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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Donald Hamilton (1916-2006)


American western, mystery and espionage writer, whose best know character was Matt Helm, a professional assassin working for a secret government agency. Helm, code named Eric, was a much more ruthless agent than his British colleague, Ian Fleming's James Bond. The famous 007 has a licence to kill but he actually matches violence with violence in self defense or to save the word or a beautiful woman. Helm is a pragmatic pro, who kills without remorse, like he was working on an assembly line business. Hamilton was nominated in 1977 and 1978 for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Paperback Original by the Mystery Writers of America. Hamilton was Swedish by birth, but he spent most of his life in the United States.

'"There is a scale in side the telescope," I said. "You take a man like that one, approximately five and a half feet tall – at least I hope he wasn't a pygmy or a giant – and you place the lowest division of the scale at his feet and read the range opposite the top of his head, making allowance for the sombrero. The you take this figure and enter the table I have attached to the stock of the rifle, here. You learn that to hit a target five hundred and fifty yards away, the way this particular rifle is sighted at this particular time, you must hold over eighteen inches. In other words, I will have to shoot for the top of the head to hit the chest."' (from The Ambushers, 1963)

Donald Hamilton was born Donald Bengtsson Hamilton in Uppsala, Sweden. At the age of eight, he was brought to the U.S. His was father a medical doctor, who worked at the faculties of Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Chicago. Hamilton earned a BS degree in Chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1938, and then worked in the private sector. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a chemist, attaining the rank of lieutenant. In 1941, Hamilton married Kathleen Stick (d. 1990); they had two daughters and two sons. Later he named his 27-foot sail boat after his wife, and published a book, Cruises With Kathleen (1980), about his adventures as a captain in the 1970s.

Hamilton had started to write already at high school but it was not until 1946, when he began his career as a freelance writer and photographer. His first story Hamilton sold to Collier's, earning seven hundred and fifty dollars. Hamilton's first novel Date with Darkness (1947), was a story of counter-espionage. Night Walker (1954), about a disillusioned navy lieutenant who wakes up in a hospital with a different identity, was republished by Hard Case Crime in January 2006. "Even a leper gets sympathy, but not a guy in my spot," says one of the characters, a driver, who confesses that he is "a dirty red subversive". The story is anchored in the paranoid atmosphere of the McCarthy era; identities cannot be taken for granted and ordinary men and women can turn out to be indulging in secret treachery against the society in which they live.

Smoky Valley from 1954 was Hamilton's first western novel. It was followed by Mad River (1957) and The Big Country (1957) - they both were made into films, the former under the title The Violent Men (1955). After Texas Fever (1960), Hamilton concentrated on his Matt Helm series, introducing his hero in Death of a Citizen (1960). The short story, 'The Guns of William Longley', written for the anthology Iron Men and Silver Stars (1967), won the WWA Spur award as best Western short story of the year.

William Wyler's adaptation of Hamilton's novel, The Big Country, was a considerable commercial success, grossing over $4 million in its first year of release in Northern America. When Hamilton was hired to adapt his story, 'Ambush at Blanco Canyon,' for the screen, he warned that he was a screenwriting novice, and eventually it took six writers, among them Leon Uris, to produce a shootable script. The story had been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and was later expanded into a novel. Jerome Moross' score became a classic. Co-producer Gregory Peck was Jim McKay, a sea captain from the East who arrives to marry Pat (Carroll Baker), the daughter Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford). Terrill is competing with the old Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) for the water right owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), an independent schoolteacher. Charlton Heston is Steve Leech, a vicious ranch foreman, who loves Pat and humiliates his rival. Jim refuses follow the Code of the West and fight with Leech, which earns him the contempt of the cattlemen. Finally he realizes that he must do it to earn his place in the community.

