Friday, June 18, 2010

Death of a Citizen

I have just recovered from one of those nasty viruses. Nothing dramatic or life-threatening, just enough to have me engulfed in waves of self-pity. In the aftermath, it was difficult to concentrate on reading or doing anything else, so, to re-stimulate my interest in reading, I turned to an old favorite dating back to my childhood: Donald Hamilton’s “spy” novel Death of a Citizen.

Set in 1958 (published as a paperback original in 1960), Death of a Citizen introduces us to Hamilton’s most popular creation, Matt Helm. Living in New Mexico, Helm makes a comfortable living as a photographer and writer of westerns (Hamilton was also a very good western writer), with a wife and three small children. Thirteen years prior, however, Helm had served in World War Two under the code name Eric as part of an elite group of assassins, managed by a mysterious boss known as Mac. Helm has left his violent past behind, but it catches up with him when he meets an old associate at a cocktail party, who recruits him to help her with a local operation. What Helm doesn’t know at first is she has switched sides, and wants to use him to commit and take the fall for a murder of a prominent scientist.

Helm is rusty, and slow to get back into the game, until his old partner and lover decides to kidnap his baby to force him to do her bidding. Citizen Helm dies, and Eric is reborn.

Although out of print and not very well known today, the Matt Helm series was extremely popular. Hamilton published 27 books in the series, and completed the as-yet-unpublished 28th before his death in 2006. I loved the series because of its lack of sentimentality, which fatally mars most such efforts. Helm, although possessing a dry sense of humor, is a professional killer, and makes no effort to soften his work. When the government assigns a target or gives him a mission, he carries it out, no matter the cost. The bad guy takes a hostage as a shield? Too bad, but a bullet will easily go through the hostage to hit the target. Fair fights and compassion are for TV shows, not for real spy work.

There’s no denying the books are a little dated. Some of the attitudes toward women are in keeping with the time, as Helm beds them and (mostly) forgets them, and sometimes kills them himself. Still re-reading the book was just as satisfying as the first time for me, and if you have a taste for harder-boiled spy novels than the better known James Bond, give Matt Helm a try. You will have to pick up used copies, but they are fairly easy to find.

The series was turned into four movies starring Dean Martin in the 60s, but they were comedies, and bore little resemblance to the books, and neither did a short-lived TV series in the 1970s. There are constant rumors of reviving the character in the movies, but stories of Steven Spielberg’s involvement and the possible casting of Bradley Cooper as Matt Helm indicate the material will be treated with no more respect than in the Martin versions.


Kent said...

The Matt Helm series is a good one.

I also enjoy the Martin movies, though I fully separated them from the books.

Works better that way.

Bryan Smith said...

Every time I'm at a used book store, I look at these and wonder if I'd like them. Based on this entry, I'll definitely pick this one up next time I see it. I've needed a new vintage series to obsess over ever since burning through Prather's Shell Scott books a couple years ago.