr, who is in her thirties. Now he's at least thirty years older. In my head, he's still in his middle forties. History, however, says otherwise.

I dodged this problem with Pat Gallegher, my New Orleans-based marquee protagonist, by writing myself a rule that all his novels take place before Hurricane Katrina, and all his short stories take place between 1999's Joker Poker and 2001's Voodoo That You Do. So, despite the fact that the fifth Gallegher novel—Paid In Spades—came out in 2019, twenty years after Joker Poker, Gallegher is permanently between 48 and 52.

Parker and Atkins solved the problem of a geriatric Spenser by invoking magic, declaring that Spenser, Hawk, and Susan simply don't age, even though all the ancillary characters like Vinnie Morris, Martin Quirk, Lieutenant Healy, and Henry Cimoli grow decrepit and move into retirement.

I happily admit that my Eamon Gold series is a Spenser clone. George Pelecanos would refer to Gold as one of ‘Spenser’s Sons.’ I simply decided, in tribute to Robert B. Parker, to also allow my protagonist and his squeeze to defy the laws of nature and—like Peter Pan—simply never age. Details, right?

Eamon Gold might not age, but his creator certainly does. I recently attended my first Medicare physical exam. The hair that falls to the floor during my monthly visits to Great Clips gets grayer by the year. Things ache that didn’t ache before, and the aches aren’t going away. However, I am remarkably impressed—despite the inevitable pull of gravity and the countdown timer clicking away in my genes—that, at sixty-five, I’m still active and vibrant. My shock at my lack of total dilapidation at a point in life when most of my ancestors were already dead has inspired me.

In Brittle Karma, I include a character who is a porn star in his fifties. Gold is curious as to how he keeps working in a business that seemingly dotes on youth and vitality. The character says, “Easy. There’s a market for middle-aged actors. Boomers, man. They dug in and aren’t letting go. The Sixties kids are retiring, with lots of disposable income and a burning desire not to relinquish their youth and sexuality. If anything, they become even more sexually adventurous as they age. Half the swing clubs in San Francisco cater to people over fifty. It’s like a sea of gray. Granny porn is a real thing these days. People want to watch other people who look like them.”

Likewise, I believe Boomers—still the largest consumer group for genre fiction—want to read mystery protagonists who look like them and share their cultural history. Recently, I penned a screenplay for an independent filmmaker who insisted I use my New Orleans protagonist Pat Gallegher as the lead character. However, I wrote it in modern day, fifteen years after Gallegher’s novel adventures. He’s older by a great margin, and feels it, but in the end, he is still the knight errant of his youth. Our bodies may change, but our character still shines through.

One of my short stories, “See Humble and Die” (The Eyes of Texas, edited by Michael Bracken, Down and Out Books, 2019) was recently selected for inclusion in Houghton-Mifflin’s The Best American Mystery Stories 2020, edited by Otto Penzler and C.J. Box.  This story features a retired Texas Ranger in his early seventies who fends off the boredom of retirement by hanging out a P.I. shingle and serving legal papers. As I wrote it, I saw seventy-five year old Sam Elliott as my protagonist, Huck Spence. And, you know what? It worked. I can still imagine Elliott kicking ass and taking names, and I bet you can too. When it comes to heroics and good old-fashioned knuckles-and-know-how detective action, there’s a market for tough old birds like Huck Spence.

As my character in Brittle Karma noted, the Boomers are dug in and not letting go.  We’re the generation who said, “We’re never growing old!”, and we’re keeping that promise. We deserve literary characters who look and think the way we do, even if we might need to suspend our disbelief, just a tad, to make them plausible.

26 March 2014

The Man Who Kept The Secrets


by David Edgerley Gates


Richard Helms was the Director of Central Intelligence from 1966 to 1973, which makes him the longest-serving DCI in CIA history. He was also the first DCI to be appointed from the ranks, a career intelligence professional. Previous DCI's had been, in effect, political appointees, recruited from outside the Agency. Helms was DCI for Viet Nam, the Six-Day War, the overthrow of Salvador Allende, and Watergate---which is just the highlight reel. In other words, he knew where the bodies were buried.



He joined OSS during the war, and when CIA was established, in 1947, Helms came on board, one of the generation that included Larry Houston and James Angleton. These three guys, over the next twenty-five years, might be said to be CIA's institutional memory. They certainly shepherded, and shaped, the Agency and its legacy.

Helms is the only one who wrote a memoir, though, published after his death. It's too bad Houston and Angleton chose not to, it would have been interesting to contrast and compare, but keeping confidences was a habit of mind. They were secret men.

Memoirs of the spy community are a peculiar genre, and not always to be trusted. The most famous example is Kim Philby's MY SILENT WAR, written under KGB discipline, if not actually dictated by them. Philby settles a lot of scores, and spreads active disinformation. His book might best be seen as one last deception. Then, for instance, there's former CIA director William Colby's HONORABLE MEN, which is self-serving in the extreme, if not outright fabrication. The thing about the Helms book is that although he leaves much unsaid, what he does say is frank and transparent. (It helps, of course, to know the background, to fill in the blanks.) Helms doesn't give up operational details, or sources and methods, but he gives a solid flavor to the life, and his sense of duty.

One of the more disputed tangles in CIA's archive is the Golitsin-Nosenko controversy, which embroiled James Angleton's shop, the office of
JAMES ANGLETON
Counterintelligence, in the hunt for a double agent---shades of Kim Philby. The best explanation of this very convoluted story is Thomas Powers' excellent book, THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS. It's also the subject of Edward Jay Epstein's LEGEND, and David Martin's WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS (an expression attributed to Angleton). Helms covers Operation FOXTROT, the codename for Nosenko's defection, in just under seven pages, and doesn't assign it that much importance, his main point being that FOXTROT didn't tear the Agency apart, which is the premise of the Martin book. Helms goes out of his way to rehabilitate Angleton, whose forced resignation by Colby created a few lifetimes of bad blood.



It's a good demonstration of Helms' method. Don't gossip. Don't show off at somebody else's expense. Basically, be a gent. He obviously doesn't respect Colby much, but he stops of actually calling him a liar. The same is true of Nixon, even though Helms acknowledges Nixon's paranoia, and Nixon more or less stabbed Helms in the back, but Helms doesn't grudge Nixon his successes. This is, however, a place in the story where it turns dark. Nixon instructs Helms, in no uncertain terms, to get rid of Allende in Chile, and keep a lid on it. This leads to big trouble for Helms, later on, because his testimony in front of the Senate, touching on Allende and Chile, is clearly shown to be untrue. He was keeping the president's confidence, but under pressure, Helms pled to a misdemeanor charge in federal court, of being careless with the facts.

This speaks to one of the major themes in both the Powers and in Helms' own story, silence and duty, namely that the DCI only has one consumer, the
DICK HELMS 
president, and you only serve one president at a time. Helms isn't circumspect about this at all, and makes no apology for it. He has no reason to. We can argue about the function of the intelligence community, and whether or not the national security apparatus had overreached itself, but Larry Houston once remarked, in private conversation, that he never thought their intentions were dishonest. Helms was a principled guy. He kept faith. It cost him.