Friday, August 01, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Twisted Thing” by Mickey Spillane

(Editor’s note: For the second time, we’re offering a twofer addition to The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. The first pick for today--but No. 15 in this chain--comes from Max Allan Collins, a two-time Shamus Award winner for his Nate Heller detective series. Collins is already the author this year of Strip for Murder, the second in his Jack Starr line, as well as the World War II thriller Red Sky in Morning, written as “Patrick Culhane.” And he has yet another novel, The First Quarry, due out in September, featuring his single-monikered killer-for-hire, Quarry.)

Choosing as a “forgotten” novel a title by the best-selling writer of the 20th century may seem unlikely (although the 20th century may seem a very long time ago, in this short-attention-span world). And admittedly I am self-interested in this choice, as soon to be published by Harcourt/Otto Penzler is The Goliath Bone, a new Mike Hammer novel that Mickey Spillane was working on at the time of his death, which I’ve completed from his substantial manuscript and notes.

His 1966 Hammer, The Twisted Thing, has been on my mind as I work to finish The Big Bang, a Hammer novel that Mickey set aside, midway, in 1965. The unfinished novel is a strong one, and why Mickey abandoned it is a mystery that only Hammer himself can solve, by way of The Twisted Thing.

My theory is this: Mickey was up against a deadline, and rather than finish The Big Bang, he pulled down an old, unpublished manuscript from his shelf--For Whom the Gods Would Destroy--and sent that in instead, under the title The Twisted Thing. He had written this novel right after selling I, the Jury (1947) to E.P. Dutton, making it the second Mike Hammer mystery. But Dutton rejected the sequel--hardcover sales were weak on I, the Jury. When Signet Books had a huge success with the paperback reprint of I, the Jury, however, the editor at Dutton came back to Mickey requesting For Whom the Gods Would Destroy.

Mickey said no. He chose to write My Gun Is Quick (1950) instead, and I believe I know why. The response from readers to the sex and violence of I, the Jury dictated a different second Mike Hammer novel. For Whom the Gods Would Destroy went onto a shelf in the writer’s upstate New York home, where the sole manuscript was nearly lost in a fire. The retrieved pages lacked only the final one, which had been burned black; Mickey replaced it in 1966, though a restoration of the charred page revealed Mickey had remembered the original ending almost word for word.

Spillane’s noir universe was so timeless that very little revision was required for publication in 1966 of a novel written in 1948. A small passage with Hammer’s cop friend, Pat Chambers, makes reference to the events of the immediately preceding Hammers, The Girl Hunters (1962) and The Snake (1964), the first new Hammer novels since the hugely successful Kiss Me, Deadly (1952).

The Twisted Thing fit in well with the 1960s Hammer novels, which were tough and sexy but lacked the emotional fire and extremes of violence and passion that had made I, the Jury (and the five Hammer novels that quickly followed it) such icons of controversy in the early 1950s. Ironically, critics--notably New York Times stalwart Anthony Boucher, who warmed to Spillane in the ’60s (after hammering him in the ’50s)--greeted the “new” Hammer mystery with accolades. “I suggest,” said Boucher, “that [Mike Hammer’s] creator is one of the last of the great storytellers in the pulp tradition, as he amply demonstrates in The Twisted Thing.”

Boucher, in terming the novel “vintage” Spillane, didn’t know how right he was--or that he was responding enthusiastically to a novel written in the very period during which the critic had been (in his words) “one of the leaders in the attacks on Spillane.”

Looking at The Twisted Thing in that context, Spillane shelving it and substituting My Gun Is Quick is easy to understand: the latter novel plays off the violence and vengeance of I, the Jury, with sexual passages that were frank for the day, and exhibits a generally seamy, sordid feel, beginning with Hammer encountering a friendly hooker in a diner. Commercially, My Gun Is Quick was a far better choice.

The Twisted Thing implies the vengeful Hammer of the first novel was not envisioned by the writer as the Hammer of all the novels--rather, I, the Jury appears intended to tell just that one tale of murdered-friend vengeance. In The Twisted Thing, Hammer seems well-adjusted, even mellow, not haunted by the events of I, the Jury as he would be in One Lonely Night (1951) and other early novels. There is some casual sex, and some rough stuff, but the dominant theme is a father-and-son relationship between Mike Hammer and 14-year-old “child genius” Ruston York. The cold rage and hot blood that fuels the more famous Hammer novels is largely absent (so is the love of Hammer’s life, his secretary Velda), and indicates Spillane was intending to make Hammer a more standard tough P.I. with the major twist being the placement of that Race Williams-like figure in an Agatha Christie-style classical mystery.

Also absent is Spillane’s noir-ish New York--The Twisted Thing takes place in a small town, where Hammer is initially involved with rescuing young Ruston from kidnappers. The tough, corrupt local cop--the evocatively named Dilwick--provides the initial conflict, but the young genius’ wealthy father is soon murdered, and away Hammer goes. Hoods and a casino right out of The Big Sleep provide the tough dick with further fun and games, but his detective work is right out of Christie, again, a search for missing documents more typical of Hercule Poirot than Hammer.

This is lively pulp--imagine a novel by Carroll John Daly, had Daly actually been able to write--and (with the possible exception of the comeback tale, The Girl Hunters) the best of the ’60s Hammers ... though, of course, it isn’t a ’60s Hammer at all, rather a late ’40s one. The ending, revealing the identity of the murderer, comes in typical, abrupt, shocking Spillane style, and makes a lot of sense as the second such ending Spillane wrote, a huge surprise in 1966 that still has power today. The small-town setting, the classic pulp cast (troubled millionaire, willing wench, crooked cops, casino thugs), and the father-and-son relationship at the novel’s core make The Twisted Thing unique among Hammer novels, and a fun glimpse into where the character might have gone, had the reading public post-I, the Jury not gone into a blood-lust for Spillane at his most extreme.

And I am right in line with the kill-crazy public of the time, because the emotionally twisted thing that was Mike Hammer in One Lonely Night and the other early novels is what truly sets Spillane apart as a key hard-boiled writer. The Twisted Thing, had it been published in 1948, might have taken Hammer and his creator down a more traditional, and less artistically and commercially successful, path.

The novel is not currently in print, although finding used copies (millions of paperback reprints were sold) isn’t tough. While the early Hammers seem to remain constantly in print, in one form or another, The Twisted Thing is not among them. Which is a pity: as Anthony Boucher said, it’s vintage Spillane. Vintage 1948, to be precise.

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Next week, Oklahoma novelist Will Thomas will take up the challenge of picking another “forgotten book” for The Rap Sheet. Thomas is of course the author of Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn historical detective novels, the newest of which is The Black Hand.

READ MORE:Mickey Spillane,” by Steve Holland (Mystery*File); “Mickey Spillane Interview,” by Michael Carlson (Crime Time); “Mickey and Me,” by Max Allan Collins (January Magazine).


pattinase (abbott) said...

Am I missing the second one? Just trying to compile the list for tomorrow? PA

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Yes, you missed the second one. I posted it later in the day: Timothy Hallinan talking about Coffin's Got the Dead Guy on the Inside, by Keith Snyder. Look here: