Donald Hamilton

Donald Bengtsson Hamilton (March 24, 1916 – November 20, 2006) was an American writer of novels, short stories, and non-fiction about the outdoors. His novels consist mostly of paperback originals, principally spy fiction, but also crime fiction and westerns, such as The Big Country. He is best known for his long-running Matt Helm series (1960-1993), which chronicles the adventures of an undercover counter-agent/assassin working for a secret American government agency. The noted critic Anthony Boucher wrote: "Donald Hamilton has brought to the spy novel the authentic hard realism of Dashiell Hammett; and his stories are as compelling, and probably as close to the sordid truth of espionage, as any now being told."[1]

Donald Hamilton
BornDonald Bengtsson Hamilton
March 24, 1916
Uppsala, Sweden
DiedNovember 20, 2006 (aged 90)
United States
OccupationNovelist, writer
NationalitySwedish American
CitizenshipSweden, United States
GenreSpy fiction, non-fiction
Notable worksCreator of Matt Helm


Hamilton was born on March 24, 1916, in Uppsala, Sweden, to Dr. Bengt Leopold Knutsson Hamilton and Elise Franzisca Hamilton (née Neovius). On September 27, 1924, he boarded the S/S Stockholm with his mother and three sisters at the Port of Gothenburg, Sweden; the ship arrived at the Port of New York on October 6, 1924. The family's destination was Boston, Massachusetts, where they joined his father, Doctor Hamilton. Donald attended the University of Chicago (receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in 1938), and served in the United States Navy Reserve during World War II. He was married to Kathleen Hamilton (née Stick) from 1941 until her death in 1989. The couple had four children: Hugo, Elise, Gordon, and Victoria Hamilton.

A long-time resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Hamilton was a skilled outdoorsman and hunter who wrote non-fiction articles for outdoor magazines and published a book-length collection of them. For a number of years after leaving Santa Fe he lived on his own yacht, then moved to Sweden, where he lived until his death in 2006. A number of his Matt Helm novels are situated in the Santa Fe area and American Southwest in general; as Hamilton developed an interest in boating, many of the books began to have a nautical component as well.

Hamilton began his writing career in 1946, submitting pieces to fiction magazines like Collier's Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post. His first novel, Date With Darkness, was published in 1947; over the next 46 years he published a total of 38 novels. His first three books were published in hardcover by Rinehart. After World War II, American publishers began to experiment with issuing original paperback fiction. Most of his early novels — published between 1954 and 1960 — were typical paperback originals of the era: fast-moving tales in paperbacks with lurid covers, whether suspense, spy, or western. The most interesting of them is, arguably, Assignment: Murder, (alternate title: Assassins Have Starry Eyes), in which a mathematician working on the design for a nuclear bomb has to save his kidnapped wife from a group of shadowy villains. Two classic western movies, The Big Country and The Violent Men, were adapted from his western novels.

More substantial was the Matt Helm series, published by Gold Medal, which began with Death of a Citizen in 1960 and ran for 27 books, ending in 1993 with The Damagers. Helm, a wartime agent in a secret agency that specialized in assassinating Nazis, is drawn back, after 15 years as a civilian, into a post-war world of espionage and assassination. He narrates his adventures in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone with an occasional undertone of deadpan humor. He describes gunfights, knife fights, torture, and (off-stage) sexual conquests with a carefully maintained professional detachment, like a pathologist dictating an autopsy report or a police officer describing an investigation. Over the course of the series, this detachment comes to define Helm's character. He is a professional doing a job; the job is killing people. Hamilton completed one more Matt Helm novel, The Dominators in 2002, that has not been published.

The noted Golden Age mystery writer John Dickson Carr began reviewing books for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1969, and often praised thrillers of the day. According to Carr's biographer, "Carr found Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm to be 'my favorite secret agent,'" although Hamilton's books had little in common with Carr's. "The explanation may lie in Carr's comment that in espionage novels he preferred Matt Helm's Cloud cuckoo land. Carr never valued realism in fiction."[2]

Hamilton died in his sleep on November 20, 2006.[3] His papers are housed at the Charles E. Young Research Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.[4]


Matt Helm-series

Non Series Crime Novels

Short Stories


Non Fiction


Film adaptations

The Violent Men, 1955; adaptation of Smoky Valley

Five Steps to Danger, 1957; adaptation of The Steel Mirror

The Big Country, 1958

General audiences may be more familiar with Matt Helm through a series of popular action-comedy films produced in the late 1960s starring Dean Martin in the title role. These light-hearted films are only very loosely based upon Hamilton's writings, which are much more realistic, gritty and noir.

