Thursday 24 November 2011

The Spy Novels of Donald Hamilton: The Wrecking Crew (Matt Helm #2), The Removers (Matt Helm #3) and The Silencers (Matt Helm #4), and Collecting Hamilton and Helm

Having reviewed the debut novel in Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series of spy thrillers, 1960's Death of a Citizen, in this second of three Helm-centric posts I thought I'd showcase some of the other Hamilton/Helm books I've acquired recently, in the process examining – in my traditionally tedious and prolix fashion – the publishing history of Hamilton's most famous creation. And let's begin with this:

Which is not, despite appearances to the contrary (for Hamilton/Helm aficionados, that is), the 1960 US Fawcett/Gold Medal paperback first edition/first printing of the second Matt Helm novel, The Wrecking Crew. No indeed. Because although it's virtually identical to the American version, it is, in fact, the 1961 UK paperback first edition, published by Frederick Muller in 1961. Muller frequently re-published Gold Medal paperbacks around this period – witness the Muller editions of Peter Rabe's Daniel Port crime thrillers in this post – their only changes being the replacement of the American price on the front cover with a British one, and a few lines on the copyright page:

So far as I've been able to establish, this was the first Matt Helm novel to be published in the UK. To my knowledge, the debut Helm, Death of a Citizen, didn't make it into print in Britain until Coronet/Hodder Fawcett published it in 1966, making The Wrecking Crew Helm's UK debut. (Muller, it seems, adopted a somewhat scattershot approach to the Gold Medal books they picked up for British publication, with no rhyme or reason as to which ones they chose.) Consequently, British readers must have been a bit perplexed in 1961 to be reading a sequel to a novel that hadn't actually appeared yet – there being a certain amount of continuity between the Matt Helm books. (Also consequently, all four Coronet printings of Death of a Citizen have become quite scarce in this country.)

(UPDATE 20/12/11: Existential Ennui reader Mark Martinez left a comment – see bottom of this post – letting me know that Muller did, in fact, publish Death of a Citizen, so the above is, in effect, nonsense. Mark has a great work-in-progress Donald Hamilton cover gallery, which can be found right here.) 

That's the 1966 and 1968 first and second printings of the Coronet edition of Death of a Citizen, there. Once Coronet started publishing the Helm novels, however, they issued all of them – including reissues of the scant few Muller had published – up to and including the seventeenth book in the series, 1976's The Retaliators (actually published in 1979 by Coronet in the UK – British publication commonly lagging behind American). Thereafter, though, no other British publisher picked up the rights, so while in the US, Fawcett/Gold Medal would go on to publish a further ten Matt Helm novels, in the UK, the series effectively ended with The Retaliators, making the latter books very hard to come by over here. Mind you, since all of the Helm novels are now out of print in the US as well (at least, for now...), those final ten books are in short supply on t'other side of the pond, too.

There's a small number of the various Coronet printings of The Wrecking Crew available from British sellers on the likes of AbeBooks at the moment, but this Muller edition is very scarce; I can't see any for sale online at present. The back cover reveals a little about the story – note also that blurb from Edward S. Aarons; that's a name that'll be cropping up again on Existential Ennui before too long – which sees a fully reactivated Helm sent to Sweden to off an enemy agent, but if you want to delve deeper into the tale I can heartily recommend the Unofficial Matt Helm website, which has dedicated pages for all twenty-seven novels, including this one, replete with fun facts about each instalment. Or, y'know, there's always Wikipedia.

