Helm For the Holidays

Happy 2013, everyone! Let’s check in again with agent-of-unnamed-government-organization Matt Helm, and his creator, author Donald Hamilton, in the second volume of the Helm series, The Wrecking Crew.

First, I want to address an issue I had with the last novel, Death of a Citizen, and a comment that addressed that somewhat, because that comment also addresses this novel. I wrote: “In a way, it’s a shame to take something as complete as this book to build a series upon. I hope the next book proves me wrong.” Bill Koenig, contributor to the HMSS Weblog, responded with the following:

“Death of a Citizen was written as a one-off but Hamilton’s editor felt it had potential as a series if the character’s name was changed (it was George originally) and if the wife were killed off (she wasn’t, Hamilton found another way of continuing the series). The second novel was originally done as a one-off with a different character and Hamilton had shelved it. He revamped it with the more pro-active Matt Helm and it worked. It wasn’t until the third novel, The Removers, that Hamilton had actually started a Helm novel as an actual series entry.”

This is interesting because, as I noted, the first novel felt quite complete and would have been fine as a stand-alone. I read the second novel with Bill’s comment in mind, and I came to admire Hamilton’s edits that made The Wrecking Crew flow seamlessly from its predecessor. The decision of Helm’s wife is addressed, and the antagonist of the previous novel is referred to in incredibly effective, but brief, segments as Helm explains his business to one of the female characters in the novel.

The female characters, Sara, Lou and Elin, sort of dominate the novel, and Helm’s semi-sexist attitude toward them is interestingly juxtaposed with Hamilton’s treatment of the characters. At a certain point in the novel, Helm’s profession of love for women in skirts, and his dislike of pants, has become almost a catchphrase, but perhaps Helm represents the man in transition from chauvinism to respect for women as equals. In many ways, the three female characters provide the forward progress of the novel, forcing Helm into action where bureaucracy would otherwise keep him impotent. By the novel’s end, the women have either proven themselves to him, or haunt him because of the promise of what they could have been and the gumption that they showed. It’s incredibly difficult to write a review of a novel without spoiling it completely, but my copy of The Wrecking Crew spoils something that happens in the last 20 pages on the back cover blurb, and anyway, more people end this book dead than alive. It’s part of reading a book about a professional assassin, I suppose.

Before, I said that Helm’s group was unnamed, but we learn from one intelligence agent in the novel that they have nicknames, including the German-supplied Mordgruppe and the stateside moniker that supplies the novel’s title, The Wrecking Crew. The internal conflict of the last novel is supplanted here by a return to decisiveness on the part of the character. He is playing the role of Matt Helm, photographer, occasionally, Matt Helm, bumbling secret agent, but inside he is always “Eric,” a hardened killer. The prey is an opposite number working for, it is insinuated, the Soviets, codenamed Caselius. When trying, barely, to procure information on the agent, Helm doesn’t begrudge the man his job, or feel superior:

I’m perfectly happy to be on his level, doll. It’s the level of a tough, intelligent, courageous man who could probably make a better living selling automobiles or insurance or whatever they sell in Russia, but who prefers to serve his country in the front lines, such as they are today. I don’t hate him. I don’t despise him. I don’t look down upon him, as everybody else seems to, from some kind of a higher moral plane. I’m just prepared to kill him when and if I get instructions to do so, whether it means anything or not. Meanwhile, I’d like to find out who he is.

The potential informant is Lou, the widow of a journalist who wrote a piece on Caselius. Her husband was mysteriously shot down in a total accident, and she only managed to survive because her husband’s body selflessly blocked the rain of bullets. She’s striking out on her own as a journalist, and needs a photographer for an assignment in Sweden. Mac has brought Helm in on this one because he knows a bit of Swedish, because he has photography experience, and, interestingly, because he’s a bit out of shape. The assignment calls for a sort of double-disguise–as noted above, Helm plays the photographer, but also puts on the act of an incompetent American spy, almost to the point of Inspector Clouseauism. The way that Hamilton crafts scenes where Helm runs through what he should be doing, and then swings his fists around ineffectively is fascinating, especially in an early point in the book where, had “Eric” been in control, a horrific death could have been prevented.