DreamWorks optioned the film rights to Hamilton's books in 2002 and began planning a more serious adaptation of the Matt Helm novels, but the project is in limbo.


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, New York, 1976, page 195.
  2. ^ John Dickson Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, by Douglas G. Greene, New York, 1995, page 443.
  3. ^ Pierce, J. Kingston (April 2, 2007). "Donald Hamilton Dies". The Rap Sheet. Retrieved May 27, 2014.
  4. ^ "Finding Aid for the Donald Hamilton papers, 1945-1995". Online Archive of California. University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved May 13, 2015.


  • John Dickson Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, by Douglas G. Greene, New York, 1995
  • Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, New York, 1976, ISBN 0-07-061121-1

External links

5 Steps to Danger

5 Steps to Danger is a 1957 American film noir crime film directed, produced, and co–written by Henry S. Kesler. It stars Ruth Roman and Sterling Hayden, with a cast that also included Werner Klemperer, Richard Gaines, Charles Davis, Jeanne Cooper, and Peter Hansen. 5 Steps to Danger was based on the novel The Steel Mirror by Donald Hamilton.

Date with Darkness

Date With Darkness is a spy novel by Donald Hamilton, his first published novel.

Iron Men and Silver Stars

Iron Men and Silver Stars is a collection of western short stories edited by Donald Hamilton. Hamilton's short story contribution, The Guns of William Longley, won the 1967 Western Writers of America Spur Award for best short material.

Line of Fire (novel)

Line of Fire is a thriller novel by Donald Hamilton.

Mad River (novel)

Mad River is a western novel by Donald Hamilton.

Matt Helm

Matt Helm is a fictional character created by author Donald Hamilton. He is a U.S. government counter-agent—a man whose primary job is to kill or nullify enemy agents—not a spy or secret agent in the ordinary sense of the term as used in spy thrillers.

Night Walker

Night Walker is a spy novel by Donald Hamilton.

Smoky Valley

Smoky Valley is a western novel by Donald Hamilton.

Texas Fever (novel)

Texas Fever is a western novel by Donald Hamilton.

The Ambushers (film)

The Ambushers is a 1967 American comedy spy-fi film starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm, along with Senta Berger and Janice Rule. It is the third of four films in the Matt Helm series, and is very loosely based upon the novel of the same name by Donald Hamilton as well as The Menacers that featured UFOs and a Mexican setting. When a government-built flying saucer is hijacked mid-flight by Jose Ortega, the exiled ruler for an outlaw nation, secret agent Matt Helm and the ship's former pilot Sheila Sommers are sent to recover it.

The Big Country (Hamilton novel)

The Big Country is a Western novel by Donald Hamilton, Originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post as Ambush at Blanco Canyon.

The Interlopers (novel)

The Interlopers, first published in 1969, was the twelfth novel in the Matt Helm spy series by Donald Hamilton, which began in 1960. It represents a middle period in the Helm novels, being about 80,000 words in length, somewhat longer than the first four or five in the series, but considerably shorter than most of the Helm books of the eighties and nineties, which were generally well over 100,000 words in length. At this intermediate length, the action moved swiftly while still allowing for plot complications, but avoided the occasional padded-out-by-dialogue tedium of the later books.

The Man from Santa Clara

The Man From Santa Clara is a western novel by Donald Hamilton.

The Mona Intercept

The Mona Intercept is a thriller novel by Donald Hamilton.

The Silencers

The Silencers is the title of a 1962 spy novel by Donald Hamilton, the fourth in a series of books featuring assassin Matt Helm.

The Steel Mirror

The Steel Mirror is a spy novel by Donald Hamilton.

The Wrecking Crew (1968 film)

The Wrecking Crew is a 1969 American comedy spy-fi film starring Dean Martin as Matt Helm, along with Elke Sommer, Nancy Kwan, Tina Louise, and Sharon Tate. It is the fourth and final film in the Matt Helm series, and is very loosely based upon the 1960 novel of the same name by Donald Hamilton.

Chuck Norris makes his film debut in a small role.

W. D. Hamilton

William Donald Hamilton, FRS (1 August 1936 – 7 March 2000) was an English evolutionary biologist, widely recognised as one of the most significant evolutionary theorists of the 20th century.Hamilton became famous through his theoretical work expounding a rigorous genetic basis for the existence of altruism, an insight that was a key part of the development of a gene-centric view of evolution. He is considered one of the forerunners of sociobiology. Hamilton also published important work on sex ratios and the evolution of sex. From 1984 to his death in 2000, he was a Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford University.

The Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton
Television series
Other works by Donald Hamilton, author of the Matt Helm series
Novels and novellas
Short story collections
Film adaptations
Comic book adaptations

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