Thursday, January 17, 2013

Martini, Leaded

I was a pretty big fan of the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming when I was a teenager. I'd worked my way through all of them, courtesy of our neighborhood library. I would often look for other spy novels as well, and got into a few by Alistair MacLean which I'll probably revisit for this blog. But in my searches through the paperback racks in our library I would always see these Matt Helm novels by Donald Hamilton.

Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton  - Fawcett Publications 1960
I never gave any of these novels a chance, thanks to those Dean Martin movies. Not that I didn't like the movies, I did (I was a kid, remember). But I couldn't imagine them translating well to a book format. Plus, I wasn't too jazzed about the covers, which were sort of like the Travis McGee covers, showing the star of the series in the upper right hand corner, looking all rugged and bad-ass. Now if I'd found a cover like the one shown here, well then, hell yeah...I would have taken that baby home with me toot-sweet-like. 

It took about ten years for me to get in the game and read a Matt Helm novel. A buddy of mine up in Galena Alaska lent me his book, The Vanishers, and I was hooked. Since then I would grab any Matt Helm novels from the used bookstores as long as they were in decent shape. Most of the time they weren't. And when they were, they would be over-priced. 

Anyway, to get to Death of a Citizen, it was one that for some reason I could never find, until recently. I was looking forward to getting the origin story of Matt Helm, from the source. Turns out I was not disappointed. The novel is as hard-boiled a novel as any of them. Helm is living the suburban life of a writer, his past life in WWII a secret. He's married, with kids, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One night at a cocktail party, he sees a woman he'd known as Tina from his past. He and Tina survived a particularly brutal mission behind enemy lines in Germany, then later had an affair. Tina is still in the game, and drops a coded hand signal to him, letting him know to not blow her cover. Helm is feels the old muscles twitching. He's gone a bit to seed, a little older and out of shape, but inside he can feel the old instincts and responses awakening. Also at the party is a renowned nuclear physicist. Tina's escort is one of the beefy youngsters full of ego and muscle and not much brains, that Matt detests. Tensions mount. Helm is introduced to a young woman claiming to be interested in his writing and wanting to meet with him in private later. Just another cocktail party among the elites...until the young woman interested in Helm's writing shows up dead in his personal office later that night. Dead, and armed with the familiar spy accessories hidden under her skirt. 

Tina shows up and pulls Helm back into the game, using the dead woman as blackmail. It's all rather nasty, and along the way there is a lot backstory to Helm's time in the war. Helm's old chief, Mac comes back into his life, loaded with the usual head-games and deceit. Helm finds his voice that fans of the series have come to love, jaded, laconic, more than a touch misogynistic and cold blooded as hell.

My understanding is that Hamilton had written Death of a Citizen to be a one-shot, but the emerging popularity of spy novels in the early 60s brought Helm back for many more missions. Cool hero, cool novels. Yes, Matt Helm drinks Martinis, beds women and kills bad guys just like that famous gent from across the pond, but he does it with that good old red-blooded American style. 

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