One thing I can't do is tell you for certain who painted the cover of the Muller edition – which is the same as the original US edition, remember – although I suspect it might be the same artist as painted the cover of the third Matt Helm book I'll be showing in this already lengthy – and possibly destined to be gargantuan – post. (I'll also be exploring how the Gold Medal covers of the Helms changed when I get to that third book, so bear with me, cover art fans.) I do, however, know who painted the cover of this next book:

The 1962 Frederick Muller first British paperback edition (and first printing) of the third Matt Helm thriller, The Removers, originally published in paperback by Gold Medal in the States in 1961. As with The Wrecking Crew, the British cover is almost identical to the American one, and was painted (in both cases, obviously) by Barye Phillips (or possibly Philips, one "l"; opinions on the spelling of his surname differ, and he only ever signed his first name, so it's difficult to check), one of the more expressive and inventive artists in the Gold Medal stable. I blogged about Phil(l)ips in this post on Peter Rabe's The Box in January of this year, so go read that for more on the artist.

The story this time sees Helm – who's now been back working for Mac, his boss in the unnamed government counter-espionage unit, for a year – responding to a request for help from his ex-wife and in the process getting mixed up with – you guessed it – an enemy agent; head over to the Unofficial Matt Helm site for more details. The Muller edition of The Removers is slightly more readily available than The Wrecking Crew – but only slightly: there are currently just two copies on AbeBooks, one in the UK and the other in Australia.

Lastly, we have this:

Which, for a change, isn't the British first edition. Instead it's the American first edition/first printing of the fourth Matt Helm thriller, The Silencers, published by Gold Medal in paperback in February 1962. This particular – and particularly lovely – copy was originally owned A-Team writer and producer Frank Lupo, from whose impressive collection I also obtained – via Richard Thornton Books – US first editions of Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder novels Drowned Hopes and What's the Worst That Could Happen? (the latter a signed first). Once again the Unofficial Matt Helm site has a good overview of The Silencers' story – which sees Helm attempting to extract an agent from Mexico – while the cover art on the Gold Medal first is by Bill Johnson, another Gold Medal mainstay who, as I say, I think painted The Wrecking Crew cover as well.

Coronet eventually issued The Silencers in the UK in 1966, but I don't believe Frederick Muller published this one in the UK at all – I can't see any trace of a Muller edition online. However, one thing you will notice if you search for US Gold Medal editions of The Silencers – or indeed of any of the first five Matt Helm novels – on Amazon or AbeBooks, is that most of the covers displayed by booksellers differ from the Bill Johnson one seen above. That's because having issued the initial five Matt Helm novels with covers that were typical of Gold Medals of the era but otherwise not identifiable as being part of a particular series, when the publisher reached the sixth book, 1963's The Ambushers, they finally settled on a style that would see them through the subsequent seven books, up to 1969's The Interlopers: a line drawing head shot of Helm in the top right-hand corner, and the book's title done as a kind of rubber-stamp. And once they'd adopted that style, Gold Medal then went back and reprinted the initial five Helms with covers in the same style, to bring them into line:

I gather the cover art on all of these is by John McDermott, about whom I know little other than he signed his work "MCD".

I'm just about ready to draw a line under this unintentionally mammoth post now (sighs of relief all round...), but a few points before we move on: if you'd like to learn more about Matt Helm, or indeed Donald Hamilton, you could do a lot worse than this Mystery*File essay by Doug Bassett on Helm (and John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels); this Mystery*File essay by John Fraser on Hamilton; and this overview of Hamilton's life and career. As is often the case with spy fiction writers, it was actually thanks to spy novelist (and friend of Existential Ennui) Jeremy Duns that I became aware of Donald Hamilton; Jeremy, who's a big fan of the Matt Helm books, had the opportunity to talk to Hamilton on the telephone a few years before the author's death in 2006, and you can read the results in this post on Jeremy's blog (which also details the "lost" twenty-eighth Helm novel, The Dominators).

You may have noticed that I've been showcasing paperback first editions in this post, rather than, as is the norm on Existential Ennui, hardback first editions. The reason for that is, during the thirty-plus years the twenty-seven Helm novels were being published, only one ever made it into hardback in the English language. So, for my third and final Hamilton/Helm post, I'll be revealing which one that was...

1 comment:

  1. There is a Muller edition of Death of a Citizen. See the slideshow at