Perhaps if U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been spotted reading Matt Helm instead of James Bond, the mainstream public would have elevated Donald Hamilton to a household name. Instead, Bond's creator Ian Fleming enjoyed the fame and fortune, and Hamilton settled for mid-tier literary status – royalties earned from a 27-book series that inspired five feature films and a failed television series. Not bad in a lifetime of work. The Matt Helm series kicked off in 1960 with Death of a Citizen. I found it lukewarm at best, but was anxious for the espionage eruption promised in the series' second installment, The Wrecking Crew, published by Fawcett Gold Medal the same year.
After the events of the series debut, Matt Helm has now returned to full-time work in the U.S. Intelligence community. His 15-year span as western author, photographer and family man was washed away in a bloody bathtub. Now, his wife and family have moved to Reno, Nevada, and Helm finds himself once again as a kill-on-command agent for the government. This is where we find Helm in the opening pages of The Wrecking Crew, hunting a Soviet leader/hit-man who's terminated a lot of U.S. agents and allies in and around Sweden (the author's birthplace).
The story has Helm teaming with two women, an American operative and a widow named Lou. The cover story is that Helm will be a very American tourist – cowboy hat, southern drawl, long-lens camera – touring the northern portion of Sweden with Lou. Her husband was killed by communist forces in East Germany and she is working with Helm to find the villain. There's some reflective interludes with Helm discussing his training at the farm, re-entry interviews with longtime boss Mac, and his thoughts on dropping the family act (although that will be a main theme in the series' next book).
I was enthralled with Hamilton's opening act, 50-pages explaining the mission, warring factions, key personnel and the candidates for Helm's sexcapades. Unfortunately, the momentum is swept away over the course of the next 70-pages. Helm interacts with the two women – scores with one – and traipses over Sweden taking pictures that he purposefully overexposes. He meets with a gorgeous female cousin who plays a part in the book's finale. There's a car wreck, a brief knife fight, and a woman is murdered. There's also a lot of dialogue that finds Helm no closer to his assassination target on page 51 than he is on page 151. The finale finds Helm being hand-delivered to the villain in a fight that's written the same length as a gas station coffee menu – short with few options.
Overall, I love Hamilton's writing style. It is an easy narrative to devour and the opening act is strong enough to warrant further reading. After finding Death of a Citizen average, I can't help but think The Wrecking Crew was more of the same. The series has a devout following and heaps of praise. At the end of the day, maybe my problems with Helm reflect my selfish desire for a speedy and explosive narrative. Hamilton knows his audience and his hero far better than I do. Who am I to judge? Read it and decide for yourself.
Eric, I’m seeking a court injunction to keep you at least 300 yards from further installments in the Matt Helm series. You’re certainly permitted to like what you like, but The Wrecking Crew is one of the best Matt Helm installments. If you didn’t enjoy it, there’s not much forthcoming that’s going to change your mind about the series.
Readers, for the love of all things holy, please read and enjoy this paperback. I promise that you’ll destroy your bedtime flipping the pages to learn what happens next in this literary masterpiece. I also promise that Eric is a fundamentally good man who has just lost his way. With love and support from the community, I know we can bring him around on this pivotal series.
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