Friday 25 November 2011

Matt Helm in Hardcover: The Menacers (Matt Helm #11) by Donald Hamilton (Hodder & Stoughton First Edition, 1968)

For this final post on the Matt Helm spy novels by Donald Hamilton – final for now, anyway; I should have a further Matt Helm post quite soon, and a very exciting one at that – I have an unusual edition of one of Hamilton's Helm novels, the atypical format of which makes it unique among the twenty-seven books in the series...

As I mentioned in the previous post, thus far all of the Matt Helm books I've been showcasing have been paperbacks – reason being, in the US and the UK pretty much every book in the series was published both first and exclusively in paperback. The paperback format was Hamilton's natural home, as it was for other softcover kings like Peter Rabe and Jim Thompson – which isn't to say that, also like Rabe and Thompson, Hamilton didn't make it into hardback on occasion. A number of Hamilton's pre-Matt Helm novels were initially published in hardback, among them Date with Darkness (Rinehart, US, 1947), The Steel Mirror (Rinehart, US, 1948), Rough Company (Wingate, UK, 1954) and The Big Country (Wingate, UK, 1958).

Out of all the Matt Helm novels, though, only one was ever published under hard covers:

This is the UK hardback first edition of The Menacers, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1968 – also published in paperback in the States that same year by Gold Medal – under a dustjacket designed by Michael Dempsey, others of whose jackets adorn my firsts of Patricia Highsmith's The Tremor of Forgery (one of may favourite novels of all time) and Richard Stark's Alan Grofield novel The Damsel. The eleventh Matt Helm novel, it sees Helm sent to Mexico (again) to investigate, of all things, a UFO sighting (see the Unofficial Matt Helm site for more).

I found this copy very recently, at the Paperback & Pulp Bookfair in London – which, I guess, is something of an oxymoron, since this edition of The Menacers clearly isn't a paperback (or a pulp). But there were a few hardbacks on sale at the fair (perhaps they were there just for me...), all of them pretty rare, and I came away with some real crackers, including this. There's only one other copy of this edition on AbeBooks from a UK-based seller at present, a tatty-sounding ex-library affair, and the remainder of the ten copies listed are dotted around the globe. My one set me back the princely sum of £4.50, which, considering I'd have to pay at least thirty quid including shipping for a comparable copy – and even though the jacket's a little edge-worn – was a bit of a bargain.

The front cover trumpets the fact that it's Matt Helm's first appearance in hardback (see – it's not just me who cares about these things)... but it was also to be his last. Presumably The Menacers didn't sell well enough for Hodder to persist with the series, although UK paperback publisher Coronet would continue to issue the Helms for years yet. Consequently, it's an intriguing curio for collectors.

I was going to sign off yesterday's Matt Helm post with a great quote I found from Donald Hamilton in my copy of Donald McCormick and Katy Fletcher's Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide (1990), but unfortunately Blogger deleted the last part of that post, and I had to reconstitute it sans quote. So let's round off all three of my Matt Helm posts with it instead. Here's Hamilton's own admirable analysis of the philosophical principle behind his novels:

"Entertainment is what it's all about. Messages go by Western Union."

Looking ahead, and I haven't quite decided which spy fiction series I'll be featuring next in this series of posts on spy series, nor indeed what I'll be blogging about next over on The Violent World of Parker. I've all manner of options open to me, so when I eventually make my decision, it'll be a nice surprise for us all...

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...

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Death of a Citizen (Matt Helm #1) by Donald Hamilton: a Review (Coronet Hodder Fawcett, 1966)

After a Violent World of Parker cross-post review of Richard Stark's Lemons Never Lie, it's back to the spy fiction series. And this next espionage series I'll be looking at – in what will likely be three posts – stars an initially reluctant secret agent who's brought out of retirement when his old life impacts his new...