Most of the book plays out like an espionage-tinged mystery. Who is Caselius? Who of Matt’s acquaintances can be trusted? Is he the only one wearing the double-disguise? Why all of these pictures? It’s an effective way to create a page-turner, and when the answers start coming, they start coming fast and furious, and sometimes unexpectedly. I’d be interested to see the original draft of this story, before it was rewritten to be part of a series. After the killing, the denouement is not entirely satisfactory, but fits with most everything that’s come before it.

Where the story shines is in the writing of Hamilton and the world he creates. It’s a world where the job of espionage is as mundane as taking pictures, and the killing is quick and dirty. The game at hand is fairly shallow, and most of the cards are on the table. For Helm, it’s a matter of playing out the final hand to see what cards his enemies and accomplices have been hanging onto. I was a bit worried after Death of a Citizen that I wouldn’t be able to get into the swing of the remainder of the series, but if The Wrecking Crew is a sign of things to come (and I hope it is), I’ll be enjoying each of these holiday excursions into the universe of Helm.

Still uncertain? Here’s a sample of Hamilton’s writing to convince you:

I didn’t sleep very well, in spite of the pills. I kept seeing a slender, disheveled woman with bright hair that looked blonde in the dusk, stretching out her hands toward a shape in the woods, pleading for mercy. Then the dream changed. I was being attacked from all sides. I was overwhelmed, pinned to the ground; they were all over me and I was being slowly smothered by the weight of them… I opened my eyes abruptly to see light in the room. A man was bending over me. His hand was across my mouth.

We stared at each other in silence, our faces less than a foot apart. He was quite a handsome and distinguished-looking man, with thick, black, well-combed hair, grayed at the temples. He had a little black moustache. He hadn’t been wearing a moustache when I’d seen him last, there’d been no gray in his hair, and his arm had been in a cast up to the shoulder.

“You are careless, Eric,” he murmured, taking his hand away. “You sleep too heavy. And you still have bad dreams.”

“I don’t know why they bother with a key for this room, the way people wander in and out at will,” I said. “Roll up your left sleeve.”

He laughed. “Ah, we play tricks. It was the right one, don’t you recall?” He started to take off his coat.

“Hi, Vance,” I said. “Never mind stripping. I remember you.”

I got up, shook my head to clear it, went into the bathroom and started the hot water running. I got a jar of instant coffee and a plastic cup out of my suitcase. I loaded the cup with the powder and went back to the bathroom to fill it. The water was almost hot enough. I sat down on the bed to drink, without offering any to Vance. I hadn’t invited him. If he was thirsty, he could supply is own coffee, or at least his own cup.

“Don’t smoke,” I said to him as he produced cigarettes. “I don’t, and somebody might wonder who stunk up the curtains.”

He chuckled and lit the cigarette. “They will think it was just your lady friend. The one with the strange hair.”
I rose and knocked the cigarette from his fingers and stepped on it. “I said don’t do it!”

He looked up at me. “Careful, Eric!”

I said, “I could take you, Vance. I could always take you.”

He said calmly, “It was never proved. Some time we must try. But not here and now.”

I sat down on the bed again, and polished off my almost-warm-enough coffee. “Sorry, amigo,” I said. “I’ve had a rough night, and nembutal makes me irritable. Furthermore, I’m not in a mood for jocular references to the lady in question. She happens to be dead.”

“Dead?” He frowned quickly. “The commotion in the park?” I nodded, and he said: “At whose hands? Yours?”

“Why do you say that?”

“One of my reasons for coming was to warn you against trusting her too far. It wasn’t a message we could send through her apparatus, naturally. It appears that her department is secretly investigating some derogatory reports, which they only recently got around to mentioning to us.”

