Influences & Inspirations: Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm
My favorite writer ever is Donald Hamilton, a terse, hardboiled novelist who wrote a number of exceptional paperback originals in the late 50s and 60s, primarily Westerns and crime thrillers. His most successful works, though, were the long-running series of thrillers featuring American secret agent/counter-assassin, Matt Helm.
Beginning with Death Of A Citizen in 1960, and ending with 1993′s The Damagers, Matt Helm starred in one of the finest hard-boiled adventure series ever written. Cynical, violent, and extremely well-plotted, the Matt Helm series outlasted its many contemporaries, with World War II veteran Helm moving beyond the Cold War intrigues of the Sixties to continue defending his country’s interests (and bedding beautiful young betrayers) well into the Nineties. But despite the frequently applied label, Helm isn’t a spy. He is, quite simply, a government assassin, and he’s very good at his job.
Helm is introduced in the first novel, Death Of A Citizen as a World War II veteran who worked as an assassin behind enemy lines. Helm is brought back into government service when Communist agents attempt to manipulate the now-civilian author of Western novels (like Hamilton himself) and professional photographer into helping them in their sinister schemes by kidnapping his young daughter. Needless to say, Helm rescues his offspring, but in such a brutal, ruthless manner that his wife is shocked and terrified by the monster she’s married. She leaves him and Helm returns to his old work, now for an unnamed government agency run by his former military commander, a man known only as Mac.
A series about a government killer might present problems for some readers, but Hamilton’s a sharp guy, and manages to keep the audience squarely in Helm’s corner by making sure that the expert marksman stays firmly on the side of the angels. Rarely is Helm used as a political assassin; instead, he’s designated as a “counter-assassination agent,” assigned primarily to execute other professionals in his own field. In the Cold War Sixties and Seventies, these are usually Communist killers, whose targets are often American scientists; but come the Eighties and Nineties, his opponents tend to be in the employ of fictional terrorist organizations from around the world.
Fans of tough-guy protagonists won’t find a harder hardcase than Helm; cold, efficient, and professional (with a professional’s disdain for amateurs), but endowed with a wide variety of interesting – and consistent – character traits and quirks that keep him from being just an emotionless killing machine. Among the more notable: a strong affection for dogs, especially the hunting breeds; an aesthetic dislike of women who wear pants (although he softened his views on this as the series hit its third decade); little patience for idealistic young women (and men) who can’t stand violence (and who usually end up betraying him before the book is done); and a remarkable, nearly superhuman, ability to withstand tremendous physical abuse.
After too many years out of print, Titan Books has started re-issuing the Matt Helm novels in new, trade paperback editions. While I can’t say I’m enamored of the generic, stock-photo look of the covers, I’m grateful that the books are returning to print. Not only am I pleased that new readers will have the opportunity to experience Hamilton’s deftly-penned thrillers, I’m personally looking forward to replacing my yellowed, crumbling old paperbacks with new copies.
The first three volumes are available from Amazon at these links: