5 stars out of 5
In the early 1960s, James Bond pretty much ruled my world of books. My husband and I saw the first movie, "Dr. No," at a local drive-in theater, were intrigued, and then discovered the books by the late Ian Fleming that were written between 1953 and 1966. I loved them so much, in fact, that they are the only books I've ever read more than once.
That decade brought our attention to another popular series of books featuring U.S. government counter-agent Matt Helm. In all, there were 27 of them; in all honesty, I don't recall reading any, but my husband insists that we did, so I'll take his word for it. For sure we saw all four of the very campy, silly motion pictures starring the late Dean Martin as Helm (very loosely based on the books and fun to watch).
Within the past week, I discovered that some of the original Helm books, which apparently have been out of print for several years, have been released in Kindle format. This one is the first in the series, published in 1960; when I got an offer to buy it for just 99 cents I absolutely couldn't resist, if only to rekindle (pun intended) old memories. And what a delightful flashback it was!
Actually, it's a great story and introduction to a very interesting character; the fun part comes from signs of the times, like female characters who wear veiled hats and long gloves to dinner parties and whose "girdles" could be felt through their clothing by anyone who ventured to pat one on the derriere. Interspersed are lines from Helm like this: "I can see no particular reason for a female to appear in pants unless she's going to ride a horse."
Ah yes; back in the day, I'd have agreed. I grew up on a farm in the 1950s, when girls weren't allowed to wear jeans or slacks to school - and in church? Wouldn't dream of it; hats and gloved hands clutching embroidered handkerchiefs appeared in every pew. But at home, the minute we hopped off the dusty school bus, we ran up the lane and into the house to change into the "blue jeans" we'd bought for $5.99 at Sears or Penneys - rolling up the bottoms into stylish cuffs before venturing back out to the roller rink.
But on to this story: It begins more than a dozen years after Helm's last assignment during World War II; he's a writer happily married with a beautiful wife, three children, and a lovely home in Sante Fe, New Mexico. His wife has no clue as to his former identity and work as a government-sponsored assassin; those who left that service alive were instructed never to reveal their pasts - lying, if necessary, to protect the secrets they all held.
And true to form, lie Helm did. But his happy bubble is threatened when at a party he sees a woman he knew (and worked and "dallied" with) in his past clandestine life. Their meeting is no accident, Helm correctly surmises when she sends him a "secret" signal that she's still on the job - and soon, the two meet up and he reluctantly agrees to help her with a new assignment from Helm's former boss in Washington, D.C. And it doesn't take long before at least one of the events of the past takes place again (go ahead. Guess).
As with many espionage stories, though, the truth isn't always as it seems; getting to the bottom of things turns dangerous for Helm in more ways than one. Much of the focus is on Helm himself as he deals with demons from his past and realities of his present and the impact of decisions he's forced to make that (for better or worse) threaten to change the course of the rest of his life.
Reading this was a real treat; now that others have been re-released, no doubt I'll be tackling another, and another, and another...
Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton (Titan Books, reprint edition, February 2013), 240 pp.