Friday, April 09, 2010

Forgotten Books: DEATH OF A CITIZEN -- Donald Hamilton

How can it be that Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm books are out of print? Maybe it's just a matter of money, with his estate asking too much for reprint rights. I can't think of another reason because this is one of the best spy series ever. In fact, I'd put it right at the top.

Death of a Citizen is the first book in the series. Matt Helm is a photographer and writer, living peacefully in Santa Fe, long past the days in WWII when he was a member of a super-secret government agency dedicated to things like assassination. Mac, the head of the agency, told Helm after the war that what they did "never happened."

But we all know that the past is never dead and that secrets are never buried deeply enough. And that super-secret agencies never shut down. An operative named Tina comes back into Helm's life and with her the violence that Helm thought he'd turned his back on. There's a body in a bathtub, and Helm's daughter is kidnapped. Here's a tip: You should never kidnap the daughter of someone once code-named Eric. Helm begins to revert to his old ways, and before long the citizen Helm is dead and the operative Eric is back.

This is hardboiled fiction at its best. The way Helm handles the kidnappers, and especially his final disposition of them, is still shocking even today, though its impact was much greater when the book was published 50 years ago. If you've never read Hamilton's work, particularly this series, Death of a Citizen is the place to start. I can almost guarantee you won't stop until you've read more.

18 comments:

  1. Someone stuck this in my mailbox at work a few years ago. I never did find out who, but now I think I'll read it.

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  2. Anonymous8:13 AM

    What Bill said. Great series and this could be the best book.

    I'm still doling them out to myself one or two a year.

    Jeff

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  3. Someone did you a favor, Patti. Or maybe not. Read it and see what you think.

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  4. I'm with you - Hamilton's Matt Helm series is a superior spy series. movies and television have done the character a huge disservice over the yearas and are probably as responsible for the books being out of print as the estate is. The books deserve to be repackaged and reprinted ala Stark/Westlakes Parker novels.

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  5. It would be great if Stark House or some other small press would reprint these spy classics. They were great paperback originals!

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  6. I've read many and found the first four being the best in the series. I'm not a huge fan, but I do enjoy the hardboiled style of the writing. I really loved Hamilton's "Line of Fire" and "Assignment,Murder" novels. They are two remarkable books.

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  7. The films put me off these, but reading this review and the comments makes me want to read this book. FFB strikes again. Now to find a copy...

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  8. LINE OF FIRE is probably my favorite of all Hamilton's books.

    Rick, they're easy to find. GM must have printed millions.

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  9. They did. And sold most of those millions...which is why Fawcett paid so well for the Gold Medals. The contrast between Patricia Highsmith's critical reputation and starvation wages while publishing with Knopf and Marijane Meaker's relative obscurity while publishing as Vin Packer and other pseuds with Gold Medal, but the sizable royalties the GM novels earned her, was a source of tension in their relation as Meaker describes in HIGHSMITH. There were several reasons GM has such a legacy, as you know.

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  10. Anonymous2:36 PM

    Rick, quite a few seem to be available on the Paperback Swap site - I've picked up several there - but not the first one, unfortunately. Even more than most series, you do need to read the first one first.

    Jeff

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  11. A favorite of mine also. I've seen at other places that Hamilton's son has had an unpublished manuscript his father left for years. Could be something for HCC to pursue.

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  12. I read many of the other Helms first before I found this one, and was surprised how fully-formed the character was from the start. This book is basically identical to the others that followed, despite Helm's different circumstances at the beginning.

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  13. One of the best series I know. This book is one of the best ever. I recently found a copy and reread it. It still is an excellent read.

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  14. Anders E4:39 PM

    I happen to live in the very town where he spent his childhood. I wish I knew the address where he lived. Not that he is remembered as a local celebrity or anything - he even moved back to the old country (albeit to Gotland, the large island in the Baltic) in his old age and yet nobody seemed to have cared at all. All I've found is this rather touching account from his late years:

    http://www.benish-industries.com/hamilton/DHarticle.html

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  15. Thanks for that link. Touching, indeed.

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  16. One of my all time favorite books. Here is a gallery of Death of a Citizen covers from around the world.

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  17. Thanks for the link!

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  18. Anonymous10:55 AM

    I am also a huge Matt Helm fan, so much so that I have written the "prequel" to the series, taking information from Hamilton's earlier books to piece together a story of Matt Helm's activities during WWII. I am currently trying to locate Hamilton's heirs to get permission to publish and am having little luck. Apparently, he died while living with his son, Gordon Hamilton, in Sweden. In 2002, Paramount/Dreamworks acquired the movie rights to the series with the idea of making a movie(s) more closely resembling the Mat Helm character (as opposed to the Dean Martin farces). As of 2009, the idea is still being considered.

    The trail seems to die there. I'd appreciate any help in locating Gordon or any of his other three children.

    keith@keithwease.com

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