Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Donald Hamilton’s Murderers’ Row

I’ve written at length in previous reviews about the huge differences in tone between Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm spy novels and the Matt Helm movies, especially in my review of Death of a Citizen. Suffice to say that the Matt Helm novels are very very hardboiled stories about the most ruthless brutal fictional spy of his era. Murderers’ Row, published in 1962, was the fifth of the twenty-seven Matt Helm novels.

Matt works for a very secret US Government intelligence agency. They’re the US Government’s equivalent of Murder Incorporated. If the US Government feels that it would be more convenient to have somebody dead then this agency arranges the matter. Matt is their top operative. He is in effect a hitman. A hitman working for freedom and democracy. Those who work for this government agency refer to its headquarters as Murderers’ Row.

The Matt Helm novels have more in common with the 1960s British TV spy series Callan (about a British Government assassin) than with James Bond. Sure James Bond has a licence to kill but it’s understood that he only kills when it’s absolutely necessary. Matt Helm kills as a matter of routine. He may be the most cold-blooded of all fictional spies.

This time he has to take over a case from another of the agency’s operatives. They’re used to dirty jobs but this job is just too dirty. That’s OK by Matt. He doesn’t care how dirty the job gets. The agency is trying to make it appear that one of their top female operatives is willing to defect. They have to give her a plausible motive for wanting to defect. Matt’s job is to provide her with that motive, by giving her a savage beating. Matt doesn’t mind. If the agency tells him to beat a helpless woman to a pulp he does it. But it goes wrong. He wasn’t supposed to kill her. Now he has a corpse on his hands and there was a witness and the county police have him under lock and key. And he’s not allowed to reveal that he works for the government. It’s not an auspicious beginning for a case.

The witness, a cute young woman named Teddy, lies to the cops to get him off. He’s puzzled by this, and then disturbed by what she has in mind for him. His cover is that he’s a Mob hoodlum. Teddy wants to hire him to kill someone. Cute young women don’t usually want to hire hitmen. It’s something to do with her daddy. Which is interesting to Matt since the case that he’s so far made such a mess of has a lot to do with Teddy’s daddy.

Teddy’s daddy is a top American scientist. The bad guys have kidnapped him and they’re going to sell him to the Soviets. Matt’s orders are to make sure that doesn’t happen. He has to rescue the scientist if possible. If that’s not possible then he has to kill him. Sure, he’s an American scientist and he’s probably totally innocent and doesn’t want to defect but in the brutal world of the Matt Helm novels that doesn’t matter. The quickest easiest way to solve such problems is by killing. If innocent people get killed that’s too bad.

Maybe his cover is a bit too good since it seems that Teddy isn’t the only one who wants to hire his services as a hitman.

When Matt tries to kill somebody else and he doesn’t even know who the guy is Matt’s boss Mac starts to get worried that Matt is over-strained and is now just killing people at random. The same thought crosses Matt’s mind when he tries to kill another complete stranger. Mac thinks it would be a good idea to get Matt off this case but Matt is determined to see it through even though he doesn’t have a clear idea what he’s doing. He figures he’ll just stir things up and see who reacts, and how they react. He certainly manages to stir things up.

The latter part of the story including a decent action finale takes place on board an 80-foot ocean-going schooner. Matt assumes the schooner will lead him to the kidnapped scientist.

The violence in this novel isn’t graphic. It’s the casual acceptance of killing that is shocking. Matt kills one of his own people, an unarmed woman, a brave woman doing her duty, and he feels no regret and no remorse. These things just happen. He gave her a brutal beating and she died. All he feels is irritation. Her death is a nuisance. Matt never questions his own actions. I suspect this was a deliberate technique on the author’s part. He wanted to show that spies aren’t glamorous. They lie and cheat and steal and kill. The only real difference between Matt Helm and a Mob hitman is that a Mob hitman would probably take more care to avoid killing innocent bystanders.

As you may have gathered this novel is a million miles away from the world of the lighthearted campy Matt Helm movies.

Donald Hamilton may well be the greatest of all American writers of spy fiction. Murderers’ Row is highly recommended.

One thing I would mention is that if you’re going to venture into the world of the Matt Helm novels then the first novel, Death of a Citizen, provides essential backstory material which makes Matt’s motivations more comprehensible.


  1. I read these books in sequence a couple of years ago, so my memory of each one isn't great - but I do remember the schooner sequence, which was very, very good indeed.

    Many of these books have pretty good plots and interesting ideas, and the writing is generally very good, even in the later books, but by the time I got towards the end of the series, I was only reading to finish it. The nihilism gets a bit too much at times - and an awful lot of young women get bumped off over the series in increasingly pointless ways, just to get rid of them (also why I don't much like some of the later krimi movies).

    Although worth reading for the ultimate anti-Bond!

    1. I find that with most long-running series you really only need to read the first few books. They're usually the strongest. After a dozen or so books most writers find it difficult to keep a series fresh.

      There are exceptions of course, but even when you get good later books the overall standard has usually declined.

      I agree about the nihilism - it's something that gets wearying after a while. It loses its shock value.

    2. Actually, this series doesn't really decline - the plots and much of the writing are still perfectly fine, although there are times when the writer is trying to have it both ways. The nihilism is the main flaw.

    3. I've only read five so far but I definitely intend to press on.

  2. I probably said this before here, but I really need to read some of this series. I have several of the earlier ones, on my shelves in accessible locations, so I have no excuse.

    1. The early books really need to be read in sequence. But if you like dark spy stories Hamilton is a must.