Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Introducing Matt Helm

Death of a Citizen was first published in 1960, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and introduced Matt Helm, a secret agent on the order of James Bond, but without all the gadgets and the British mannerisms. During the Second World War, Helm had belonged to a super-secret group of agents/assassins, headed by a guy named Mac, and once the war ended, he left that life and became a private citizen. By 1960, he had established himself as a husband, father and writer, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

One night Helm and his wife go to a cocktail party in Santa Fe, and Matt is stunned to see there a woman named Tina, who had also been an agent during the war and who, for a brief period following one of their assignments, had been Matt’s lover. Tina gives Matt the old secret handshake, but he refuses to play along and doesn’t acknowledge her. Tina is accompanied by a rough-around-the-edges sort of guy who attempts to intimidate Matt, but naturally he’s not going to fall for that either.

Matt knows that Tina has recognized him and assumes that she’s in town on some sort of assignment with Mr. Tough Guy. He wonders if the meeting was an accident or not. He discovers the answer to that question when he goes home after the party and finds a woman shot to death in his study. The gun he keeps in the study is missing, and Matt knows full well that it must be the murder weapon and that he is in the frame. Even before Tina appears in his doorway to make the point clear, he knows he has a choice: cooperate with her on whatever the assignment might be or take the fall for a murder he did not commit.

What follows is an entertaining story that unfolds as Helm attempts to extricate himself from this trap. As one would expect, there’s a lot of action as well as some very discreetly described sex. There are also, inevitably, some great twists and turns. It’s a good read that will appeal to anyone who enjoys the kind of pulpish men’s adventure stories that were so common fifty years ago. Some may know this character only from the Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin that used to pop up on late-night television. As is often the case in these matters, it would appear that the movie people took a lot of license with the character, and I would point out that the book is much grittier and much better than the couple of the movies that I dimly remember seeing.

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