"Here's something else I've been promising you forever... the file on one of my favorite tough-guy protagonists of all time, and the series character who hooked me on the hard-boiled genre in the first place. Yeah, I know he's not a private eye, but he played one on TV. <g>
In the nearly thirty excellent paperback originals by Donald Hamilton, MATT HELM is a government operative, not a P.I. -- but I think we can slip him into this list on a technicality. In 1975, Hollywood producers brought Helm to television as a somewhat run-of-the-mill TV private eye played by Tony Franciosa. While this was a bit of a come-down for fans of the cynical, tough-guy "counter-assassination agent," it was nothing compared to what Hollywood had done to the character back in the spy-mad Sixties.
During the James Bond craze of the mid-to-late Sixties, Columbia Pictures produced a quartet of "Matt Helm" spy spoofs, beginning with The Silencers (1966). Very loosely based on Hamilton's novels (using the titles, a few character names, and locations), these colorful, if ludicrous, comedy adventures starred Rat Packer Dean Martin as a perpetually inebriated American secret agent. Totally miscast, Martin bore no resemblence whatsoever to Hamilton's tall, lanky outdoorsman, (I've always felt that Clint Eastwood in his prime would have been perfect for the role) but at least two of the movies are genuinely entertaining as spy spoofs, and there's no denying that the featured femmes (which included Stella Stevens, Ann Margaret, Sharon Tate, Tina Louise and Daliha Lavi, among others) were of a very high caliber, indeed.
Though the general public may associate the name Matt Helm with the Dean Martin spoofs, the novels should not be dismissed. Suspenseful, fast-moving, with a decidedly dark sense of humor, the Matt Helm series is notable not only for its exceptional quality but its unusual longevity.
Beginning with Death Of A Citizen in 1960, and ending with 1993's The Damagers, Matt Helm starred in one of the finest hard-boiled adventure series ever written. Cynical, violent, and extremely well-plotted, the Matt Helm series outlasted its many contemporaries, with World War II veteran Helm moving beyond the Cold War intrigues of the Sixties to continue defending his country's interests (and bedding beautiful young betrayers) well into the Nineties. But despite the frequently applied label, Helm isn't a spy. He is, quite simply, a government assassin, and he's very good at his job.
Helm is introduced in the first novel, Death Of A Citizen as a World War II veteran who worked as an assassin behind enemy lines. Helm is brought back into government service when Communist agents attempt to manipulate the now-civilian author of Western novels (like Hamilton himself) and professional photographer into helping them in their sinister schemes by kidnapping his young daughter. Needless to say, Helm rescues his offspring, but in such a brutal, ruthless manner that his wife is shocked and terrified by the monster she's married. She leaves him and Helm returns to his old work, now for an unnamed government agency run by his former military commander, a man known only as Mac.
A series about a professional killer might present problems for some readers, but Hamilton's a sharp guy, and manages to keep the audience squarely in Helm's corner by making sure that the expert marksman stays firmly on the side of the angels. Rarely is Helm used as a political assassin; instead, he's designated as a "counter-assassination agent," assigned primarily to execute other professionals in his own field. In the Cold War Sixties and Seventies, these are usually Communist killers, whose targets are often American scientists; but come the Eighties and Nineties, his opponents tend to be in the employ of fictional terrorist organizations from around the world.
Fans of tough-guy protagonists won't find a harder hardcase than Helm; cold, efficient, and professional (with a professional's disdain for amateurs), but endowed with a wide variety of interesting and consistent character traits and quirks that keep him from being just an emotionless killing machine. Among the more notable: a strong affection for dogs, especially the hunting breeds; an aesthetic dislike of women who wear pants (although he softened his views on this as the series hit its third decade); little patience for idealistic young women (and men) who can't stand violence (and who usually end up betraying him before the book is done); and a remarkable, nearly superhuman, ability to withstand tremendous physical abuse.
Respectfully submitted by Chris Mills.
HELM AS A PRIVATE EYE
As Chris relates above, master assassin Helm was reincarnated as a TV private eye in the mid-seventies. According to ABC, Helm was "one of the screen's most flamboyant and exciting detectives" whose "larger than life world" was full of "dangerous assignments and beautiful women." In truth, he was a former spy for a "Top Secret' department of US Intelligence called "The Machine," now working as a flashy (and pricey) LA gumshoe, specializing in "high-level" cases that took him around the world. When he was in town, he could be seen tooling around in a slick set of foreign wheels, living in a swanky playboy pad and sporting the glamourous and beautiful attorney Claire Kronski around town. His police contact was Sgt. Hanrahan, and the operator of his answering services was a guy named Ethel. It was billed as "pure, escapist fare," and from all reports, it was a pretty-ritzy-looking show. But, despite the trappings, and a relatively promising if slightly cheesy pilot, Helm was, at best, a rather ho-hum private eye, and the show only lasted three months.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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