The second volume in Donald Hamilton’s long-running paperback spy series, The Wrecking Crew (originally published in 1960) sees its hard-boiled hero Matt Helm out of civilian life for good after the events in Death of a Citizen pushed him back into the world of spycraft. In Crew, our counter agent hero gets sent to northern Sweden on his first mission to track down a mercenary hitman named Caselius. Divorced from his wife, who left after getting a first-hand glimpse of her husband’s brutal side, our hero hooks up with the spouse of a magazine writer who had written an expose on Caselius and was subsequently “accidentally” machine gunned by a border guard. The widow, Lou Taylor, has decided to take up her writer husband’s work, so Helm tags along as “hick photographer” in the hope that this will draw out Caselius.
Helm’s initial assignment – to find but not take out the mysterious assassin – puts him in sight of Swedish and American agents, most of who appear to have slippery allegiances. Then there’s the comely widow, whose survival from the shooting is itself viewed with suspicion. Though viewed as an out-of-shape old-timer by Stockholm agent Sara Lundgren, our hero doesn’t waste any time showing us that he’s still got it: whether dodging the attack of a sword cane bearing Swede, brutally ravishing the possibly duplicitous widow or rescuing said widow in a climactic showdown with the bad guy. While it’s his first assignment in fifteen years, we know our narrator hero will survive (he’s got twenty-five more books to go, after all!), though we can’t be too sure about any of his slippery allies.
Even more than he did in the first Helm novel, Hamilton emphasizes his protagonist’s ruthless, almost anti-heroic nature. The Wrecking Crew of the title (criminally twisted into “Necking Crew” in the promo line for one of the abysmal Dean Martin movies) doesn’t refer to the book’s villains – but the unnamed Cold War agency employing Helm. The writer (himself a Swedish transplant) gets plenty of good mileage from his Scandinavian setting, using it both for sinister atmosphere and to emphasize our lead’s role as a man on his own. If a few of his culture clash specifics seem very much of their time (e.g., a villain who sees American reliance on automatic transmissions as a symbol of Yankee decadence), they work in Helm’s noiry world. This is no tongue-in-cheek spy fare but gritty, occasionally discomforting period pulp.