Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills

Monday, April 02, 2007

R.I.P. Donald Hamilton

I know that it's just a matter of that I'm getting older, and that I discovered these guys rather late in their lives, but all of my favorite writers are dying, and it's tearing me up.

Especially Donald Hamilton.

I can clearly remember the first Matt Helm novel I ever read. I found a copy of The Ambushers in a pile of old books in my parents' basement, and it looked both interesting and short, so I took it to school to read during study hall and on the bus.

It completely changed my life.

Hamilton was the gateway drug that hooked me on hardboiled. From there, it was a short step to Spillane. If Hamilton was cocaine, Spillane was crack, and soon I was a hopeless junkie, going to great lengths to get that next "fix." There was a used bookstore in my hometown then, run by an old couple out of their garage. Up until Hamilton, I rarely made the hilly, 6-mile bicycle trip to their shop, and when I did, I never looked beyond the old comic books and the sci-fi paperbacks. But after The Ambushers, I was there every weekend, blowing my allowance (a whopping buck a week) in the mystery and adventure section, snagging every Hamilton, Spillane, Dan Marlowe, Richard Stark and Nick Carter, "Killmaster," paperback they had. I don't remember a single long car trip that Matt Helm didn't accompany me on, and no matter where I lived, the Hamilton paperbacks were always shelved in easy reach, never boxed away or stored out of sight.

Donald Hamilton was – and is – my all-time favorite writer. The quote from an article I wrote for Thrilling Detective that appeared on the back cover of Hard Case Crime's edition of Don's novel Night Walker – even if it wasn't correctly and completely attributed to me – is probably the bit of published writing I'm most proud of.

I'd write more... but I'm too wracked up. Here's the e-mail that I got from Hard Case Crime's Charles Ardai this evening:


Earlier today I learned that Donald Hamilton has died.

Don was 90 years old. Though his name may be little remembered today, in the 1960s and 70s he was well known as the best-selling author of the "Matt Helm" novels, a series of well-written and popular stories about a ruthless agent of the U.S. government who fought evil in the Cold War world (and eventually -- briefly -- the post-Cold War world). Helm starred in 27 novels between 1960's DEATH OF A CITIZEN and 1993's THE DAMAGERS; he was also featured in several movies starring Dean Martin, as well as a short-lived TV series starring Anthony Franciosa that reimagined the character as a private eye. More recently, Dreamworks optioned the rights to all the Helm novels for feature film development. A final Matt Helm novel exists but has never been published.

Don also wrote a dozen non-Helm novels, including several popular Westerns (including THE BIG COUNTRY, which became the Gregory Peck movie, and SMOKY VALLEY, which was filmed as "The Violent Men" starring Glenn Ford). And he wrote several outstanding noir crime novels, including one -- NIGHT WALKER -- which we're proud to have reprinted last year in the Hard Case Crime series.

In the last decade of his life, Don moved back to Sweden, where he'd been born, and lived there with his son, Gordon. He died peacefully, in his sleep, this past November. Gordon kept the fact of his death private until today, when he confirmed it in a phone conversation with me.

We've lost a number of giants of the mystery field over the past few years -- Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, and Richard S. Prather, among others -- and Donald Hamilton is very much of that caliber. He sold more than 20 million books during his lifetime. But unlike Spillane, McBain and Prather, all of whom were widely remembered at the time of their death, Don's passing has sadly gone unremarked.

I thought you might be interested to know about it, and that perhaps you would have an opportunity to let other people know as well. If you would like additional information, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Editor, Hard Case Crime


Anonymous said...

This is just tough, tough news. Spillane, Prather, now this.

There's only two or three of these guys left: Westlake, Marlowe, and Bloch, maybe Henry Kane? All too soon they'll all be gone.

Mort said...

It started for me--remember, please, there was not yet a horror genre per se--with Hamilton's DEATH OF A CITIZEN--and then, in order, until I got to the point where I had to wait for the release of a new Matt Helm; I'd read all the books in print.

Read the other guys, enjoyed some of 'em, particularly the Joe Gall by Phil Atlee, but it was always Hamilton and Helm because, just at that moment you knew exactly what was going on, you learned you didn't... But Helm usually did.

Recently re-read DEATH OF A CITIZEN. The cynicism, the cleverness, and the real plotting (missing from so much of today's formula fiction wherein we are all too aware of the formula), yeah... It was fine stuff then and remains so... and that ain't just nostalgia nor grieving over goldengrove unleaving.


PS. If you've not read Stephen Marlowe's very whacked and wonderful historical/slipstream/lit'ry books, LIGHTHOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MIGUEL CERVANTES, and MEMOIRS OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, you have a treat ahead of you.

Glen Davis said...

Just read that it has been confirmed that there is a last unpublished Matt Helm novel.