Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Wrecking Crew - Donald Hamilton

There comes a time in every operation when the wheels are turning, the die is cast, the cards are dealt, if you please, and you've got to carry on as planned and hope for the best. I can name you names, too many of them, of men I've known -- and women too -- who died because some last minute piece of information made them try to pull a switcheroo after the ball had been snapped and the backfield was in motion. When that point comes, to scramble the similes even further, you take the phone off the hook and walk away from it. You don't want to hear what the guy on the other end of the line has to say. You've done your best, you've learned everything possible in the time at your disposal, and you don't want any more dope on any part of the situation, because it's too late, and you can't do anything about it anyway. 

Fawcett Gold Medal

This is the kind of thing our hero Matt Helm ruminates about just before someone gets killed. It's the kind of hardboiled attitude toward the spy game that keep these novels so consistently readable and entertaining. That and all the chauvinistic opinions about women in pants (he doesn't approve!) and getting them out of their girdles. Yes, in 1960, there were a lot of girdles that had to be maneuvered past in the treacherous life of a spy.

I re-read Death of a Citizen right before reading this 2nd adventure in the Matt Helm series, which was published the same year as that first novel. It's been five years since I've read that first novel, and re-reading again last week was a lot of fun. Basically, Matt Helm had been living the life of a family man residing in Santa Fe who writes westerns for a living. One night at a cocktail party he sees a woman named Tina, whom he once worked with in the war. Later that night, another young woman, who turns out to be an agent also, is found murdered in his writing studio, and Tina pulls him back into the world of assassins and death. The Wrecking Crew picks up about a year after the events in Death of a Citizen, and Matt Helm has returned full-time to the outfit he once worked for in the war.

His first assignment, after a refresher course in the art of espionage, courtesy of Uncle Sam, is to go to Sweden and find an assassin known only as Caselius, and put the touch on him. In Helm's organization, "touch" is another term for liquidating. Helm is older now, not in the same shape he once was, slower perhaps, but his instincts remain intact. Notably his ruthless determination in getting unpleasant jobs done. But times have changed since the war. His boss, Mac, laments the current state of espionage and its squeamish attitude toward killing. "Remember, this is peace, God bless it. Be polite, be humble. That's an order. Don't get our dear dedicated intelligence people all upset or they might wet their cute little lace panties." And with that last bit of advice Matt Helm is off and gone to Sweden to find the mysterious and deadly Caselius.

Helm's assignment has him connecting with the widow of a free-lance reporter who had been killed after turning in an article about the mysterious Caselius. There is some suspicion that the widow, Louise Taylor, may be involved with the other side, and that her husband's death may in fact be a ruse of some kind to muddy the search for Caselius. Louise has continued in her husband's career as a free-lance investigative reporter, and arrangements are made for Helm to go on assignment with her to photograph a mining operation in the northern regions of Sweden. The hope is that Louise will lead Helm, somehow, on to Caselius's trail. While on assignment, Helm is told to play his part as a naive citizen to the hilt, and not employ his skills as an agent for the government under any circumstance, even if he's "tested" by the opposition. And he will be tested, on that you can count on, my friends. First by a beautiful "blue-haired" operative named Sara Lundgren, who may or may not be working for the good guys. She blows Helm's cover within hours of his arrival by tailing him from the train station to the hotel he and Louis are staying in. She prissily lectures him on following orders and makes an all-round nuisance of herself until she's ruthlessly gunned down in a park right in front of our hero. Back at the hotel, Louise Taylor dresses like a beatnik (to Helm's disapproval, we're told often) and seems to have an agenda that involves more than taking pretty pictures of mining towns. One of Louise's associates is a chap named Wellington, whom Helm just happens to recognize as an OSS operative back during the war. It's made clear later, through Helm's derogatory references to "Ivy League" agents, that Wellington is with the CIA. There is also the young and achingly beautiful Elin von Hoffman, who tells Helm that she and him are distant cousins. Elin pops up throughout the novel, usually right before a contact is murdered or gunned down. And anyone of them may or may not be the almost mythical Caselius. It's up to Helm to find out just who is, and complete his assignment.

The Wrecking Crew was filmed as the fourth and final Dean Martin movie version of Matt Helm in 1968. I can't remember if I've seen it or not. The Dean Martin films never really appealed to me. I suppose if it shows up on cable again I may watch it, but I'm not going to commit myself.

The Matt Helm series is probably my favorite series of spy novels. Published as paperback originals for Gold Medal they hit the drugstores and news-stands at just at the right time during the spy craze in the 60's, and continued on into the 80's. The last novel, The Damagers, was published in 1993, with a final, unpublished novel named The Dominators out there remaining. For years they were out of print and I was only able to find them in used bookstores, usually in deplorable condition. Since then, they've been reissued in paperback by Titan Books which, I think, is good news for fans of cold-blooded Cold War spy fiction. I suppose a word of warning should be dispensed with here. These are definitely books of their time. I doubt they would be accepted by a major publisher today without heavy editing due to the dated attitudes, particularly against women, that Helm shares with the reader. It's been awhile since I've read any of the later novels, I think it was The Vanishers, from 1986, being the "newest" at the time. I can't say if Matt Helm's attitude toward women progressed since the novels from the 1960's. I would guess probably not. Just further proof that spyin' aint for sissies!

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