Monday, September 24, 2007


I recently returned from a trip to New Mexico. This is the second time I’ve been there (the first was on my honeymoon), but I’ve been dreaming about the Land of Enchantment for 17 years, thanks to that All-American Super-Spy Matt Helm.

In 1990, I decided to pick up a second-hand paperback copy of The Silencers, primarily to see how different the literary Matt Helm was from the celluloid one. I knew the novels couldn’t be as absurd as the movies, but I wondered if any of the plot from the book was retained for the movie. As it turned out, quite a bit of the story was carried over to the movie, but it was twisted, pretzel-like, so that it resembled a James Bond spoof rather than a hard-boiled spy thriller. I was so impressed with the novel’s gritty realism, I suddenly felt sad that the movie series was such a lost opportunity. However, I was glad that I read the book and was particularly taken with the book’s setting: New Mexico.

The author, Donald Hamilton, followed the writer’s adage of “write what you know” and based Matt Helm in Santa Fe, Hamilton’s hometown at the time. Although Helm would later become something of a globe-trotter, early novels like The Silencers remained rooted mostly in the Southwest. I was immediately captivated by Hamilton’s descriptions of the quaint town and the stunning high desert which surrounded it. Of course, these desolate stretches were perfect backdrops for high speed chases and tense shootouts. No witnesses and little chance of police interference. These open expanses of brush-dotted desert also forced Helm to be a bit of an outdoorsman, something Donald Hamilton was in real life. By the time I finished reading The Silencers, I was convinced that New Mexico was a place I wanted to move to one day. Thankfully, after meeting my wife, I was able to talk her into my dream as well, and this latest visit to the state was a chance to make a serious assessment of our future home.

As we drove around those deserts and mountains, I couldn’t help but think about those harrowing battles Matt Helm fought under the blazing sun, with little cover and no hope of reinforcements. When my wife and I got caught in a heavy thunderstorm on our way to Bandelier National Monument and were forced to pull off the road, I was reminded of the scene in The Silencers when Helm and his witness were forced to spend the night in his truck after getting caught in a snow storm. Coming from a congested state like Maryland, I’m always struck by the wide open nature of New Mexico. There’s a real sense that you could get stuck out there and have to contend with rattlesnakes, heat stroke, or vicious storms. It’s a little scary, but exhilarating at the same time.

When we visited the town center of Santa Fe on a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, I was reminded of the opening of The Retaliators, when Matt Helm visits “the gleaming, modern lobby of the New Mexico National Bank.” The bank’s probably been remodeled since 1976, but it’s still there. I also thought about the following passage from later in the book:

Formerly, leaving Santa Fe southwards, you were out in coyote-and-prairie-dog country almost immediately; nowadays, the town peters out gradually through a dismal twilight zone of gas stations and drive-ins and housing developments that no self-respecting wild canine or rodent would tolerate. The desert is still out there, however; you just have to drive a little farther to find it.

If Mr. Hamilton could only see it now! Santa Fe, from any direction, is now surrounded by the kind of suburban sprawl that infects every city and town in America. I would only update his statement to say “Targets and Starbucks.” Just in the seven years since I was there last, the growth is astounding. There are housing developments on the west side of I-25 that didn’t exist seven years prior. I just hope that by the time my wife and I can move there, downtown Santa Fe doesn’t look like Baltimore!

Fortunately, growth in New Mexico is limited by the presence of Native American Reservations and National Parks. There are still vast stretches of breathtaking desert and mountains. Along with the sunshine and dry climate, you can’t help but feel happy every time you look out the window anywhere in New Mexico. I’m really grateful that Donald Hamilton, through his paperback thrillers, opened my eyes to a whole new world.

1 comment:

theminx said...

Me too!