Monday, April 02, 2007

Donald Hamilton Dies

After a day spent away from my office, what do I find upon my return? An e-note relating the sad news that Swedish-born novelist Donald Hamilton, creator of government operative and assassin Matt Helm, has died. And not just recently, but more than four months ago.. In that note, Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai--who last year reprinted Hamilton’s 1964 standalone, Night Walker--wrote:
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.

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.
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.”

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).


Anonymous said...

DEATH OF A CITIZEN is the first and possibly best of the Helm series (it's the one I've re-read the most), with THE TERRORIZERS and THE REVENGERS being among the best of the 26 sequels. Although Helm is a famously ruthless hero, sometimes his ruthlessness is part of a complex game, designed to conceal his true emotions; then other times, he's just a cold-blooded prick. Among the non-Helms, THE BIG COUNTRY is the most famous, but ASSASSINS HAVE STARRY EYES has an opening I've never forgotten: the protagonist is on a hunting trip, and four pages into the book, while puttering in the middle of the boonies, he's shot in the back wth a high-powered rifle and left to die. Being a Hamilton hero, he takes this poorly.

Unknown said...

Among the nonseries books, I also like Line of Fire, which might remind you just a little of Stephen Hunter's Point of Impact. Hunter has to have read Hamilton. And you can't go wrong with Death of a Citizen in the Helm series.

Ali Karim said...

Bummer news, haven't read him for years - and that he passed away without much noise until you mentioned it.

Thanks for the heads up


Graham Powell said...

Among the Helms, my favorite is The Interlopers, but The Wrecking Crew is really good, too. So far I have not run across a copy of Death Of A Citizen, so I may have to get it from eBay.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to see this, and so late.
"Mona Passage" is my favorite Hamilton non-Matt Helm novel. Great drug pirate sailing adventure in the Carribean.

sooobusy said...

I adore the Matt Helm series. I have been urging Amazon to print them on their Kindle. Providing their vow to print every book ever published is not a corporate lie a lot of requests might get their legal department to get a move on. They might even do the unpublished one. I am going to nag again giving them the name of the son and where they might find him.

Anonymous said...

I started reading Matt Helm while a young sailor in the US Navy. Ibelieve I not only read them all but own paperback copies of all them. I partiularily like "Death of a Citizen" & "The Wrecking Crew". The only error made was tolet Hollywood get involved, casting Dean Martin as Matt Helm and trying emulate the James Bond jackassery was a travestry to any Matt Helm fan!

Marilyn Elliott said...

Glad to see Bill Crider is a fan of Line of Fire, my favorite Donald Hamilton book. I could never understand why it wasn't made into a film, though maybe the fake assassination became too touchy after the 60s. I read all Hamilton's stand alones and several of his Helm series, though they were not my favorite. He was an excellent writer. We don't see talent like his often enough today.

Unknown said...

I met Donald Hamilton in Santa Fe, NM in the early 1970s through his so n Gordon who was always helpful to his Dad in building his public image. Donald was a very private European kind of man. Is Gordon still out there in Scandinavia or Spain and does he still promote his Dad's work. I would like to hear from Gordon. He could be a focal point for Donald's work. I am at in New Mexico or leave a msg at 505-583-9114 (Dana Knee's Farm in Ojo Caliente, NM. Let me know if you hear from Gordon Hamiton (alias Count Gordon) William F Crowl III