Sunday, November 27, 2011

Matt Helm -- the Removers

Just finished reading the third of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm books. Most people are probably familiar with Helm through a series of bottom-of-the-barrel Bond spoofs starring Dean Martin. The films range from weak to wretched and Martin plays them as if he were doing a sketch with the Golddiggers.

This reputation as a second-rate cartoon is doubly ironic, first, because Hamilton was a very good writer and second, because Helm was, if anything, a less cartoonish version of Bond. In broad outline, the two series were similar, but Helm's world was far dirtier. He had more of a conscience than Bond but he did worse things: beating women, letting colleagues die, killing bound prisoners with untraceable poisons, doing wet work to prop up dictators he personally despises. Anything the mission required.

In one telling incident in the Silencers, Helm crosses paths with an agent from another bureau who is trying to prevent the death of a number of scientists and congressmen. Though Helm's mission (killing a minor enemy operative) is clearly less important, Helm only gives what assistance he can manage without jeopardizing that mission.

The Wrecking Crew has a nice summary of Helm's attitude:
"The man in the bushes with a broken neck," she whispered. "The one by the cabin with a bullet in the back. In the back, Matt!"

"Yeah," I said. "In the back. He happened to be facing that way."

..."But he'd surrendered, Matt! He had his hands in the air!"

...I said, "It was my job, Lou. I had to finish it, no matter where his damn hands were. I couldn't leave it for some other poor sap to have to do all over again."
Matt Helm was one of the definitive Gold Medal protagonists. The cinematic version was one of the primary inspirations for Austin Powers. You don't get a bigger jump than that,

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