This theme repeats in other Hamilton's novels, too. In The Ambushers the beautiful Russian agent Vadya says to Helm: "It was so beautiful, that fight... You could have walked over and taken me then, right there in the dust in front of all those men." However, Jim leaves Pat for Julia and the family feud between the Terrills and Hannasseys ends tragically. "Rufu's grief as he cradles his dying son in his arms conveys a true sense of hopelessness and loss. When Rufus Hannessey and Henry Terrill face each other against the austere landscape, the film finally achieved some of the tragic sense that remained elusive throughout the previous two hours." (Ted Sennett in Great Hollywood Western, 1990) The film was made in the middle of the Cold War. Korean war had ended just a few year earlier, and tension was increasing in Berlin. Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times, wrote that Wyler and his co-workers "have attempted to make... the most bellicose hymn to peace ever seen."

Matt Helm series, beginning from Death of a Citizen (1960), was born in the later period of the golden age of spy fiction, roughly the era from the eve WW II until the mid-1960s, after which the genre became a playground of satirists. The success of James Bond stories also inspired the Commander Shaw novels by Philip McCutchan, the Modesty Blaise comic strip and novels by Peter O'Donnell, and Len Deighton's espionage thrillers featuring a nameless spy, but christened as Harry Palmer in movie adaptations.

Matt Helm, the agent of a mysterious government spy organization, was the hero of 27 novels; they sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. His code name is Eric, he is a WWII veteran, divorced, and has children. The he full name of his superior, Mac, is Arthur McGillivray Borden, revealed in The Intriguers (1972). Mac's daughter, a liberal minded environmentalist named Martha, doesn't accept Helm's deadly profession, but they have sex anyway. At the end of the novel, Helm shoots an influential politician, who had schemed to get the command of the organizarion.

The Ambushers (1963) was written after the capture of Adolf Eichmann, a nazi officer who was hanged for crimes against the Jews, and Bay of Pigs Invasion, which ended in disaster. Both operations involved much intelligence work, and Hamilton refers to them in the book. In the story Matt Helm is sent to the jungle of Costa Verde – a country "South of the Rio Grande" – equippedwith a hand-built, heavy-duty Mauser with telescopic sights. President Avila has asked the United States for help - he has problems with General Jorge Santos, a revolutionary who had grown himself a beard like Fidel Castro. Helm shoots him and rescues another agent, Sheila, from the guerrilla camp. In the middle of his shooting Helm misses a nazi war criminal, Heinrich von Sachs, who escapes with a nucler missile. For the rest of the story, Helm tries to correct his mistake.

In a small border town Helm meets Catherine Smith alias Vadya, a Russian agent. She plays on her record player, at very loud volume, 'Die Fahne hoch,' a march of Storm Troopers, to make contact with someone in authority. Eventually Helm finds von Sachs, kills him in a duel with machetes and spends a night with Vadya in a motel. Helm tells his boss, Mac, what he thinks of politicians in Washington: "I feel for them, deeply," I said. "It's very inconsiderate of these lousy little Latin countries to go reforming their governments and inconveniencing people, just as if they were sovereign nations or something." In the end he also learns that Colonel Jiminez, whom he gave the rifle in Costa Verde, has killed President Avila.

Like Donald E. Westlake's Parker, Matt Helm is a tough professional, who is meticulous in the details, he is is always calm and never panics. He doesn't hesitate to kill his enemies, though sometimes he just knocks them down. Ethically the central question in the Matt Helm novels is how the hero differs from his likewise ruthless opponents, male and female, or does he follow the orders has been given. Helm says of von Sach: "In a military way, he was a good guy to have around, I guess, if you didn't mind your victories liberally seasoned with atrocity. And that wasn't something that kept Hitler up nights, as I recall." According to Hamilton, his hero is "actually a pretty nice guy." Basically Helm's code of honor is derived from the Old West - he often doesn't draw first: "His deep-set eyes stared at me, daring me to act. His hand moved under his shirt. I shot him accurately through the forehead, and he came down joint like a marionette when you release the strings from above." In Murderer's Row (1962), Helm kills a female agent, when he is supposed to only beat her.

