“I was taking a martini across the room…”
If that line, the first sentence in the first Matt Helm novel by Donald Hamilton, had been the only sentence in the book, then there would have been very little stylistic conflict between the Matt Helm of the books and the incarnation of the character that eventually fond its way onto movie screens. Of course, a single sentence doesn’t exactly make for a great novel, and we soon learn that Matt Helm is taking the martini across the room to his wife during a dull suburban cocktail party. From there, things get a lot darker and more violent.
Like Ian Fleming did for James Bond, Donald Hamilton put a lot of himself into the character of Matt Helm. Hamilton was born in Sweden and immigrated to the United States on the eve of the Great Depression. As a kid he was an avid teller of ghost stories, and as a young man he assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. He actually ended up getting a degree in chemistry, and then served as a chemist for the Navy during World War II. It was during the war that Hamilton began writing regularly, and after the war it became something less than a profession for him but certainly more than a hobby. Eventually, he and his family settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and his career as a writer took off. From magazines to books, with many of those books being optioned and made into films or television series. Hamilton also grew to be an avid outdoorsman and photographer. His most enduring character, Matt Helm (Hamilton made the jump from western stories to spy novels after the success of Ian Fleming inspired him), incorporates most of these traits. His name is Swedish in its root. He is a World War II veteran, an outdoorsman, a photographer, and in his spare times a writer of western novels.
Despite often being dumped into the big pile of Bond-inspired espionage novels that flooded the 1960s and 70s, Helm and Bond are as different — and as similar — as Hamilton and Fleming, or as the United States and England. They share many of the same background characteristics. Bond was also an avid outdoorsman in his youth, an accomplished skier and mountaineer. Although referred to as spies, both Helm and Bond are actually assassins. Both men are sinister, ruthless when they need to be, and haunted by loss. Hamilton himself has said that he wrote the first Matt Helm book because of Ian Fleming, and while it’s not always fair to compare every espionage character to James Bond, it also still probably has to be done given the long shadow Bond casts in both literature and film. And while Bond and Helm share a number of traits, the worlds they inhabit are very different. Fleming’s Bond is not quite the playboy we know from the movies, but he still lives a pretty jet-set lifestyle. The best champagne, the finest hotels, the most elegant women, and of course always showering with “Pinaud Elixer, that Prince among shampoos.” In contrast, Helm probably has to shampoo with a bottle of Suave from the drug store. When he stays in a hotel, it’s usually some backwater fleapit or anonymous roadside motel. Or it’s just a sleeping bag in the back of what passes for an Aston Martin or Bentley in the world of Matt Helm: a banged-up old pick-up truck.
The first of the Helm novels, 1960’s Death of a Citizen, sets the mood that will be carried throughout the bulk of the series. Helm, a retired secret agent who specialized in assassinating Nazis during the war, has built a new life for himself in Santa Fe, complete with a wife and kids, normal friends, and a new career. That lasts for all of a few pages, at which time a former partner, Tina, corners Matt at the party and through manipulation and blackmail, presses the retired killer back into the cloak and dagger game. Matt and Tina must protect a scientist who has been targeted for assassination, and in doing so, Helm discovers to his chagrin that the old ways he thought behind him were never as far behind him as he had hoped.
Death of a Citizen is a tightly-wound, lean, ruthless thriller. Hamilton’s experience with western stories definitely helps here in fleshing out the setting in which the action plays out. It probably helps that the book was published in 1960, before the film version of Dr. No was released. Most of the spy book that came in Bond’s wake actually aped the movies far more than they did the novels, which featured a much less playful, much more ruthless (and occasionally emotionally unstable) Bond. Coming before that army of post-Connery smirking, wisecracking, playboys means Matt Helm is not really infected by any of the things we often think of as defining the genre. Not that those things are bad — lord knows I love a sleazy, ridiculous Nick Carter adventure from the ’60s or ’70s — but Helm, like the literary Bond and like some other series heroes, such as Aaron Edwards’ Sam Durell, is a breed apart.
The first-person voice allows you much more access to Matt Helm’s inner demons and moral conundrums and really draws you into his psyche. The citizen facing death is ostensibly the scientist, but in reality it’s Helm’s identity as a regular guy that becomes the story’s primary casualty. His home, his wife and children, this entire new life he had so painstakingly constructed for himself proves hopelessly fragile , leaving him bitter, resentful, and faced with the reality that his past will never allow him to have any other future. For Hamilton, Bond may have been the impetus but the real influences on Death of a Citizen and Matt Helm were many of the same ones Fleming had: John Buchan’s Richard Hannay adventures and, primarily, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Helm and Marlowe would make good, if depressing, drinking buddies. Both inhabit grimy worlds full of the downtrodden, depressed, and insane. Both spend a lot of time in bright, sunny locales — L.A. for Marlowe; New Mexico for Helm — that are revealed to be teeming with deceit, subterfuge, and betrayal.
It is this grounding in the real world, a world we can recognize and access far more easily than we can the world of James Bond, that makes Helm such a relatable, engaging character and gives Death of a Citizen and subsequent Helm books a much more substantial emotional resonance than one expects from spy thrillers of the time, and not really felt even in the Bond novels until nearer the end of Fleming’s career with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice). For the most part, Bond may be the character about whom we fantasize, but Matt Helm is the character with whom we can empathize. The final scene in Death of a Citizen sees Helm forced to lay bare to his wife that he has been lying to her their entire relationship. And furthermore, to save her, he must demonstrate before her very eyes the gruesome skills and willingness to commit unspeakable acts. In doing so, he saves her life but knows he also turns into a monster in her mind, someone she will never be able to look at, let alone share a life with. It’s a genuinely heart-wrenching scene, not least of all because we are inside Matt’s head and privy to the thought process that is gutting him from the inside.
Death of a Citizen was a big hit, both with critics and readers. It’s success meant that Donald Hamilton was pretty much full-time on Matt Helm books. Each one proved successful, and by 1966 he’d written eight in the series. It was that year that he got a call from a notoriously gruff and unlikable film producer by the name of Irving Allen. Allen was a former partner of Cubby Broccoli, one of the producers of the James Bond movies, and he was looking to salvage a somewhat flailing career by jumping on the James Bond bandwagon he’d famously missed out on the first time he met with Ian Fleming and told him the James Bond books were crap not even fit for a television movie. Having run across one of Hamilton’s Matt Helm books at an airport, Allen was keen on turning Helm into America’s answer to the James Bond movies. Hamilton was happy to see the character brought to the big screen, and happier still to cash the sizable check that came with it.
No one really could have imagined what happened next…