What They Say
Matt Helm, one-time wartime agent with a talent for killing, meets up with an old accomplice in murder and love. She wants his help, and will use any means to get it. Forced to give up his new life as a husband and father, Helm must return to the Agency and to what he does best, armed only with a knife, two pistols, and the codename Eric. The agent is reborn.
As much as I enjoy the spy genre, I can’t say that I’m too terribly familiar with it. I haven’t read any Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum, and other than the random title here and there, the most I’ve been exposed to the genre is Ian Flemming. I mention this because Matt Helm is so far from Bond that it bears comparing in my mind. I want to say that Helm is Jason Bourne before there was a Jason Bourne. The character and novel carry with it that same level of gritty, street-level realism that’s more in keeping with the hardboiled crime stories of Donald Westlake or Cornell Woolrich than Flemming, and it’s that quality that makes this so enjoyable to read, even though I don’t think I particularly like the protagonist.
Matt Helm lives the American dream: he has a beautiful wife, three kids, and a stimulating job as a writer and photographer. This life slowly, almost methodically disintegrates around him when he runs into Tina, a woman he knew during the war. You see, before Helm was a respectable married man, he worked for a clandestine, unnamed government agency. His job was to go behind enemy lines in Nazi occupied Europe to eliminate specific targets. It was during one of these jobs that he met Tina. The two had a passionate affair, but didn’t see each other for fifteen years. Her coming back into his life signaled the death knell of his decent citizen persona and Helm once again finds himself in a world of murder and intrigue, but as is the case with all spy stories, nothing is as it seems.
One of the more interesting aspects of this novel is that it really takes its time establishing the characters, backstory, and setting, but it feels like it zips right along. Part of this is due to the short chapters, but more than that it’s because of Hamilton’s bare style. He’s not a boring writer in any way, but he obviously follows the same school of thought as Elmore Leonard: don’t get caught writing. Hamilton isn’t quite as good as Leonard as there are a few places where the prose gets a bit purple-y, but there are very few wasted words here, and the ones that are used are carefully selected. The plot runs like a well-tuned engine, and that makes it enjoyable from a strictly mechanical perspective.
What really sets this story apart from other spy tales for me is that I don’t particularly like Helm and I’m not quite sure that I’m meant to. I’m not even sure that he likes himself. This isn’t an exercise in adolescent wish-fulfillment such as with James Bond, and it’s not the tale of an anti-hero since anti-heroes rarely experience pangs of conscience. While Helm doesn’t regret his actions during the war, he obviously wanted to get out of that life. He’s extremely reluctant to let go of his decent citizen persona and he displays genuine love for his wife and kids. There’s a clear divide, though, between Helm the writer and Helm the agent, and when he’s finally forced to become that killer again, he throws away the more civilized concepts of decency and morality. After all, those can get a man killed.
So what we have here is a man conflicted, but doesn’t let that confliction get in the way of his survival. Hamilton adds quite a bit of nuance to this character that sets this above the common thriller. It does show its age just a little bit, especially in Helm’s (and Hamilton’s) attitude towards women, but even though it’s obviously set in the 1960s, the story itself is timeless enough that it’s not dependent upon the era. This could easily take place today with just a few tweaks, which is the mark of a strong story.
Matt Helm is a nuanced but not particularly likable character and following his adventures in this story was very fun. For fifteen years he lived as a model, decent citizen, but when an ex named Tina reenters his life, he’s dragged once more into a life of intrigue and danger. Although his skills may be rusty, they’re still good enough to get the job done. The story wears its age very well other than Helm’s attitude towards women, and in general Death of a Citizen is a well-written, tightly-plotted espionage story. Highly recommended.
Content Grade: A
Published By: Titan Books
Release Date: February 12, 2013