Death of a Citizen is the first book in the brilliant Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton. Though categorized with James Bond and other popular spy novels of that era, this is really a classic 1950s noir crime story with a Cold War spy gloss. It has all the elements of that genre: the stylish but deadly femme fatale, the man whose dark past comes back to haunt him, dead bodies, tense chases, lethal twists, brutal betrayals and visceral violence—all told in the hard-boiled, gritty, witty style of the best crime novels of its day.
The story’s setup is a compelling one: Matt Helm, who worked as an assassin during World War II for a super-secret but unnamed government agency, finds himself reactivated 15 years later while he is living a quiet life as a writer/photographer with his wife and three children in New Mexico. Thinking that his brutal days were long behind him, Helm’s encounter with the beautiful but lethal Tina, his ex-flame and -colleague in the assassination business, and his discovery of a dead body in his den, awaken his old killer instincts and pull him back into the deadly game of kill or be killed. Helm learns that his old agency is still operating, now targeting America’s Cold War enemies, and Helm’s unique talents are again in demand. This sets the stage for a fast-paced, exciting narrative, as Helm sets off on the open roads of the Southwest with Tina, reconnects with his old boss at the agency, and is given a new mission to eliminate the enemy agents targeting an important scientist in his area.
Hamilton does a brilliant job describing Helm’s re-awakening to the predatory instincts of a professional killer, which had been dulled by 15 years of domesticated living but are quickly sharpened by the presence of death, sex and danger in the form of a dead girl, sexy Tina and her thuggish partner Loris. Like the best noir novels, this story is all about the dark psychological quirks of the characters, the unexpected plot twists and the moments of intense violence—not the geopolitical backdrop, technological gimmickry or comic book antics of so much spy fiction.
Death of a Citizen is a brilliant start to a series that I intend to read in its entirety. Matt Helm is a very compelling character; what Parker is to the crime genre, Helm is to spy fiction: a stoic, super-tough, no-nonsense man of action who does some nasty things but you can’t help rooting for anyway. Highly recommended.
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