Monday, May 17, 2010

A High Point for Hammer

Mickey Spillane is proving to be almost as productive an author in death as he ever was in life. Since his passing in 2006, at age 88, the creator of hard-fisted fictional private detective Mike Hammer has been credited with writing three published novels: a standalone called Dead Street, which was brought out by Hard Case Crime in 2007; and a pair of fresh Hammer yarns, The Goliath Bone (2008) and a new one, The Big Bang, both released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Plus, there’s word that a third Hammer book, Kiss Her Goodbye, will reach bookstores next year, with more titles to come.

Such posthumous prolificacy might cause even Robert Ludlum’s corpse to twitch with uncontainable envy.

But while Spillane’s name appears first on these books, it’s actually his longtime friend and occasional collaborator, Shamus Award-winning Iowa writer Max Allan Collins (shown above), who has done the heavy lifting necessary to bring all of the fiction “The Mick” left behind to market. Entrusted by Spillane’s wife, Jane, with several of her late husband’s fractional manuscripts, Collins has since been fleshing out and polishing them for publication as novels (on in some instances, as short stories), using Spillane’s “extensive notes” on the works as well as his own astute deductions of what the late wordsmith wanted from these tale fragments.

The results certainly prove that Spillane was right to tap Collins--author of the hard-boiled Nate Heller private eye series, as well as myriad other crime-fiction and movie tie-in works--as his post-grave promoter. Reviewing The Big Bang for the Web site Bookgasm, Bruce Grossman calls it “a fantastic read for longtime Hammer fans who have wanted to see their hero return to form. And wow, does he ever. This is the brutal, go-for-the-throat, bashing-in-heads and take-no-prisoners Hammer that we all know and love. ... Collins does a great job of capturing the Spillane speak and storytelling.”

While the previous Spillane-Collins collaboration, The Goliath Bone, found Mike Hammer pushing retirement, tired of the fight and finally ready to settle down with his long-suffering but ever-sexy secretary, Velda Sterling, The Big Bang--touted as “The Lost Mike Hammer Sixties Novel”--sends the private dick back to his guns-blazing, lascivious prime. The time is the mid-’60s. The Vietnam War is ramping up, the Beatles are big, and discotheques are cropping up all over the island of Manhattan. Hammer, still recovering from an unfortunate run-in with mobsters, comes to the rescue of a young hospital messenger, who was set upon in the street by a couple of well-armed toughs. It looked like an isolated instance of violence. But after being attacked by a knife-armed dandy, Hammer realizes that he has stepped into something bad. Something big. And nothing could be bigger than rumors of a supposed, humongous shipment of illegal narcotics wending its way to New York City, Hammer’s turf. The burg has lately been experiencing a shortage of drugs, which has caused some desperation among the strung-out users and a rivalry between suppliers. With the assistance of Velda, a broken-hearted doctor, and Hammer’s gutsy (but surprisingly girl-shy) police buddy, Captain Pat Chambers, our hero tries to figure out who attacked the hospital messenger and how to shut down the lowlifes who want to keep a generation of young Americans high.

Curious to know more about how The Big Bang came to be published, I solicited Max Allan Collins for an interview. Our resulting e-mail exchange, found below, covers topics ranging from Spillane’s fickleness about manuscripts in progress and Collins’ delight in writing about a younger Hammer, to Velda’s tolerance of her randy boss, Spillane works yet to come, Collins’ development of an original Hammer radio novel called “The Little Death,” and the long-awaited comeback of Nate Heller.

J. Kingston Pierce: First of all, tell us about the circumstances surrounding Mickey Spillane starting to write The Big Bang, but then abandoning it, midway through, in 1965.

