Saturday, August 20, 2016

Matt Helm: The Removers

The Removers was the third of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm spy thrillers. The first thing you need to understand when approaching the Matt Helm books is that they bear little or no resemblance to the films. The films are great high camp fun but the Matt Helm novels are serious spy fiction and very hard-boiled.

Swedish-born American writer Donald Hamilton (1916-2006) published twenty-seven Matt Helm books between 1960 and 1993, as well as writing crime fiction and westerns.

One of the interesting features of the early Matt Helm novels is that they absolutely must be read in sequence. It is assumed that the reader is aware of crucial background information on both the hero’s professional career and personal life contained in the previous books in the series. The events of the earlier books have a significant impact on the hero’s life and on his attitude towards his job. If you haven’t read the first two books (Death of a Citizen and The Wrecking Crew) then for one thing you’re not going to comprehend the relationship between Matt Helm and Beth in The Removers. You’re also not going to understand most of Helm’s motivations.

This makes The Removers tricky to review since I have to avoid spoilers not only for this novel but also for the previous ones. I’ll do my best to make this review totally spoiler-free but this does mean that I’ll have to be extra vague about elements of the plot.

Matt Helm is a US counter-espionage agent of a rather specialised kind. In fact he’s more or less a professional assassin. He had been involved in very secret, and very deadly, operations during the Second World War as part of a unit run by a man known as Mac. After the war he had returned to civilian life and made his living writing westerns. One day his past caught up with him and he found himself back in the world of espionage again. He thought this was going to be a strictly temporary thing but it’s not an easy world to walk away from.

The Removers begins with Matt being asked for help, quite out of the blue, by Beth. He’s due for a vacation anyway so he sets off for Nevada. He’s a bit curious as to why Mac wants him to make contact with another agent there. This is supposed to be a vacation after all.

As one might expect it proves to be a very eventful vacation. When he gets to the ranch he meets a girl. Her name seems familiar. This is not surprising since she’s the daughter of a notorious racketeer. The very specialised agency for which Matt works does not usually concern itself with mobsters but perhaps there’s something more going on here? The alert reader will already have noticed references to some curious accidents in the area.

What Matt has walked into is not just a situation involving spies and gangsters but also a complicated series of interconnecting family squabbles and one of the families involved is his own.

One of the many differences between the Matt Helm books and the Bond books is in the settings. Hamilton did not go in for exotic locales to the extent that most of his contemporary thriller writers did. The Removers takes place entirely in Nevada, in cheap motels and cabins and on remote horse trails. Hamilton wrote westerns as well as thrillers so perhaps it’s not surprising he’d pick a setting that would have worked fine in a western. And can you imagine James Bond being in Nevada and not gambling? Matt Helm simply has no interest in gambling. 

Matt also does not drive a typical secret agent car. He drives a battered Chevy pickup truck.

The tone is remarkably brutal. Matt Helm is not a glamorous spy and he’s also entirely lacking in chivalry or honour or any romantic notions whatsoever. He’s a professional. He gets the job done. If other people get hurt that’s very unfortunate. He tries not to get innocent bystanders involved but sometimes it happens and he doesn’t lose any sleep over it. The US government pays him and he leaves it to them to worry about any ethical concerns. He is also not into the noble self-sacrificing hero thing. He does his job but he sees no reason why he should take unnecessary risks.

While the Matt Helm books do not subscribe to the kind of moral relativism that became fashionable among some 60s spy writers they do not shrink from the fact that both sides in the Cold War espionage game played by the same rules. The KGB has its cold-blooded killers but they’re no more coild-blooded than Matt Helm. This gives the book a very modern feel. Matt Helm is not an anti-hero but he is an uncompromisingly tough and brutal hero. Overall the tone is much closer to Greene and Ambler than to Fleming, but with generous helpings of the sex and violence that Fleming had added to the genre.

The Removers is violent and cynical but it’s also exciting and well-crafted. This is a gritty realist noir spy novel and Hamilton does it well. If you’re a fan of spy fiction the early Matt Helms are essential reading. Highly recommended.


  1. You can't go wrong with Matt Helm. I even like the later, longer books, although they're missing the vigor of the early ones.

  2. I have got to read some of the Matt Helm books. I enjoy spy fiction and these sound right up my alley.