“As I came up, he was saying something. I didn’t hear the words, maybe because of the sound of the river, maybe because I simply wasn’t listening. There were a couple of cars going by overhead. It was as good a time as any. I took out the gun and shot him five times in the chest.”
“Death of a Citizen” by Donald Hamilton (1960)
Now, let’s get this out of the way. All of us swingers know the character Matt Helm mainly from the four Matt Helm films from the mid-’60’s starring Dean Martin. Where these films are concerned, I’ve always said that – quality-wise – beneath James Bond is Derek Flint. And beneath both of them is Matt Helm. I love the movies. I get what they were about and I can appreciate them on that level. I only wish the plots had been dreamed up out of the blue because the idea was perfect: join the hordes of James Bond copy films but have fun with them, spoof them. And with Dean Martin, much use can be made of Dean’s supposed real-life drunkenness and Helm can be made a swingin’ ladies man. He works for an organization that attempts to thwart goofy villains from taking over the world and is given a lot of oddball gadgets to help him in his worthy cause. I love the films. And I hate them. I hate them because they claimed to be “based on” the Helm novels although they bear zero resemblance to these books which were a great run of serious stories by Donald Hamilton that started in 1960 with Death of a Citizen.
The Matt Helm books total 27 in all and they are great, pulp tales of murderous men and women and their nefarious deeds perpetuated all over the globe. The basic premise of all the stories and the role of Helm himself are both very different from that of James Bond. In a “secret agent” tale, it is usually the agent’s job to collect information; receive or distribute confidential material thereby preventing the world from falling under the control of villainous entities. But the cool thing about Matt Helm is that he is not a secret agent; he is an assassin. He is likewise responsible for preventing the world from falling under the control of villainous entities. But the means by which he is to achieve this is singularly murder; when the situation has dissolved to the point where the only answer is to eliminate an enemy, Matt Helm is called in as that eliminator.
There are many variables to these 27 plots but the basic root of every story is that Matt must kill. No fuss is made about his “license” to do so – it is simply his job. He is, to borrow a phrase, a blunt instrument. Helm was a soldier in World War 2 who distinguished himself with certain abilities and he was utilized for clandestine and violent operations. When the war ended, Helm went back to the world. He met a nice girl and started a family, finding work as a photographer. He became a “citizen” and the years went by – thirteen, to be exact. And that’s where the story begins; summer, 1958.
Matt Helm is, by all appearances, a regular Joe. Pretty little wife and three kids. And right off the bat – because of this appearance of regularity – there is intrigue for the reader. If we’ve read the back cover, or know anything about Helm, we already know there is not much that is ‘regular’ about him. But as this first book begins, he, like many men of his generation, looks “normal”. And this for me is the first interesting part of this series. It brings to mind all that I have learned and wrote about the “post-war man”. So many men came home from World War 2 shattered, changed in many ways. Some subtly, some not so. A common issue many of these men faced was what we now know as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’. I’m always fascinated by the fact that so many of these veterans were straight-up heroes and had done amazing, almost super-human things during the war. These men had also witnessed atrocities that many of us of later generations cannot fathom. And after this, they were expected to come home and slip back into a regular domestic life. They were expected to care deeply about things they surely must have considered meaningless. The problems and challenges of simple things like working in a store or relating to your wife and kids could seem comparatively insignificant to men who had seen war but also these things were very important to master if you were going to assimilate yourself back into everyday living. When you think about it there is an impossible duality here. These men were thinking that saving a nickel on a pound of butter doesn’t mean anything when you’ve tried to hold your best friend’s insides in while you watched the life flicker out of his eyes. BUT if you don’t ever get back to thinking that it’s important to save that nickel then there is only madness and isolation waiting for you.
I feel like I’m digressing but I’m not really. This is exactly where Matt Helm finds himself as the book opens. That other nature of his has been successfully suppressed. He has re-assimilated. And then Tina walks in.
The Helm’s live in Santa Fe and Matt and his wife, Beth, are at a cocktail party at a friend’s home. Matt sees Tina arrive and he places her immediately. Memories begin to filter back into Matt’s head. Scenes from the past of missions they worked on together during the war, intimacies they shared under those dire circumstances. And the memories of war, buried but never obliterated, return. Matt has grown soft and complacent but he is surprised by the clarity with which his old instincts kick back in and one thing he knows for sure; Tina showing up here is no accident. If she is here, she is looking for or has found Matt and something is up. It’s not long before Tina and Matt meet and renew their acquaintance and it’s not long after that that a girl that was also at the party turns up dead.
In a quick flashback, we meet Mac, Matt’s superior officer during the war and learn that Matt’s code name had been “Eric”. Matt had operated under such deep cover that Mac tells him that he cannot possibly be discharged from an agency that technically does not exist. Now, the idea that Matt has never really been de-activated is what propels the narrative; “we need you, Eric, and you haven’t much choice”.
Back to the present, Tina enlists Matt’s help with her current mission. Actually, she frames him which forces him into action. Tina keeps Matt in the dark but he tries to unravel what she is up to, exactly, and how Mac figures in it. Mac finally reaches out to Matt and tells him that Tina has gone rogue – I always love the sound of that. I hope to “go rogue” myself one day. Tina is now working with an organization who’s aims are in direct contrast to those of the United States. Specifically, this organization seeks the demise of an American atomic scientist. Mac tells “Eric” he’s on the clock again; stop Tina, he is told. Stop her permanently. Tina ups the ante by kidnapping Matt’s youngest daughter, giving Matt even more incentive to engage his old colleague. Matt’s long-suppressed violent nature becomes the default again. This is the metaphorical “death of a citizen”.
Where Matt Helm differs from the many men who suffered from PTSD is that the horrors of war and the memories of the jobs he carried out in his coldly cynical way do not own him. HE owns THEM – he realizes now that for the last 13 years he’s been living a lie. He realizes that to live and operate as he had in the war is really his true nature and when the life of his daughter is threatened that nature comes easily back to the surface. This is the film Taken but 50 years ago.
The ending needs to be talked about but I guess this is technically a spoiler. Matt gets his daughter back. To do so, he has to coldly and brutally murder and beat people. The climax comes when Matt’s wife enters a hotel room and sees the brutal carnage that Matt has inflicted. She sees her husband – whom she thought she knew – in a different light and it repulses her. Matt knows that the only thing to do now is to leave Beth – who won’t have him now, anyways – and the kids and rejoin Mac and his black ops agency.
And so begins Matt Helm’s second career as an operative. 26 more adventures follow. In subsequent books, Beth and the kids are mentioned but they represent a life that Matt has left behind. Donald Hamilton continued writing the series – and other non-Matt Helm novels – until the early 1990’s. The novels were tweaked in small ways in the late ’60’s to reflect the times. Matt also showed up in a short-lived eponymous television series in the 1970’s starring Tony Franciosa. Hamilton died in 2006, aged 90.
You’ll be happy to know that there is a place on the internet that is loaded with well organized information on the Matt Helm books. It hasn’t been modified for almost 5 years but it breaks down each book in excellent detail. You should check it out here.