A lot as it turns out. Not so long ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about Westerns, and he asked if I’d read any novels by Donald Hamilton. I said I hadn’t, and I really needed to read some of the Matt Helm novels, but the campy Dean Martin movies of the 1960s had kind of put me off. Don’t get me wrong the movies were fun, but a little over the top for me. Turns out I was guilty, like a lot of people, of judging a book by its movie.
The Matt Helm novels couldn’t be more different from the Dean Martin movies, and my friend proved that point. He sent me the first book in the series, Death of a Citizen. I laid it on my to-read pile, and finally got around to it recently. I’m glad I did. Now I want to read the rest of the series.
The book was published in 1960 (the year I was born), and it holds up really well. Matt Helm was a spy in World War II, and has come back to civilization, tamed down, married, has a daughter and a cat—and get this—is a writer of Western novels. There’s some great writing advice when a young student asks Matt to read one of her short stories that is still true, (“It doesn’t matter what I think—send it out”), and there seems to be a knowing nod that Westerns are the least respected of the genres, but Mr. Helm is not one to care much about what the literary snobs think. Good for him. Donald Hamilton also wrote Westerns. Imagine that?
I was seriously surprised by the twists and turns this novel took, and how well it was written. Honestly, it inspired me. If you haven’t read this book and like early Cold War spy novels (comparable to the FX series, The Americans), then check it out. You’ll be glad you did.
Lesson learned: Never judge a book by its movie.
And a nod of thanks to my friend who sent me the book… It was a pretty cool gift. But I think he knew that when he sent it.