Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Matt Helm #01 - Death of a Citizen

We don’t do by-lines here at Paperback Warrior. Your writers, Eric and Tom, generally speak with one voice in our articles and reviews. We edit each other’s work and rarely read the same books, so there’s little opportunity to disagree on a particular review. 

Until now.

Eric read Death of a Citizen, the first book in the popular Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton and had an opinion that shocked and appalled Tom. Rather than disbanding the Paperback Warrior Empire or fist -fighting after school near the bike rack, we decided to emerge behind our curtain of anonymity and air our grievances publicly. 

May the best man win.

Non-Spoiler Plot Synopsis:

Donald Hamilton (1916-2006) was a popular mid-20th Century author whose greatest success was in the genre of spy fiction. In the 1940s and 1950s, the author wrote a number of stand-alone crime-fiction novels and westerns. His most prolific work is the successful Matt Helm series of spy-fiction novels that ran 27 published novels from 1960-1993. The series was loosely adapted into four comical films starring Dean Martin in the title role that no one should ever watch because they are awful and bear no resemblance to the book series.  Having enjoyed Hamilton's stand-alone novels, it was time to finally check out Matt Helm's first adventure in Death of a Citizen, the series debut. 

The novel introduces Matt Helm as a suburban husband and father living a quiet life in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1958. Helm has gained a bit of notoriety as a popular author of western novels (paralleling Hamilton's own career). It's at a neighborhood dinner party when Helm sees a fellow guest named Tina, creating the perfect moment for the author to add some backstory into this rather complex character.

Readers learn that Helm was in the U.S. Army during WW2 and was recruited into the government's counter-agent program. Think of an assassin killing enemy assassins, spies killing spies. Helm and Tina were both knee deep in dead enemies for a five-year period in war-torn Europe. As co-workers and lovers, the two went their separate ways after the war - Helm disappeared into everyday citizenship and Tina just disappeared. Until now. 

After a brief exchange with a young, aspiring novelist named Barbara, Helm departs the party only to find Barbara dead in his writing studio the next morning. Seemingly set up as the murderer, Helm is re-introduced to Tina who explains that Helm's atomic-scientist neighbor is the target of some sort of criminal conspiracy or communist nation. Tina and her new partner are in town to stop the would-be assassin – Barbara, the dead girl. Caught up in the crime and the old trade of killing, Helm is thrust back into his former life as ally and partner to Tina.

Eric’s Take:

Despite the novel's immense success and critical acclaim, I found Death of a Citizen to be an average spy-thriller. At 140-pages, nothing substantial happens during the novel's first-half. The narrative is presented as more of a road trip as Helm and Tina drive to Texas and rekindle that loving feeling (note - Helm is happily married to Beth and the father of three small children). With all the mileage, the story never really gains momentum once readers and the hero arrive at their destination. Aside from a few deaths, Helm isn't involved in much gunplay. I was a bit befuddled by the big reveal – the enemy is within – and Helm's dismissal of the most relevant portion of his life in the book's closing pages. 

I would assume the series gains quality with quantity and maybe the Helm character becomes a little more menacing in an international setting. The end result is an average beginning to what is widely considered an enjoyable series of spy-adventures. I'm anxious to read the series' next installment, The Wrecking Crew, to analyze series' improvements. 

Tom’s Take:

I think Eric misses the point in his review of Death of a Citizen, one of my favorite all-time novels that debuts my favorite series ever. 

I will grant that it’s not a balls-out action spectacular like Don Pendleton’s War Against the Mafia. There’s plenty of that to enjoy later in the series. Instead, Hamilton is giving us the story of a man who is an amoral killer by his very nature who can no longer wear the costume of a suburban family man. The circumstances of the novel force Helm’s hand into deciding who he wants to be – a meek husband and father or a trained killer. You can guess which way he swings. Matt Helm is the citizen in Death of a Citizen.

Death of Citizen is a brilliant novel because it explores the nature of a violent man who is done conforming with polite society’s expectations. Helm is a great narrator who presents his acts of violence and his slide back into his old life in an offhand and cavalier fashion. For instance, the most shocking scene in the book happens off-page and is revealed to the reader as an offhand remark in a single sentence. Donald Hamilton was a genius who knew when to throw his punches but also knew when the reader’s imagination could do the job better than his tightly-wound prose.

I hope Eric continues with the series – at least the first dozen books or so. The other paperbacks are more traditional spy-assassin books with more traditional plotting. Book two is called The Wrecking Crew, and I thought it was a masterpiece. The third book in the Matt Helm series, The Removers, ties up the loose ends from Death of a Citizen regarding Matt’s family. The Removers was not amazing, but I suspect that Hamilton needed to resolve the unresolved family issues from the debut.

Bottom line for Eric: Don’t give up on Matt Helm.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

4 comments:

  1. I have to agree with Tom's take. This novel is a dark psychological drama, not an action-packed men's adventure or plot-driven spy thriller. It's about the re-awakening of Helm's predatory, animal instincts after the deadening influence of 15 years of suburban family life. It's pretty edgy stuff compared to "James Bond saves the world" or "Mack Bolan sticks it to the mob". I reviewed it at https://shadowwarjournal.blogspot.com/2020/04/death-of-citizen.html

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    1. Fine analysis. I agree and glad you mentioned the difference this Helm entry exhibits against Bond and Bolan. Different type of book.

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  2. Good to see some conflict! Spices things up around here. :)

    I gotta lean with Tom on this one as well. However, I don't think that Eric is just missing the point. Hamilton could be kind of oblique in his writing at times and lacked the pure craftsmanship of Westlake. So while the ultimate point of this book about the suburban man casting off the shackles of society (which is often what we try to do when reading these books) is awesome, I felt that it could have been delivered with more punch and intensity than is done here. Still, yes, it is super cool and really captures brilliantly the tension of the era as the veterans of WWII mowed lawns and took the commuter train to the office.

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