In the 1970s, Hamilton used more dialogue in his Matt Helm stories and his novels grew from some 150 pages over 200 pages long. Right-wing attitudes also became more promient. In The Terrorizers (1977), an Edgar Allan Poe Award Nominee, Helm kills a group of young American left-wing terrorists, but the bloodbath in the end makes him feel "the last man alive in hell." Helm had a rest for five years and then returned with The Revengers (1982), and continued in the 1990s. Helm's career continued to The Damagers (1993).

Ian Fleming died in 1964 and Bond movies developed into bubble-gum entertainment, which crossed ideological boundaries. By the end of 1990, the last remnants of the Berlin Wall had been dismantled, and the Cold War ended, which was a death blow to traditional spy fiction. In Europe John Le Carré and Len Deighton managed to survive with their psychological novels of the shabby officers in the espionage game. Robert Ludlum gained a huge popularity in the U.S. with paranoid thrillers, in which lonely assassins and secret organizations themselves are a threat to world peace.

At the age of 80, Hamilton returned to Sweden, where he spent her last years in an old age home. Hamilton died in Visby, on 20 November, 2006. Prior to his death, he worked on one further Matt Helm adventure, The Dominators. Reportedly drafts and other papers related to the novel are part of an archive currently held by the UCLA Library. (In Finland The Terrorizers was the last Matt Helm story translated into Finnish. Many of the novels were published in the Manhattan series, founded by the Swedish B. Wahlströms Bokförlag AB. The series included such writers as Peter Cheyney, John Baxter, Hartley Howard, Dan J. Marlowe, John D. MacDonald, and Richard S. Prather.) 

For further reading: Encyclopedia of Adventure Fiction by Don D'Ammassa (2009); Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea (1994); Twentieth-Century Western Writers, ed. by Geoff Sadler (1991); 'Donald Hamilton' by Ray Newquist, in Conversation, Vol. IV (1967) - Television series: "Matt Helm" (1975) had little resemblance to the books. Helm (Tony Franciosa) was a spy turned private eye. The series ran 13 x 50m episodes, written by Sam Rolfe, directed by Buzz Kulik. - Note 1: According to Crime & Mystery Writers the film Five Steps to Danger (1957), was based on Hamilton's novel Assignment Murder; some other sources mention it was based on The Steel Mirror. "A girl possessing secret information from her dead scientist brother has a mental breakdown, and is pursued by spies." Note 2: The Swedish writer Jan Guillou created a hero, the count Carl Gustaf Gilbert Hamilton alias agent Coq Rouge, whose adventures became highly polular in the Scandinavian countires.

Selected works:

