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These are trying times to be a man. The role of a man and a father has changed drastically since my father was the same age I am now, what with the resurgence of feminism, the rise of transgenderism and the constant and public shaming of anything that smacks of masculinity – unless that masculinity is exhibited by a woman. Even then, it is frowned upon.
When I feel the pressure of being a man, I simply go do some yard work, change the oil in my truck and read spy novels from the 1960s. Nothing will make a guy feel more manly than binge-reading old Matt Helm paperbacks, except maybe old Travis McGee novels. If you are in more of a European kind of mood, then I’d recommend James Bond books.
The point cannot be emphasized enough that I am referring to the books, the written word. Not the crappy movies that Hollywood makes. James Bond movies are entertaining for what they are, but they do not portray the same Bond given to us in the books. The same goes for Matt Helm.
That’s where my introduction to Matt Helm came from, the movies. There were four of them made with Dean Martin starring as Helm. They were very tongue-in-cheek comedy caper flicks with a drunken Martin and a bevy of scantily clad babes romping from one side of the globe to the other. As a kid, who usually saw these movies late at night on cable channels, I kind of enjoyed them. When Mike Myers brought us Austin Powers, a homage to the Matt Helm movies, I liked them for the comedy and the absurdity of it all.
The Helm books were in our house growing up, but I never read them. At the time, they never held much interest for me – I was more into science fiction. Several years ago, though, I was browsing in a used book story and ran across a copy of “The Interlopers” for a cheap price. I bought it, read it and determined I needed to get the rest of them. If you have read these books, you know that what Dean Martin did to Matt Helm was a crime. This is coming from someone who still enjoys those movies, but they shouldn’t have been tagged with the Matt Helm name.
Created by author Donald Hamilton, Matt Helm is featured in a series of books published between 1960 and 1993. The series, throughout its run, was published by Fawcett Gold Medal. This may not mean a lot in 2015 as I write this, but in the 1950s the Fawcett Gold Medal books had a ground-shaking effect on the publishing world. Prior to World War II, books were published exclusively in hard cover and buying a book usually meant laying down some cash. Companies such Book of the Month Club, were able to capitalize on the hunger for literature in the hinterlands in that you got a quality printed book each month in the mail. Book salesmen would go from town to town selling subscriptions to “classic” libraries. (I’ve got a few of these sets handed down to me from my grandfather and it is where I first encountered Robert Louis Stevenson among other authors.)
During the war, however, the military wanted to be able to provide soldiers with something they could fit in their pockets to read during the quiet times. Paperback books had been around for at least a decade, but they were not mass produced. With the help of the military, paperbacks gained popularity and Fawcett was one of the first publishing houses to package original content into the new format. Most of that content was genre stuff – mysteries, romance and westerns. The books were easy to sell in supermarkets, drug stores and five-and-dimes.
With the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, a new genre began to gain in popularity – the spy novel. Fawcett launched several titles in this increasingly popular genre in which American spies faced off against Soviet agents. The Matt Helm series fit in well with what Fawcett was publishing, and Hamilton, who at the time was more of a western writer, took many of the elements of his cowboy novels and placed them in a Cold War setting.
The series kicked off with “Death of a Citizen,” in which we meet Mr. Helm – a tall, skinny fellow from a Swedish family who lives in New Mexico. This ain’t no Dean Martin.
If you are thinking you might want to dip your toe into this world, you better leave your 21st Century political correctness behind. Helm is a ruthless killer, he also is a practicing misogynist and, at times, just a tad racist. He’s a product of his times and of an author who I suspect gave his character a lot of his own ideals with a bit more harshness thrown in for good measure.
But there are many qualities of Matt Helm that make for very entertaining reading. For instance, Helm considers himself the consummate professional and gets annoyed when a job gets fouled up because of amateurs. Needless to say, almost every story involves amateurs screwing something up.
At the start of “Death of a Citizen,” Helm is an average ordinary guy who makes his living as a writer of westerns as well as magazine articles on the Old West. He also is a photographer who takes photos to go along with his articles.
So our character is a tall Swede raised and living in New Mexico and he’s a writer and photographer. I can relate to this very closely. Although not Swedish, I’ve got the other things covered. Oh, there is one other thing – during the war he was recruited for a super-secret department in the military. He wasn’t a spy, of course, but an assassin. His boss was a gray-haired man with dark eyebrows named Mac and Helm’s code name is Eric.
