22 January 2014

Murderers Move in on Montreal… Again

Intent to Kill
Michael Bryan [pseud. Brian Moore]
New York: Dell, 1956

Hired assassins travel to Montreal tasked with killing a foreign leader. These barest of bones will seem familiar to anyone who has read The Executioners (1951), the second of Brian Moore's disowned thrillers, but Intent to Kill, sixth of the disowned, is markedly different.
A much better novel, to be sure, it relies much less on convention. The hero sets the tone. Where The Executioners had untethered tough guy Mike Farrell, Intent to Kill gives us young Dr Robert McLaurin, a straight-laced American surgeon who has come north to learn at the feet of Dr McNeill at the Canadian Neurological Institute.

Whether McNeill is modelled on Wilder Penfield or the Canadian Neurological Institute is really the Montreal Neurological Instituteit most certainly is – matters; Intent to Kill ranks amongst Moore's best thrillers due to research. Its air of authenticity and authority had staff at the Institute convinced that "Michael Bryan" was one of their own.

The facility plays host to nearly all the action. The assassins' target is Juan Menda, the centrist president of an unnamed South American country, who must undergo surgery to repair damage sustained in a previous assassination attempt. Meanwhile, wife Carla waits in her hotel room, bored by Montreal, hating the winter, and casting about for a temporary bed partner to keep her warm. In these three ways she has something in common with Margaret, Dr McLaurin's wife. Margaret has just returned from visiting friends with benefits in Boston, and is now stepping up an ongoing campaign to get her husband back south and into a lucrative, if inconsequential practice. Margaret's latest move involves blackmail: if her demands are not met, she'll tell McNeill that her husband is having an affair with fair Nancy Ferguson, yet another of the Institute's unselfish doctors. Not true, of course, but Margaret's threats force McLaurin to recognize his love for lovely Nancy.

Meanwhile, the hired assassins – also American – sit in the Windsor Hotel, waiting for the right opportunity.

It was one of Moore's contentions that murder happened far too easily on page and screen. The killing of Herman Gromek in Torn Curtain, for which he wrote the screenplay, shows us the reality. Not even the seasoned assassins of Intent to Kill have an easy time of it. They do their homework, wait for the right moment, and botch the job – a failure that can only make the next attempt more difficult.

I've written here often, always with envy, of the days when talents like Ted Allan and hacks like Ronald J. Cooke, could simply dash off a paperback for quick and easy cash. Intent to Kill is from those times, is of those times, but is in another league. Care went into its composition. Most writers would take pride in having their name on its cover, but then so very few writers can compare to Moore.

Trivia: Two years after publication, Intent to Kill became the very first Brian Moore novel to be adapted for the screen. Some good soul has posted the trailer on YouTube:

More trivia: According to biographer Patricia Craig, the success of Judith Hearne had Dell wanting to use the author's true name on Intent to Kill. Moore refused the request.

Object: A compact, 192-page mass market paperback. The final page features an ad flogging "Dell First Editions" of John D. Macdonald's April Evil, Berton Roueche's The Last Enemy, and Night Fell on Georgia by Charles and Louise Samuels.

The cover is by Richard M. Powers, a man much better known for his surrealist science fiction art. Collectors will want to look for covers bearing a 35¢ price which were printed for export to the Canadian market.

Access: I paid far too much for my copy: $50.00. This was back in 1990, years before internet book selling (and before I learned that Dell's print-run was over 200,000). You can find plenty of Very Good and better copies online beginning at US$7.95.

Good that it's so cheap as only the Toronto Public Library and ten of our university libraries have copies ‐ and they're non-circulating.

Intent to Kill holds the distinction of being the first of Moore's disowned thrillers to have appeared in the United Kingdom. Published by 1956 in Eyre & Spottiswoode (10s, 6d), you can't buy a copy in dust jacket for under £225.

A Danish edition was published in 1956 under the title, Menda skal dø (Menda Die).

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  1. A great pity that it's only the trailer on YouTube - I'd love to see the whole film.

    1. A pity, indeed. If you haven't already seen it - and even if you have - I recommend The Luck of Ginger Coffey, another Brian Moore adaptation set in wintertime Montreal. Robert Shaw's Ginger is a delight - just as I imagined when reading the novel.

      The whole thing is available here on YouTube. Just the thing for a man recovering from surgery.

      My best to you.