  • Date with Darkness, 1947
  • The Steel Mirror, 1948
    - film: Five Steps to Danger, 1957, prod. Henry S. Kesler Productions, written and directed by Henry S. Kesler, starring Sterling Hayden, Ruth Roman, Werner Klemperer.
  • Murder Twice Told, 1950
  • Night Walker, 1954 (aka Rough Company; First Hard Case Crime edition: January 2006)
    - film: The Violent Men, 1955, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, dir. by Rudolph Maté, screenplay Harry Kleiner, starring Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Glenn Ford, Brian Keith.
  • Smoky Valley, 1954
    - Tuomittu karjatila (suom. J.V. Ilkka, 1970)
  • Line of Fire, 1955
  • Mad River, 1956
    - Taistelu Mad Riverillä (suom. J.V. Ilkka, 1968)
  • Assignment: Murder, 1956 (aka Assassins Have Starry Eyes)
  • The Big Country, 1957
    - film: 1958, dir. by Willian Wyler, screenplay by James R. Webb, Sy Bartlett, Robert Wilder, adaptation by Jessamyn West, Robert Wyler, music by Jerome Moross, starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Carroll Baker, Burl Ives, Charles Bickford, Alfonso Bedoya, Chuck Connors. - "... The Big Country... has been reported to have been President Dwight D. Eisenhower's favorite film. Eisenhower loved Westerns and musicals and when The Big Country was completed, a print was shipped to Washington, where it was screened in the White House theater four times in a row for an appreciative president." (from The Films of Gregory Peck by John Griggs, 1984)
  • Five Steps to Danger, 1957 (screenplay, with Henry S. Kessler and Turnley Walker)
  • Death of a Citizen, 1960
    - film: The Silencers, 1966 (from Death of a Citizen and The Silencers), prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, Meadway-Claude Productions Company, dir. by Phil Karlson, screenplay Oscar Saul,starring Dean Martin, Stella Stevens. "Adventures of a sexy secret agent. Or, James Bond sent up rotten. Plenty of fun along the way, with in-jokes and characters like Lovey Kravezit, but the plot could have done with more attention, and the sequels (Murders Row, The Ambushers, Wrecking Crew) were uncontrolled disaster areas." (Halliwell's Film Guide, 1988)
    - Kaikki on sallittua (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1964) / Operaatio Kosto (suom. Kari Salminen, 1985)
  • The Wrecking Crew, 1960
    - film: The Wrecking Crew, 1968, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, Meadway-Claude Productions Company, dir. by Phil Karlson, screenplay by William P. McGivern, starring Dean Martin, Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate, Nancy Kwan.
    Pahaakin pahempaa (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1968)
  • The Man from Santa Clara, 1960 (aka The Two Shoot Gun)
    - Verinen kosto (suom. U. Maajärvi, 1968)
  • Texas Fever, 1960
    - Armoton maa (suom. J.V.Ilkka, 1970)
  • The Removers, 1961
    - Kaikin keinoin (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1964)
  • Murderer's Row, 1962
    - film: Murderer's Row, 1966, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, Meadway-Claude Productions Company, dir. by Henry Levin, screenplay Herbert Baker, starring Dean Martin, Ann-Margret, Karl Malden.
    - Minä en tunne armoa (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1964) / Operaatio Puhdistus (suom. Heikki Sarkkila, 1985)
  • The Silencers, 1962
    - Kuoleman lähettiläät (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1964)
  • The Ambushers, 1963
    - film: The Ambushers, 1967, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, Meadway-Claude Productions Company, dir. by Henry Levin, screenplay Herbert Baker, starring Dean Martin, Senta Berger, Janice Rule, James Gregory.
    - Kovat otteet, Matt Helm (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1867) / Operatio väijytys (suom. Kari Salminen, 1985)
  • The Shadowers, 1964
    - Pidä varasi, Matt Helm (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1967)
  • The Ravagers, 1964
    - Tämä vain, Matt Helm (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1968)
  • The Devastators, 1965
    - Raaka peli, Matt Helm (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1968)
  • The Betrayers, 1966
    - Ei armoa, Matt Helm (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi)
  • Iron Men and Silver Stars, 1967 (ed.; 'The Guns of William Longley')
  • The Menacers, 1968
    - Kovaa leikkiä, Matt Helm (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1969)
  • The Interlopers, 1969
    - Vaarallinen erehdys (suom. J.V. Ilkka, 1970)
  • On Guns and Hunting, 1970
  • The Poisoners, 1971
    - Kuolema on vakava (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1972)
  • The Intriguers, 1972
    - Kuoleman lähettiläs Matt Helm (suom. J.V. Ilkka, 1975) / Operaatio valtapeli (suom. Heikki Sarkkila, 1985)
  • The Intimidators, 1974
  • The Terminators, 1975
  • The Retaliators, 1976
    - Palkkamurhaajat (suom. Kari Salminen, 1989)
  • The Terrorizers, 1977
    - Operaatio terroristit (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1985)
  • The Mona Intercept, 1977
  • Cruises with Kathleen. 1980
  • The Revengers, 1982
  • The Annihilators, 1983
  • The Infiltrators, 1984
  • The Detonators, 1985
  • The Vanishers, 1986
  • The Demolishers, 1987
  • 'The Last Gunman,' 1987 (in The Gunfighters, ed. by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg)
  • The Frighteners, 1989
  • The Threateners, 1992
  • The Damagers, 1993

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