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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more The Death of Matt Helm?
Over the course of his 42-year, 27-book career, shadowy U.S. government assassin Matt Helm has been drugged, shot, beaten, stabbed, rammed off roads, targeted by explosives, tortured with a soldering iron, doused with acid, injected with bubonic plague, and slipped more Mickeys than Minnie Mouse.
He’s been marked for death by old Nazis, young Commies, idealistic activists, corporate henchmen, Mafia enforcers, drug soldiers, foreign troops, evil scientists, power-mad tycoons, ruthless terrorists, misguided amateurs, and operatives of several “friendly” spy agencies—including his own.
Dean Martin even did his best to kill the hard-bitten Helm mystique in four movie spoofs.
But Helm survived, applying a judicious mix of devastating logic and lethal force to dispatch every threat. In fact, 86-year-old novelist Donald Hamilton recently completed a twenty-eighth book in the series. The Dominators finds the secret agent—now a semiretired gent entering his pooch in a dog show—pulled into deadly duty one last time.
Although Helm has survived harrowing missions in Scandinavia, Great Britain, Germany, Cuba, and the Bahamas—not to mention all of the Americas—he may have reached the end of the road as a book character. Where his fictional adversaries failed with knives and guns, it seems the real-life publishing industry might liquidate Matt Helm without lifting a finger. Already rejected once by the New York houses, the last book’s fate now hinges on a potentially happy Hollywood ending.
A History of Helm
Before launching the Matt Helm series in 1960, Donald Hamilton had already published 10 suspense and western novels, including The Big Country, a 1958 film version for which Burl Ives won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Hamilton wrote the first Helm adventure, Death of a Citizen, as a stand-alone novel. Related in the first-person style that became a series hallmark, the story finds Helm drawn back into deadly government service 15 years after leaving an Allied assassination squad at the close of World War II.
Like his creator, Helm was living in Santa Fe with his wife and young children, pounding out western stories and freelance articles in a studio behind his house. Also like Hamilton, Helm was a lanky fellow of Swedish descent and an outdoorsman with a passion for guns, knives, and hunting—as well as an appreciative eye for women’s fashions.
“Being in Santa Fe and writing and having a studio out back—that’s just about me,” Hamilton said recently from the home in Sweden he shares with his son Gordon. But while Hamilton served in the navy, Helm was an army man. “I had to change it a little,” the author said with a chuckle. “I couldn’t get too autobiographical.” He added one other key difference: “Nobody’s ever shot at me.”
Creating a character that hit so close to home paid off handsomely for Hamilton. His editor at Fawcett was so impressed with the reborn killer that he envisioned Helm as America’s answer to James Bond.
“The guy said, ‘Get rid of the wife and we’ve got a series on our hands,’” recalls Gordon Hamilton, who was his father’s publishing assistant in those days. After a rewrite that left Helm a bachelor at the end of the first book, a suspense star was born.
Through the sixties and seventies, Helm was the golden boy of Fawcett Gold Medal. In addition to selling millions of books, the series spawned four commercially successful spy spoofs starring Dean Martin and earned accolades from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune. (Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Anthony Boucher called Helm “one of the few credible secret agents in today’s fiction.”) Although later blurbs came from the likes of Book Week and the Berkshire Eagle, the series hit a critical high point when 1977’s The Retaliators and 1978’s The Terrorizers were nominated for Edgar Awards in the Best Paperback Original category.
A direct descendant of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, Matt Helm’s appeal lay in his rugged, lone-wolf persona. While Bond was a true British patriot with a taste for gadgets and high living, Helm took on the U.S. government’s dirty work almost as an existential burden. He put the “touch” on his targets with low-tech knives and guns, often after driving to the rendezvous in his beat-up truck—or a Volkswagen Bug issued by the no-frills, no-name agency for which he toiled. At the cold war’s hot knife-edge, Helm found his most potent weapon to be “that cold and remorseless logic for which I’m renowned.” And the high life, for Helm, meant a fishing trip in the Rockies. As he says after an oil company henchman tries to bribe him, “While I was a real lousy citizen, capable of all kinds of dirty tricks, maybe even treason, I just didn’t happen to be all that fond of money.”
