A few early Matt Helm novel highlights


With the news that Titan Books plans on bringing Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels back into print in 2013, those unfamiliar with the stories might wonder what the fuss is all about. So we thought we’d present a Helm sampler.

Helm isn’t so much a spy, as a counter assassin — he goes after enemy targets, with the intention of making a “touch” before those targets can harm U.S. interests. He had done during this World War II, then spent 15 peaceful years before his past caught up with him. A few quick highlights of some of the early books:

Death Of a Citizen (1960): Family man Helm is at a party in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when in comes “the girl we called Tina during the war.” Helm, back when his code name was Eric (possibly a reference to his Scandinavian heritage), he and Tina had performed an assignment during World War II.

She drags Helm back into the business, but things aren’t what they seem. We’re introduced to his old boss, Mac, with his “gray and cold” eyes who is still in business. Eventually, Helm is blackmailed, with one of his children as hostage. Helm is not somebody to be trifled with but Mrs. Helm also discovers the truth. As the book ends, “I wondered how soon Mac would get in touch with me again…I sat there and wondered how I’d answer him, when he came. The terrible thing was, I didn’t really know…”

Death Of a Citizen was done as a one-off. An editor at Fawcett Gold Medal called up author Donald Hamilton, suggesting a name change from George Helm and killing off the wife would result in a series. Hamilton renamed the character Matt. Mrs. Helm survived but the marriage would not.

The Wrecking Crew (1960): At the start of the second novel, Helm has had a refresher training course and is sent to Sweden to go after a Soviet agent called Caselius. Once more, things aren’t what they seem. Eventually, Caselius has a hostage and tells Helm to give up his weapon. “I let him hear me laugh. He was running that gag into the ground. He must really have been watching American TV, the corny ideas he kept kicking around.”

Shortly thereafter, Caselius attempts to surrender. “Like I say, he must have been watching TV.” Helm makes the “touch.” Hamilton reportedly took an unfinished story he was dissatisfied with, rewrote it to insert the Helm character.

The Removers (1961): It’s a year after Helm separated from his wife. He travels to the Reno area to visit his ex- and his kids. The former Mrs. Helm, however, seems to have a weakness for men with a secret past. She’s now married to a former mob enforcer, who’s being pressured by his former associates.

Meanwhile, the trip isn’t entirely personal. Helm’s quarry is Martell, a Soviet operative who has been embedded with the mob. This was Hamilton’s first story where he knew from the start it was part of a series. There’s also a scene where Helm goes to the “recognition room” to study up on adversaries. Among the dossiers he studies, “There were Dickman, Holz, Rosloff, Martell and a deadly female we only knew as Vadya, all with the highest priority.” Thus, Hamilton lays the groundwork for future adventures.

As for the title, Mac does the honors in a flashback scene where he addresses some trainees. “If you were working for a criminal organization, you’d be known as enforcers. Since you’re working for a sovereign nation, you can call yourselves…well, removers is a very good word.”

The Silencers (1962): The early part of the story includes seedy settings, including a strip club in Mexico across the border from El Paso. It ends up getting into Ian Fleming territory where a Soviet operative has smuggled into the U.S. an electronic device that will seize control of a U.S. missile to kill some VIPs. Hamilton’s smooth writing sucks you right in. The novel also introduces Gail Hendricks, a woman who has gotten involved in the middle of all this. Helm falls in love with her, but again Hamilton’s smooth prose doesn’t make it sound outlandish at all.

Murderers’ Row (1962): Helm is behind the eight ball right from the start. His assignment is to beat up a fellow woman agent; that agent is supposed to be interested in defecting and the beating is to make it all look good. Also, she is to get a cast, as a way to have a hidden weapon.

“I wasn’t halfway through the scientifically brutal roughing up program Dr. Perry had laid out for me when she died…she’d trusted me to know what I was doing, and it’s no fun to find yourself holding a corpse and wondering what the hell went wrong.” Things go downhill from there. Helm makes a number of wrong guesses and assumptions but works his way out of it.

“You lucked out, didn’t you?” Mac asks near the novel’s end. Helm has to admit he did and attempts to resign. But he relents when he finds out he didn’t kill the woman agent.

The Mister 8 Web site a couple of years ago did a more detailed analysis of DEATH OF A CITIZEN and THE WRECKING CREW.

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