Friday, January 16, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Death of a Citizen,” by Donald Hamilton

(Editor’s note: This is the 39th installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Rob Kantner, the creator of fictional Detroit private eye Ben Perkins (Concrete Hero, Final Fling), who has a brand-new Perkins short story, “Sticky Fingers,” available at his Web site.)

Matt Helm, the hero of what ended up being a 27-volume series, starts out in Donald Hamilton’s Death of a Citizen (1960) as a self-described peaceful, law-abiding citizen. By book’s end--token ambivalence notwithstanding--he is, as prefigured by the title (so much for suspense), born again as the professional assassin he’d been during World War II, a decade and a half earlier. Helm’s path along that arc starts with the reappearance of Tina, a code-named colleague from his bad old days. Sensuous, ruthless, and (spoiler alert) not entirely trustworthy, Tina triggers a series of violent events that draw Helm back into the realm of the government murder bureau still run by his wartime boss, “Mac.”

And this return to warlike ways is by no means an unwilling one on Helm’s part. Although toward the novel’s conclusion he pulls a brief and token 180, his progression is pretty much a straight line from citizen to killer as his skill, and appetite, for lethality emerges. Perhaps this notion expects more depth than the genre’s playbook calls for, but one has to wonder.

If being a killing machine is Helm’s true nature (and it would seem to be: “Killing’s my line” is what he says near the end), why did he leave that work at the end of the war to marry the deceived and unaware Beth? He claims to love her, and describes her in warm detail. Then he proceeds to bump uglies with Tina, within mere pages of her appearance. Helm’s three children, equipped with names and genders and not much else, are mentioned, but never actually appear on the page. One senses that they’re referred to only because Hamilton needed one of them to be conspicuously handy for his tale’s final act.

To give Hamilton credit, he seems to have been conscious of Helm’s readiness--not to say eagerness--to be drawn into Tina’s thicket of murderous intrigue. “It seems to me,” an observer tells Helm, “you lent yourself to this scheme without much thought. I can’t quite understand how a reputable citizen, with a wife and three small children, could allow himself to be persuaded.” Helm never responds.

Death of a Citizen, then, turns out to be, roughly, 10 percent citizen and 90 percent death.

But perfunctory though the “citizen” component is, the death part still, nearly 50 years later, rocks pretty well.

Bedazzled by Tina and bedeviled by surveillance teams, Helm leaves his Santa Fe, New Mexico, home and, supposedly seeking material for a new book, bangs around several Southwestern states, the features of which get described in lavish and very enjoyable detail. This type of thing is, clearly, Hamilton’s comfort zone.

Even more comfortable is Hamilton, via Helm, as a critic of people, places, and institutions large and small. (This tendency toward editorial comment grew more pronounced--another term for it is “shrill”--as the series went on.) He makes damn sure we know what Helm likes and appreciates: machinery, weapons, wide-open spaces, strong and silent types, sturdy vehicles that will go anywhere. You can also count on Helm to point out what he dislikes, including Californians, jukeboxes, Texans, women in pants, and Washington, D.C. And the violent encounters--terse, direct, well staged--seem to be the area where Hamilton is most comfortable.

Hamilton is not so comfortable, however, with the subtleties of characterization. Shades of gray get checked at the door. Everybody falls into three neat groups: good guys, bad guys (including femmes fatales), and the clueless.

Granted: subtle characterization is not what we read these types of thrillers for. Certainly it was not what I was after as a reader, when, at the age of 14 or so, I started out with Matt Helm. Year after year I gobbled up the books. Then, along about No. 13, I finally fell off the Helm wagon. Other, more engaging, series had come along, and the Helm novels had gotten fatter, the storylines less engrossing, the situations repetitive.

But Death of a Citizen has none of those problems. It’s brisk and well paced and lean, clocking in at a trim 60,000 words or so (despite the lamentable tendency of characters to speechify in paragraph-length chunks). It offers occasional moments of deadpan humor (though later books had more of those). If it offers no white-knuckle suspense--you always know that Matt’s going to survive and prevail--at least the question of how things are going to work out is engaging enough.

Moreover, I was struck anew, re-reading the book after all these years, by the brusque amorality of the so-called good guys. At one point Helm says, directly, “I don’t have much of a conscience.” Consistently he lives up to that conviction--or, depending on your point of view, down to it.

In this, Hamilton seems, I think, to have been swimming against the tide. This was 1960, the tail end an era in which America thought of itself as the country of good guys who won The Good War with virtually bloodless, honorable, John Wayne-style heroism.

Yet Tina, describing the methodology of Mac’s Second World War assassination squad (and, ironically, anticipating our era of “pre-emptive war”), says: “Police, FBI ... cannot convict and execute a man for murder until he has murdered someone. Or a woman. We do not have this trouble. ... We execute the murderers before they commit their crimes.”

And Helm, in no way chivalrous, consistently and almost gleefully condemning the very concept of a fair fight, commits murder, mayhem, and even torture with gruesome abandon.

Donald Hamilton died in 2006 at age 90. According to Wikipedia, his final Matt Helm book, The Dominators, has never been published. That’s a shame. While I have little interest in re-reading other books in the Helm series--there continue to be way, way too many other new works and authors to explore--re-reading Death of a Citizen made me wonder how Matt Helm might have ended up.

READ MORE:The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #23: Matt Helm,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet); “Death of a Citizen,” by Marty McKee (Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot); “Helm for the Holidays #1: Death of a Citizen,” by Armstrong Sabian (Mister 8); “Understanding Adobe,” by Ed Crocker (The New Mexican).


Bob Randisi said...

Am I correct in assuming that this whole "Forgotten" book thing has turned into a "Book YouHave To read" thing, instead? When you're including books by Donald Hamilton, Evan Hunter and John Gardner--not to mention many of the other books I've been reading about all these months--you're hardly talking about a "forgotten" book or author, are you?


Bill Crider said...

I never stopped reading the Helm books. I even liked the bloated ones, though not as much as the earlier stuff. I can reread the early ones with pleasure even now, and I'd read THE DOMINATORS in a heartbeat.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that DEATH OF A CITIZEN is one of Donald Hamilton's best books. At the end of the Matt Helm series, the books become a little crankier. But the theme that Evil must be dealt with ruthlessly runs through all the books.
--George Kelley

J. Kingston Pierce said...

To Bob:

I think that "forgotten" has different meanings for different readers, depending on their age. A number of younger readers have never sampled any Hamilton, McBain, or Gardner. So they have to be reminded that there's a wealth of older, well-written material out there.

It's sad how quickly excellent or ground-breaking books go "out of style" or are "forgotten," but it certainly does happen. Thank goodness Patti Abbott, Bill Crider, James Reasoner, and everyone else who's participated in this series (as you have too, Bob) has taken the time to remind readers of what they have been missing.


Juri said...

Could "forgotten" mean a book that's not in any reference work? Hamilton can easily be checked, and he has a secure place in the crime fiction canon, which, for example, Steve Ward doesn't have (referring to James Reasoner's blog here). So, forgotten? I'm with Bob here. He also has books in print.

It's a thin line nevertheless - I did two books on forgotten (Finnish) writers a year back and someone said these writers were not really forgotten, since no one knew about them in the first place. He was thinking I should've written more of a bestseller kind of writers who are not read anymore. He had a valid point.