The one thing Bond and Helm shared in common, besides their chosen profession, was a macho dedication to firing the sexual revolution’s opening shots. Helm unbuckled his trick belt—it had a sharp edge covered with foil—for comely friend and foe alike. “What happens in bed means nothing anywhere else,” he’d say. “It’s something the suckers never remember, and people like us never forget.”
A tough-minded pro himself, Hamilton delivered his always-violent, often-sexy tales in a crackling prose style that ranks with the finest noir novelists. For instance, after killing a fellow U.S. agent, Helm says, “I walked over to Larry. He had a hole in the head. In a sense, I reflected, he’d always had a hole in the head. It had just taken him a while to die from it.” Upon spotting a certain Russian agent, he says, “It was Vadya, all right. There was no doubt about it. I’d slept with her a couple of times and shot her once; I ought to know.” And when a wounded woman in his arms whispers, “I wish . . . I wish,” Helm reflects, “They always wish for something. They never tell me what it is.”
But while Helm is plenty hard-boiled, he’s no right-winger. If anything, he’s the ultimate libertarian. He doesn’t care if people do drugs—although he hates to be around cigarette smoke—and decries “the strange legal logic that tries to cure an addict by making a criminal out of him.” He harbors a deep suspicion of cops, once telling a federal drug enforcement agent, “My job is defending the people and to hell with the laws. Your job is defending the laws and to hell with the people.” He even goes so far as to approve of the parents who avenge the deaths of their children in a Kent State–type fiasco by killing the incompetent officers who shot into an unarmed crowd of students.
“There’s nothing more frightening to me than a character who thinks he knows what a real American is—mainly because it generally turns out he’s convinced it’s somebody like him,” Helm says at one point. “It seems an odd notion to me. I certainly don’t want to live in a country populated with people just like me, God forbid! Anyway, I figure there’s room for a little variety in a nation as big as ours.”
That attitude helps explain Helm’s popularity with authority-questioning baby boomers. “They were marching for peace, and they were reading Don Hamilton when they went home,” Gordon Hamilton said. “Being from that generation, the books in a sense reinforced what we all believed: ‘We’re being handed a bunch of twaddle. There are these things going on, even though our government tries to tell us that they’re pure as driven snow.’ When you read Helm you say, ‘This is what’s really going on.’ It makes sense even to pacifist hippies. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
Why Helm Might Be History
The air began to go out of the series by the early eighties. John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee had overtaken Helm as Fawcett’s top tough guy. And while MacDonald and fellow Gold Medal writers Lawrence Block and Elmore Leonard graduated to hardcover, Hamilton continued to compose paperback originals. In 1982, the publisher crowed that there were “over 18 million Matt Helm novels in print!” Fawcett, though, “wasn’t doing anything for the books,” said Daniel Zitin. A former Ballantine executive editor, he shepherded the series from the mid-eighties until the twenty-seventh installment, The Damagers, came out in 1993.
“At some point, maybe we would have printed 400,000 copies of a new Helm book,” Zitin said. “But by the time I was doing them, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 40,000 copies, or even less.”
In addition to Fawcett’s minimal marketing efforts on behalf of Helm in those years, “the books were published as paperback originals at a time when the paperback original market was shrinking,” Zitin noted. “We kept doing Donald Hamilton because he was one of the last survivors of that men’s market kind of thing.”
And while Zitin found Hamilton’s novels “extremely readable,” he also called them “extremely dated . . . The characters seemed a little bit left over from the previous period.” By the time Tom Clancy and the techno-thriller genre revived the men’s market, “Hamilton’s particular formula seemed a little stodgy,” Zitin said. “Nevertheless, it was a very well conceived formula, with real attention to details and characterization. In a way, the Helm books were better than what followed.”
Lawrence Block—whose Matt Scudder novel Time to Murder and Create competed with The Terrorizers for an Edgar in 1978—was a fan of the Helm series as well. “I remember reading Death of a Citizen the month it came out and being enormously impressed by it,” he said. “Hamilton has always been a fine writer.”
