The Wrecking Crew (novel)
The Wrecking Crew is a spy novel by Donald Hamilton first published in paperback in 1960, a few years before the James Bond films and novels set off a semi-mania for spy fiction. The second novel to feature Hamilton's series character, an American counter-agent and assassin named Matt Helm, it was, like most genre fiction of the time, about 65,000 words in length and sold for 25 cents. In this book Hamilton continued the hard-headed and gritty realism he had created in the Helm first novel, Death of a Citizen. In contrast to most of the tough, but apparently bone-headed, action heroes who had proceeded him for the previous 40 years of espionage fiction, Helm was shown to be to be a tough—and, most importantly, a tough-minded—agent who actually thought ahead: a man who could 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 The Wrecking Crew, and in its successors, 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, Helm, code name Eric, 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 send to Sweden to eliminate Caselius, an 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 innovation 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-Marquis 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 was also an underlying, completely deadpan, humor throughout the book that can be easily overlooked. Towards the end of book, 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."