“I’d say the reports were probably correct,” I said. “But it was our man who got her. At least he announced himself by name, and now I’m inclined to think it actually was Caselius. Unfortunately, he gave me no opportunity to look at him in the light, and I think he was disguising his voice. . . . It was a cat-and-mouse act, Vance. Kind of lousy. They let her assist at her own funeral; they let her co-operate with them in making a holy spectacle of herself; they let her think until the last moment that she was just helping them to kid me along. Then they killed her. He killed her.

“It was a great joke, and whoever set it up would have wanted to be there to laugh. That’s why I think it was Caselius himself. He wouldn’t have bothered to arrange all that specialized fun for another guy. He’d have wanted to be there to finish her off himself, and see the horror in her eyes as she realized how cruelly she’d been tricked.” After a moment, I said, “I figure he killed her because she’d served her purpose and he couldn’t leave her alive to talk. That means she had something to talk about. I’ve got to go on to Kiruna in the morning with the Taylor woman. Can you check on two men for me?”

“I can try.”

I said, “One man I don’t know. But she said she was going to be married as soon as she finished her tour of duty here; and I think the bereaved fiancé deserves a little of our attention. Somebody filled her full of fine ideals and used them to make a sucker of her. The other is a man who currently calls himself Jim Wellington. I have no evidence of a connection between him and Lundgren-he does know Taylor-but maybe you can find one. Watch out for him; he’s been through the mill.

“He wasn’t one of ours, but he made a flight with me into France from our usual field, some time in late ’44 or early ’45. Some of those people went bad later, and some even changed sides. He might be one of them. I don’t know his outfit, but I’ll give you a description and Mac can find the date I made that flight and check the official records for my companion. Tell him it was that prison-break operation at St. Alice. My job was to take the commandant out of action with a scoped-up rifle five minutes before they blew the gates. I got the damn commandant, all right, but nobody else showed up, as in most of those lousy cooperative jobs, and I had a hell of a time getting clear.

“Hell, I’m talking too much. I guess I’ve got a bit of a jag on. She wasn’t much, Vance. Just a pretty clothes horse with intellectual and moral pretensions that she didn’t have the brains to live up to-just the kind who’d be a patsy for a clever character with a humanitarian spiel. But I don’t like the way she died, amigo. I just don’t like the lousy way she died!” He said, “Take it easy, friend Eric. In our business, one does not work well if one lets oneself become emotionally involved.”

I said, “I’ll get over it. I’m just a little shook-up tonight. Somebody held up a mirror, and I didn’t like the looks of the fellow inside the frame. As for that guy Caselius–”

He said, “You had better get over it. You are going to have to restrain your vengeful impulses.”

“What do you mean?”

He was reaching in his coat pocket. He said, “This is ironical, Eric. It is really very ironical.”

“Maybe,” I said. “I can see that it’s a lot of things, but I haven’t spotted much irony yet.”

He said, “I had another reason for coming, a direct communication from the master of ceremonies himself.”

“The master of-”

He laughed. “MC,” he said. “Mac. It is a joke.”

“I’m not up on all the jokes yet,” I said.

“This is no joke, however,” he said. He gave me a folded sheet of paper. “Read it and you will see the irony, too. I could tell you the gist of it, but I will let you decipher it yourself so as not to miss the full flavor of Mac’s prose.”

I looked at him, and at the paper; and I took the paper to the little writing table by the wall and went to work on it. Presently I had it lying before me in plain language. It had my code number and the usual transmission signals. The station of origin was Washington, D.C. The text read:

Representations from female agent Stockholm have led to serious case of cold feet locally. Temporarily, we hope, your orders are changed as follows: you are to make firm identification of subject if possible but do not, repeat do not, carry out remainder of original instructions. Find him, keep him in sight, but don’t hurt a hair of his cute little head. Realize difficulty of assignment, sympathize. Working hard to stiffen local backbones. Be ready for go-ahead signal, but under no circumstances take action unless you receive. Repeat, under no circumstances. This is an order. This is an order. Don’t get independent, damn you, or we’re all cooked. Love, Mac.

This post originally appeared in the Mister 8 website (January 1st 2010), and appears here with the permission of the author.

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