However, “I think the series got difficult to sustain after a while, as most of them do, for all of us,” said Block, who will publish a short story collection, Enough Rope, with Morrow this summer. Making the publishing odds even longer for Hamilton, he added, is the fact that “sales have increased significantly in hardcover, and what has virtually disappeared is the paperback original.”
If Hamilton had finished The Dominators shortly after he started it in 1993, Fawcett might well have published it. Unfortunately, the author’s health declined almost as precipitously as the market for men’s paperback originals. His problems led to spinal surgery in 1997, followed by a flubbed postsurgery prescription for a “mood elevator.” The pills left him feeling hopeless for a year, until his son Gordon threw them out. Presently, Hamilton resumed writing. But by the time The Dominators was shopped around in 2000, the series was out of print and the industry had moved on without him.
“It looks good to me,” Hamilton said of the manuscript he’s been polishing. “There are some flaws I can fix, and some flaws which are built in that I’m going to have to live with, but I don’t think it’s a bad book. I really don’t know why it didn’t sell, except that the time may have been wrong.”
A Hollywood Ending?
When the novel was rejected, Gordon Hamilton sent an update to Don Benish, a Kansas Web designer whose Matt Helm Worship Page keeps the flame alive for fans at http://www.benish-industries.com/hamilton/hamilton.php.
After Benish published the note, Hollywood producers Barry Rosen and Danny Simon saw it and tracked Hamilton down in Sweden. Soon they had picked up a film option on the Helm series. By the end of March, their WetWorks production company was in final negotiations with DreamWorks to bring a tough new Helm series to the big screen. (“If WetWorks marries DreamWorks, does it produce WetDreamWorks?” Gordon Hamilton asked.)
If the film deal goes through, Helm will be a viable print property again, and The Dominators might finally be published. “If the movies take off, it’s a given,” Gordon Hamilton said. “If there’s anything wrong with that book, a good editor can fix it.”
Daniel Zitin, the last editor on the series, added, “Obviously, if DreamWorks does a movie, then that should make a difference, and people who have these books should get them into print. That can be enormous, can’t it?”
For his part, Donald Hamilton believes readers once again will embrace Helm’s pragmatic approach to justice after the recent terrorist attacks. “September 11 was right up Helm’s alley,” the author said. “He would have stopped it. . . . For a while he was kind of dormant, shall we say, but I think the September 11 thing kind of stirred things up.”
However the series ends, Hamilton would like fans to remember the assassin “as an enjoyable and stimulating character . . . I would say he wears very well. Maybe I’m just a murderous bastard at heart and don’t know it.”
After a 55-year writing career, Hamilton wants readers to recall him simply as a pro. But he is more than that; he is perhaps the last living, working link to the pulp thriller era, and he is one of its true craftsmen.
Matt Helm says of Hollywood, “Once they get a good script there, or even just a passable one, they’ll all gang up on the poor, lonely little idea and beat it to death.” And that remake-happy industry might indeed be the character’s salvation. But it would be tragic for the publishing industry to tighten the noose around his neck before he shares his final words with us. If the Brits at Penguin can recognize James Bond as a Modern Classic, shouldn’t we Americans do the same for Matt Helm?
Frank Sennett’s book Teacher of the Year will be published this fall by Contemporary Books. He and Booklist Editorial Assistant Keir Graff have written two tough thriller scripts, Kill Switch and 57 Banks. Frank’s e-mail address isThrillerwriter@aol.com.
The Essential Matt Helm
There’s no such thing as a bad Matt Helm book. Well, the first half of 1966’s The Betrayers does read like a twisted travelogue from the Hawaii Board of Tourism. But other than the book that brought us surfin’ Helm, the series is well worth reading. Here are eight picks to get you started. They were all published as paperback originals by Fawcett Gold Medal, but now, unfortunately, they’re out of print. Most are available used from Amazon or other online dealers, and with luck, they will all be reissued soon.
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