Thursday, May 10, 2012

No Holiday for Hammer

With the release this week of Lady, Go Die!, and word of two more Mike Hammer private-eye novels to be published over the next couple of years, Mickey Spillane’s friend and posthumous collaborator, Max Allan Collins, is on track to increase the quantity of Hammer yarns by almost 50 percent. Spillane passed away in 2006, at age 88, leaving behind 13 books starring Hammer, the cynical, sexist, and habitually well-armed Manhattan shamus he’d introduced in 1947’s I, the Jury. By 2014, Collins will have added half a dozen more works to that series, all employing material--partially written stories, plotting notes, and scene fragments--that Spillane asked to have put in his care when he was gone.

Mike Hammer may not have been well respected by many critics of his time, and younger, more naïve readers today may shun him as a relic of this genre’s shoot-’em-first-and-determine-blame-later past. But if there’s one thing that old gumshoe’s got, it’s staying power.

Lady, Go Die! is being promoted as the lost sequel to I, the Jury. Spillane evidently started writing this novel back in the mid-1940s, but then stuck it away in a box, never to complete the work. And that’s too bad, because as Bookgasm remarks, had Lady, Go Die! been published “when originally written, it would have been just as powerful and popular as its 1947 predecessor.”

The tale is vintage Spillane, a top-notch entry in the long-running Hammer series. Even if the twist at the end is somewhat predictable, the story preceding it is agreeably replete with gunplay and swaggering hoods and casual carnality. The plot starts off fast as Hammer--struggling to relax on a weekend getaway to a Long Island, New York, “recreational hamlet” with his voluptuous secretary, Velda Sterling--goes to the rescue of a scrawny beach bum, Stanley Cootz, better known as “Poochie,” who’s getting the sorry end of a thumping by three brawny, “baggy-suit bastards” in an alley. After breaking up the fist-fest, Hammer learns that those strong-arms wanted information from Poochie about the recent disappearance of Sharron Wesley, a local resident and “two-timing ex-chorus tomato that stood charges for murdering her millionaire husband and got off scot-free when an all-male jury paid more attention to her legs than the testimony.” Poochie claims ignorance of the woman’s whereabouts. However, after Wesley’s nude corpse suddenly turns up, draped over a horse statue outside the town of Sidon (“‘Lady Godiva herself,’ I said. ‘More like lady go die,’ Velda said, in hushed horror”), the artistic but seemingly enfeebled Poochie looks in more danger than ever. At least until Hammer and Velda can figure out a motive behind Wesley’s slaying and how that crime connects to a big-ticket gambling operation, small-town police corruption, and a series of dead lovelies left scattered across several police jurisdictions.

After I finished reading Lady, Go Die!, I contacted co-author Max Allan Collins, hoping to learn more about this book’s provenance, what parts of it actually came from Spillane’s old Smith-Corona typewriter, and what we might learn about the notorious careers of Mike Hammer and Velda Sterling from “lost” Hammer works still to be released. His answers to my questions appear below.

J. Kingston Pierce: In an opening note in Lady, Go Die!, you explain that you didn’t immediately recognize this novel as Spillane’s second, unfinished book, but thought that it was an early version of his 1966 Hammer work, The Twisted Thing. How long did it take you to discover its true importance, and what finally tipped you off?

Max Allan Collins: When I began reading it, that Lady, Go Die! was a different story became immediately apparent. But understand that I have a file cabinet drawer of unpublished, mostly unfinished Spillane material, and it took me a while to go through everything. The manuscripts of The Goliath Bone, The Big Bang, Complex 90, Kiss Her Goodbye, and King of the Weeds were clearly, obviously substantial Hammer manuscripts. There were a number of other, shorter Hammer manuscripts that I felt would either make short stories or possible novels, once those five were completed.

The other factor was that Lady, Go Die! began with Chapter 2--Chapter 1 had been lost--and was more on the order of 80 pages, rather than the 100 or more of those first, easily identifiable, unfinished Hammer novels. So even when I discovered how significant it was--as the follow-up to I, the Jury--I decided to set it aside. It was shorter, and I’d have to write the first chapter myself, and that all seemed to relegate it to a later slot, after I’d become really comfortable with this posthumous collaboration.

JKP: Can you speculate on why Spillane put this novel aside in the 1940s and never came back to finish it himself?

MAC: I have two theories. I think he may have started a sequel only to have an editor discourage him from submitting it, until sales reports for I, the Jury came in. And of course sales reports were poor for the hardcover. That’s presumably why The Twisted Thing, the second completed Hammer, was rejected by Dutton. It wasn’t until the paperback of I, the Jury that the book took off.