Donald Hamilton's Death of a Citizen was first published in paperback in the States by Gold Medal in 1960, although the edition seen above is the UK Coronet paperback from 1966, published, as was often the case with Coronet, to tie in to the novel's – also 1966 – movie adaptation. Death of a Citizen was far from Hamilton's first novel – he'd had around eight or so published prior to this one, a mixture of espionage, crime and suspense works, plus a handful Westerns, among them The Big Country (1958), which begat a famous film – but it was the first to feature the protagonist who would come to define him in most people's eyes: Matt Helm.

When we initially meet Helm in Death of a Citizen, he's bringing his wife, Beth, a Martini at a suburban Santa Fe cocktail party thrown by their friends Amos and Fran Darrel. A man and a woman enter the house; the man Helm doesn't know, but the woman is Tina, a fellow World War II veteran (and occasional lover) whom Helm hasn't seen since the end of the conflict. During the war he and Tina worked for Mac, the head of a shadowy government espionage agency, carrying out a succession of deadly assignments, many involving assassination (Helm's codename, rather incongruously, was "Eric"). Their meeting again all these years later could, Helm reasons, be a coincidence... until, that is, Tina brushes her hair back from her ear – a signal to Helm, meaning: "I'll get in touch with you later. Stand by."

All of this is narrated by Helm, who we learn has left his violent wartime past behind him and settled into a comfortable middle-class way of life with a nice house, three kids, a loving wife and a career writing Western novels (shades of Hamilton himself there). But when, after leaving the party, Helm finds a body in his studio bathroom out back of his house, his cosy existence is shattered, and he heads out on the road with Tina in order to draw fire from Amos Darrel, who, as a noted physicist, has seemingly become the target of red agents.

The juxtaposition of a standard American '60s suburbia with a savage form of counter-intelligence in Death of a Citizen is certainly jarring, and intentionally so. At the novel's outset, Matt Helm comes across as a fairly typical married white male; heading into middle-age – with attendant middle-aged spread – he glibly relates his passion for fishing and his postwar career as a photographer. But as Helm is drawn deeper into the kind of lethal game of espionage he thought he was finished with, his old instincts gradually re-emerge, along with an unexpected taste for danger. Helm begins to relish the excitement Tina's arrival has brought, and consequently does some highly questionable things.

That said, the shift from the lighter, more easygoing aspects of the story – especially at the start – to its much darker latter stages is creeping and steady rather than sudden and swift. Hamilton effectively conveys Helm's conflicted response to his situation – his loosening grip on his everyman, family-man status versus his awakening homicidal urges and appetite for peril. And of course, this being a spy thriller, nothing is quite what it seems. Two-thirds of the way into the novel there's a brilliant, jolting volte-face, leading to the kidnapping of Helm's two-year-old daughter; thereafter, Helm is set on a path of vengeance, from which there's no turning back.

Matt Helm would go on to star in a further twenty-six adventures over the next thirty or so years – not to mention a series of films and a TV show. In this post I've showcased two Coronet editions of the debut Helm outing – the aforementioned 1966 printing, and the 1968 second impression. But Coronet wasn't the first British publisher to issue the Helms, and in the next post, I'll be examining the first UK editions of the next two Matt Helm novels – and the first US edition of the fourth one – as well as ruminating on some other aspects of Hamilton's career and Helm's publishing history.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

The Grofield Files: Lemons Never Lie (1971) by Richard Stark; a Review

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

After a slightly-longer-than-anticipated gap following my re-posting on The Violent World of Parker the other week of my three previous reviews of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker spin-off Alan Grofield novels – The Damsel (1967), The Dame (1969) and The Blackbird (also 1969) – here, finally, are my thoughts on the fourth (and final) Grofield solo outing, Lemons Never Lie (an alternative view of which you can, of course, read on TVWoP supremo Trent's Lemons Never Lie dedicated page). And of all the Grofield books, this one is the closest in tone, structure and plot to the Parker novels – although whether that's a good or bad thing is, I think, open to debate.

