Donald Hamilton served a brief apprenticeship writing short stories after World War II and published his first novel, Date with Darkness, in 1947. Following those came a string of fast-paced Westerns and mysteries. He began his writing with hard-boiled mysteries that had elements of espionage. Two of them in particular contained the elements that would characterize his Matt Helm series. Line of Fire (1955) had what seems at first to be an assassin as its hero and is told in down-to-earth first person as the Helm books would be. The other formative book is Assignment: Murder (1956), in which mathematician James Gregory, involved in a nuclear project, becomes a target of those who want the project stopped.
Line of Fire involves a different kind of hero, a man who is suicidal because of his emasculation in a hunting accident. An expert with guns (often the case with Hamilton’s protagonists), he is strong-armed into faking an assassination attempt so that an aspiring political candidate can garner media attention and public sympathy. The job goes awry, plunging the hero into terrible danger before he manages to redeem himself. This intriguing early book demonstrates Hamilton’s willingness to tinker with the popular image of heroes.
Line of Fire
Some of the characteristics of the Matt Helm series that would start five years later are foreshadowed in Line of Fire, from assassination to good girl/bad girl dichotomies. The sardonic first-person narration that later characterized the Helm novels is on display here, as is the question of the morality of what the protagonist is doing and the use of a knife, like the one that Helm always carries.
The story opens with gunsmith and marksman Paul Nyquist zeroing in on a gubernatorial candidate, but he wounds the man instead of killing him. Only later do readers learn that this is exactly what Nyquist was supposed to do, having been coerced into the job by a man with whom he has a strange bond. Nyquist had been injured earlier in an accident while hunting with the man, a wound that has left him impotent. The man’s girlfriend works hard to cure Nyquist of his affliction. Although Nyquist does not kill the candidate, he does kill a gangster who is with him when the gangster tries to kill a young woman who blunders onto the scene. After saving the woman, Nyquist vainly tries to keep her clear of the situation and finally ends up marrying her to protect her, although the relationship does grow from that point.
Assignment: Murder (reissued in 1966 as the better-known Assassins Have Starry Eyes) edges even closer to the Helm prototype. The book tells the story of James Gregory, an atomic weapons research physicist who is shot on the opening day of the New Mexico deer season. To save his life, Gregory shoots back and kills his assailant, then passes out.
All this happens by the novel’s fifth page, establishing what would normally be considered a fast pace. Even before that flurry of action occurs, however, Hamilton managed to establish his lead character through his musings on why men camping alone live so spartanly, what attracts him to the wide-open West, why atomic research has become unpopular, why modern automobiles have become so ridiculously dandified, and why men hunt animals. During his recuperation and further adventures, Gregory’s narration espouses more of his personal philosophy. Like Matt Helm, who appeared in Hamilton’s next book, Gregory is fair but nonapologetic in advancing and defending his attitudes. Others can love him or hate him—it makes little difference to him—but they had better respect him.
A problem that surely vexed Hamilton in writing Assignment: Murder was how to explain his hero’s considerable fighting skills. He established Gregory as a large man who has spent years hunting, a somewhat lame explanation. In Death of a Citizen, he introduced a character who comes by his fighting prowess more honestly. Matt Helm is introduced as a former member of a clandestine intelligence group (a thinly veiled Office of Strategic Services or OSS) during World War II. His particular specialty was assassinating important Nazis. When the war ended, he had settled down as a Western writer and photographer with a wife and three children. His fifteen years of peaceful retirement are shattered when Tina, a former partner in assassination, walks into a party he is attending. When he last knew her, she kept a paratrooper’s knife hidden in her underwear and a poison pill in her hair. Remarkably, all this information is revealed without strain by the close of the book’s first page.
In a plot twist anticipating the frequent duplicities found in the Helm series, Tina pretends to be still working for a peacetime version of the OSS. In truth, she has long since gone over to the Russians and now has orders to kill an important scientist who happens to be an acquaintance of Helm. The job would be easier with Helm’s help. When other methods of gaining his assistance fail, she kidnaps his daughter. He must revert to his old ways, including killing Tina by torture, to save his child. His wife, an uncomprehending witness, can no longer bear to live with him. He is thus shed of his family and his inhibitions, permitting his old boss to recruit him again into the espionage business.
Matt Helm Series
Inevitably, Matt Helm is compared to Ian Fleming’s secret-agent hero, James Bond }, and Hamilton is accused of writing derivative books. Some comparisons are obvious. Both men are counterspies capable of violently dispatching their enemies without a moment’s regret. Bond answers to “M”; Helm to Mac. Each ranges far in defending his nation’s interests and has virtually unlimited resources to do so. Helping to fuel the argument, four Helm books were converted into films from 1966 to 1969, with Dean Martin starring as Helm, although they departed from Hamilton’s theme of toughness to spoof the Bond films.
Despite these likenesses, the differences between the Bond series and Helm’s are greater than the similarities. Bond is primarily an urban creature, most at home in some European gambling casino with a sophisticated woman on his arm. Helm is more comfortable beside a trout stream, in the wilderness between assignments. If he has feminine company, he must have first satisfied himself that she is not vamping him for some sinister motive. Moreover, Helm first saw print in 1960, before Bond’s popularity became entrenched in the United States with the help of John F. Kennedy’s widely reported interest and the first of the Bond films. Responding to the suggestion that he had copied the concept, Hamilton said that he had read only one Fleming novel. “I’ve deliberately avoided reading the James Bond novels for fear that I would unintentionally borrow something from him, or bend over too far backward to avoid any similarity.”
If anything, Hamilton’s series owes more to another English writer, John Buchan, than to Ian Fleming. Buchan...
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