Thursday, April 12, 2007

Book: The Wrecking Crew, by Donald Hamilton (1960)

After Donald Hamilton’s recent death, I said I’d read the other Matt Helm novel that I own. I’m a man of my word. Now my problem is that I don’t have another one waiting in the wings.

Crew, the second book in the series, takes place a year after the events of Death of a Citizen. Helm’s wife has left him, having discovered his past as a WWII government operative with a license – and a willingness – to kill. So Helm has accepted Mac’s offer of returning to service. His first assignment sends him to his (and Hamilton’s) ancestral homeland of Sweden. Helm is to smoke out a spy known as Caselius while masquerading as a photographer alongside a journalist who might be a double agent ... or Caselius herself.

Of all the book’s good qualities – the pacing, the sense of place – what struck me most was Hamilton’s coolly rational view of violence. Helm’s a bit rusty when it comes to dishing it out, and Mac cagily uses that fact to the mission’s advantage. Helm still has problems when it comes to women in pants, but each of the female characters is nicely nuanced. And Hamilton can always be counted on to deliver a sharp observation in his spare style:

I was told by my dad once that a man who tied his own ties was much more likely to be a gentleman than one who did not. Just what constitutes a gentleman in this day and age, the old man didn’t bother to say. To him, the distinction was clear. It must have been nice.

The 1969 movie “adaptation” has Helm (Dean Martin) chasing down thieves who have hijacked a train carrying a billion dollars in gold. It also features Chuck Norris.