Max Allan Collins: Mickey owed a Mike Hammer novel to [publishers] E.P. Dutton and Signet, and when it looked like he wouldn’t meet deadline, he dusted off an existing unpublished Hammer novel, For Whom the Gods Would Destroy, re-titled it The Twisted Thing, and sent that instead. The Twisted Thing was actually the second Hammer, dating to around 1949, but Dutton rejected it after disappointing hardcover sales of I, the Jury [1947]. When I, the Jury took off in paperback, Mickey wrote My Gun Is Quick [1950] and that became the official “second” Mike Hammer novel. Why he didn’t give his publishers The Twisted Thing instead, I can only speculate--I think possibly he wanted to do something a little more overtly violent and sexual, with the vengeance theme that had helped make I, the Jury such a success.

JKP: And then after publishing The Twisted Thing, why did he not go back to working on The Big Bang?

MAC: Mickey had met deadline, so he kicked back, fully intending to get to The Big Bang. Very typical of Mickey--he claimed he only wrote when he needed the money. But, also, when he got away from a manuscript, and lost his momentum--he was a very fast, in-the-moment writer--he sometimes never got back to it. He would tell me about these books, and share their endings with me, and seem to vaguely intend to return to them. But his preference was to go with a new idea, a fresh enthusiasm.

Still, The Big Bang was a book he liked--he often told me the ending was his favorite. Notes I made of his description of the ending, on a visit to his home in South Carolina in 1981, came in very handy, because he never wrote it down.

JKP: How did you come to acquire the manuscript of The Big Bang? And I understand it was a very lucky thing that you did!

MAC: My friend Jim Traylor and I visited Mickey in 1981 to gather material for our critical book, One Lonely Knight: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (which got an Edgar nomination). We were in South Carolina for several days, having casual conversations with Mick that also were interviews for the book. Mickey casually mentioned a couple of unpublished Mike Hammer novels. When Jim and I showed enthusiasm, he dug out the unfinished manuscripts of two Hammers--The Big Bang and Complex 90. Jim and I read them both one evening, trading manuscripts back and forth. And the next morning at breakfast, we told Mickey how much we liked them. Remember, there hadn’t been a new Mike Hammer since [Survival ... Zero! in] 1970! Having Mickey Spillane hand you two unpublished Hammer novels for bedtime reading was beyond belief. Then, around 1989, I was visiting Mickey at Murrells Inlet [in South Carolina] again--we had started doing some projects together, like the Mike Danger comic book--and out of the blue, he handed me an envelope with both of the unfinished Hammers in it. He said, “Maybe we’ll do something with these some day.” Shortly thereafter, his home was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, and those two books very likely would have been lost.

JKP: How does The Big Bang fit into the series of Mike Hammer novels Spillane wrote during the 1960s? Does it measure up?

MAC: I think it’s probably the best ’60s Hammer, with the possible exception of The Girl Hunters [1962], but that’s extremely immodest to say, since I had a hand in it. The lengthy fragment Mickey gave me certainly was as strong as anything he wrote in the ’60s.

Mickey had been away from Hammer for a couple of years when he wrote The Big Bang, and used a recurring theme/plot device that you can see in The Deep [1961], Black Alley [1996], and also the forthcoming Kiss Her Goodbye--the tough guy has been away from New York and returns a somewhat changed man to a somewhat changed urban landscape. There are parallels here: Spillane leaving New York to live in South Carolina; Hammer returning to crime fighting reluctantly, while Spillane returns to the typewriter reluctantly.

JKP: How much of The Big Bang is actually Spillane’s, and what contributions did you bring to that existing story?

MAC: Each of these books is different, but the outcome is usually about 50-50 Mickey and me. In the case of The Big Bang, Mickey had written four very long chapters. I turned these into around seven or eight somewhat shorter chapters, expanding and shaping and inserting my own stuff. In addition to those chapters, Mickey had significant plot and character notes. Plus, he had given me the ending.

What I do not do is simply plop down Mickey’s portion, and then pick up where he leaves off. The seamlessness many readers and reviewers have noted derives in part from my method of weaving material in and around Mickey’s. I frankly can’t always remember who wrote what, when I’m looking at the galley proofs. But that’s the way it should be in a good collaboration.

