Tuesday, December 01, 2015

MURDERERS' ROW by Donald Hamilton

Murderers’ Row is the fifth Matt Helm novel.  It was originally published by Gold Medal in 1962, and it is the best of the ten or so Matt Helm titles I’ve read.  Helm is anxious for a long awaited vacation to visit a new lady friend in Texas when Mac calls him on assignment; Mac is the chief of the counter spy agency referred to as “the organization”.  He is directed to help an agent with her bone fides, and play her second chair, to infiltrate a Soviet ring that kidnapped an American scientist.  Her orders.  Extract the scientist, or close his eyes permanently.

Helm’s cover is a low level mob enforcer named Jimmy (the Lash) Petroni.  His mission: “plausibly,” and effectively beat up the female agent tasked with infiltrating the Soviet kidnap ring to buttress her cover as a breaking down alcoholic agent.  Helm reluctantly accepts the task, but everything goes wrong in short order.  The female agent dies at Helm’s hand.  Helm is arrested for murder by the local police, and Mac wants him back in Washington with no further action. 
Murderers’ Row is to thrillers as the 100 yard dash is to track and field; fast, hard, and entertaining as hell.  The opening sequences deftly alternate between Helm’s botched assignment and Mac’s orders.  The tone of the narrative in the opening scenes is clinical and professional; very much like a briefing of events without emotion or introspection.  When the female agent dies at his hands, he explains:

“It wasn’t the worst moment of my life.  After all, I’ve been responsible for the deaths of people I knew and liked: it happens in the business.”
But as the novel moves forward the narrative wobbles from the clinical to the personal.  Helm begins to doubt his motives and even, at least regarding the death of his fellow agent, his reality.   His concern: his “hand slipped” during the assault intentionally rather than accidently, which brings to mind a comment Mac made about the psychology of men who kill for a living —

“After a while…their judgment becomes impaired, since human life has ceased to have much value for them.”
Helm doesn’t spend more than a few passages worrying it, but he spends just enough time to give him credibility with the reader.  A credibility that removes him from the classless sociopath to a workman doing a dirty, nasty, but very necessary job. 

Murderers’ Row has everything the Matt Helm novels are known for—action, a vivid cast of characters, a tight and lean plot, and a touch of humor.  As an example of the humor, in the opening scenes Mac explains why Helm needs to perform the assault rather than a young agent previously assigned—
“Not one of them would kill a fly, I sometimes think, to save an entire nation from dying of yellow fever.”
Helm responds—“‘Yes, sir’….’Yellow fever isn’t carried by flies, sir.  It’s transmitted by mosquitoes.’”        
Mac—“‘Indeed?’...‘That’s very interesting.  I could have made it an order, but the young fool…’”
The best part, if you read closely Mr Hamilton always explains the title, which is usually far from intuitive.  In this case, “murderers’ row” is a euphemism for the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D. C.  

Murderers’ Row was recently republished in mass market by Titan Books.  Purchase a copy at Amazon.

This review originally went live November 22, 2013 and since there has been some talk about the Matt Helm novels on a few other blogs I decided it was a good time to kick some new life into this one.


Barry Ergang said...

I've read all but two or three of the Matt Helm novels. As I mentioned in a review of The Vanishers (http://tinyurl.com/hldka2z), the early ones were terrific fast-paced thrillers. The later ones like The Vanishers weren't as good because they were much longer and often felt padded.

Ben Boulden said...

I haven't read any of the bigger Matt Helm novels. I have a few on my bookshelves, but so far they haven't hit my to be read pile.

Ben Boulden said...

Barry. BTW, Great review. Thanks for sharing the link.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Ben, I liked your description of Matt Helm's thrillers. I will be looking for Donald Hamilton's novels, not having read any of them.