Once the war was over, he got married, quit the killing profession and settled down to have a family and a regular job. However, his past is never very far because he carries in his pocket a knife made of Solingen steel that locks the blade into place when it is opened. The knife was liberated from a German he had just killed with his own knife that had broken in the act. We learn this on page 2, by the way.
|Matt Helm's knife|
These memories have returned because he bumps into an old acquaintance at a Santa Fe cocktail party, a woman named Tina:
I hadn’t seen her for fifteen years, or thought about her for ten, except once in a great while when that time would come back to me like a hazy and violent dream, and I’d wonder how many of those I’d known and worked with had survived it, and what had happened to them afterwards. I’d also wonder, idly, the way you do, if I’d even recognize the girl, should I meet her again.
Helm recognizes her, of course, and he recognizes the hand signal she gives him that he needs to find a private place to talk to her. Before too long, Helm finds a dead girl in the studio attached to his house and he and Tina are on the road to track down killers who are after a scientist from Los Alamos. It also isn’t too long before Helm and Tina are doing the dirty.
In the end, it is Tina who is on the wrong side of things, and she and her cronies have kidnapped Matt’s daughter. Mac has tracked him down and tells him that he has a job waiting for him, if he wants it. First, though, he’s got to get his child back. Helm doesn’t mess around with this nonsense, first going after Loris, one of Tina’s henchmen:
It was medium dark under the bridge. We had a wide street with sidewalks above us, and in the center the light had quite a ways to travel from the half-moon shaped openings at either end. The river made a little trickle of sound to my right as I walked towards him. He’d stopped to wait for me. As I came up, he was saying something. His attitude was impatient and bullying. I suppose he was asking what the hell I was doing there, and telling me what would happen to me or to Betsy if I was trying to pull something…
I didn’t hear the words, maybe because of the sound of the river, maybe because I simply wasn’t listening. There was nothing he had to say that I had to hear. There were a couple of cars going past overhead. It was as good a time as any. I took out the gun and shot him five times in the chest.
By this time, Helm has completely reverted back to the ruthlessness that made him such an effective operative. He finds Tina and confronts her in a motel room. He wants to know where his daughter is:
I said, “You can have it hard or easy. Don’t kid yourself for a moment, Tina. Look in the mirror. I didn’t muss you up for fun; I just wanted to show you I’m quite prepared to get my hands dirty. We can save both of us a lot of trouble if you’ll just take my word that I can be just as tough as I have to.”
She said quickly, “Your child. Your little girl. If I don’t send word by a certain time…”
“What time?” I said. “This won’t take very long.”
“You’re bluffing!” she cried. “You don’t dare.”
“With Loris loose I wouldn’t,” I said. “Which is why I removed him. Don’t talk dare to me, Tina. I don’t know what instructions you left with the people who are holding Betsy, but hurting a baby, a baby who can’t even talk, who can’t be a witness against you, takes a strong stomach. Maybe they can do it and maybe they can’t, but it’ll take them a while to work up to it without direct orders. And who’s going to give those orders? Not Loris. Not you.”
She whispered, “You can’t!”
I laughed. “This is your old friend Eric, sweetheart. You made a mistake. Mac asked me to go after you, did you know that? We had a long talk in San Antonio, Mac and I. I told him to go to hell. I told ‘him I was out of it, I wasn’t mad at anybody, I was a peaceful citizen with a home and family, and I wasn’t going back to them with anybody’s blood on my hands. I’d spent a dozen years washing it off, I said, and I didn’t want to get the smell back again… That’s what I told him. And I made it stick. There was also a small matter of sentiment, perhaps. And then you sent Loris to snatch my child!” I drew a long breath. “You never had any kids, Tina? If you had, you’d never have touched a hair of one of mine.” There was silence in the room, but outside the compressor kept chattering away. I said quietly, “Now you’d better tell me where she is.”
She licked her lips. “Better men than you have tried to make me talk, Eric.”
I said, “This doesn’t take better men, sweetheart. This takes worse men. And at the moment, with my kid in danger, I’m just about as bad as they come.”
Helm gets the information, of course. And, of course, he kills Tina. As he’s cleaning up, his wife comes in and sees the bloody scene he has created. This becomes too much for her and, as we learn in the next book, she divorces him and moves off to Nevada.
Matt Helm is back working at the job he does so well.
The best books in the series are the ones written in the 1960s. As the 1970s wore on, Hamilton seems to have become interested in boats and Helm’s adventures start to become a little long in the tooth. In addition, Helm starts to seem more like a cranky old man that a ruthless assassin. Not that there wasn’t a hint of that in the earlier books, but Hamilton starts to give Helm some attitudes that are definitely behind the times, even for the 1970s. In 1974’s “The Intimidators,” Helm is sent to Bermuda to make a “touch” on a long-time adversary from “the other side,” also known as the Soviets.
