Donald Hamilton Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Donald Hamilton brought the toughness and realism of the Dashiell Hammett detective school to what might be termed spy novels. His series character, Matt Helm, is an outdoorsman, photographer, and writer living in New Mexico, rather like Hamilton himself at one time. As Hamilton picked up boating as a hobby in later years, so did Helm.

The Matt Helm series has done for the United States what Ian Fleming’s James Bond books did for Great Britain—provide the public with a contemporary model of the life and work of a secret agent. Donald Hamilton created a shadowy world of deception and disillusion for his master counterspy, Matt Helm, feeding him a steady diet of treachery to fuel his air of skepticism, and furnishing ample opportunities for him to display his bone-bruising toughness. Helm’s introduction signaled the birth of a novel character in espionage fiction—the consummate professional who willingly subverts all sentimentality when it interferes with the greater good of the mission. At the time of his creation, Helm was a strong departure from the antihero, “amateur spy” protagonists then in vogue. One critic has described Hamilton as “the Hammett of espionage” for his role in reshaping the espionage novel.

Crime novelist Robert Skinner has cited Hamilton as a primary influence on his own work and said that Hamilton influenced Loren Estleman, Bill Crider, Ed Gorman, and James Sallis. Hamilton’s early work featured main...

(The entire section is 415 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Banks, R. Jeff, and Guy M. Townsend. “The Matt Helm Series.” The Mystery FANcier 2 (March, 1978): 3-11. Survey of the story lines and themes in the first twenty Matt Helm novels.

Erisman, Fred. “Western Motifs in the Thrillers of Donald Hamilton.” Western American Literature 10 (February, 1976): 283-292. Brief essay that attempts to find links between Hamilton’s early Western writing and his later thrillers.

Greene, Douglas G. John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles. New York: Otto Penzler Books, 1995. Cites Carr’s view of Hamilton’s books, in which Carr cites Matt Helm as “my favorite secret agent.”

Hamilton, Donald. “Shut Up and Write.” In Colloquium on Crime: Eleven Renowned Mystery Writers Discuss Their Work, edited by Robin W. Winks. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1986. Essay in which Hamilton discusses his own work and offers advice to other writers.

Sennett, Frank. “The Death of Matt Helm?” Booklist 98, no. 17 (May 1, 2002): 1456-1458. Sennett looks at the history of the Matt Helm series and how Helm was perceived as a more rugged James Bond. It notes how Hamilton’s work peaked in popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s and faded in the following decades.

Winks, Robin. Modus Operandi: An Excursion into Detective Fiction. Boston: Godine, 1982. Personal defense of the mystery that argues detective fiction does not differ from more “respectable” literature and appeals to readers for the same reasons as other writing. Includes a discussion of Hamilton’s writings.

Winks, Robin. “The Sordid Truth: Donald Hamilton.” The New Republic 173 (July 26, 1975): 21-24. A brief appreciation of Hamilton’s Matt Helm series by one of the most distinguished critics in the mystery and detective genre.