Thursday, January 3, 2013

Beat to a Pulp

While shopping for a gift for a friend in a used book shoppe, I came across a book I'd been looking for for ages. And yes, I'm perfectly aware of the existence of Amazon, but I still enjoy the sensation of getting my fingers dusty digging through crates and shelves. If I simply must have something I go on- line, otherwise, I often let fate decide the course of my literary leanings. In any event, there it was: Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton, the first Matt Helm adventure. Not a first edition, but a nice looking copy at a reasonable price.  
So it's not a Carter Brown cover by McGinnis...still beats most covers today...
Those familiar with the blog may remember that I took a look back at all four of the Dean Martin vehicles in the Matt Helm film franchise. As I previously stated, the Helm books are not the swanky, swinging 60's romps as portrayed in the movies, but rather a darker, grittier version of a James Bond novel. Helm doesn't swagger through exotic locations and lavish hotels, he gets his hands dirty. Not that I don't love Bond's more jetsetting lifestyle, but sometimes you just want some meat and potatoes action.

The first novel sees Helm settling into soft middle age as a western fiction writer...and a retired ex-secret agent from World War II...when he spots someone from his past at a social gathering. Suddenly, there's a dead counter-agent in his office bathroom and he's back in the twisted world of the spy game. The book alternates between Matt's memories of his past in the war and his chase to thwart an assassination attempt on his friend, a nuclear scientist.

As I had read several of the Helm books before this, it was a bit of a letdown in the get up and go department of the later adventures. It reminded me of watching any of the comic book movies that spend far too long rehashing the characters origin rather than getting them in the suit and beating on baddies. That's not to say the book dragged or was too light on action, it wasn't. In fact, it probably had the most character study of the several that I've read, but did lack the in medias res feel that I value in action/adventure stories. Nevertheless it was solidly written with a healthy dose of suspense and a good helping of hardboiled dialogue.

I have oft considered contacting the Hamilton estate to see if I can use this for my author bio pic as well...
Perhaps one of the most fun aspects of this first Matt Helm outing is how literally in matches the life of it's author in setting. Hamilton had also served during the war, lived in New Mexico with his wife and family, and had written several Western novels such as the The Big Country, which became the 1958 movie with Gregory Peck.  And, I like to think, that every time he "ran down to the store" he was doing a blackout on some Commie plot in the American Southwest. In all, Death of a Citizen was just the sort of page-turning thriller that makes for the perfect material to get you quickly from one end of a holiday flight to the other. Frankly, it's also given me the yen to perhaps revisit this counter agent more often...after all, there's only 20+ more Matt Helm adventures to go through. 

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