Jan 05, 11
Recommended to Werner by:
My Goodreads friend Jim
Read from November 24 to 30, 2010, read count: 1
Spy/espionage fiction began to develop in the early 1900s, around the same time the mystery genre was becoming popular. Some literary critics consider it a subset of the latter, and the two certainly have affinities; but I consider the former a distinct genre. I've read in it enough (though in some cases I can't recall the names of the books!) to know that it has its own history, influences and strands, which could be the subject of an essay in itself. The particular strand the Matt Helm series well represents is one that developed (and mainly flourished) in the 1950s and 60s; its basic characteristics are a vision of international affairs that reduces to an "Us = good; Them = bad" mentality, and an intense glorification of the cynical, amoral, "the end justifies the means" mentality. (Another strand, the tradition represented by writers like LeCarre, also ascribes the same cynicism to its intelligence agencies --even to the extreme of essentially viewing the West and the Soviets as morally equivalent-- but those writers deplore it; writers in this school celebrate it.) Protagonists in this tradition (they're typically antiheroes rather than "heroes") are defined by their fighting/killing ability more than their brains, and the plots generally call for more use of the former. (In that respect, it much resembles, and was undoubtedly influenced by, noir detective fiction.)
Here, Hamilton's protagonist served, as a young World War II officer, in a clandestine agency that carried out assassinations behind enemy lines. After his release from the service, he married, settled in the Southwest, fathered three kids, became a writer of Westerns (as was Hamilton at times --one can suspect that Helms' character may have been something of a fantasy self) and generally tried to suppress the Beast in him: that part of his nature with a relish for killing and violence. 15 years later (in the author's present), at a cocktail party thrown by an acquaintance, who's a world class physicist about to leave for Washington to report on research, Helms' female former colleague --and bed partner-- walks in and gives him a signal meaning "stand by for instructions." Not initially interested in disrupting his life, he tries to ignore her as much as possible --but that gets a bit harder to do later that night, when he finds a dead body in his bathtub. From there, the plot has more twists than a pretzel.
As a kid, I know I read a couple of paperbacks in this series, though not this particular one. At the time, I found the Helm novels more readable than a couple of others I sampled, representing competing series by Philip Atlee and Edward S. Aarons (I'm not sure I even finished any of those books). After nearly 50 years or so, my assessment of Hamilton's work, at least, is about the same: it's very readable, with clear prose and a page-turning narrative drive that has a tendency to hook you. Despite the embarrassingly lurid cover art on both the edition above and the one I read, there's no explicit sex here (and very little sex at all); the bad language amounts to no more than an occasional h- or d-word, and Hamilton is actually fairly restrained in depicting violence. (Especially in this genre, he deserves pretty good marks for all of the above.) Unlike James Bond (at least in his film incarnations) Helm also isn't equipped with outlandish gadgetry; his equipment and techniques have some grounding in plausible reality.
That said, this is not a series you'd turn to for moral vision or likable characters; NO really major character here is at all likable, including Helm. One reader called him "pragmatic," which could be, I suppose, an accurate enough term, if charitable; "sociopath," I'd say, would be much less charitable but no less accurate. :-) He's totally cynical and ruthless, with a predilection for rationalizing violence; he's not, by his own statement, trustworthy (during the war, on one occasion, he murdered a wounded comrade simply to prevent other team members from being distracted by trying to aid the guy); and he tends to see himself as a superior being above petty considerations like ethics or legality. While he does pay women the compliment of taking a female adversary seriously, he's quite capable of hitting one he knows to be unarmed; he's no model of marital fidelity, and he makes the revealing comment at one point (he's first-person narrator) that "there are times when a husband can't help" thinking about marital rape. (Uh, actually, Matt, most of us can help it!) There's a strong degree of influence here from the noir tradition of portraying women as either evil femme fatales or soft, helpless easily-victimized types who can be put on a pedestal but aren't suited for the real world (though to his credit, Hamilton actually does suggest, in a couple of his secondary characters, that a woman can be tough without being a villainess --I'd actually have liked to see them more developed). The view of proper government "security" policy and the efficacy of torture as a handy-dandy foolproof guarantor of accurate information (a theory that has as much real-world basis as the existence of the Easter bunny) would probably have earned Attila the Hun's agreement. (This despite the fact that I could see several places where a less devious or less bloodthirsty approach would probably have served better!)
This isn't my favorite fictional tradition. But if it's yours, this is a quick read that'll probably please.