Death of a Citizen

Death of a Citizen



The Pequod Review:

Few crime writers so effectively drop the reader into the action like Donald Hamilton (1916-2006). In Death of a Citizen, the first book in Hamilton’s long-running Matt Helm series, the ex-spy Helm has his comfortable suburban life upended by the appearance of his former colleague at a neighborhood dinner party: 

I was taking a Martini across the room to my wife, who was still chatting with our host, Amos Darrel, the physicist, when the front door of the house opened and a man came in to join the party. He meant nothing to me – but with him was the girl we'd called Tina during the war.

I hadn't seen her for fifteen years, or thought about her for ten, except once in a great while when that time would come back to me like a hazy and violent dream, and I'd wonder how many of those I'd known and worked with had survived it, and what had happened to them afterwards. I'd also wonder, idly, the way you do, if I'd even recognize the girl, should I meet her again.

After all, that particular job had taken only a week. We'd made our touch right on schedule, earning a commendation from Mac, who wasn't in the habit of passing them around like business cards-but it had been a tough assignment, and Mac knew it. He'd given us a week to rest up in London, afterwards, and we'd spent it together. That made a total of two weeks, fifteen years ago. I hadn't known her previously, and I'd never seen her again, until now. If anyone had asked me to guess, I'd have said she was still over in Europe, or just about anywhere in the world except here in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Nevertheless, I didn't have a moment of doubt. She was taller and older, better looking and much better dressed, than the fierce, bloodthirsty, shabby little waif I remembered. There was no longer the gauntness of hunger in her face or the brightness of hate in her eyes, and she probably no longer concealed a paratrooper's knife somewhere in her underwear. She looked as if she'd forgotten how to handle a machine pistol; she looked as if she wouldn't recognize a grenade if she saw one. She certainly no longer wore a capsule of poison taped to the nape of her neck, hidden by her hair. I was sure of this because her hair was quite short now.

Of course this is only the beginning, and as events unfold Matt Helm rather easily slides back into the game, to the point that he does truly shocking and terrible things — so shocking and terrible that Helm’s wife comes to no longer recognize her husband. (I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s 2005 film A History of Violence, which strikes a very similar tone.) While the story has a couple of implausible plot twists, this is an uncommonly strong spy novel, full of realistic scenes and authentic characters.