Book Review: Matt Helm novels Death of a Citizen and The Wrecking Crew

Death of a Citizen

The Wrecking Crew

by Donald Hamilton

I’m always intrigued when books are reprinted, especially if they are reprinted fifty years after their original release. What makes the publisher do it? With fantasy and science fiction, it is usually because fans have been clamoring for out of print books, enough so that it’s a guaranteed market, and profit, if they do it.

So I was interested in these Matt Helm books being reprinted again, considering the last publication was in the mid 1960s. I like a good spy novel as much as any, and I have a fondness for westerns, so these books about a Santa Fe, New Mexico boy who is contracted during World War II for a team that organizes assassinations seemed right up my alley.

I mistakenly read them out of order, starting with The Wrecking Crew, which besides the title, is also the name of the outfit Helms worked for during the war. It takes place after World War II, and Helms has been pulled out of retirement, which given the events of Death of a Citizen, it turns out he’s amenable to, and is sent to Sweden on a mission by his old boss, Mac. As a thriller, it’s so-so, with stiff dialogue, and plotlines that you can see a mile away. The plot of this one involves a coerced spy taking pictures of Swedish infrastructure to sell to a crime boss. It never goes anywhere, and seems to be a thin excuse for focusing on Matt Helms. Which would be fine, plenty books get away with this, except for the fact that Hamilton, using Helms’ voice, is so distasteful. The book is dated, and unlike some books, the Zane Grey and James Bond novels come to mind, this has not fared the test of time.

Perhaps the most disturbing attitude that dates both books is Hamilton’s casual, repeated references to raping the women Helms encounters- whether it’s his wife, an old spy compatriot, or any of the other pretty women you expect to encounter in a spy novel, Hamilton has Helms talk, sometimes at length, about raping them. And not in a serial killer way, but more as a “all women have it coming and secretly want it” kind of way. To say that it was distasteful to read is an understatement. When I encountered the first reference talking about women:

“They arouse in me the perverted desire to dump them into the nearest swimming pool, or get them sloppy drunk, or rape them…”

I was so disgusted I put the book down for weeks. Only the knowledge that the boss man was waiting for this review made me pick it, and the prequel, Death of a Citizen up again and plow through them.

The plot of Death of a Citizen, is actually a little better, although still doesn’t come to much. Matt Helms is quietly living his life in Santa Fe with his wife and kids when an old compatriot shows up at a neighbor’s cocktail party and gives him an old sign that a mission is on. Helms quickly joins in, and the rest of the plot unfolds in a predictable manner. His old partner is a double agent, who not only betrays him, but targets his family. There doesn’t seem to be much point in either plot. You don’t really go anywhere and Helms as a character study is boring, and offensive.

The cover of both books have a tagline from Tom Clancy- “A real world with a real character”. I sincerely hope it’s been 50 years since Clancy read these, or else I find I have a lot less respect for Clancy than I used to. If you take away the incredibly distasteful parts, these books aren’t bad dime store novels. Although for the life of me I can’t think of a single reason to re-release them. But they are distasteful. I’m no prude, but to have a main character sincerely discuss rape, repeatedly, as a way to deal with women is disgusting. Yes, Hamilton may have been writing for his times, but it’s still awful.

I’d pass on both, and any other re-release that comes from it.

About Karra Shimabukuro

I am a PhD student at University of New Mexico, my research focuses on medieval literature, folklore, and popular culture. My writing tends to focus on television and movies, but usually with a focus on how things are all connected. I'm a reference snob. I often consider myself a Geek by Proxy- the coolest people I ever met were geeks, and at a young age found myself devouring all the cool things they knew/saw/did. In my days off I can be found on the Interweb spreading joy and enlightenment. And I can always be found in the company of my bebe puppy Nehi. @khkshimabukuro
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