|Gold Medal Books|
So, we're back in the treacherous, shadowy world of Matt Helm for his 8th novel, The Ravagers. Helm is at his most cold-blooded, hard-boiled yet in this caper. He's practically devoid of any humanity, except for occasional wry attempts at sarcasm and self-deprecation dropped here and there for humor. His assignment is inherited from another agent who is permanently sidelined after getting a face full of acid in close proximity, in a motel room in Canada.
"It was an acid job," Helm informs us in the very first line of the novel. An acid job followed up by a dose of cyanide. There are enough clues at the scene for Helm to determine that the killer was likely a woman, especially considering the dead agent was one of those All-American types who had a weakness for women. The agent's name was Gregory, and he'd been assigned to make contact and follow a certain Mrs. Genevieve Drilling and her teenage daughter Penelope. It seems that Mrs. Drilling has decided she's tired of being the wife of a scientist, Dr. Herbert Drilling, and has up and left Dr. Drilling along with a briefcase full of top secret information on a laser project that Drilling had been working on. Word has it that Mrs. Drilling has been romanced by a suitor from the other side named Hans Ruyter. The dead agent Gregory had been working on the case until someone put the touch on him. Now it's Helm's turn to pick up where Gregory left off.
Helm's cover name for the assignment is Dave Clevinger, a private eye from Denver Colorado. Helm is informed by Mac, his boss in Washington, that he's to make sure that Mrs. Drilling and Hans Ruyter complete their escape with the stolen documents. The documents, Helm is informed, are a plant. Unfortunately, there are other agencies on the case. Helm's job is to ensure that Mrs. Drilling and Ruyter make their escape unharmed. Sounds like a walk in the park for our hero.
Helm is barely on the case for a few hours when he's confronted by a mysterious woman named Elaine Harms. At least, that's the name she's using for now, she tells him. She wants to know what Helm was doing in the motel room of a dead man who was last seen in the company of Genevieve Drilling. Elaine Harms is one of those tough girl, take-no-shit kind of dames we love. She's not buying Helm's private detective story. She tells him that she'll be following up on his background, but in the meantime, she wouldn't mind a little company in the bed if he's game. Helm decides that duty calls and obliges her, knowing she could very likely be the acid-wielding killer.
Also on the trail of Mrs. Drilling are a pair of (it's assumed) FBI agents named Fenton and Johnston. Fenton is one of those inexperienced hot-headed types, while his partner Johnston is more methodical, and dangerous. Helm's orders from Washington maintain that he's not to give away his cover under any circumstances. It's imperative that his own agency's involvement remain secret. No one is to stop Mrs. Drilling and Ruyter from making their way out of Canada with the forged documents.
Helm agrees to meet Elaine Harms the next evening at another motor lodge to "compare" notes on each other. Helm actually admires Ms. Harms, and see's in her a kindred soul in the dark world of espionage. Of course, he can't reveal this to her, nor can he be sure she isn't the woman who dosed his former colleague with acid. Ultimately, his concerns regarding Ms. Harms don't matter, because someone puts a bullet into her head after framing her for the murder of agent Gregory. It's Helm who finds her body. It's the only moment in the novel where Helm feels remorse, even regret. "I went back to the bed. The shock was wearing off. I suppose I should have been feeling grief in its place. I could get drunk and cry in my beer, or whiskey, or gin. Right now I had other things to do..."
One of the things I've always considered about the Helm novels is their similarity to mid-century hard-boiled detective novels. It's clear that Helm is an assassin agent for a secret organization, sometimes referred to as The Wrecking Crew among its members, but the attitude is very much more Lew Archer than James Bond, in my opinion. I don't mean that Helm is anything like Lew Archer, because is not. Certainly, Helm has no problem killing people when he has to. Archer would avoid killing unless absolutely forced to in self-defense. What is similar are how the assignments in Matt Helm novels unfold through the disintegration of dysfunctional families rather than evil geniuses. There are none of the glamorous travelogues of the James Bond novels. No first-class jet-setting to Monte Carlo and Rome. No games of Baccarat in posh casinos. Instead, Helm's world is populated with motels, diners, and lonely highways traveled by trucks and Volkswagens instead of Bentleys. An Aston Martin would be sneered at in a Matt Helm assignment. In 8 novels, Helm has yet to wear a tuxedo. Instead he becomes involved in frayed family ties manipulated by foreign agents. The dire world implications are kept offstage while our hero maneuvers through failed marriages, duplicitous affairs and wayward offspring. The cold war stuff, like microfilms and lasers and atomic bombs, are really condiments to the main focus of the novels, that is Helm's relationships with the immediate victims: fathers, wives, daughters.
But I digress. I should just tell you that The Ravagers is both Donald Hamilton and Matt Helm at the top of their game. Looking forward to The Devastators next.