Matt Helm was America’s answer to James Bond: a hard-boiled, no-nonsense killer who dispensed with the goofy gadgets and “shaken not stirred” pretensions and got down to the brutal business of espionage the old-fashioned way: with his knife, gun, wits and fists. An assassin behind enemy lines during World War II, Helm was re-activated 15 years later by an unnamed, ultra-secret agency to start disposing of America’s enemies during the height of the Cold War.
The Betrayers, published in 1966, is the the tenth novel in the series, but the first one I’ve read. It concerns Helm’s vacation to Hawaii, which turns into a mission to expose and eliminate a traitorous fellow agent who is suspected of working for the Red Chinese. Along the way, he encounters two beautiful but treacherous women, the allegiances of whom are far from clear. Is beautiful blonde beach girl Jill really an ally out to expose the rogue agent called Monk, or is it an elaborate ruse? Is the sultry brunette society woman Isobel an enemy operative or an independent femme fatale? While he is trying to sort them out (and bed them down), Helm learns of Monk’s plot, which involves a transport ship full of American troops visiting Honolulu. There are some nice descriptions of the Hawaiian culture and environment, visceral violence, an intense inter-island sailboard ride, clever ruses, car chases, gun lore, wisecracks, tradecraft, and a final showdown with the Monk. But Hamilton always keeps it real; there is no supervillain in a hollow volcano, seven foot two henchman with steel teeth or nuclear bomb about to blow up a major city. I loved Fleming’s James Bond novels when I was younger, but Hamilton’s Matt Helm is Cold War spy fiction for adults.
One of the novel’s more interesting passages comes during a little rant by Monk near the end. At a time when Russians were considered the great menace to America and the free world, Monk identifies the Chinese as the real threat, in a way that some might consider prescient:
“There’s the true enemy, Eric!” he said grimly. “They’re arrogant bastards. They think they can use and outsmart anybody. They thought they could use and outsmart me. They figure civilization started with them and will end with them. And unless something’s done with them soon, they may be right.”
But there isn’t much editorializing in this novel. Donald Hamilton writes the way Matt Helm acts: no-nonsense, gritty, witty, fast-moving, direct and to the point. This was a highly enjoyable introduction to the series; I will be reading and reviewing more Helm novels in the near future. Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled espionage action.
Buy a copy of The Betrayers here.