Matt Helm is a solid citizen. He is married with three children. He makes a living writing popular novels (western’s mostly), and lives with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His picture perfect American dream is mangled when Tina, an operative he briefly worked with in Europe during World War II, walks through the front entrance of a cocktail party. She passes an old signal to Matt—“I’ll get in touch with you later. Stand by”—and in an instant (and without much fuss) Matt’s idyllic existence shatters.
Death of a Citizen is the first (of 27) Matt Helm novels, and it is absolutely terrific. In the opening sequence Helm is an everyman; likable and stable with a pretty wife and a family, but it only takes a few hours for his old habits to take over. It starts with a dead woman in his writing room, and then a confrontation with Tina who, after some convincing from Matt, weaves a fantastic story about a Soviet agent hunting a nuclear scientist working for the Atomic Energy Commission at Los Alamos.
The action is convincing, the prose is smooth and cool—
“Suddenly I was feeling fine. You can stay tense only so long. I was over the hump. I was driving ten miles out of the way, with a corpse in the bed of the truck, just to take a worthless alley cat home.”
And the plot is as tight and smooth as a guy wire. There is more than the usual backstory about Helm’s World War II exploits, and post war life, but it is done without interrupting the forward momentum of the plot. Even better, Mac—the leader of the “organization” Matt worked for, and is once again working for—makes an appearance in the field, and Helm’s doubt and operational rust give him an element of believability.
Death of a Citizen is the first of the Matt Helm novels, but it is as convincing, urgent, and well written as any. In a sense it is the primer. It introduces Helm, the organization, and everything it is, which is essentially a kind of counter intelligence wet work squad. It is the cold war on a small field. The best part, the citizen who lost his life (from the title) is Helm himself, and what he gains is a certain freedom, his code name Eric, and an outlet for his violent nature.
Death of a Citizen was originally published by Gold Medal in 1960, and it was recently reissued as a paperback by Titan Books.