Matt Helm #1: Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton
As discussed in a recent video, I've decided to start reading and collecting Donald Hamilton's "Matt Helm" book series. Hamilton wrote 27 novels in the series (plus one more that was never published) between 1960 and 1993, all focused on the exploits of an American counter-espionage agent. The novels are written from first-person perspective, and allow us to get inside the head of our hardened hero...or anti-hero, as it may be. They were originally published by Fawcett Publications under the Gold Medal label. In this inaugural entry, we're digging into the very first Matt Helm novel, 1960's Death of a Citizen.
Matt Helm served his country during World War II, now years in the rear view as this story begins (somewhere around 1958), but he didn't serve it on the front lines. Helm served in a different capacity as a covert operative who could reliably and efficiently eliminate targets with no complications. When the war ended, so did his time with the unnamed organization who called his shots. He receded into civilian life with a wife, kids, and a cat that meowed at his feet when he would enter the door. But now, the violent existence that he walked away from over a decade prior has reappeared. A woman who used to be one of his associates enters the room at a party in the suburbs, and just like that, the quiet life is over.
Hamilton's hero feels unique. The publishers and critics of the time were eager to compare Matt Helm to James Bond (who had not yet debuted on movie screens), but the two characters feel more like apples and oranges to me. Bond and Helm have different goals, different jobs. Bond is rooted in the Great British tradition, while Helm is purely American. Instead of driving an Aston Martin or convertible, Helm prefers to drive an early-fifties pickup truck, cruising the deserts of New Mexico and the southwest United States. He eats in diners and cafes, more content with coffee than martinis. Helm isn't chasing Bond; he's his own man.
Donald Hamilton's writing often feels like a holdover from the era of hard-boiled crime fiction. That's not entirely surprising, considering that he began writing these short novels during the latter half of the 1950s when film noir was on theater screens and Dragnet was beamed into houses all across the country. His descriptions and dialogue would feel right at home in the mouth of an actor like Humphrey Bogart. Yet, Hamilton's style possesses a hardness and modernity that isn't often present in noir films, and the looming changes of the sixties are in between every page. Hamilton describes contemporary cars, with their bright colors and decorative fins, with pure disdain, clearly establishing his main character as belonging to an earlier time and place.
I like Hamilton's writing style and the way the author balances description with purpose so that we never get too bogged down in the details unless they're pertinent to the story itself. Death of a Citizen is a quick read. One of the nice things about vintage crime, spy, and adventure novels is that they usually hover in the 150 page range, meant to be consumed in just a few sittings. Though there are absolutely some dated social views in the novel that go hand in hand with the times, the book manages to be sexy without being lurid, and gritty without being too disturbing. Most of the story unfolds without explicit violence as Hamilton sets the stage. But when the violence finally comes, it's visceral, intense, and darkly satisfying.
This is my first exposure to Donald Hamilton as a writer as well as Matt Helm in novel form, and I feel that it's safe to say that I'm now hooked. Luckily, I have nine or ten of these on stand-by so that I can keep going with the series. For those who aren't interested in hunting down decades-old paperbacks, Titan Books has recently reprinted the entire range, and they are also available digitally. This book has gone a long way toward reigniting my passion for mid-century paperbacks, crime fiction, and mysteries. Keep your eyes peeled to Cereal At Midnight for more pulp, spy, and crime reviews!