Some Thoughts on
Matt Helm's Birthday
by Hayford Peirce
Any reasonably youthful writer who creates a popular series character such as Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, or Matt Helm is eventually going to run into the problem of aging. One of the enduring charms of reading stories with a continuing protagonist is that in many ways the stories remain the same. As a powerful New York mystery editor once told my friend Collin Wilcox (creator of the Lieutenant Hastings series): "We want books from you that are just like the previous ones, only different."
Not only is this true about the plotting (no one wants Hercule Poirot suddenly involved in a hardboiled gangster shootout), but even more so about the ongoing protagonist. A slimmed-down Nero Wolfe who sells off his collection of orchids, fires Fritz the chef, and goes out to play tennis twice a day and eat hamburgers would probably lose most of his following.
Among the more salient characteristics of the series protagonists is his/her age. Most writers tend to begin writing at a fairly youthful age, generally in their twenties or thirties. And my impression is that, in order to give their characters a little more weight in the eyes of the reader, or gravitas, they tend to make their protagonist at least their own age or a little older. A 25-year-old Travis McGee or Hercule Poirot simply can't impress the reader as having had the necessary experience or background to be as capable and godlike as his creator intends him to be.
The problem that eventually arises is what to do with the ongoing protagonist when 30 or 40 actual years have passed for the author. He is now, let us say, 73. Is his once relatively youthful series hero now 83 or 84, having aged along with his creator? If so, then obvious difficulties arise. Is the reader to believe that an 80-year-old Matt Helm or Travis McGee or Philip Marlowe is actually capable of dealing with the situations in which we want to find him?
The answer, of course, is no. Which means that the author, at some point during his career, has to begin to first shade the age of his protagonist, brushing aside any inconvenient biographical facts that might have been put into the initial books (such as a reference in the early books to Nero Wolfe killing Germans in the *First* World War). And if the author and hero survive long enough, the activities in all of the early books will have to be basically ignored.
Donald Hamilton has a very keen sense of what he has written in his previous books about Matt Helm. References are made to long-ago events. Characters from previous books pop up years later. This, to my own taste, is one of the charms of his books -- I *like* a sense of history, of the solidity that comes from a character with roots that go back many years.
But Hamilton, who has written about Helm for nearly 35 years has to skirt some tricky issues in doing so. In his last book, The Damagers (1993), the son of the villain Caselius in the 1960 book The Wrecking Crew turns up with vengeance on his mind for what Helm did to his father more than three decades earlier. But "three decades" aren't mentioned, nor the inconvenient fact that his father was killed by Helm in 1959, at which time Helm was already at least 36 years old. Which, of course, would thereby make Helm an amazingly robust and virile 69-year-old in the present book.
How do we know that Helm is 36 years old in 1959, which in turn would mean that he was born in 1923, or possibly the latter part of 1922? Because on page 19 of the 4th printing of The Wrecking Crew the CIA woman who is shortly going to get killed tells Helm that she has gotten all his biographical info from her agency in Washington and that he is 36 years old. She could be wrong about this, of course, but, if not, that means he was born in 1923. Or, or course, to be extremely careful, anytime after, say, July of 1922. Which would make him 36 but *almost* 37....
Wrecking Crew was the second book in the series, the first being Death of a Citizen. In it, the peaceful civilian Matt Helm dies and Eric the hardboiled counterspy or agent is reborn. There is no question as to what year we are introduced to Helm. Part way through the book he's driving from Santa Fe to Texas. He stops in a roadside diner, where he complains (to the reader) about the jukebox playing some nutty song about aliens and bothering the more contemplative customers. The song is "The Purple People Eater." I just checked my Joel Whitburn's Top 40 reference book and this song made the top-40 charts for the first time in June 1958. This would fit in perfectly with the vaguely summertime setting of the book.
There is no question in my mind that Wrecking Crew takes place a year later than the first book. It might be *remotely* possible that all the events that happened between the two books (and that are mentioned in Wrecking Crew) could have been compressed into the tail end of the same summer, but I really doubt it, especially since it's still not even close to being winter when Wrecking Crew takes place. So Wrecking Crew has to take place in 1959, thereby putting Helm's birthdate back to 1922 or 1923.
This raises a number of problems.
In the first book, Death of a Citizen, there is no specific mention of his age, but there are numerous references to his *four* years of service, both with the army and with Mac's secret gang. Early 1942 to mid-1945 would constitute four years, more or less, which would mean that Helm was either 19 or 20 when he joined the army in 1942. The impression one gets from reading Death of a Citizen, however, is that he was probably somewhat older than this. Once again, there are numerous references to his pre-war career of writing for newspapers and taking photographs, the implication being that this was already a settled career. It's possible, of course, especially in the end-of-the-Depression years, that Helm was out on his own at a very young age, but there's nothing in the book to specifically indicate it.
