The Wrecking Crew is the second book in the brilliant Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton, published in 1960. It takes place not long after the events of Death of a Citizen, in which World War II assassin Matt Helm was reactivated after 15 years of quiet family life for a new assignment: eliminating America’s Cold War enemies. At this point Helm’s wife Beth has separated from him, taking their three children and filing for a divorce. Apparently her shock at learning that Helm was a brutal professional killer before he became a photo-journalist was too much for her to process—particularly after the horrific events of Citizen.

As the story opens, Helm arrives in Sweden on a dangerous new mission: to draw out a notorious Soviet assassin known as “Caselius” and if possible, take him out. His contact in Sweden, a young woman from another agency named Sara, objects to his mission on moral grounds, prompting Helm to get philosophical in his Shadow Warrior’s way:

Well, we’re all capable of deeds we can barely imagine. Beth’s attitude still had the power to annoy me a little, because I was quite sure she’d never have dreamed of breaking up our home if she’d merely discovered, say, that I was the bombardier who’d pushed the button over Hiroshima. I must say that I don’t get it. Why honor and respect a guy who drops a great indiscriminate bomb, and recoil in horror from a guy who shoots a small, selective bullet? Sara Lundgren had had the same attitude. She’d been perfectly willing, presumably, to collect data, as part of her job, for the use of the Strategic Air Command—that might lead to the eventual obliteration of a city or two—but she’d balked violently at the idea of feeding information to a lone man with a gun.

This difference in mindset between Daylight Warriors and Shadow Warriors is a recurring theme in the series—as is the fact that when Daylight methods fail, leaders will always look to men like Helm to do the dirty jobs in the shadows that moralists are unable or unwilling to do.

Matt and Sara are soon attacked by unknown assailants and she is shot from the trees, presumably by Caselius—providing a lethal lesson in the necessity of Shadow Warriors. The stoic Helm shrugs it off and continues with his mission, posing as a a photo-journalist to accompany an American woman named Lou who is doing a story on mines in northern Sweden. Lou’s husband, who published an expose that brought Caselius into public awareness, was gunned down in Germany, and Helm hopes to draw the assassin out through her. There is also a beautiful young Swedish girl who claims to be Helm’s distant cousin, who turns out to be the story’s most fascinating character.

In typical Helm fashion, the characters’ motives and allegiances are unclear and treachery is an ever-present danger. Also in typical fashion, he beds down or lusts after some of them and this complicates his work. There is a long stretch of intrigue, deceptions and twists along with several killings, before the identity of Caselius is finally revealed and Helm moves in for the kill. The final stretch moves fast toward the climax, as Helm tracks Caselius across the desolate moors of northern Sweden.

The thing to realize about Matt Helm books is that though they might look like just another pulp spy series to the uninitiated, they are very smart, well-written, realistic thrillers that have more in common with hard-boiled crime novels than James Bond or Nick Carter spy stories. If you’re looking for over the top action, explicit sex, cutting-edge technologies or cartoon villains, this series will probably disappoint you. Like the equally brilliant Quiller series, this is a spy series for a literate adult reader who likes realism, tight writing, wit and the occasional philosophical insight with his tough-guy action. But make no mistake: Matt Helm is as tough as they come; a stone-cold killer who won’t hesitate to carve you up with his knife, torture your wife or shoot you in the head if honor and duty require it.

I found this installment slightly less riveting than the other two Helm novels I’ve reviewed to date, Death of a Citizen and The Betrayers. The writing was just as good, but the story and setting weren’t quite as interesting. Sweden seemed like a duller setting for a hard-boiled espionage adventure compared to the American Southwest or Hawaii—at least until the final confrontation in the arctic moors. Nevertheless, this was a solid entry in a brilliant series, and well worth your time.

Get a copy of The Wrecking Crew here.

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