RARA-AVIS: Matt Helm and Travis McGee (some spoilers)

From: Doug Bassett ( dj_bassett@yahoo.com)
Date: 11 Sep 2004

I think I read somewhere -- Ed Gorman's blog? -- that the latest Mystery Scene has an article on Helm where he's compared to Travis McGee. I haven't seen the article yet, but it sounds interesting. Oddly enough I've been rereading a bunch of Helms (THE SILENCERS, THE REMOVERS (one of the best), MURDERER'S ROW
(another one of the best)and THE DEVASTATORS.

They *are* interesting series to compare. Both really rely on voice and the likability of the protagonist to carry them through. The plots of both could often be ridiculous -- remember the evil mental clinic in NIGHTMARE IN PINK? Or how about the evil Chinese plot to infect everyone with super bubonic plague in THE DEVASTATORS? Both handled action very well, and for such masculine-oriented writers, both did a good job, in my opinion, with female characters. (Although their scope was usually limited. Hamilton either had idealists who didn't know the score -- although that wasn't limited to women, by any means -- or tough gals who might as well have been guys in skirts. JDM specialized in either wounded birds, ferocious sexual predators, or country girls with hearts of gold.)

(That didn't mean they couldn't bust out of their limitations once in awhile: consider Helm's ex-wife, say, or the very believable Betsy Knapp in what I think is the best McGee, THE LONG LAVENDER LOOK.)

There is also a strong current of romanticism in both series, pretty much out front in McGee (sometimes to the book's detriment), more restrained in Helm
(although very present. One of the special things about Helm is that he's not nearly as tough as he likes to present himself.)

I've reread the McGee series many times, it's a favorite of mine. I've read about half the Helms. Taken over all, I have say the general quality of the Helm series is superior. I don't think there's a bad book in either series (well, if there's a bad Helm I haven't found it yet), but there are weak McGees: THE QUICK RED FOX comes to mind -- it feels like a stab at a "decadent" Hollywood book. Even later in the series JDM could throw out a CINNAMON SKIN, which plays unwisely with psychological explanations, I think. I haven't really found a weak Helm: even a book with as ridiculous a setup as THE DEVASTATORS works, once you get into it.

On the other hand, I don't think Helm ever really matched McGee for great books. I think you can name at least a half-dozen genuinely great McGees, while the only Helm I would say is must-reading is the first, DEATH OF A CITIZEN. The formula is set there: Helm is the dangerous man who uses tactics the civilized don't approve of; at the same time Helm is the greater Romantic, constantly sacrificing himself to protect the illusions of others, constantly disappointed when others fail him. It's a switchback situation that's quite clever.

The rest of the books mercilessly work that formula, though. The ones that are most successful hit closest to home: in THE REMOVERS, say, which plays like a remake of DEATH, although here the sting is worse because of some added ironies. Or there's the great opening sequence in MURDERER'S ROW, where Helm has to beat up a women. This inner disgust with what he's doing, the refuge into professionalism and the search for a higher romanticism afterwards are all typical.
(Helm accidentally kills the woman, and takes her place.)

That's not to say it's bad -- like I said, none of the Helm books are bad. It's just when you read a lot of Helms back to back the formula becomes quite noticeable: there's always an idealist who needs to be set right, Helm always needs to do something horrible for the greater good, there's always a normal human connection that gets frustrated.

Another interesting comparison might be between Helm and Adam Hall's Quiller, in particular in regards with how they regard "professionalism".


===== Doug Bassett dj_bassett@yahoo.com

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