Today, March 24, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of author Donald Hamilton, creator of Matt Helm.
It has been 23 years since the last Helm novel, The Damagers, was published. It’s common for fans of the series to get out their copies every so often to re-read the adventures of the American “counter-assassin.”
The Helm novels, unlike Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, were written in the first person. The stories are like a cross between Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels and the more fantastic elements of Fleming’s 007 stories. Because the reader only discovers things as its hero (or anti-hero) does, you get sucked into the rhythms of the story before realizing just how much fantasy there is in them.
For example, with the sixth novel, The Ambushers, Helm ends up in a machete fight with an ex-Nazi while a missile is ready to be fired. But the journey to that point is pretty grim and gritty. By the time of the machete fight, you’re so caught up in the story you’re not going to stop there.
The first novel of the series, Death of a Citizen, was done as a one-off. Helm, who has been living peacefully for 15 years after World War II, is suddenly drawn back into his former violent life. An editor suggested with a few changes (including the character’s first name, George and killing off Helm’s wife) it could be turned into a series. The character became Matt Helm. Hamilton settled for Mrs. Helm getting a divorce.
The books were turned into comedies with Dean Martin, produced by Irving Allen, the former partner of James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli. There has been talk for years of a series Helm film but nothing has developed.
Hamilton died in 2006. There is one unpublished Helm novel but the Hamilton family has held onto it in case a new movie develops. For now, fans of the novel have to be satisfied with re-reading Hamilton’s well-told stories.