The worst thing that ever happened to Matt Helm was Hollywood. In typical Hollywood fashion, screenwriters of the cultural elite took a character that was a real man's hero and turned him into an alcoholic, womanizing buffoon in the person of Dean Martin. The affront was only made worse when, in 1975 TV script, the writers decided that Helm should be a roguish private eye, personified by Tony Franciosa. So forget every Matt Helm movie or TV show you've ever seen--or heard of for that matter. If you like unceasing action/adventure with a little mystery thrown in, Donald Hamilton's series is the one for you.
The 24-book series was written over a 27 year period. It started with Death of a Citizen, published in 1960 and ended with The Demolishers in 1987. The series follows the adventures and assignations of one Matt Helm (code name Eric) who had been a "liquidator" for the U.S. government during WWII.
The series begins with his accidental involuntary re-activation as a secret agent, when an old opponent still working for a foreign government stumbles upon him at a party in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Not believing that he has really "retired" from his previous line of work, she sets in motion a chain of events that result in the loss of his marriage, family and the quiet photographer's life that he had come to know and love. Once he has lost it all, he figures all he has left is to return to his former life of murder and mayhem.
So Helm goes back to work for his old boss at the secret, unacknowledged government agency that handles all the untidy messes left behind by the college boys of the CIA, FBI or other bleeding-heart liberal bureaucratic agencies of the government. His group takes care of potentially embarrassing situations that the government can't afford to let become public but that the more well-known agencies are too publicity-sensitive to handle.
This makes for many good adventure opportunities. Not only does it mean foreign governments, agents and just all-around bad guys to take care of, but there are also good inter-agency battles as brown-nosers here at home battle for political clout. All too familiar from today's governmental shenanigans.
The series has many good elements. It's well-written. There is plenty of action from the first page to the last sentence. There is travel to exotic locales as well as trouble here at home to handle.
Matt Helm doesn't rely on fanciful cars or gadgets (like another well- known secret agent from across the big pond). He uses guns, knives and his wits to get him into and out of most any situation. And there is violence, lots of it, but tastefully handled. As long as you don't mind a little gratuitous torture now and then.
And there are the drawbacks. Even though Helm was obviously a young man in the 1940s, twenty years later age has not touched him.
He still takes a beating like a person half his age and recuperates by the next book. The advancing years have not affected his eyesight, reflexes or endurance.
My biggest complaint lies with the female characters.
They are all pretty darn stereotyped. They all use sex to try and trick him. Although he never falls for it, he sure doesn't turn down the favors offered. And (at least through book #15, The Intimidators) they all call him "Darling", no matter what nationality they are: be it Spanish, Russian or Swedish. (Reviewer's note: I am now more than halfway through book #16, The Terminators, and the woman has pulled the same old sex-for-trust routine but has yet to use the word "darling", although there's still time left for that old favorite to appear. Maybe the trend does change for the next seven books.) I attribute this one weakness to a different generational perspective, not to intentional female-bashing on the part of the author.
Overall, if you are looking for a good action-packed story, guaranteed to be a quick read and can overlook the few weaknesses, Matt Helm's the man for you.