There’s a reason I try to review books immediately after finishing them: everything is fresh in my mind and there are usually a few ‘hot takes’ I have on the content or writing style. It wouldn’t seem a big deal to leave a book a couple of weeks before getting around to writing it up, but in 2018 those couple of weeks have likely involved finishing another five books, the ideas of which have pushed the older book out of my consciousness.
Sigh. Life is hard.
Donald Hamilton’s second volume in the long-running Matt Helm series, The Wrecking Crew, is such a book. The story is pretty good. Helm has now rejoined Mac’s group of Cold War assassin’s working off-the-books wet-works for the US government. After fifteen years out, he’s put back through a battery of tests so Mac can assess if he’s still sharp enough. It turns out he’s off the pace as well as the books.
Intriguingly, Mac spins this as a positive by sending him to Sweden on a job knowing full well that their partnering Swedish intel counterparts have a leak, and thus Helm’s cover (as a photographer for a top nature magazine) will be immediately compromised. From there, the opposition will find out he’s past it and thus underestimate him. His job is to accompany the widow of a suspected double agent. He was murdered behind the Iron Curtain after touting publicly (he was a journalist in Sweden) that he’d discovered the identity of the USSR’s top agent in Europe. The widow is researching an article on fascinating locations in the isolated rural north of Sweden and needs someone like Helm to take photos.
Of course it’s all very fishy. His Swedish connect gives him away immediately before being gunned down in a double-double-cross by the shadowy USSR agent. He’s then palling up with a hot Swedish teen who is a competitive cross-country skiier and seems to fancy him. Eventually he finds himself in the northern mountains being directed to take very specific photos by this odd widow. It looks like her story is a ploy to get permission to photograph Swedish military installations.
As you’d expect from a Matt Helm book, everything is smoke and mirrors. There is more deceit and calculation than in the Jewish World Series Of Poker. It’s this feeling that everyone is lying and nothing is as it seems that I like about the Helm stories. Hamilton never loses his grip on the plot so it never spins off into gotcha moments or deus ex-machina. It’s tightly plotted throughout and all the characters stay in character.
The key conceit of this book is that Helm is a fantastically savvy agent who has to deliberately play the part of a bungling idiot. For example, he arrives at his hotel and goes to his room:
A canny secret-agent type would, of course, have looked the place over carefully before turning his back on the closet and bathroom doors. Under other circumstances, I might even have done so myself, but I was playing a part, and my script didn’t call for any displays of professional vigilance. Mac had been emphatic on this point.
Mac had told him:
“But in many ways you’d have been better prepared for the job at hand if you’d spent the past month in a hotel room with a bottle and a blonde. Now you’ll have to use restraint. Don’t betray yourself by showing off any of the pretty tricks you’ve just learned. If somebody wants to follow you, let them follow; you don’t even know they’re there. What’s more, you don’t care. If they want to search your belongings, don’t set any traps for them. If you should get involved in a fight – God forbid – forget about weapons except in a clear and desperate emergency. And don’t give any unnecessary judo demonstrations, either. Just lead with your right and take your licking like a man. Do I make myself clear?”
The reason is that Helm’s real job isn’t to take the photos and keep an eye on the widow, but rather to draw out the Soviet super-spy and kill him. That spy is going to observe, circle, and nibble before deciding whether to come out of cover to bite. Helm can’t afford to tip his hand and send the spy back into deep cover. So in an early scene when the Soviet has some goons jump him, Helm has to forego his chances to beat them in a fight because he knows the Soviet has manufactured the fight merely to assess his competence.
It’s this kind of subtlety that shows why I vastly prefer the Matt Helm books over the Remo Williams Destroyer books. Remo just slaughters everyone in the blink of an eye. If anyone exposes him, he just ninja-death-touches them into silence. Helm follows the Sun Tzu school of strategic deception
Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.
Who does that remind you of? Oh yes, this guy……
It isn’t just Helm who entered enemy territory on a mission to draw out hostile shadowy actors. Trump is cleaning out the Deep State and it would’ve been suicidal to take them on by a frontal overt assault. Instead he’s set all manner of traps, misdirections, and subterfuges to leave the traitors over-confident. He’ll tweet like he’s confused, make big noises about NFL players kneeling, and encourage former staffers to plant false stories in the MSM about porn stars and candid tapes….. and all the while secret assassins like Jeff Sessions, John Huber, and Michael Flynn are amassing the evidence that will take the Deep State down in one thunderous swoop.
You don’t purge enemy cabals by announcing your plans and letting them take counter-measures. Nope, you do it the Saddam Hussein way
Of course when you deploy strategic deception, it has to be so good that everyone outside the inner circle is fooled by it. That means you fool your own followers half the time, at least until the hammer drops. For the past two years I’ve felt like I’ve had Donald Hamilton narrating a new Matt Helm story to me, explaining the misdirection in the White House like he does in the Helm books. I’ve been watching all the chess pieces move into position and the clock tick down.
It’s been wonderfully relaxing.