The other factor is Velda--I think Mickey may have realized he was heating their relationship up too fast. The partial manuscript ends with Velda getting kidnapped, a familiar plot twist in a Hammer novel, but too early in the narrative to work well. I held that up till much nearer the end of the book. Significantly, I think, Velda is absent from The Twisted Thing, which takes place in the same small town.

JKP: You mentioned that Spillane left behind only 80 pages of Lady, Go Die! But were there also notes about an ending, or did you have to come up with your own answer to who killed Sharron Wesley?

MAC: Most of the substantial manuscripts have plot notes, but Complex 90 and Lady, Go Die! did not, which is part of why I consigned them to the second round of three novels. Lady, Go Die! was three long chapters that amounted to about 80 double-spaced pages. I had a first chapter from the file of more fragmentary Hammer material that shared a similar serial-killer plot with Lady, Go Die! and I used that material in the book, as well, bringing the amount of Spillane prose up to equal that of the other novels. I tried using that chapter to replace the missing first chapter, but it didn’t work. Instead, I used it at the point where Spillane’s manuscript ended, which required little carpentry and opened up the plot of the novel to a larger landscape.

I did have to figure out the solution to the Sharron Wesley mystery myself, but I know Spillane inside and out, and have no doubt whatsoever that I have gone in his intended direction. One rule I follow is not to introduce any characters that aren’t in Mickey’s portion of the book. Sometimes these are characters who have not been on stage yet, and were merely mentioned. But I always stay with Mickey’s cast for the novel.

JKP: How do you usually go about integrating Spillane’s original prose into these books you’re finishing. Do we see Spillane’s stuff only at the beginning, or do you somehow spread his writing throughout?

MAC: I realize purists may howl, but I treat Mickey’s material as rough draft. I expand and extend it, in various ways. Mickey may skip a scene--in The Big Bang, Mickey’s second scene began with Mike just having had a big fight with the D.A., and he and Pat Chambers are discussing that. I wrote and inserted that scene with the D.A. I generally weave my stuff in and around his, which helps keep genuine Spillane writing going deep into the book. In Lady, Go Die!, as I’ve mentioned, Spillane had Velda getting kidnapped at the end of his Chapter 4. I moved that section to the end of my Chapter 11. His four chapters became Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, and Chapter 8 incorporates that additional first chapter of his with the similar serial-killer theme. It’s a fluid, if somewhat complicated process.

The end result is a genuine collaboration. There’s plenty of Spillane in these books, and he deserves his first billing.

JKP: Unless I’m mistaken, there’s no such place as the town of “Sidon” on Long Island. Do you know what real small town Spillane used as his inspiration? And was Spillane a big visitor to Long Island?

MAC: I believe Mickey and his parents did go to Long Island on getaways. Sidon is the name of the town in The Twisted Thing, and I retained it for Lady, Go Die! I don’t know if it’s based on a real town.

Frank Morrison “Mickey” Spillane in his early writing years.

JKP: You’ve now worked on Mike Hammer novels throughout the span of this character’s career. How do you see the sleuth evolving over those years? Or did he not really evolve at all?

MAC: Hammer evolves a great deal through the series, and that’s one of the challenges and delights of doing these novels. I am careful to study the novels fore and aft of the one I’m working on, keeping Hammer, and a general Spillane tone, consistent with what he’d been writing around the time he began the unfinished manuscript.

Generally, Hammer ages with Mickey, not in years, but emotionally and temperamentally. Young Hammer is a hotheaded, war-traumatized veteran ... not that Mickey was, but he identified with his generation of veterans who came home to a disappointing post-war world. Mid-stream Hammer is a more centered guy, not as prone to revenge though not immune to it--he doesn’t execute bad guys as often, often tricking them into causing their own demise. The Hammer of Mickey’s last two books is recognizably mellowed, and all but married to Velda. That’s the broad strokes, but even in the first six novels--the most popular and the best of the Hammers--Hammer evolves. As early as My Gun is Quick, he’s haunted by the famous last-page decision he made in I, the Jury. In Vengeance Is Mine! he swears he’ll never kill another woman. In One Lonely Night Hammer is tortured with guilt and doubt after a judge savages him in open court.

The Hammer of Lady, Go Die! is the Hammer of I, the Jury, The Twisted Thing, and My Gun Is Quick, suffering guilt for what he did at the end of the first book but not the self-tortured man of One Lonely Night.

JKP: I’m particularly fond of the typographically creative cover of Lady, Go Die! Created by Martin Stiff, from the graphic design studio Amazing15, it may be the strongest cover for one of your collaborative novels yet. Do you have any opinions about it?