JKP: The Big Bang is all about the trafficking of recreational drugs into the United States and the negative effects that trade had on users. Spillane was a pretty conservative guy, as I understand it--at least politically conservative. Can I assume he was concerned in real life about the perniciousness of the international drugs business?

MAC: He felt strongly about this subject. The Big Bang’s conclusion (which we will allude to but not reveal) posits a solution to New York’s drug problem that is shockingly harsh. Mickey told me that if his own son were a drug addict, he would stand behind what Mike Hammer does at the end of the novel. He did not see the ending as just metaphorical, but as practical. To me, it’s a surprise finish that ranks with I, the Jury, Vengeance Is Mine! [1950], and Kiss Me, Deadly [1952].

JKP: By the way, it did not pass me by, that the luxury liner carrying drugs into the United States at the end of The Big Bang has almost the same name--the Paloma vs. La Paloma--as the ship that bore Caspar Gutman’s prized “black bird” from Hong Kong to San Francisco in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Certainly, that’s not a coincidence. Was it your idea or Mickey’s?

MAC: You are the first reader to notice (or, anyway, tell me about) La Paloma. My idea (Mickey was a Red Harvest man, not Maltese Falcon).

JKP: The first posthumous Mike Hammer novel you completed, The Goliath Bone, was also the last one that Spillane worked on. It found his detective a much older man, ready to slip into an easier, married life. The Big Bang turns back the clock four decades. Was it invigorating to work, in this second novel, with Hammer in his heyday?

MAC: I enjoyed working on The Goliath Bone very much--it was a rare opportunity to give a famous series a real conclusion. And I thought exploring the older Hammer was interesting and fun. Some readers don’t dig the older, more mellow Hammer--seems to me he’s a pretty violent, hard-boiled character, even “mellow”--but I like the autobiographical aspect of a series like this. Hammer in Goliath Bone represents where Mickey was in his final years.

But I do relish working with the younger Hammer, in a “vintage” Spillane story where the character is smoking cigarettes, and ogling “dames” (and frequently doing something about it), and killing bad guys with righteous over-the-top violence.

JKP: The Big Bang takes place during the “tune in, turn on, drop out” 1960s, when the Fab Four were big and the war in Southeast Asia was building up and President Lyndon Johnson was just establishing his Great Society domestic programs. I expected more references in the story to events such as those, which would firmly establish its time period. But they came few and far between--occasional mentions here and there of discotheques, Bridget Bardot, miniskirts, and the availability of both morning and afternoon newspapers during that era. Did you not feel that such cultural references were essential? Or did you choose to leave them out because Spillane did? After all, this wasn’t a manuscript that needed historical references at the time he was writing it.

MAC: The Big Bang is not an historical novel. It’s a mid-’60s novel, conceived around 1964 or ’65 (Vietnam protests weren’t full steam yet). I was very sparing with adding period details, but there are quite a few woven in, more than you note--the discotheque, for example, is based on New York’s Cheetah and there is a discussion of another notorious go-go palace, Arthur’s, run by Richard Burton’s ex-wife. The Rolling Stones and “Satisfaction” are mentioned, so are the Beatles and peace marches. There are Playboy references, and at least one period baseball reference. It’s there. Just not heavy-handed. The LSD sequence is certainly a key period aspect to the tale.

JKP: You’ve written a great number of historical crime novels by now, so you must have thought a lot about this: How much in terms of cultural references, period-appropriate slang, and allusions to real-life news is necessary to firmly establish a crime novel in its historical time period? And how do you know when you’ve gone overboard?

MAC: I don’t have a formula for this. Don Westlake, when he was helping me with the first Nate Heller novel, True Detective [1983], told me to “take the reader on a time machine” in Chapter One, then back off. It’s good advice. I will go heavier on it in a Heller than I would in these Hammer collaborations, because the Hellers are indeed historical novels. But in either case, I try not to overdo. The mentions of pop-culture stuff, for example, have to come in naturally. Where Mike Hammer might not mention what song’s playing on the radio in his car, Nate Heller probably will.

