Friday, February 18, 2011

Second Rate Spillane--Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm

An odd combination of Mike Hammer and James Bond, with, strangely, more sexism than both combined (and that's saying something), Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series was a very long and profitable one, stretching from the 50s through the 80s, maybe seeping into the 90s, but I don't think so.  It's hard for me to tell why I read them all--and there are many more of them than there are from Spillane--and it's even harder to tell why I liked them.  They started as Bond and Hammer rip-offs, and pulpy, and grew into a slightly more sophisticated series by the 80s--and longer books, too--and they never seemed to grow tired, even when they didn't have anything new to say.  I guess the best thing to say is that he found new ways to do the same things, but doesn't every writer of many books, from Hamilton to King?

So what was good?  The action was good, not great; the mystery, as it was, was interesting for a teen, but may not hold up now; the settings were very well described.  I remember what I liked best were the very occasional off-hand insights into truth and human nature that were actually very well-done.  Women were handled as tolerable misfits, and the 1st person tone towards them was clearly condescending.  Helm seemed to think they generally got in the way, and were middling, but were worth to have around as pets, sort of.  And love interests, of course, who just as surely were killed, usually accidentally, at the end.  They also existed to show how cold and ruthless Helm was, though he had to say so so many times that you were made to wonder.  Often it came down to getting the villain, or saving the girl (not woman), and most of the time he chose to get the villain.  Orders are orders, after all, and he was always fighting for what today would be called national security.

A professor at URI had massive distaste for Helm--which is certainly understandable--though she'd based her opinion solely on the movies and hadn't read any of the books.  I'd read all of the books and seen none of the movies, but from what I gather, those were Dean Martin's uncontrollably drunk days, and he would basically leer and wink at the camera, and grab a starlet, and say something excessively sexist, and then collect his paycheck.  After 2 or 3 films, the series was done, and it all seemed like a waste of time and money, except for Martin, who must've been paid well, and then drank it all away.  I'd tried to explain that the books weren't as bad as the movies she described, but as I write about them now, no intelligent guy over 21 (or even 17 or 18, which I was at the time) would be able to stand the sexist condescension.

This latter bothers me a little more than Spillane's blatant sexploitation and violence, and I can't really understand why.  Maybe because his books were all clearly just that, without pretense, and the Helm books were surprisingly unsexy, just winking and butt-grabbing, and verbal and tonal condescension.  Which is all more annoying than anything else.  The scenery and world-traveling and violence were well-done, and you sort of skimmed through the moralizing and speeches and winks to get to more of the scenery and violence.

The first one, titled Murderer's Row, I think, was actually rather good, and a bit acclaimed (for the genre) and basically told the story of how Helm, retired and living happily with his wife and family, loses said wife and family to the bad guys, and re-enters the covert-ops arena, thus beginning the series, which degenerated very slowly after that, with a pick-me-up in the 80s before oblivion.

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