Sunday, 26 July 2020

Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton

Matt Helm was the American answer to James Bond — a spy empowered to kill enemies of the state. But if he's remembered now, it's all too likely to be in connection with the brief series of films that were made of the books.

These, too, were the American answer to Bond —  they sought to top the more extravagant and fantastical elements of the 007 franchise and they were terribly camp. My memories of them are of flying saucers and go-go dancers and Dean Martin looking none too convincing holding a submachine gun.

(There's a clip from one of these Matt Helm movies in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

But it's unjust to judge books by the films they spawned. The Matt Helm novels were the creations of Donald Hamilton, a writer who was similar to Elmore Leonard in that, while he would become a major figure in suspense fiction, he spent the better part of the 1950s writing Westerns. 

Indeed, his hero Matt Helm is also a writer of Westerns, living with his wife and kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico (a good place for a creator of Westerns to reside). He is peacefully settled into a routine and mundane existence.

But during the Second World War, Helm had been a secret agent — in fact an assassin. And when we first meet him, in the opening pages of Death of a Citizen, he is at a cocktail party where he recognises a beautiful woman called Tina, who had fought at his side  — "our world had been young and savage and alive, instead of being old and civilised and dead."

Tina gives him a wordless signal that she's still active and not to blow her cover, leaving Helm's head spinning with memories of the two of them "making love... in a ditch in the rain, while uniformed men beat the dripping bushes all around us."

To her credit, Helm's wife Beth immediately senses that something is up. But there's no way that she can stop what's coming. Before you know it, Helm is compelled to help Tina dispose of a corpse — an enemy operative — and they are on the run together across a memorably described southwestern wilderness.

Tina is sort of generically foreign and exotic — Hamilton can't seem to make up his mind if she's French or German, or what the hell she is. 
But she, too, is memorably described, both in retrospect as a "bedraggled fury" killing a German officer in the "wet woods at Kronheim" during the war, and in the present "stretching and yawning like a waking cat" on the first morning of their new adventure together.

But Matt Helm has no illusions about Tina. "She wasn't a person in whom one could place one's childlike and innocent trust."

He tells Tina, "I'm bound to be unfaithful to my wife before I'm through with you... Let's get it over with so I can stop wrestling with my conscience."

Tina says, "I do not think you are wrestling very hard." Helm shrugs and replies, "It's not much of a conscience."
Besides showing Donald Hamilton's gift for sardonic wit, the fact that Helm so casually betrays his wife is a bracing, cynical shock, and oddly elevates the book to a more mature and serious level.

What ensues is a well paced and entertaining thriller populated with vivid and often amusingly evoked characters, and possessed of a really terrific plot twist.

It also features some things I found quite hard to take, which is fair enough. In a book so full of violent action and killing there should at least be a sense of consequence and loss...

And incidentally the "death" of the citizen in the title refers to the fact that Matt Helm can never return to the routine normality of his old life after undergoing the events in this story.

To give you some idea of how impressed I was with novel, I am going straight online to look for the next book in the series. 

(I just discovered that Titan Books have laudably reprinted the entire Matt Helm series. I tend to hold Titan in high regard — they also publish my Vinyl Detective novels.)

(Image credits: The Hodder Fawcett/Coronet copy with the lingerie clad model loading the gun on the front cover — so objectified that her head has been removed — and the back cover with its rose and perfume bottle, are scanned from the copy I read. The others are mostly from Good Reads. With these exceptions... The earlier Coronet with the film frames on the cover is from Existential Ennui. The red Fawcett back cover is from Flickr. The entirely imaginary but very nicely done movie tie-in with Steve McQueen posited in the role of Matt Helm is from an excellent post at Hazard Publishing and is © 2014 N. David Bauer. The Fawcett white $2.50 cover is from Grave Tapping. The Fawcett black $3.50 cover is from the Nick Carter and Carter Brown blog.)

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