The Big Bang--like the forthcoming Nate Heller novel, Bye Bye, Baby, which Tor/Forge will bring out in the summer of 2011--represents me having to write about a “period” that I lived through (it’s about the murder of Marilyn Monroe). I started out writing about the first half of the 20th century, but beginning with Road to Paradise [2005], I have found myself frequently writing about history I lived through. And it’s harder in a way. Like they say, if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.

JKP: There’s a lot of humor in The Big Bang, sometimes packaged with innuendo. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I read Spillane’s early books, but I don’t remember as much humor offered in them as I find here. Have you chosen to turn up the lightness a bit, or is that original to Spillane’s prose?

MAC: I actually try to avoid too much humor in the Hammers. Mickey’s humor and mine are not the same--my characters Nate Heller and Quarry are very wryly funny in ways Hammer is not. But Mickey did have a sense of humor that got into his books--it’s a more macho, Howard Hawks, male banter kind of thing, plus of course black humor, like draping dead hit men over a sign that says “DEAD END,” as he did in Kiss Me, Deadly.

Also, Mickey had a more humorous, bordering on tongue-in-cheek approach to the ’60s novels, revealing a sense of Hammer’s absurdity. And those are the books I studied in depth in writing The Big Bang, doing my best to capture his style, tone, technique, in the appropriate period. Typical of his humor around that time is the following exchange between him and Laura, a lovely widow:
“If I don’t talk, will you belt me one?”

“Hell,” I said, “I never hit dames.”

Her eyebrows went up in mock surprise.

“I always kick ’em.”
JKP: I’m always amazed, in reading the Hammer books, that his secretary, Velda, was willing to stick with the big Neanderthal, to love him, even when he was “sowing his wild oats.” I’ve had conversations with women who find that unbelievable. How do you see Velda’s persistence in pursuing Hammer?

MAC: Velda was a problem for Mickey. As soon as he realized Mike and Velda were really, genuinely in love, he was in a fix. Imagine the trouble Ian Fleming would have got himself in, if James Bond and Moneypenny ever really became an item?

In [1951’s] The Big Kill, for example, Spillane has Hammer send Velda out of town on a case, just to get her out of the way. The Girl Hunters devises a way to keep Velda out of a book even though she’s the “Girl” of the title. Plus, Mickey changed his mind over the years about whether Velda and Mike ever had sex. It’s fairly obvious that Velda and Hammer “do it” at the end of The Snake [1964]. Then in his last couple of books--when Mickey had returned to the conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses sect--he pretended that Mike and Velda were still waiting till they got married to do the deed. Yet it’s clear in The Body Lovers [1967] and Survival ... Zero! that Mickey and Velda are lovers. And in Mickey’s Big Bang manuscript, they are overtly so.

As for the arrangement Mike and Velda had, I would say two things--first, Spillane had to come up with some way to allow Mike Hammer to be in love with Velda and yet still be the somewhat promiscuous horndog readers knew and loved.

The other thing is, the period where Velda and Hammer have this free-love, open-relationship thing going is 1962-1970, and had you lobbied women during that time frame, you would probably not have found quite so many who found that arrangement unbelievable.

Anyway, mystery series are not documentaries. Why do Watson and Archie Goodwin put up with Holmes and Wolfe? Any why does anybody put up with Poirot?

JKP: I understand you’ve already delivered a third posthumous Mike Hammer novel--Kiss Her Goodbye--to your publisher. Can you tell us something about the plot and time period of that next work? When did Spillane work on Kiss Her Goodbye, and again, why did he not finish it?

MAC: Mickey began the novel twice, similar openings going in two directions, first in the mid-’70s and then around 1980. I’ve combined these, but stayed with the original ’70s setting.

After nearly dying in a firefight with the mobsters, Hammer sneaks off to Florida to recuperate. Thinking he may not make it, and not wanting to subject Velda to further danger, he breaks off their long relationship. When the story begins, Hammer has been in Florida over a year and is still in somewhat rough shape, but his pal Pat Chambers gets him to return to New York for the funeral of their mentor, Inspector Doolan, who supposedly committed suicide. Of course, Hammer wants to make sure it’s really suicide, and we’re off and running. The plot involves the Mob, politics, and Nazi diamonds, much of it centering on a club very much like Studio 54. He also becomes entangled with a Madonna-like disco queen.

