Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mickey Spillane Favorites

The Blackstone Audio Mike Hammer plays showed up in the stocking Friday, and listening to the stories put me on a Mickey Kick like I haven’t been on in several years. Hammer was the first hard-boiled P.I. I read about back in the day, so when I started writing my own private eye stories, of course the hero vaguely resembled Hammer. I read anything I could get my hands on that had Spillane’s name on the cover—still do—but in the last few years I’ve moved on to other authors and Mickey has fallen by the wayside; with the posthumous Spillane material Max Allan Collins is working on, that won’t be the case for long.

The audio plays made me think of the two last Hammer books Spillane wrote before he died, 1989’s “The Killing Man” and 1996’s “Black Alley”. “The Killing Man” is my favorite of the two, so that’s what I’ll start with. That’s also, incidentally, the order in which they were published, in case you didn’t realize.

When we meet Hammer in “The Killing Man” not much has changed since the novel that preceded it ten years earlier, “Survival…Zero” (one of the best Hammer books, by the way—what an ending!). He’s on his way to the office, a rare Saturday appointment, and when he gets there he finds his secretary Velda on the floor, wounded from a blow to the head and near death, and a dead man in his office chair with a note staked on his chest that reads YOU DIE FOR KILLING ME.

Hammer proceeds to beat the tar out of bad guys; verbally spar with politicians, federal men, and a feisty district attorney; and dishes out some .45-caliber punishment as he tracks down the man who nearly killed Velda.

I think the first chapter should be memorized by anybody who writes and wants a lesson on how to create tension. That first chapter is nothing but tension and Spillane carries the mood through the rest of the book. The first time I read it, I thought, “Wow, what a great book!” After reading it the third time, flaws started popping out. Hammer doesn’t really do much other than talk to sources who provide information and argues with members of law enforcement who think they know more about crime busting than he does. He really doesn't do any real detective work. The solution comes out of thin air and I don’t think is properly set-up, but it’s a decent ending as endings go. We learn that the killer wants to murder Hammer for something Hammer did to the killer’s family, and it’s the last bit of righteous firepower Hammer dishes out since when we see him again in “Black Alley” he barely does any shooting. “Black Alley” is not my favorite book; I hated it so much, I read it three times. It’s a good book but it’s not a real Mike Hammer book. (And that concludes my comments on “Black Alley”.)

Mickey Spillane will always be a favorite, and forever an inspiration, but I think he was at his best with his original seven books. The stuff he wrote post-The Deep doesn't have the same impact; one or two are good, the rest are formulaic. My absolute favorite of the latter-day efforts is The Delta Factor, it’s just a rip-roaring adventure, and I’ll write about that soon, and meanwhile hope that one day we see the rumored sequel to Morgan the Raider’s first adventure (any word on that, Max?). Then again, The Delta Factor has some competition, and that book would be The Erection Set. And anybody who admits that they enjoy The Erection Set is a Spillane fan indeed.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed THE GOLIATH BONE last year. The idea that Mike is still out there fighting the good fight makes me smile. And to know Collins/Spillane have more on the way is way cool.

  2. I liked The Goliath Bone, too, but.... The ferocity of the early books was long gone, and there's something about the ferocity of Spillane's early writing that grabs me and his later books don't have it. They're better written than the early books, but they're not the same.

  3. Dogeron Kelly is the toughest "good guy" character that came across the paperback pages of the 70s.

    Bill Khemski

  4. We can see what Collins brings to the table (considerable I'm sure) with the unfinished work that lays ahead. It may be a rejuvenation of sorts and return to that early style.

  5. I appreciate the comments here.

    Brian, I do admit to frustration whenever anybody makes the point that the first six Hammers are great, and the later ones aren't as good. It's just such an obvious point.

    One of the things I've noticed, really digging into these books as research, is how much better the later Hammers are than I remember. I always dismissed SURVIVAL...ZERO!, but it really is incredible. Hammer reluctant to help stop poison gas from wiping out New York, rhapsodizing about how nice it would be post the apocalypse. Just wonderful passages, great sex and violence.

    Also, THE GIRL HUNTERS is a very strong Hammer, and THE TWISTED THING is actually the second Hammer that Mickey wrote, just held back for several decades. It's right in there with the other early books. I grant you THE KILLING MAN and espeically BLACK ALLEY are not of the first rank, but remain interesting and entertaining.

    My job, as I see it, is to determine where in the canon an uncompleted book falls, and try to do Hammer in that context. THE BIG BANG is a mid-'60s novel, which I think will please any even semi-rational Hammer fan. I am working on KISS HER GOODBYE right now, which presents fascinating problems because it combines two partial manuscripts, different takes on the same material, done by Mickey in the mid and late seventies. Since no Hammer novel appeared between 1970 and 1989, this is unknown territory and quite fascinating...and also has me working uncharted waters.

    Anyway, everybody's interest is appreciated. The point here is to get these six Hammer novels finished and out there. What remains come from radically different time periods -- another from the mid'60s, a very early late '40s manuscript, and a late '90s one. Supporting THE BIG BANG and KISS HER GOODBYE will help get the remaining three finished/published.