The Wrecking Crew (novel)
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The paperback version's original cover.
|Media type||Print (Paperback)|
|Preceded by||Death of a Citizen|
|Followed by||The Removers|
The Wrecking Crew is a spy novel written by Donald Hamilton and first published in 1960. It was the second novel featuring Hamilton's ongoing protagonist, counter-agent and assassin Matt Helm. In this book Hamilton continued the hard-headed and gritty realism he had built up around Helm in the first novel of the series, Death of a Citizen. In contrast to most of the tough, but apparently bone-headed, action heroes who had preceded him for the previous 40 years of fiction, Helm was shown to be a tough—and, most important, a tough-minded—agent who actually thought ahead: a man who would let himself be ignominiously beaten up by the opposition to establish his credentials as an ineffective and unworrisome operative, if that was what his role called for, in order to achieve his ultimate goals. In this book, and in the others in the series, when Helm walks into an ambush and is hit on the head, it is because he wants to be ambushed, not because he is too stupid to anticipate the ambush.
In this book, which Helm, code name Eric, narrates in the first person, he has been recently reactivated as an operative for a secret American government organization after 15 years as a sedentary photographer and family man in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In his first assignment after returning to the service, he is sent to Sweden to eliminate Caselius, a long-time enemy agent. Helm poses first as a photographer on this mission, a cover he would use frequently throughout the series. On a secondary level, however, he is also posing as an incompetent, barely fit, over-the-hill recycled agent who is obviously no match for the real agents, both Russian and American, who taunt him, beat him up, and apparently outwit him throughout the book—until the final scenes, when the real Helm, grim, relentless, and totally competent, reveals himself.
Another breakthrough in the fictional portrayal of a ruthless but nevertheless sympathetic hero came in the way that Helm dealt with deadly threats in the course of carrying out his orders. At the end of this book, he has a dinner conversation with the female character he has just rescued from almost certain death at the hands of Caselius. In spite of this, she nevertheless reproaches him for his non-Marquess of Queensbury approach to his mission:
- "The man in the bushes with a broken neck," she whispered. "The one by the cabin with a bullet in the back. In the back, Matt!"
- "Yeah," I said. "In the back. He happened to be facing that way."
- ..."But he'd surrendered, Matt! He had his hands in the air!"
- ...I said, "It was my job, Lou. I had to finish it, no matter where his damn hands were. I couldn't leave it for some other poor sap to have to do all over again."
There is also an underlying, completely deadpan, humor throughout the book that can be easily overlooked. Towards the end of the novel, while Helm is tracking an athletic young Swedish woman through miles of soggy bogs, he writes: "And while I'm no proponent of the double standard in other respects, I think the athletic records will bear me out when I say a good man can run down a good woman any day in the week--and if you want to build that into a dirty joke, bud, you just go right ahead."
The Wrecking Crew was loosely adapted in 1969 as a motion picture starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm. This was the fourth and final instalment in the commercially popular but critically derided series, which took great liberties with Hamilton's original, serious novel, turning it into a campy comedy. The film's working title was House of Seven Joys that remained as the title of the film's theme song.
Hamilton's final published Matt Helm novel, The Damagers from 1993, is a sequel to this book, featuring the son of this novel's villain as its antagonist.