Sunday 2 August 2020

The Wrecking Crew by Donald Hamilton

It's a terrific feeling to wake up in the morning and know there's a book you're in the middle of reading and looking forward to picking up again.

Last week I wrote about Donald Hamilton's Death of a Citizen, his first Matt Helm adventure. Thanks to the speedy response of a secondhand book seller – and, credit where it's due, to the readability of Hamilton's story — I am now in a position to discuss the next book in the series.

In that first book Matt Helm, a former assassin for his government in a time of war, was settled, staid and respectable; a married man with three children. I didn't expect that to last. 

In some ways it was too good to last — personally, I think having domestic normality to contrast with bloodthirsty action in a thriller provides an interesting dynamic and an ideal counterpoint.

But in the period that Hamilton wrote these books (the early 1960s) action heroes were invariably loners. The model of the secret agent who also has a home life wouldn't really surface until the James Cameron movie True Lies in 1994.

So I fully expected Matt Helm to be divested of his family by the end of the first book. Indeed, I half expected and was braced for them to be massacred by evil commie bad guys to send our hero on a revenge spree that would last for dozens of novels.

Fortunately, that didn't happen — bad things ensued, but none that bad. What Donald Hamilton came up with was much more interesting. Matt Helm's wife Beth had no idea of her husband's secret past...

And when she finds out, she just can't handle it. So she leaves him, taking their kids with her. Leading to Helm's bitter reflection, "she'd never have dreamed of breaking up our home if she'd merely discovered, say, that I was the bombardier who'd pushed the button over Hiroshima."

Indeed, this being the height of the Cold War, the thought of death by nuclear weapons is never far away. Leading Helm to consider how the sound of a siren could signify "a brush fire in a vacant lot... or an intercontinental missile with a hydrogen warhead zeroed in on your home town."

Helm is a long way from his own New Mexico home town in The Wrecking Crew (the title refers to the shadowy government agency for whom he works). He's travelled to Sweden to put the "touch" on — i.e. kill — a Soviet agent. The plot of this novel doesn't feature any breathtaking twist to rival that of the first book.

But there are other pleasures. Hamilton has the good sense to make his stories slowly cumulative, carrying just enough over from previous adventures to enrich the mix and give his hero some depth and reality. Hence those jaundiced reflections about his ex-wife.

And whereas the femme fatale in the first book was sort of unconvincingly and synthetically foreign, here we have a cast of more much authentic Swedes. Perhaps because, like his hero, Hamilton has Swedish ancestry, he's taken his research seriously.

Helm's cover story is that he's a photographer for a magazine (in the first book he was both a writer and a photographer) and clearly Donald Hamilton knows this craft. He has some fascinating things to say, as asides, about the difference between black and white and colour film in low light conditions.

And there's the great observation, as Helm deliberately destroys a roll of film by exposing it to daylight, that "There's nothing as permanent and irrevocable as fogging a film, except killing a man."

And, sure enough, men — and women — get killed in the course of this taut, compact suspense novel. But you won't guess which ones.

Donald Hamilton isn't quite in the class of John D. MacDonald or Charles Williams, but he is very, very good. His plots are precision engineered and often ingenious, and he writes well: "We... were driven in to town, leaving the plane standing alone in the arctic wasteland with only the cold wind for company."

And there are moments of cool, offhand profundity in his characterisation, like the woman who says her husband "couldn't always be bothered with being kind."

Hamilton's female characters are particularly memorable, and often informed with the sardonic humour which is one of his most appealing features. 

Take Lou Taylor, for instance, the woman with the above-mentioned husband: "she wasn't exactly from Sexville, as the cats back home would put it," but she is nevertheless appealing with her "taut, shorn, dark leanness."

Or there's Elin von Hoffmann who is "something to make you weep for your wasted life."

Matt Helm himself is a "bright, ruthless guy" with a "diabolical soul" who'd "once survived a war mainly by putting no faith whatever in the power of coincidence."

Cynical, fast moving, satisfyingly evocative and occasionally very thrilling indeed, The Wrecking Crew is a strong sequel to Death of a Citizen.

But I'm already moving ahead — and looking forward to — book three in the series.

(Image credits: My starting point, as usual, was Good Reads. The British Gold Medal back cover is from Existential Ennui. The Gold Medal 40c front and back cover is from eBay seller kenz430, the 95c is a stock image from ABE. The Fawcett $1.50 is also a stock image from ABE. The Coronet edition with the film strips is also from ABE, although that particular copy is apparently no longer listed. The later Coronet edition with the green Matt Helm logo at the top is from GD Price on ABE. The Serie Noir French translation is from Les Livre on ABE. The front and back cover of the Turkish edition is from Collectybles on eBay.)

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