Clandestine work in realistic frame
What can we expect of spy fiction? Should it be all glamour – parties, fast cars, women (or let’s say partners), casinos, over-the-top and plentiful...
What can we expect of spy fiction? Should it be all glamour – parties, fast cars, women (or let’s say partners), casinos, over-the-top and plentiful action in exotic locations with clearly marked good and bad sides, as in James Bond films? Or should it be the gritty, unromanticised variant – with less-than-perfect protagonists, moral ambiguity, power politics and devious mind games, as in the John Le Carres novels?
Both approaches have their supporters, but the latter, darker and edgier approach, is more realistic. The James Bond novels, not the films, are also a good example. But like most human endeavours, there can be examples combining the best of both – like this enduring, but unfortunately not very well-known, example.
American author Donald Bengtsson Hamilton's long-running Matt Helm series (1960-93) combines intricate plotting and multiple layers of deception, with generous but believable servings of action (including sex), varied settings and colourful characters.
Matthew L 'Matt' Helm (code name Eric) is a protagonist who doesn't pretend to be a superhero, or depend on a range of dazzling gizmos, and while fully professional and proficient in armed and unarmed combat, can allow himself to be fooled or betrayed (especially by women) or beaten up in the pursuit of his goal. He is technically not a spy or secret agent, but rather a counter-agent, tasked with dealing with enemy agents at home or abroad – in a permanent manner.
Like his creator Hamilton (1916-2006), Helm is of Swedish origin, lives in Santa Fe (New Mexico) and saw action during World War II. However, while Hamilton was in the Navy Reserve, our hero worked with a clandestine team targeting top German officers in Europe. He debuts in ‘Death of a Citizen’ (1960).
Helm, now working as a photojournalist in his hometown since the war, is happily married and has three children. However, at a party, he runs into a former colleague, a woman, who seeks his help, telling him that their former boss Mac (as they called him) has sold out and seeks his support. However, after some time, he runs into Mac and is told the opposite. Whom does he believe and who has kidnapped his toddler to persuade him?
Helm does recover his child, but the way he does it drives his wife away. He has no option but to return to his old life in Mac's small but effective agency – hence the title. In the next 26 books, from ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (1960) to ‘The Damagers’ (1993) – all told in first person in Helm's sardonic and detached tone – he tackles Nazi fugitives to Soviet and Chinese agents, terrorists (both homegrown and Arab), and several megalomaniacs (from mafia to politicians), as well as ambitious service rivals trying to take over their agency or cripple it by eliminating its most experienced operative – him.
While most of the books are set across the US – from the northwest coast to the Florida Keys and from Chesapeake Bay to Hawaii – Helm frequently operates in Mexico and the (fictional) South American country of Costa Verde, as well as Canada, Sweden, Britain, Norway, and the Caribbean.
Some the motifs the series displays are necessary to appreciate the books. First of all, Helm's agency is a small no-frills outfit and, apart from their weaponry, there are no fancy cars or gadgets. Secondly, there is an overwhelming focus on the professional approach – the assigned mission is predominant, no matter what else happens – injured comrades can take care of themselves, threats to colleagues or others will be ignored and it is better that agents don't form liaisons for the other's sakes.
Helm himself is a jaded but competent operative – with a sardonic opinions on everything, even women wearing trousers. While the last is wasted on his boss, who seems unaware of sarcasm directed at him but uses it effectively himself, it works mostly well on the women he works with/encounters in his missions.
On a meta level, Hamilton not only imbues his stories with believable plots, but his depiction of the hard, thankless life, the craft and system of espionage professionals is also most realistic.
There is much more to be discovered in the books – available online – but read them with caution. Should you get even a little influenced, you are liable to learn how only interests – not relations – endure, today's enemies can be tomorrow's friends (and vice versa), and find yourself analysing actions, intentions and words of all those around you – and even become somewhat paranoid. This is how espionage is related to real life.