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Book Review: Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton

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The hardest boiled of the Cold War spies, Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm has long languished in undeserved obscurity, mostly remembered for a series of cheesy spy “comedies” starring a thoroughly tiresome Dean Martin. But the pulp connoisseurs at Britain’s Titan Books (who have also been aligned with Hard Case Crime) have sought to bring the real Matt (a.k.a. “Eric”) back into the searchlight – and good for them. First two books in Hamilton’s 27-volume series, Death of a Citizen and The Wrecking Creware being published by the company, with the next five titles also announced throughout the next year.

As a teen in the sixties, I read as many of Hamilton’s Helm novels – initially released in paperback by the legendary pulp line Fawcett – as I could. The character debuted seven years after James Bond, but he quickly established himself as a grittier alternative to the dapper secret agent. For one thing, he took his role as a government sanctioned killer more seriously, ever aware of just how much the act changes a person. In the novel which introduced Helm, Citizen, there are no grandiloquent criminal masterminds for our hero to best; if anything, the affair in which our temporarily retired ex-spy finds himself reads more like something one of Dashiell Hammett’s p.i.s might have encountered. In fact, from the way he describes himself it’s easy to visualize the man as a physical mirror to the Continental Op.

When Helm’s debut opens, we see him as a softened married man in New Mexico – the author of a series of western novels (which Hamilton also wrote) – who has done his best to forget his history as a ruthless American agent during the Second World War. That past returns to bite him on the ass, however, when his old spy partner, a fur-bearing babe named Tina, shows up at the cocktail party of a neighboring Los Alamos researcher. When our hero finds the body of a self-proclaimed fledgling authoress in his writer’s studio, he’s forced to deal with Tina and her thuggish new partner Loris. Unsure if he is being pushed back into the spy biz by his former boss Mac, he leaves his wife and child to re-partner with Tina, who may or may not have his best interests at heart.

Pursued across the New Mexico and Texas desert, our hero faces two big questions: why was he brought back into his old life and can he trust a single word out of his sexy ex-partner’s mouth? Lovers of noir fiction already know the answer to that second question, of course, but watching the formerly settled Helm slip back into his old self is a treat. As a narrator, Helm is mannishly opinionated: his take on the styles and mores of the Eisenhower Era are engaging at times, though a few of his thoughts on married life and what used to be called the Battle of the Sexes may bring some modern readers up short. This ain’t cuddly ol’ Dean Martin “slaygirl” territory by a long shot: Helm is the real bloody pulp deal.  

Great to have him back.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.