“The Intimidators” is really the beginning of the end of the series although it is only the 14th book. In “Intimidators,” Hamilton, speaking as Helm, has numerous issues with the number of black people in Bermuda. In fact, one of the agents who is to help him, Fred, is black and Helm dresses him down for incompetence.
In turn, Fred lodges a complaint with Mac saying that Helm is racist. Helm argues that his problem is with incompetence, not skin color. However, through all the previous books, Helm has been shot at, beaten and lost his man due to incompetence of an amateur, but he has never dressed down those characters down. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems like Hamilton was just a tad defensive about his racial attitudes.
You can also tell that Hamilton doesn’t much care for hippies or Baby Boomers, either. In hindsight, this is more humorous than anything else. On numerous occasions, Helm is saddled with some young ingénue who feels that government assassinations are a bit unseemly. That usually doesn’t stop the young lady involved from jumping in the sack with the middle-aged Helm. Hamilton, though, spares no words on how he feels about the younger generation using the words of Lorna, a fellow agent in “The Intriguers”:
“I’m not crazy, just realistic. The basic trouble with your generation, Miss Borden, is that you will not face the facts. Subconsciously you realize that you’re mostly superfluous – that the world would be much better off if only a fraction of you had been born – but you can’t bring yourself to admit it and face the logical consequences: that your lousy little lives are not particularly valuable, let alone sacred. There are too many of you. Anything that plentiful can’t be worth much, can it?”
Helm’s attitude toward women is interesting. Obviously, he is a reflection of the times in which he was created and the attitudes toward women in this genre of fiction is generally the old cliché that women are there for arm candy and to save. In this, Hamilton differs from his contemporaries. While Bond always seemed to be busy saving the fairer sex, Hamilton’s female characters are very capable, and usually very dangerous. Even the ones who Helm considers overly “sentimental” tend to be intelligent and capable.
However, that doesn’t stop them from falling into bed with him, although Helm is always careful to mention that these women sleep with him simply because they are trying to get something out of him, whether it’s information or to lull him into a false sense of security. What doesn’t jibe with his strong, capable women is that Hamilton still treats them like objects who are constantly judged for their appearance. Helm doesn’t like women who wear pants, for instance, or women whose legs are bare without stockings.
For a man’s man, Helm is very knowledgeable about women’s clothing:
It was quite a production. There was a good deal of fine, artificial-looking, pinky-blonde hair fluffed and pinned about her head in an elaborate fashion. It looked like the nylon hair they put on dolls these days. There were baby-blue eyes with long black lashes and lots of surrounding makeup, the kind that looks as if it ought to glow in the dark. There was a big, soft, promising red mouth, and there was a figure constructed to back up the promise, more or less veiled by a short black negligee, like a ruffly, semi-transparent, knee-length coat.
What was worn under the negligee, although partially obscured, seemed to be black also, short on coverage and long on interest. There was a pair of very handsome legs in smoky stockings, and there was a pair of high-heeled, bedroom-type slippers or mules without much to hold them on except the little black rosettes at the toes. It was fairly obvious that Miss Smith had expected her musical invitation to be accepted by someone, and had dressed accordingly.
As a writer of fiction that is clearly aimed at men, Hamilton must be commended for painting a picture. The women are rarely homely, and if they are, they are reassessed by Helm when they seduce, or attempt to seduce, him.
As a trained assassin for the government, Helm has killed numerous people, and he’s quick to point out that there is no room for sentiment in his line of work. In the early books, sentiment usually results in someone ending up dead and Helm comes across as cold and ruthless. The later books, however, has Helm many times being driven to actions through sentiment and kicking himself for doing so. The character changes through the years, but Hamilton is mostly using that sentiment as a dramatic device. That’s fine, but it changes Helm into something completely different than his early years. He’s changed the essence of the character.
The sentiment device is used expertly in “The Interlopers,” the 11th book published in 1969 and probably the best of all of them.
Helm is being lent out to a sister organization to pose as Grant Nystrom, a courier of stolen defense secrets who had been killed before the action of the book starts. As Nystrom, Helm is to pick up five microfilms in different locations stretching from the Pacific Northwest through Canada and into Alaska. As he gets the films, he passes them off to the sister organization so they can be changed with misinformation.
