Sunday, April 1, 2012

Matt Helm: Death of a Citizen, Donald Hamilton

Death of a Citizen, published in 1960, was the first of Donald Hamilton’s many Matt Helm spy novels. The character is better remembered these days from the four 1960s movies staring Dean Martin as the super-cool super-spy.

The movies were tongue-in-cheek romps and great fun. If you only know the character from the movies then Death of a Citizen will come as quite a surprise. There is some sly humour but mostly it’s a gritty and rather dark tale of espionage. The only connection between the Matt Helm of the book and the Matt Helm of the movies is that both are photographers, but the book’s version of the character earns his living as a writer with photography being a sideline.

During the Second World War Matt Helm had served in a very shadowy US branch of the US intelligence services. They had no official existence (plausible deniability and all that) and worked undercover in Occupied Europe. A bit along the lines of the British Special Operations Executive, but with a difference. Matt Helm and his fellow agents were essentially assassins. The name of the organisation is never mentioned at any stage in the book.

The war is now long over and Matt Helm is now happily married and living a quite and generally unobtrusive life in New Mexico, earning a good living as a writer of westerns. He has three kids and family life agrees with him. He’s still in pretty good shape but he’s just a little heavier than he had been during those wartime days, and with a bit less hair. He’s almost forgotten that he was once a spy and an assassin.

So it comes a bit of a shock to him when Tina turns up at a cocktail party in New Mexico. Tina had been one of his fellow agents. She’s sort of an old flame as well, except that their very brief relationship during the war had been based purely on lust. It’s even more of a shock when she gives him one of their old recognition signals, a signal that means he should pretend not to know her and that she has important information for him. He’d assumed that all of his fellow operatives had been put out to pasture like him. Tina is apparently still an active agent in the field.

Matt wants none of this. He’s a happily married man. He’s retired from the spy business. Now Tina wants to tell him that Russian agents are planning to assassinate a neighbour of his, an atomic scientist who works nearby as a place called Los Alamos. And that he’s been reactivated. He’s unpleasantly reminded of the fact that their boss, Mac, told him after the war that they could never retire from an organisation that officially didn’t exist. His happy assumption that the organisation would have been long since closed down is apparently false. He’s still determined to have no part in any of this, until the dead girl turns up in his study. Tina has killed her and tells him the girl was a Russian agent, an assassin who works for the Soviet counterpart to their organisation.

Now he has no choice, and is drawn back into the world of the professional spy. And nothing is what it seems to be.

The novel packs a lot of action into its 140 pages. There are no gadgets. This is a world of deception and danger where spies rely on their wits and their training. And of course guns. It’s a world where killing is an unpleasant necessity. Matt Helm is a very good killer.

Anyone writing a spy novel in 1960 was going to be influenced by Ian Fleming whose reputation had by this time spread from Britain to the US in a big way. Fleming’s James Bond novels, unlike the Bond movies, were dark and surprisingly realistic spy thrillers (and they also featured no gadgets). They differed from earlier spy fiction in having a lot more violence and a lot more sex. Fleming did for espionage fiction what Mickey Spillane did for crime fiction. Death of a Citizen follows the same formula - plenty of fairly graphic violence and plenty of sex.

Matt Helm is not unlike Bond, although he’s a less polished version. He doesn’t drive a vintage Bentley, he drives a beat-up ’51 Chevy pickup truck. But he’s just as ruthless. He has perhaps more of a conscience than Bond but both characters understand equally well that their job is vitally necessary even if the more squeamish members of their society would prefer not to think about such things.

The main difference is that Matt Helm no longer wants to be part of this world. He doesn’t want to go back to killing for a living.

I can’t confirm this since this is the first Matt Helm book I’ve read but I’m told that the early ones at least have to be read in sequence. I liked it enough that I’ll probably seek out the second book, The Wrecking Crew. If you enjoy spy fiction from the era before it became bogged down in moral relativism and cynicism you could do worse than check out Donald Hamilton’s work.

2 comments:

  1. I definitely do recommend reading these in sequence. Some are much better than others, but there is a continuity between them that adds to the enjoyment. Helm is a fascinating character--and completely cold blooded. His frequent observations about things he doesn't like, such as women in pants, also make these books slightly reminiscent, but much lower key, than the works of John D. MacDonald. It's a shame that the Helm movies created the impression that the books must be lightweight entertainment. They are anything but.

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  2. Certainly the first three novels should be read in sequence -- No. 3 plays off of events in Helm's personal life that are central to "Death of a Citizen." Later other characters introduced in earlier books pop up in later ones.

    And yes, Matt Helm is cold-blooded, at least when it comes to his work. None of this nonsense of tying up dangerous enemy spies, so they can conveniently get loose later to cause trouble for him. Nope; either they get killed by their own side, or Helm dispatches them, exactly as they would dispatch him if the situation were reversed. The funniest black comedy bits come when less experienced intelligence operatives, or on occasion civilian characters, are shocked and horrified that he kills a dangerous spy. His view is that you wouldn't leave a rattlesnake loose in your house, would you?

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