Mike, most unhappy with the way Manhattan has changed, is somewhat adrift without Velda, who has left the city, their relationship over. Aside from his friendship with Pat, he’s alone--isn’t even working out of his office. It’s an unusual character study of Hammer in early middle age, unique in the canon, out of the ordinary for a mystery series. He begins somewhat weak and even reluctant to get back in the fray. Gradually he becomes the full-blooded Mike Hammer again, and the action and violence get as extreme as in One Lonely Night [1951].

I love The Big Bang and was delighted with how it came out. I fully expected Kiss Her Goodbye not to measure up to its predecessor. But it does.

JKP: You’ve told me that your present publishing contract is up with the release of Kiss Her Goodbye. But if Houghton Mifflin Harcourt eventually signs you up to rework and rewrite more of Spillane’s left-behind fiction, what else is there to offer? I know there’s an unpublished book called King of the Weeds waiting for attention, but what else?

MAC: There were half a dozen major, substantial Mike Hammer manuscripts--all well over 100 pages, plus character and plot notes. They virtually span Mickey’s entire career, and Hammer’s. As you say, we’ve done three.

It may seem unbelievable that so many Hammer books were begun and then set aside, but Mickey was a unique case. He lived to be 88, and these unfinished manuscripts date as early as 1948 and as late as the last weeks of his life. In addition to the half-dozen Mike Hammers, there was Dead Street (which I completed for Hard Case Crime), a finished novella (“The Last Stand”), a third juvenile novel in his Josh and Larry series, and the unfinished sequel to The Delta Factor [1968]--The Consummata.

Why did Mickey start so many things he didn’t finish? The chief reason seems to be the conflict between his trademark sex-and-violence approach to fiction and his conservative religious beliefs. His conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was in 1952--when he stopped writing Hammer novels for almost 10 years. His most fertile period, from 1960 to 1975, happens when he’s on the outs with the church. His widow, Jane, says he would put manuscripts aside when he got uneasy that the Witnesses might object to their content. In fact, in Mickey’s last week, when he suggested to both Jane and me that I should complete these manuscripts, Jane warned him that the result would not likely be pleasing to Mickey’s church. Mickey gave his blessing, anyway.

As a Spillane/Hammer fan, the opportunity to add another six Mike Hammer novels--with genuine, substantial Spillane content--to the canon is a responsibility, privilege, and delight. Of the remaining three manuscripts, one is another mid-’60s novel, Complex 90, with a Cold War theme, essentially a sequel to The Girl Hunters. In some ways the most exciting is Lady, Go, Die!, a Hammer novel from around 1948 that would have been the second in the series, preceding even The Twisted Thing.

The last of the trio will bring us full circle--King of the Weeds was a book Mickey started back in the ’80s, as kind of a response to the Stacy Keach TV show. He worked on in fits and starts into the 1990s, intending it to be the final Hammer novel (Pat Chambers is nearing retirement). He set this aside when he got excited about doing the post-9/11 novel, The Goliath Bone.

There are also shorter fragments. Yet another trio of novels could be done, if the public is interested, but the manuscripts are much less substantial, a chapter and notes in most cases. I set aside seven shorter Hammer fragments to be turned into short stories--I’ve already done two of these for The Strand Magazine. There should eventually be enough for a Hammer short-story collection.

There was also a one-page outline for a novel that I used as the basis for the second of my Stacy Keach-starring “audio novels” for Blackstone Audio [part of the New Adventures of Mike Hammer series], “Encore for Murder,” which we’ll be recording in Chicago toward the end of this month. The previous one, “The Little Death,” was based on an early ’50s radio script by Mickey ...

JKP: Since you mention “The Little Death,” let’s talk about that radio drama. Did you approach Blackstone Audio with the idea of writing the radio play, or was your professional assistance solicited?