Divided into five titled parts – "Las Vegas", "Mead Grove, Indiana", "St. Louis", "Moving" and "Monequois, New York" – as opposed to (most of) the Parker novels' untitled four-part structure, Lemons Never Lie opens with Grofield – actor, summer stock theatre owner and occasional thief – in Las Vegas to participate in a heist planned by an amateur named Andrew Myers. Unfortunately, the job looks to be potentially a disastrous massacre, so Grofield and another heister, Dan Leach, bow out. Leach, a seasoned gambler, nets a cool twelve grand on a craps table, but when Grofield returns to his motel room before leaving Las Vegas, he's ambushed by two shotgun-wielding masked men looking for Leach's winnings. Knocked unconscious, Grofield wakes to find Leach looming over him. Turns out the masked men subsequently tracked down Leach and took his cash, and it doesn't take much for Grofield and Leach to work out that their assailants were Myers and an associate of his.

From here on out, Grofield's, Leach's and Myers's lives become increasingly entangled, their fates inextricably intertwined; Grofield's involvement with Leach and especially Myers leads to him losing his takings from a later score, impacts on his home life in a horrific manner, and eventually sets him off on a manhunt, as the double-crosses come thick and fast and the bodies start to pile up.

Now, if all that sounds a bit like a late-1960s/early-1970s Parker thriller – The Sour Lemon Score maybe, or Plunder Squad – that's because, essentially, it is. Previously, Westlake/Stark seemed intent on trying Grofield out in other, non-crime roles in his solo outings – a reluctant adventurer in The Damsel; a locked-room murder mystery detective in The Dame; a recalcitrant secret agent in The Blackbird. That those personae largely proved an ill fit for Grofield is why each of those novels ultimately fell down, but they were at least intriguing attempts at shoehorning him into different genres. With Lemons Never Lie, both Westlake and Grofield are back on much more familiar territory. And that, for me, is why it's a less interesting effort than its predecessors.

Don't get me wrong: taken simply as crime novel, it's a damn fine piece of writing. It's violent, surprising, suitably twisty-turny, and populated by a cast of reprobates cut straight from the Parker template. But that's the problem: it is, at root, a Parker thriller in all but name, with Grofield standing in for his emotionless, taciturn associate. Noble failures the three previous Grofield solo outings may have been, but they did at least attempt to do something different with the character, rather than just plonking him in a Parker story – as is the case here.

Of course, Grofield is no Parker: while he does set out on a path of vengeance in the latter stages of the novel, murder on his mind, it doesn't come as a huge surprise that, come the final bloodbath, he's somewhat sidelined. Whereas one would expect to find Parker at the close of a novel such as this with his big, veiny hands around his nemesis's throat, it's tough to buy Grofield as a cold-blooded killing machine, even given the iniquities inflicted on his wife back in Indiana. Grofield doesn't "own" the story in the way that Parker does his. One feels Parker's presence on every page of a Parker novel, driving the story even when he's offstage. Grofield, by his affable nature, lacks that capacity, at least as regards this type of tale.

And that, ultimately, is what Lemons Never Lie shows clearest: that Grofield is a supporting player. He works best either as a semi-comedic foil for Parker's humourless countenance or as a solid back-up man, competent and reliable during a heist. It's perhaps telling that Lemons Never Lie would prove to be Grofield's final solo outing; possibly Westlake realised that, after trying Grofield out in a variety of roles before depositing him in a Parker-style thriller, Grofield really couldn't cut it as a leading man. And it's also worth noting that Grofield had become slightly superfluous by this point anyway; Westlake was already underway on another crime series, one featuring a lead not a million miles away from Grofield: John Dortmunder.

All that said, taken on its own merits, Lemons Never Lie is, I think, the best of the four Alan Grofield novels, although I do still harbour a fondness for the third one, The Blackbird. However, although Lemons Never Lie was Grofield's last solo stand, it wasn't his final appearance full stop. He had one more fairly major role to play, in the novel that would cap the initial run of Parkers: 1974's Butcher's Moon. And I'll be blogging about that book before too long...

Before that, though, it's back to the spy fiction series here on Existential Ennui, with a review of the first instalment in a long-running American series starring a man named Matt Helm...