Indeed, my own reading of the first book makes him appear to be at least in his *late* thirties, or even early forties, without this being explicitly spelled out. There's no specific item that I can point to, but throughout the book there are people making comments about his incipient middleaged spread, his possibly thinning hair, his long sedentary life, a dozen tiny little things like that that give the clear impression that Helm is about ready to enter a youthful middleage. One definitely gets the feeling that he is older than 35....
I myself am a sometime writer of mystery fiction. My Joe Caneili stories, about an American private eye in Tahiti, and my Commissaire Tama stories, about the Chief of Police in Tahiti, are both published from time to time in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. (A collection of each series is due to be published by Wildside Press.) The first stories were written about 1984 or 1985 and I was wise enough not to give either of my characters specific ages. But the Tahiti that they inhabit has changed and modernized around them and the other day I found myself making a reference in a new story to the Internet. And as I looked over the previously written stories preparing them for their upcoming collections I found many references to stores and hotels and banks that no longer existed or had changed names. So even in Tahiti time is passing, and characters are getting older. With me the question was: Do I update all the earlier stories so that the heroes don't seem 15 years older, or do I leave them alone? With Hamilton, writing about the same character over *35* years the process of dealing with this has been even more difficult.
As a professional writer who has known a number of editors, and as someone who has read a fair amount about the editorial process, at least as it applies to genre fiction, I think what happened in the case of Don Hamilton and Matt Helm could easily be this:
At the time he wrote Death of a Citizen, say early 1959, Hamilton probably had a mind's eye image of Helm as being about 40 years old, but didn't bother to clearly state this or to describe him too closely beyond saying he was tall and relatively skinny. (Many very successful writers such as Robert A. Heinlein are adamant about not giving the reader too many specific details about their hero; they maintain [correctly, I think] that the reader will fill in any necessary detail in a way that makes the hero most appealing to that particular reader.)
A year later, sometime in 1960, in the manuscript for the second book , I would wager a *very* small sum that Hamilton originally wrote "41 years old" or "42 years old" or something of that nature when the CIA lady is talking to Helm about his age.
And that his *editor* then said: "Don, we've got a series character going here. It's being primarily written for the male audience, and within that category most likely the *young* male audience. I think 42 is too old. For younger readers that makes him seem *ancient*, there's no way in the world they can identify with him. Particularly not if you're going to keep writing about him. I think you better make him as young as possible."
So Hamilton, who, as his later books prove, is very conscientious about at least *trying* to be consistent with his earlier works, gives it 5 minutes' thought and says, "Righto, we'll make him 36. That's stretching things a little but at least it's barely possible. He *could* have been born in November 1922 and he *could* have joined Mac's gang as a 19-year-old in March 1942 with a little bit of college behind him and a little bit of newspaper work."
Anyway, that's my reading of it.
Later, of course, by the time we get to the tenth book or so, Helm's WWII career has entirely vanished. He does age, but slowly, slowly, and not in such a way as to ever leave him bereft of beautiful, and reasonably young, female companionship at the end of each of his adventures.
(After writing the above I made a lengthy search and eventually found a dimly remembered book that dates from 1978. It is called The Great Detectives and was edited by Otto Penzler. In it, Donald Hamilton gives us a seven- or eight-page sketch of Matt Helm, and, I am glad to say, says nothing that contradicts anything I've written above. He says that Death of a Citizen was originally conceived and written as a stand-alone book, with a hero named George Helm who was purposely a hero-type hero rather than the bumbling anti-hero sort of protagonist who was then so common in spy-adventure books. At the last moment before wrapping things up for publication his editor called him in New Mexico to say that George Helm sounded like a wimp's name and that if Hamilton would change the name they would have the basis of an on-going series character. Hamilton glanced around his bookshelves, saw the family Bible, thought of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and pulled Matthew out of his writers mental hat. And Matt Helm was born....
(I wish Hamilton had had something definitive to say about the age question, but all he does in his brief article is to muddle the waters again by saying that Helm definitely had a college career before the war, in spite of having to attend two colleges to complete it, so if you throw that into the mix, along with his couple of years as a newspaperman, it definitely indicates to me that when Hamilton first thought of Helm, he mentally penciled in a birthdate of around 1917 or 1918. Too bad, that would make him about 82 or 83 today. Even worse, what about his eternally gray-haired boss, who, according to Helm, hardly seems any older than when he first encountered him....
(Could Mac actually be the Devil, and Helm has sold his soul to him in exchange for eternal youthfulness?)
© 2000 Hayford Peirce. Reprinted with permission of the author.