MAC: Stacy Keach read the audio book of The Goliath Bone for Blackstone, and I was blown away by his performance--he’s a great Mike Hammer, and the definitive Hammer for several generations, thanks to two TV series in the ’80s, another in the ’90s, plus a spate of TV movies.

Pretty much simultaneously with the release of the Goliath Bone audio, Blackstone brought out Volume One of The New Adventures of Mike Hammer. This was produced by Carl Amari, the mastermind behind the new Twilight Zone radio plays and the very successful, complete all-star-cast recording of the Bible that came out recently. Carl and Stacy had worked together a lot, and they decided to do the New Adventures project more as an extension of Stacy’s TV series than Mickey’s novels.

I thought Volume One was beautifully produced and well-acted, but the stories frankly underwhelmed me--they were perfectly professional, but again they hearkened to the TV show, where the material rarely lived up to Stacy’s potential, or Mike Hammer’s. I asked Jane Spillane to put me in touch with Carl and I offered my services for the next volume, if there was one. He seemed thrilled to have me volunteer.

My idea was, if we’re coming out with these new Spillane/Collins Hammer novels, with Stacy reading the audio books, why not bring the New Adventures more in line with the real Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer?

JKP: For people who haven’t yet had the opportunity to listen to “A Little Death,” can you tell us a bit about that story’s plot?

MAC: “The Little Death” has a somewhat convoluted history. In the 1950s Mickey wrote an unproduced radio script called “The Night I Died.” This was among a hodge-podge of unpublished materials he sent home with me on one of my South Carolina visits. In 1998, Mickey and I were editing Private Eyes, an anthology of short stories for NAL, and I wanted a Hammer story for it. Mickey never really wrote Mike Hammer short stories, so I asked his permission to turn that radio play into one. I didn’t take credit on it, but that was our first Hammer collaboration, really.

Around the time Road to Perdition came out, I wrote a screenplay based on the short story--also with Mickey’s blessing. Jay Bernstein, Mickey’s longtime TV producer, liked it, and we were kicking it around for a while, but nothing came of it. But I really, really liked it. It was designed to be the ultimate Mike Hammer movie--using all of the motifs, all of the familiar situations.

So when Carl Amari asked me to write the next New Adventures volume, I wondered if we might do just one big story (the first volume was two stories, like episodes of the TV show). He was fine with that, and I used the screenplay as the basis for the audio novel.

It begins with a sort of pre-credits sequence that is the end of Mike Hammer’s last adventure, as if we’re starting this story with the finish of I, the Jury. Then it deals with a woman on the run from mobsters who think she’s stolen $10 million from back when she was a murdered mob boss’ mistress. It’s filled with settings and situations from the novels--an illegal casino, Velda getting kidnapped, wild shoot-outs, plus there’s a war veteran who is murdered ... not Hammer’s pal, but a guy who saved Hammer’s late father’s life.

Even as a movie script, it was always meant to be a little broader than the books, just slightly tongue-in-cheek, with no regard for avoiding what might be considered cliché. Just embracing the pulp.

JKP: I wrote a radio drama series back in college, but I’m sure it was nothing like what you have to go through to make one of these shows today. How involved have you been in the process?

MAC: I had to bring my more Spillane-faithful script in line with Stacy’s TV version. I was asked to use several characters from the show, and schtick like the mysterious woman called The Face and some of the so-called Hammer doll stuff, where every good-looking female finds Mike irresistible. I wasn’t necessarily a fan of all of this, but I came to realize I had the rare opportunity to bring this very famous version of Mike Hammer, the Stacy Keach version, more in line with Mickey’s vision. My scripts would be where the TV show and the novels met. Converged.

Both Carl and Stacy have been great. Their notes have been minimal and helpful and wholly supportive. And I am there in the studio during the recording session. Carl directs, but I am able to put in my two cents if I think the interpretation is off. Or to offer a new line if something in the script doesn’t seem to be playing. There were times, and this is unbelievable, but there were times when I gave Stacy Keach line readings. Talk about nerve.

