GOLD MEDAL IN THE ‘90s: ‘THE THREATENERS’ BY DONALD HAMILTON (1992)
The Matt Helm series ended in 1993 with “The Damagers,” at least in terms of published works by Donald Hamilton. There’s said to be an unpublished manuscript, “The Dominators.” You’re not going to find fugitive PDFs of that one on Google (I looked), and at that, “The Damagers” isn’t much more accessible unless you’re a completist with a generous budget; copies are relatively expensive from used-book dealers. However, you can find the next-to-final published installment, “The Threateners” from September 1992, at reasonable prices.
In this final decade of Fawcett Gold Medal Books, Hamilton was one of the last of the old-timers still in the stable, along with Marvin Albert at the tag end of his late-career “Stone Angel” series and John D. MacDonald simply in reprint form. The label itself, by then owned by Ballantine Books, in turn a division of Random House, was nearly moribund. I don’t think it survived into the new millennium, in any form, to celebrate a 50th anniversary in 2000, but I could be wrong.
At 293 pages, “The Threateners” is twice the length of the earliest, leanest Matt Helm novels. The cover art is generic for ‘90s-era men’s fiction: a bullet-riddled outline of South America, with a gat and crosshairs superimposed. Matt Helm’s name is mentioned in the cover blurb, but there’s no reference to the book being part of a series, although the fact is acknowledged inside with a full listing of all 25 previous titles.
With most of the earlier books out of print by then, maybe the marketing department had no financial incentive to promote “The Threateners” as “#26 in the series,” as it once would have. That sad decline from the series’ golden days in the 1960s, and the simple but touching dedication at the front of the book (“In memory of Kathleen Hamilton, 1915-1989”), cast a melancholy shadow over the novel for those of us who came to Hamilton and Helm in their prime.
By 1992, with Soviet and Red Chinese conspiracies no longer an international menace, Helm’s missions had begun to center on other threats to world peace such as freelance terrorists and rogue states. In “The Threateners,” it’s a Colombian drug kingpin, Gregorio Vasquez, “El Viejo.” A Peruvian journalist under U.S. protection is investigating Vasquez’s plan to “destroy the U.S. by flooding the country with drugs at bargain prices that no one can resist.” Vasquez has put a million-dollar bounty on the journalist’s head to keep the writer from publishing his expose. Hamilton’s inspiration for this plot element in then-recent, real-life events is duly noted when one character comments, “The Latins obviously got the idea from the Rushdie case.”
Agent Eric is skeptical that the plot to flood the States with cheap coke, even if executed, would wreak the intended havoc: “there’s a liquor store on every corner now, and we aren’t all running around drunk.” Nevertheless, events set him on a collision course with El Viejo. The journalist is murdered by the kingpin’s hit men, and the journalist’s U.S.-born widow travels to South America to retrieve the dead man’s completed but unpublished book, stored on a series of encrypted diskettes in five different cities (this feature now dates the book as quaintly as the Cold War backdrop dates the 1960s novels). Helm is assigned to tag along to protect her. El Viejo’s killer compañeros aren’t his only worry; a band of radical environmentalists also covets the reward that the diskettes will bring from the kingpin, and a team of rival U.S. agents, drug enforcement variety, intends to stake its own claim. Fellow Fed or not, Helm is just an obstacle to move out of the way or trample under, as circumstances dictate.
Helm’s assignment doesn’t get under way until page 83. That’s where Hamilton probably would have started the novel in the early ‘60s, when the books ran 176 pages at most, and my favorites, “Death of a Citizen” (1960) and “Murderers’ Row” (1962), clocked in at 142 pages and 144 pages, respectively. The backstory would have been filled in with a few expository paragraphs as Matt’s boss Mac handed him his traveling orders.
If you’re a Helm fan no matter whether the novel runs 144 pages or 293 as “The Threateners” does, then the difference isn’t a big deal. You might argue that it’s unfair to judge Hamilton on page count, since he was writing to the publisher’s specs. In earlier days, shorter books were the preferred GM format. Later, as cover prices rose and the page counts increased so that dollar-conscious readers wouldn’t feel stiffed, going longer was the new norm for the market. From that perspective, you could make a case that my preference for the shorter novels is mostly a matter of taste, influenced by nostalgia, since those were the ones that I found on the spinner racks at the impressionable age of 16. I’m not convinced that’s true, but I’ll grant you the argument.
You might also contend that, plot-wise, the first 82 pages of “The Threateners” serve a useful dramatic function by giving us a longer look under Helm’s flinty, sardonic exterior, describing his off-duty routine more fully than the shorter books did, and giving him a couple of additional reasons (besides orders from his boss Mac) to see the mission through to his satisfaction. “This time, it’s personal,” as the movie ad cliche goes.
Ultimately, however, that doesn’t seem to count for much: confronting Vasquez, Helm falls back on professional duty as his motive for liquidating the kingpin: “[The murdered journalist] came to the U.S. for help and we failed him; the least we can do is make certain you don’t ever threaten another writer or journalist or TV reporter.”
Two other interesting features about the novel: when Vasquez’s hit team invades in Chapter 8, one of them tries to strangle Helm with a silken handkerchief; seems they’re adept in the old murder technique of Thugee. Helm, having grabbed an ornamental but functional Bowie knife, nearly beheads his assailant with a killing stroke. It seems more like a flamboyant scene out of one of Robert E. Howard’s ‘30s action-detective pulp stories than a typically understated Matt Helm kill, although it has something of a precedent, going way back, in Helm’s machete duel with the bad guy Von Sachs in “The Ambushers” (1963).
Hamilton also seems to have some fun with Helm’s movie image, which arguably would have been fresher in the public mind in 1992 than today. Helm’s occasional consumption of highballs on the South American road trip starts off as a source of friction with the widow in his charge, but it doesn’t dull his edge any, and he realizes it may provide a convenient cover if his enemies underestimate him as “an incompetent stumblebum who [spends] most of his time in an alcoholic daze.” Calling Dean Martin.