4 stars out of 5
A while back, I discovered Kindle versions of the 1960s Matt Helm books (there are 27 in all) and decided to work my way through at least a few of them. As I learned from reading the first, Death of a Citizen, they're both well written and very dated - and therein lies the appeal for me, a survivor of teenage years in the 1950s. It's quite a hoot to get the author's take, through the eyes of his government operative Helm; put another way, we've come a long way, baby. Consider this, for instance:
Describing a female companion, Helm notes, "Well, at least she'd had the decency to wear nylons. If there's anything that turns my stomach, it's a grown woman in bobby sox."
Or this: "For kicks, you might as well pat Joan of Arc in full armor, as a modern woman in her best girdle."
Ah yes. As one who remembers trying to wriggle into one of those rubber Playtex girdles (and worse, trying to extricate myself after sweating in what quickly became an up-close-and-personal sauna), that's just plain funny.
The story lines are a little dated as well, but only when it comes to more insignificant things like weapons and modes of transportation of choice (Helm is a more-than-decent photographer who uses real film cartridges and typically develops his own pictures, for example). But the action works in any decade, and there's plenty of that to go around. For the record, the books also are on the short side, so a dedicated reader should be able to polish one off in a day.
This begins as Helm, whose code name is Eric, has been reactivated into the government organization in which he basically was an assassin after 15 years of living a comfortable life with a wife and family (his wife left him when she discovered what he really did for the government and decided she just couldn't live with a killer even if what he did was for a good cause). Here, Helm is sent to Sweden for the purpose of putting the "touch" on a man (or woman) named Caselius, an enemy agent. A man whose writing threatened to "out" the agent has been murdered, and his wife, who somehow survived the attack, is trying to carry on her late husband's work. As she collects information, Helm, under the guise of a professional photographer, tags along as she pursues her journalistic efforts.
As in most spy stories, though, no one can be trusted - including the widow, Swedish police officers and tough guys who supposedly represent other government agencies. No one knows that better than Helm, and he's keenly aware that he must remain alert to threats from any direction, especially as bodies pile up and he gets closer to his target.
Given that many books follow this one, it's no spoiler to say that Helm manages to come through the experience still breathing (something that can't be said about several other characters). All in all, it's another fun book in a series I highly recommend.
The Wrecking Crew by Donald Hamilton (Titan Books, Reissue edition, February 2013); 272 pp.