JKP: What sorts of things are trickiest about trying to tell a Hammer story through dialogue and sounds only?

MAC: Well, I’ve done two of these now. “The Little Death” was tricky because it had been conceived as a screenplay, very, very visual in its storytelling. So it required re-thinking. The screenplay form wants the least amount of dialogue possible--the audio version wants more dialogue. The new one was written with the radio form in mind, and was easier.

I view these as audio novels, and I use very heavy first-person narration. Very novelistic. Then when we get to dialogue, I back off on narration. But a fight scene or action scene may play heavily through Stacy’s voiceover. Voiceover that plays not over filmed images but the images your imagination is manufacturing.

Also, I am a longtime fan of old radio. My wife and I have listened to radio shows in the car for decades--Dragnet, Sam Spade, Amos ’n’ Andy, The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee & Molly. Also the old Mickey Spillane’s That Hammer Guy. So I think the sound effects/dialogue-driven storytelling just seeped in.

A great boon is the music, which Stacy does himself. We have the rights to use “Harlem Nocturne,” by Earl Hagen, which Stacy’s various Hammer TV series used as their theme. And we give it plenty of play.

JKP: It’s interesting that Stacy Keach should have been chosen to reprise his TV role as Mike Hammer for these radio plays. Was Blackstone hoping he might attract some of the older audience that used to tune in to Keach’s shows? Frankly, I would’ve thought starting out with a new actor, somebody to inaugurate what looks like it’s going to become a series of these audio dramas, might have been the better idea.

MAC: Blackstone viewed it as a great opportunity to have the most famous living embodiment of Mike Hammer doing “new” adventures. Me, too.

Stacy is a great Mike Hammer. Keep in mind I am such a stone Spillane fan that I like almost every film and TV version of Hammer--Biff Elliot, Ralph Meeker, Brian Keith, Darren McGavin. With the right direction, Robert Bray would’ve been good. OK, maybe not Rob Estes, but Kevin Dobson was fine and Armand Assante was terrific. A guy named Spillane did it all right, too.

But make a note--for a couple of generations, Stacy is Mike Hammer. And I feel very lucky to get to write for him. Plus, of all those Hammers I mentioned, Stacy has the best voice. And acting chops.

JKP: Do you find delights in working on a Hammer radio play that are different from those available to you in completing a Spillane novel?

MAC: Little in my career compares to the experience of getting inside a Mike Hammer manuscript and expanding it and finishing it, working inside Spillane’s art, working with Mickey essentially, to craft these final Hammer novels.

The audio productions, though, give me a chance to show what I could have done if Jay Bernstein had had the sense to hire me to write some of those Mike Hammer scripts back in the ’80s and ’90s. “The Little Death” is the great Hammer movie that never got made, now available for screening in your brain.

JKP: And where does your second Hammer audio novel, “Encore for Murder,” take the private dick and his cohorts, storywise?

MAC: Among Mickey’s fragments was a one-page novel outline. There are plenty of substantial Spillane manuscripts that need completing, so this was not a candidate for expansion to book-length. One of the really cool things about “The Little Death” is that it marks the first time Stacy Keach ever did a Mike Hammer production actually based on Spillane material. So I decided to use this novel outline as the basis for my second audio novel, and again give Stacy a real Spillane story to appear in.

“Encore for Murder” finds Hammer hired to be the bodyguard for a Broadway diva who is returning in a revival of her first big success. Years ago, she and Mike had been an item--she left him to pursue her theatrical dream. Now he’s hired to protect her because of some very nasty, threatening letters. Complicating this is the actress’ ties to the mob--her late husband, a SoHo art gallery owner, was the “white sheep” of a Chicago mob family. When a hit attempt goes down, Hammer wonders if he’s the target, not the diva, though eventually she is kidnapped.

JKP: You said before that you have a 13th Nate Haller novel due out next year, Bye Bye, Baby. How does it feel to be back in the saddle with Heller once more? And why the nine-year time lag since your man’s last adventure, in Chicago Confidential?

