Friday, February 12, 2010

Death Of A Citizen

I'm surprised it's taken me this long to write about Matt Helm. Unlike most of the series I have written about here, Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm books were a part of my literary diet when I was a kid. I started reading them when I was about 13 or 14, and have owned the first dozen or so paperbacks all that time. I don't think I have read any of them in over twenty years, but they have faithfully moved with me from house to dorm to trailer to apartment (many) to house in that time, ready for me when I was ready to tear into them again. I finally dug into Hamilton's first Helm novel, and it's just as great as I remember.

DEATH OF A CITIZEN was a Fawcett Gold Medal adventure published in 1960, which predates the men's adventure genre, but I'm including it anyway. Hero Matt Helm, an American spy, is much more in the Sam Durell mode than James Bond. Helm tells his stories in first person in a terse, tight, exciting style in which he approaches his duties as just a job. If he has to "make a touch," hey, it's just a job.

His first book finds Helm retired fifteen years after a distinguished war record operating in secret behind enemy lines. He's now married with three children, a cat, a nice adobe home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a lucrative career as a photographer and an author of western novels. Which all goes away lickety-split when a face from his past appears out of nowhere when he could have least expected it.

Tina, another agent with whom Matt teams on a treacherous mission in Europe during World War II, pops up in New Mexico one evening and blackmails him into accompanying her on her latest mission, which involves protecting an important atomic scientist (and friend of Matt's) from assassins, one of which Matt finds dead in the bathtub of his backyard studio.

DEATH OF A CITIZEN is not exactly action-packed, and Hamilton doesn't leave a trail of bodies in Helm's wake, but the violence that occurs is sudden, shocking, and in Helm's mind, absolutely necessary. By the time DEATH OF A CITIZEN has ended, Helm has pulled a shockingly quick 180 on his domestic life and has fallen back into his old ways. "Killing is my line," he says in a matter-of-fact way, which is the way Helm approaches everything.

If you were going to read any of the I have covered on this blog, I would suggest Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels are a great place to start.

6 comments:

Bill Crider said...

One of the best of the Gold Medal series, and this book is one of the best of the series.

hobbyfan said...

Heh, I'm surprised the books weren't reissued with Dean Martin's picture on the cover as Helm. Or were they?

Mike said...

The Matt Helm books get my very highest recommendation. Got a mint set, a readers' set, and most of a 3rd set that I use to loan to friends.

Dean Martin's aweful picture was on the back of a few early books as they were reprinted, but thankfully not many. I actually ripped the back cover off a book in my loner set, so as not to let my buddy see Martin and go in with the wrong idea.

Love the original cover art on those first dozen

Bruce said...

And anyone who does want to check out the Helm books espeically the first 12 need to be read in order. Since there is carryover from book to book and characters that come and go.

Good luck on your search for Helm books the early ones are easy to find. But the later ones get harder and harder to find and some people ask crazy prices when you hit the last three.

mmtz said...

Dropping in a little late on this conversation. I've added a gallery of Dean Martin as Matt Helm book covers. I haven't found any US editions with Dino on the front cover, but he was featured prominently on many foreign reprints of Hamilton's Matt Helm novels.

Benzadmiral said...

Helm might not seem as shocking to readers today, where every film has more violence than these books and there have been plenty of "hard-boiled" heroes who flout the conventions of TV or movie heroes. But in 1960, this was strong stuff indeed.