However, Mac has given Helm a different primary assignment – draw out Hans Holz, one of Helm’s counterparts from the other side, and kill him. As part of his disguise as Nystrom, Helm has to care for a black Labrador retriever named Hank. In one scene, a trap is sprung on Helm when he hears the dog crying in the woods. This is the first part where sentiment drives action from Helm. And when the dog is poisoned, Helm drives through the night to get it to a vet. Never mind that the person who poisoned the dog ended up with a couple of bullets in him. Granted, the dog saves Helm’s bacon a couple of times, so there is room for sentiment.
At the climax of the book, sentiment plays a role in Helm accomplishing his mission. Hans Holz captures Helm and the two of them talk about the job:
The sensible thing for him to do was to pull out his little Spanish gun, or load up the big 7mm, and shoot me through the head right now. But if he did that, right after being informed of my identity, I might, in my dying moments, have thought he was afraid of a fellow pro named Matt Helm. Or he might have thought he was afraid of me, and that would not do. So, to reassure both of us, he was going to behave toward me exactly as he’d planned from the start. Well, we all have our weaknesses, dogs or pride or whatever…
After a moment, he smiled faintly. “For what you are, you were remarkably easy to catch, Mr. Helm.”
I shrugged. “I got careless, I guess.”
He said a strange thing then. He said, quietly, “It’s a lonely life, my friend.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. He didn’t speak for a little, and I could hear the night breeze going through the trees outside. The canvas of the tent stirred and subsided. The old Indian shoved a couple of sticks of wood into the stove, and juggled some pans to catch the heat exactly right.
Holz said, “I was in prison once, Mr. Helm. Well, I have been there more than once, but this time it was intentional. I was assigned to reach and silence a certain prisoner. First they put me in a cell alone, for observation. It was not a very clean or well-run place. There were, among other things, rats. One in particular considered my cell his territory. As the weeks went on, I made friends with him. It was something to do. One day the guard came in unexpectedly. My rodent friend had lost, to some extent, his fear of man; also he’d learned that visitors usually meant food. He came too close, and the guard stamped his boot, once. It was what the man had come in for, to deprive me of that bit of companionship. I killed him.”
I didn’t say anything. Holz waited a little and went on:
“I couldn’t help myself, Mr. Helm. I struck once and he was dead. It was a blow that, in my role as prisoner, I should not have known. It blew my cover instantly. It wrecked my mission and almost caused my death. All for a small, dirty, brown rat.”
There was another silence. I didn’t speak. Anything he wanted to give me, I was happy to take. He’d already given me more than he should have. He’d given me the clue to his sad, soft way of talking. He’d told me I was dealing with a man who’d been in the business too long.
He said gently, “I am explaining how I knew you would come to the cry of the dog, after traveling with him for a week. It is a lonely and dirty business. We take what friends we can get, do we not, Mr. Helm?”
“The Interlopers” is a perfect place to stop if you are reading your way through the Matt Helm series. It probably isn’t fair to say they get worse after “Interlopers,” but the tone changes to more spy stuff instead of pure unadulterated violence. Helm’s boss, Mac, steps out of his office more often and, of course, there are a lot more boats. They are still pretty good reads, Hamilton knows how to put together a story, but Helm becomes a shadow of himself.
Throughout the early books, Helm talks about the nuts and bolts of his job, usually annoyed with the amateurs who react in ways that mirror television and movies. For instance, more than once Helm is bemused when someone points a gun at him and then makes threats. In his book, if you point a gun at someone the next action is to pull the trigger. This attitude has become a counter-cliché in recent years, used effectively in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in the scene when our hero is confronted by a bad guy swinging a sword in an effort to intimidate Indy, who simply pulls out his gun and shoots the guy.
Mal Reynolds in “Firefly” has Helm’s same attitude about gun play, which, as a dramatic device, is used effectively. It should be pointed out that Hamilton was using this device nearly 60 years ago.
At some point, someone might get the notion to turn Matt Helm into a movie franchise. It’s been tried in the past and only makes sense to try it again. However, you can bet that it will be nothing like the novels. In comparison to the violent movies of day, like “John Wick,” where the violence reaches cartoon levels, Matt Helm would seem tame in comparison. The attraction of Helm is the grittiness of it, that actions can have violent and deadly consequences.
Like Hollywood always does, everyone there feels that source material can be improved upon. Matt Helm doesn’t need Hollywood improvements, it was tried four times before and we were given Dean Martin as a tall, skinny Swede from New Mexico.
For a good run down of all the Matt Helm novels, swing by here for the ultimate fan page.