MAC: Chicago Confidential came out right before the film version of Road to Perdition hit. After that, I dug in for a few years, writing the prose sequels Road to Purgatory [2004] and Road to Paradise, plus a second graphic novel, Road to Perdition 2: On the Road. I also had a couple of non-Heller historicals I wanted to do, Black Hats [2007] and Red Sky in Morning [2008]--both published as by “Patrick Culhane.”

Also, I had a number of other commitments, including the so-called Disaster novels [one of which is The Titanic Murders], and when those ran out, the same publisher asked for a comics-related historical series, and I did the two Jack and Maggie Starr books, A Killing in Comics [2007] and Strip for Murder [2008]. I really love those books--they incorporate comic art by my Ms. Tree collaborator, Terry Beatty--but they didn’t do particularly well.

During this period I got involved in indie filmmaking, too--directing four features and two feature-length documentaries (one of them about Mickey Spillane). And did some screenplays, including The Last Lullaby, based on my Quarry story, “A Matter of Principal” (expanded into The Last Quarry [2006]).

Plus, I wanted to give Heller a rest for a while so that he could come back with, if you’ll excuse the expression, a big bang.

Doing Heller again was a breeze. Well, not the research--that’s always hard. But the voice is natural to me. Heller and Quarry are my native voices. The only tricky part is that Heller is 10 years older than when we last saw him, and the time period is radically different--early ’60s. We’re not in the Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe era now--we’re 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn. (I even reveal that Heller was a creative consultant on Peter Gunn.)

I have a two-book contract, and will be spending the rest of this year on the next Heller--dealing with the Kennedy assassination. This is getting toward the end of the saga chronologically, but if these do at all well, I will do more. There’s nothing I prefer doing--not even completing Mickey’s Mike Hammer novels--over writing Nate Heller.

JKP: Do you think there’s anything you’ve learned in working on Spillane’s Hammer novels that affected Bye Bye, Baby, or that might influence future Heller yarns?

MAC: No. Mickey long since had his influence on me, and Hammer on Heller. The chief differences between Hammer and Heller are as follows: Heller votes Democratic; Heller will take a bribe; and Heller is much funnier. But both of them will kill, with no compunction, those worthy of killing. And Heller is even randier than Hammer.

JKP: Finally, I’m sure that many Rap Sheet readers will wonder what has become of Spillane’s wife, Jane, since the author’s death in 2006. Can you give us an update?

MAC: Jane is great. Still in Murrells Inlet in the house Mickey built after Hurricane Hugo. She and I are the officers of Mickey Spillane Publishing, L.L.C. She is involved every step of the way. We are great friends. We talk on the phone and laugh and laugh. We do not talk politics much. That she and Mickey put up with a liberal like me says a lot about all of us.

Speaking of conservatives who put up with me, much credit for Mike Hammer getting back into print goes to Otto Penzler, who actively went after these books, and under whose imprint they appear. It took an editor with Otto’s persistence and vision, and love for the genre, to make this happen.

(Author photograph by Mark Coggins. Used with permission.)


Ali Karim said...

Bloody great feature,

MAC is one of the most under-apprecaited writers from readers outside of the genre.

Wonderful feature, thank you and Hammer Rocks!


Frank Loose said...

What a terrific interview. Thanks for sharing this.

David Cranmer said...

One helluva fantastic interview. And for my money, THE BIG BANG is the finest Hammer novel. I, THE JURY is now second.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I second the opinion of the quiet man who led off this string. Rarely has so much information been packed into such relatively little bandwidth. Thanks.
 Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Glen Davis said...

The news that there is a sequel to the Delta Factor is very interesting to me. I always felt Morgan the Raider was Spillane's most underrated character.

Max Allan Collins said...

Glen, I agree with you about Morgan the Raider. The sequel is quite good (Mickey wrote over 100 pages of it).

We've been in discussion with Hard Case Crime for me to complete it. Right now, though, the Hammer material is the priority.