Friday, November 20, 2009

Donald Hamilton is the BEST

If you have never read a book by Donald Hamilton, you have cheated yourself out of experiencing one of the best authors ever to put pen to paper.

I’ve been a Hamilton fan for years. I have most of the Helm set, a couple of his westerns, and the one-shot thrillers that set the stage for the Helm series. I reread the first Matt Helm book, Death of a Citizen, recently, and I’m currently working through the Deadfall novella, and Hamilton is amazing.

I don’t know how to describe how he sucks you in, but he does. There’s something hypnotic about his writing. Once you get started, you can’t look away. His characters, especially the heroes, are always well characterized and you feel like you are the hero. They’re drawn so well that you can’t help but identify with them, especially with Matt Helm and his first-person narration. Max Allan Collins says he wrote the Quarry character as somebody who might repel readers, but is compelling anyway, and Matt Helm is the same way. He’s ruthless as a secret agent, cold blooded like James Bond isn’t, yet Helm is totally human, with ideas and points of view that make him more than somebody who fights and *ucks and loves America. He’s as crusty and cranky as I am sometimes, and that’s why I stick with him before, during, and after the fight.

I think Line of Fire is my favorite Hamilton book, or maybe Assassins Have Starry Eyes. It’s impossible to choose. Maybe Assassins, after all, because who can beat those opening pages, which describe a hunter’s morning camp activity followed by his mistaken-identity shooting in a fashion that is just… wow. He really grabs you by the neck like nobody else. What about Hamilton’s westerns? Mad River. The Big Country. Amazing novels, both, involving heroes who go their own way despite the harsh criticisms others around them, and they’re never quite what you expect them to be, until the end when they’re up against a wall and have to grab the six-shooter or the long knife and then get ready for some action that is so subtly written it leaves you a little chilled afterwards. Hamilton’s violence is very matter-of-fact. A guy gets shot, he falls down bleeding. Nobody has ridiculous monologues before the guns go off. Hamilton’s heroes have no patience for that. Get the fight going, get it over with, move on. It feels like a real fight. Almost.

Everything Hamilton writes is worth reading, though I tend to shy away from the Helm novels written after The Terrorizers, which aren’t as good—they’re too long. Hamilton is an example of an author who is at his best when the story was written in 50,000 words or less. Everything is tight and to the point with shock and surprise and plot twists well done. When you double that length, everything suffers a little.

I haven’t finished Deadfall yet, but despite its Cold War plot it’s a winner all the way. It’s too bad that Hamilton left us. Every man’s life has an end, but what Donald Hamilton left us with is a body of writing that is ten times better than half a dozen other writers of his time—and today.


  1. I agree. And I've read Line of Fire at least three times.

  2. "There’s something hypnotic about his writing." So true.