Monday, February 4, 2013

My Crime Beat Column: The Return Of Matt Helm: Titan Books Reissues Donald Hamilton's Spy Thrillers

I devoured crime and spy thrillers back in the Sixties when I was a teenager. After seeing the first two James Bond films starring Sean Connery, I began reading Ian Fleming and was pleased to find that his Bond novels were more dark and complex than the films.

After Fleming died in 1964 I moved on to the other Brit spy thriller writers like Len Deighton and John le Carre. At the time I thought the Brits wrote the best spy thrillers and the Americans, like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, wrote the best crime thrillers.

Around the mid-1960s I began reading Donald Hamilton's paperback spy stories that featured a tough guy character named Matt Helm. Hamilton was Louis L'Amour meets Mickey Spillane meets Ian Fleming.

Later Dean Martin made a series of films based on the Hamilton stories. I love Dean Martin as a singer and entertainer, and he could be a good actor when he wanted to be, but the films were broad spy spoofs. They were amusing, but I liked Hamilton's darker novels better.

As Hamilton's Matt Helm was a Westerner and an outdoorsman, and Hamilton described him as 6'4, lean and with blond hair, I thought the young Clint Eastwood would have made a better Helm than ole Dino.

"Whereas Bond was a sophisticate who knew wine, expensive cars, and tuxedos, Helm lived much of the time in the American Southwest, drove a pickup truck, and wore flannel shirts," writer and editor Otto Penzler noted.

I recently reread Hamilton's first two Matt Helm thrillers, Death of a Citizen and The Wreaking Crew, as Titan Books has reissued Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm spy thrillers.

Helm was an Army officer and assassin in Europe during World War II and he's called back into action (circa 1960) in Death of a Citizen. His elite, top secret unit was known as "the Wreaking Crew" or "M Group (for murder) by only a handful of people. In the second thriller, The Wreaking Crew, Helm is sent overseas to Sweden to take out a mysterious secret agent and killer.

In announcing the 2013 reissue, Titan Books stated that Hamilton’s novels were known for a gritty realism as Helm hunted (and killed) foreign agents and other enemies of the United States. When asked to describe his character, Matt Helm, Donald Hamilton replied "He's a nice guy, he just happens to kill people for a living."' The action was methodical, even brutal, and the series quickly attracted an avid following. The books sold more than 20,000,000 copies worldwide before disappearing from bookstore shelves.

“These novels were among the best spy thrillers ever published,” said Nick Landau, Publisher of Titan Books and CEO of the Titan Publishing Group. “We’re thrilled to partner with the estate of Donald Hamilton, enabling us to bring them back into print and show readers what they’ve been missing all these years.”

And I was thrilled to revisit my youth by rereading Hamilton's first two Matt Helm spy thrillers. I look forward to reading more of them.    


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Paul, now that Americans have got around to expressing gratitude toward veterans, that doing so is even fashionable, I wonder how all those thriller and adventure books from the 1960s and 1970s that featured disaffected Vietnam veterans who turned to killing as a profession will look to audiences today.

    Speaking of novels about disaffected vets, I was part of small dinner group at the recent Bouchercon one evening that included David Morrell. Needless to say, a softer-spoken, more humble guy, you could not imagine.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. Peter,

    I've never read Morrell, but I hear that like Ian Fleming and Donald Hamilton, his novels are nothing like the comic book films made based on them (Although I kinda liked the first Rambo film, "First Blood."

    As for veterans as criminals and killers, I wrote about this while covering the crime thriller "Savages" in my Crime Beat column:

    I enjoyed Savages but I have two problems with the thriller. My main beef is the character Chon being a former Navy SEAL.

    Sure, there are one or two former SEALs who have gone bad in real life, but I’m old enough to recall when every psychotic killer and nut job in novels, on TV and in the movies during the 1960s and 1970s was a Vietnam veteran.

    This trend began to wane when Magnum P.I. came on TV in 1980. Magnum offered not only one, but three positive characters who were Vietnam veterans. Thomas Magnum, portrayed by Tom Selleck, was a former Navy SEAL.

    Magnum’s two friends, Rick and TC, were also Vietnam veterans. Higgins, the major domo of the Robin Master’s estate, was an honorable World War II veteran.

    Magnum P.I., an amusing, lighthearted crime show, was very popular throughout the 1980s. I believe the pro-military show was instrumental in curtailing the veteran as killer and criminal stereotype in novels and on the big and small screen.

    I would hate to see that stereotype begin to grow in popular fiction once again.


  4. At first, though, weren't those veterans intended to elicit readers' sympathy? You know, the characters had been used, damaged, then spat out by the system. (Incidentally, I didn't need Magnum. P.I. to fill the function you suggested. I once had a boss who had been a Vietnam vet, in special forces or some other high-level position, and he was a popular, pleasant guy who was explicit about his own position as proof that not all Vietnam vets are psychos.)

    I also once read that loose cannons like the Rambo in the movie version do nothing but screw up military operations and would therefore be hated and shunned by their colleagues.

  5. Peter,

    Yes, the flawed Vietnam veteran character in fiction was in part to elicit sympathy, but it was also intended to explain their violent actions. It is a cheap and easy trick for cheap and lazy writers.

    I'm a veteran and so is my older brother. He served in South Vietnam during the 1968 Tet battle. He came home, got married, had four children, and worked for more than 40 years for PECO.

    Like your boss and my brother (and me), the stats clearly show that most Vietnam veterans came home and lived their lives. They adjusted.

    Part of the myth comes from the good number of drug addicts and drunks who claim to be Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and they are not. Some are true veterans, but never served in combat.

    I can site a good number of cases I was involved in as the security chief of a Defense Department command in Philadelphia where guys lied about their service to gain sympathy and get free of charges of drug use, theft and other offenses.

    As a writer, I've also come across many phoney veterans, dressed in combat outfits, ribbons hanging, and hugging and kissing each other at veteran events. Few real combat veterans do that.

    (Have you seen the video of the fake soldier caught by a true veteran at Oxford Valley Mall? Good stuff)

    And you're right about Rambo. I've interviewed a good number of Navy SEALs (I'm working on a magazine piece on SEALs right now), Delta Force operators, British commandos and I even once interviewed an Israeli commando. The film Rambo character (I've not read the books) would wash out in the initial UDT/Buds training. Special Operations operators are highly trained and disciplined team players.

    Have you read Dick Couch's thrillers? He was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and he is mostly known for nonfiction books about Special Operations (The Sheriff of Ramadi), but he also wrote a couple of good thrillers about Navy SEALs. You might want to check him out.


  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. No on Couch; I'm pretty new to thrillers and men's adventure novels. But I'd therefore regard it as a test if such books can hold the interest of reader like me, who has no military background and who came of age (in Canada, no less) after Vietnam. Donald Hamilton passes that test.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Peter,

    Well, old Tom Clancy himself had no military background before he wrote his thrillers.

    I think you might find Dick Couch's "Pressure Point" compelling, even without an initial interest in the military and terrorism. The main character in the thriller is a civilian ferry boat captain and a Navy veteran, but not a former SEAL.