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A classic revisited: Death of a Citizen

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deathofacitizenoriginalPublished in 1960, Death of a Citizen marked the beginning of the story Donald Hamilton’s counter agent/assassin Matt Helm. It would eventually spread over 27 novels, concluding with The Damagers, which came out in 1993. Books in the series have sold more than 20 million copies. Alongside them were four films starring Dean Martin as Helm, and an ABC television series. Unsurprisingly it remains one of Gold Medal’s most successful books, and Titan Books is reprinting the series.

About 15 years before the story begins, during World War II, Helm was a Nazi hunter. His job wasn’t to bring these men to justice, it was to assassinate them. He worked in a special unit going behind enemy lines, alone or as part of a team, and his commanding officer was only ever refered to as Mac. The only qualifications needed were nerves of steel and a complete lack of compunction about committing murder. Only psychopaths and adrenalin junkies need apply.

Now Helm is a married man and a father. He lives in a nice house, has a respectable job – an author, in fact – and nobody knows about his past. He even goes to neighbourhood parties, and it’s at one of these that a woman from his past makes contact. He’d killed with Tina during the War, and slept with her too, in the down time between assassinations. It appears her career has continued and she wants Helm’s help to kill another guest at the party – a young, female journalist who wants to interview him about his writing.

At first Helm refuses and lets Tina know he doesn’t want anything to put his new life at risk, but she forces his hand by killing the girl and leaving Helm to dispose of her body. He must stop being a regular citizen and re-enter the game…

deathofacitizenI believe that the Helm books were originally marketed as a kind of real world alternative to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, featuring a man who kills for his country for sure, but one who does it without the exploding ball-point pens and invisible cars of the Bond films. However, when you get down to it they are just as fantastical in their own way, with double- and triple-crosses, Helm calling in to his handlers with secret codes, and cabals of assassins.

It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss Death of a Citizen as purely escapist entertainment. The ease with which Helm shucks off his domesticity to reveal the amoral killer within is quite startling even now, and must it have been a real shock in 1960. At the end of the book, Helm is discovered by his wife to have tortured and murdered the abductor of their daughter. When Jim Thompson wrote scenes which stripped away the veneer of civilisation to show the brutality that can lie just below the surface, he was rightly venerated. It would be wrong to suggest that Death of a Citizen is the equal of Thompson’s 1952 book The Killer Inside Me, I’m just pointing out that Hamilton wasn’t afraid of making some brave and difficult writing decisions himself.

Some of the gender politics can grate, but to a certain extent it comes with the territory, and I doubt Hamilton had a liberal audience in mind for these books. Nonetheless, when you are in the mood for some old school action, Helm and his creator Hamilton are worth considering. Titan has begun re-issuing the whole series this month with the first two books, Death of a Citizen and The Wrecking Crew.

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