Don was 90 years old. Though his name may be little remembered today, in the 1960s and 70s he was well known as the best-selling author of the “Matt Helm” novels, a series of well-written and popular stories about a ruthless agent of the U.S. government who fought evil in the Cold War world (and eventually--briefly--the post-Cold War world). Helm starred in 27 novels between 1960’s DEATH OF A CITIZEN and 1993’s THE DAMAGERS; he was also featured in several movies starring Dean Martin, as well as a short-lived TV series starring Anthony Franciosa that reimagined the character as a private eye. More recently, DreamWorks optioned the rights to all the Helm novels for feature film development. A final Matt Helm novel exists but has never been published.Well, back in November, true. But since news of Hamilton’s demise broke earlier today, tributes have been rolling in from Bill Crider, Duane Swierczynski, and others. All justified for a wordsmith who author-critic John Fraser, writing at the Mystery*File site, called “one of the three best American thriller writers, the other two being Dashiell Hammett and Ross Thomas.”
Don also wrote a dozen non-Helm novels, including several popular Westerns (including THE BIG COUNTRY, which became the Gregory Peck movie, and SMOKY VALLEY, which was filmed as “The Violent Men” starring Glenn Ford). And he wrote several outstanding noir crime novels, including one--NIGHT WALKER--which we’re proud to have reprinted last year in the Hard Case Crime series.
In the last decade of his life, Don moved back to Sweden, where he’d been born, and lived there with his son, Gordon. He died peacefully, in his sleep, this past November. Gordon kept the fact of his death private until today, when he confirmed it in a phone conversation with me.
We’ve lost a number of giants of the mystery field over the past few years--Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, and Richard S. Prather, among others--and Donald Hamilton is very much of that caliber. He sold more than 20 million books during his lifetime. But unlike Spillane, McBain and Prather, all of whom were widely remembered at the time of their death, Don’s passing has sadly gone unremarked.
I’m only sorry that I come to this post ill armed, having read very few of Donald Hamilton’s novels over the years. Like Steve Lewis over at Mystery*File, my experience with Hamilton’s work was initially through the four Helm films in which Dean Martin starred back in the late 1960s. At a time when James Bond (Sean Connery) was dominating the field of movie spies, the folks at the helm of the Helm flicks thought that they needed to parody the genre in order to draw a crowd. Bad move. Equally regrettable was the decision, in the mid-’70s, to cast leading man Tony Franciosa (formerly of The Name of the Game and Search) as Matt Helm in a weekly ABC-TV series, but then reimagine the character as a Los Angeles private eye, solving textbook cases that at least took him outside of the country on occasion. All I really remember about that show was that it boasted a pretty cool theme, and that Franciosa’s agent-turned-gumshoe always seemed to be surrounded by comely females (one of whom was guest star Lynda Carter). The series lasted only 13 episodes.
Maybe I should use the excuse of Hamilton’s death to explore more of his simply titled Helm yarns (The Ravagers, The Retaliators, The Frighteners, etc.). Or perhaps a couple of those Westerns Ardai mentioned in his note. Any suggestions of where to start?
READ MORE: “Travis McGee and Matt Helm,” by Doug Bassett (Mystery*File); “Thriller Writers #1: Donald Hamilton,” by John Fraser (Mystery*File); “The Death of Matt Helm,” by Frank Sennett (Booklist); “Iwan Morelius on Donald Hamilton”(Mystery*File); “Murderers’ Row--Donald Hamilton” (Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine); “Date with Darkness--Donald Hamilton,” by James Reasoner (Rough Edges).