The good news is that Titan Books has begun reissuing the Matt Helm series (1960 – 1993) of books by Donald Hamilton in attractive paperbacks with the obligatory scantily clad “dame” on the cover. This, I think, harkens back to the book’s roots as classic pulps from the 50s and 60s. Although one must note, that the girls portrayed on today’s covers are a bit more, should we say, svelte, or a little less Marilynesque looking than those in the wonderful Robert McGinnis covers (he did over 1200) which adorned the originals.
Helm, who was introduced in 1960 with the publication by Fawcett of Death of a Citizen, seven years after Bond, but before Bond took off in the United States (this would happen in 1964 with the publication of JFK’s manufactured reading list) continued on for about twenty books into the 1990s. These were the glory years for the pulps, and all of Helm’s adventures were published as paperbacks. Hamilton and Helm ruled for many years until giving way to a man named Travis McGee. So much so, that the final Helm book is still unpublished (Titan are you listening?).
Helm suffered a similar fate at the cinema as that of his counterpart across the pond. As with Bond, movies were produced that bore little or no resemblance to the books from which they sprung. Even more so in Helm’s case, as the films were purposely presented as camp comedy. You know it’s a bad sign when Dean Martin is chosen to portray you’re ruthless counter assassin.
Both literary characters are both darker and less humorous than their movie counterparts. One could say Bond was “humorless” until the release of the first Bond film which in turn influenced Fleming’s writing. The men in the books are sociopaths, just good looking ones who happen to work for the government. Bond, really had no personality, which was Fleming’s intent. He had “things” and habits, but he was a blank slate that the reader could write on. Helm is a bit more fleshed out, but although he attempted to live a “normal life” he was most comfortable in the world of assassination and mayhem. Helm also did not benefit from the “Fleming Effect” (a term coined by novelist and Bond fan Sir Kingsley Amis) which was what would become known as “product placement”, although Fleming was doing it for free. When Helm looked at his watch, it was just a “watch”, Bond on the other hand looked at his “Rolex Oyster Perpetual on an expanding metal bracelet”. Fleming felt that this “grounded” Bond in a world that readers would recognize, even if they did not know it.
Helm was much more of a middle class character whereas Bond (Eton, Fettes, Royal Navy Officer) was more upper U. Both men were highly trained professional killers, although Helm is not a spy, he is a counter-assassin for an unnamed United States government agency. Helm’s unit (with which he served during World War II) was a Nazi hunting group which the government thought would work on dirty red bastards as well, so was kept going after the war’s end. Helm is much more ruthless and brutal than Bond. In one story Helm is sent to “convincingly beat up” a fellow female agent, armed with instructions from the agency doctor on what to break, etc. no less (we are told he trained for this, a school I’d like to see) but accidently kills her when she has an alcohol induced heart attack midway through the session. Hate when that happens. He always carries a Buck Knife and doesn’t like to carry a gun (when he has to it is usually a .38) because they can’t be explained away if caught. Helm’s adventures are less exotic and the Bentleys and Aston Martins are replaced with Fords, Chevrolets and Volkswagens from the car pool. Helm’s personal vehicle was an old pick-up truck equipped with a camper shell. Not exactly sexy. He shops at Brooks Brothers not Savile Row, and we never learn if he eats off Minton china or prefers eggs from particular hens. He definitely buys his smokes (probably Lucky Strikes or Chesterfields) at the commissary and not at Morland of Grosvenor Street.
Having read the books back in the day, I was pleased to find them being republished after many years of out-of-printness. I enjoy these mid-20th century pulp novels. So politically incorrect and surprisingly frank about sex and violence for books written in the early 60s. Yes, like Bond, Helm has a way with the ladies, not as suave and debonair, but he pulls in the tail nonetheless. Definitely worth a look for those with a nostalgic bent. Actually a little more believable than the Bond stories, just not as well dressed.
For those interested, check out The Matt Helm Dossier, which covers all the books in detail and has an hilarious on-going riff on the use of the word “darling”. Which is a word one comes across in any book of this time period. Excellent resource.