Donald Hamilton,
Death of a Citizen
(Titan, 2013)

Donald Hamilton,
The Wrecking Crew
(Titan, 2013)

Death of a Citizen, the first of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels, burst onto the scene in 1960. It was followed by 26 more Helm books that sold a total of more than 20,000,000 copies, yet they were allowed to go out of print where they languished until Titan began reissuing them this year.

Before discussing the first two to be re-released, let me just say it's good to have them back.

At the time Hamilton began publishing his series, James Bond was the hot secret agent in town. Matt Helm could not have been more different. As mystery publisher and critic Otto Penzler said, "Whereas Bond was a sophisticate who knew wine, expensive cars and tuxedos, Helm lived much of the time in the American Southwest, drove a pickup truck and wore flannel shirts."

In the first novel, he wasn't even an agent any longer. He was a writer and photographer who had, during the second World War, served in a top-secret government organization dedicated to the assassination of top Nazi leaders. After the war he left all that behind, got married, had three children and built his career.

However, he is reluctantly pulled back into service, and the novel explores the tension between who he was and who he is today. Can a man like Helm ever become a different man altogether, simply because the war has been over for a decade? Helm tries to balance it all out and resists going back until a former colleague, who has joined the other side, kidnaps his baby daughter. A main theme of the book is that actions have consequences; to get his daughter back, Helm has to face the consequences of his past.

By the time we pick Helm up again in The Wrecking Crew, he is once again working for the secret agency he had served during the war. He is sent under his disguise as a photographer to Sweden to kill a foreign agent named Caselius. The only problems are that no one has ever seen Caselius, and Helm's cover is blown the moment he lands in Sweden. As he tries to work his way through to Caselius, the bodies begin piling up and he receives new orders: find Caselius, identify him but under no circumstances kill him. Now forbidden to act until he receives new orders, Helm finds himself in trouble -- especially because Caselius is aware of his new orders.

Death of a Citizen and The Wrecking Crew are fine books; the passage of time since their original publication has not harmed them: they've survived the aging process very well. Of course, there's a touch of male chauvinism in them, a reflection of the times, but women in these novels are not the beautiful, helpless babes of the James Bond books and movies. In Hamilton's books, women drive the action and have prominent roles. The key to the books is that everyone is driven by strong motivations and few people are simple enough to be just the people we think they are.

Titan Books intends to reissue all of the Matt Helm titles. This is good news.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

16 March 2013

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