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.

45th anniversary of Dino as Matt Helm in The Silencers

This week was the 45th anniversary of The Silencers, the first of four Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin and arguably the most successful non-Bond spy series of the 1960s.

Some of the film’s cast and crew had a shot at doing Bond movies but it didn’t happen.

Studio Columbia Pictures had turned down Bond, with United Artists instead making a deal with Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman; producer Irving Allen had been Broccoli’s partner but thought Ian Fleming’s 007 novels were terrible; 007 screenwriter Richard Maibaum suggested Victor Buono to play Goldfinger; some United Artists executive wanted Phil Karlson to direct Dr. No, but he had a $75,000 asking price while Terence Young would work for $40,000.

Allen took Donald Hamilton’s serious novels and made them into spoofs, though the films did use some plot elements of Hamilton’s originals, particularly The Silencers. To get Dean Martin on board, Allen had to make him a partner. That’s why the films have a copyright notice reading “Meadway-Claude” — Claude was Martin’s production company.

Below is the latter part of main titles of The Silencers, in which Cyd Charisse lipsynchs the title song performed by Vikki Carr and written by Elmer Berstein and Mack David.

1966: Time reviews the other spies

By early 1966, there were several movies hoping to get a piece of the spy action started by Bondomania. So Time magazine did a review summarizing what was in theaters at the time, including the film debut of Matt Helm and movie versions of episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.
First, the magazine gave its view of the genre as a whole:

Movie moguls have long sought the perfect pop-art hero, the infallible magnetic moneymaker with equal pull for kids under twelve and adolescents up to and beyond retirement age. Tarzan, a perennial favorite, still takes to the trees occasionally to fight for right, but with obsolete weapons. The Wild West gunfighter endures, though an hombre who traditionally hates kissin’ and gets his kicks by digging spurs into horseflesh seems equally ill-adapted to the times. The exquisitely contemporary hero is girl-happy, gadget-minded James Bond, whose legend has already tempted a host of imitators to bland larceny. Now five new spy spoofs reverently ape Bond, with more a-making to catch the rich financial fallout from Goldfinger and Thunderball.

The magzine then got down to cases. First off, it examined Matt Helm.
The biggest, noisiest and naughtiest contender in the new spystakes is The Silencers, with Crooner Dean Martin playing Matt Helm, a secret agent for ICE (Intelligence Counter Espionage)….The striptease fun, with Cyd Charisse as team captain, begins during the opening credits, then gets right down to business in Martin’s circular bed, which turns, travels, tilts, finally plunges him naked into a swimming pool with a naiad identified as Lovey Kravezit….Innuendo roars through Silencers, with nothing omitted save scrawling feelthy pictures on the screen. Now and then, Martin sleepily warbles a song parody, his way of adding sauce to all the gleeful violence, drunken driving and self-conscious smut.

As Jack Benny used to say, “Wellllllll….” Next up, a look at U.N.C.L.E.’s screen debut (kind of) in the double feature which added footage to two television episodes (plus alternative versions of some scenes intended for the screen rather than TV audiences).

Intelligence men’s intrigues wash cleaner in To Trap a Spy and The Spy with My Face. Originally designed for home use, these television retreads are expanded versions of two episodes from MGM’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series (the seams still show).

Time didn’t seem all that impressed with the others.

The man least likely to threaten Bond’s supremacy is That Man in Istanbul, with Horst Bucholz battling a one-armed villain atop a minaret and performing other improbable feats to rescue a kidnaped scientist. …Another elusive scientist is the excuse given for The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World, the most flagrantly imitative spoof of the lot. Its second-best agent is played with studied respect by one Tom Adams, who vaguely resembles Sean Connery.

The magzine also said this era of spy movies couldn’t last.
A craze occurs when an acquired taste unaccountably becomes an addiction. Without ever believing in it, audiences find the spoofery easy to swallow. But mock espionage may be hard put to survive a throng of second-string undercover men who seem badly in need of vocational guidance.

To read the entire article, JUST CLICK HERE.

U.K. Matt Helm paperback covers

A reader responded to a post we did about the evolution of Matt Helm paperback novels in the U.S. It turns out the U.K. versions were quite diiferent, many of them relying on photographs rather than illustrations.

For example, to view a U.K. cover for the third Helm novel, The Removers, click RIGHT HERE. To see a U.K. cover for The Silencers, click HERE. Or to view a U.K. cover for The Intimidators, the 15th novel, just click HERE.