MAC: I like it very much. Doing a Spillane cover in the 21st century, unless you’re going whole-hog retro like Hard Case Crime, is a tricky, tough challenge. I think Titan Books did a great job coming up with something strong, distinctive, and arresting. The only problem is handling the byline. Mickey should be top-billed, but because of the exaggerated perspective, when you put Mickey up top, my lower byline seems bigger. So I wind up with what looks like top billing ... but isn’t. I fear it encourages the misconception that these are new Hammer novels written wholly by me or by me from just scraps or notes. Not the case. This is a unique situation in mystery fiction--one of the biggest names has left behind a treasure trove of unpublished material, and picked his own collaborator to get them finished.

JKP: These Mike Hammer novels you’ve gone about completing over the last several years don’t follow chronologically from Black Alley (1996), the last book in the series that was published during Mickey’s lifetime. Instead, they jump around all over Hammer’s career timeline, from the ’40s to post-9/11 and elsewhere in between. For people who would like to read these stories in the order of their time settings, could you please list them that way?

MAC: Here you go. [Boldfaced titles are those finished by Collins.]
I, the Jury (1947)
Lady, Go Die! (2012)
The Twisted Thing (1966)
My Gun Is Quick (1950)
Vengeance Is Mine (1950)
One Lonely Night (1951)
The Big Kill (1951)
Kiss Me, Deadly (1952)
The Girl Hunters (1962)
The Snake (1964)
The Big Bang (2010)
Complex 90 (2013)
The Body Lovers (1967)
Survival ... Zero (1970)
Kiss Her Goodbye (2011)
The Killing Man (1989)
Black Alley (1996)
King of the Weeds (2014)
The Goliath Bone (2008)
I should note that Mickey did some minor updating of The Twisted Thing to make it work as a ’60s novel, but it clearly is a late ’40s work. That updating was mostly just changing the years on cars and so on. I have taken the liberty here of placing it in its original intended chronology.

JKP: I saw a piece you put together recently for the Web site Flavorwire, in which you offered “10 essential crime and mystery novels for any budding reader of the genre.” Among those selections was Spillane’s I, the Jury. However, in your write-up about that novel, you said that One Lonely Night features “Hammer’s greatest case.” So what makes One Lonely Night such a standout?

MAC: One Lonely Night is an amazing accomplishment. Spillane is taking on his own critics--the response to him in those McCarthy years was downright hysterical, and I don’t mean funny--and allowing his detective to answer those critics by way of a fever-dream burst of prose. There’s no other book like it among Spillane’s works or in the genre itself. The first chapter has been called by Ed Gorman the best first chapter in crime fiction, and I agree with him. It’s probably not where a reader should start, although I did.

JKP: The next Hammer novel, due out in 2013, is Complex 90, which I understand is set during the Cold War. How does that story compare with the other novels you’ve finished on Spillane’s behalf?

MAC: This is a mid-’60s novel, and it’s as strong as any of the others. I held it back because it’s very much an anti-“Commie” novel, and I didn’t want to spring that side of Spillane on the public right out of the gate. This one lacked notes, but I have zero doubt that I wasn’t able to figure out where Mickey was headed. I am approaching it as a sequel to The Girl Hunters.

One thing I’m considering doing is taking an early chapter in which Hammer recounts his experiences in Russia to a government interrogator, and turning that into several chapters that have us going with Hammer to Russia and experiencing those adventures first-hand.

JKP: I hear that readers are going to get more of Velda Sterling’s back-story in Complex 90. Can you give us an early taste of what we might learn on that front? And was that back-story part of the text Spillane left behind, or did you add it to the tale?

MAC: Complex 90 allows me to explore that aspect of Velda’s background, which has been vague and even sketchy. It’s my idea to do this, but it builds on material in Mickey’s partial manuscript. She was in Russia, for possibly as many as seven years, working as a secret agent. And she suffered badly for her country, as indicated in The Goliath Bone.

JKP: Once you conclude your work on King of the Weeds, which is apparently set to see print in 2014, does that mean you’ll be done with the stock of uncompleted material Spillane bequeathed you when he passed away? Or is there still more to come?

MAC: There are three more significant novel manuscripts, more in the range of 40 pages, though two of them have considerable notes and one even has a roughed-out ending. I hope to complete those, if readers are interested, but that will very likely end this project. I should say that I am completing the other Hammer fragments as short stories, two of which have already been published, and I’m working on another right now, entitled “Skin.” There should be enough Hammer stories for a collection.

It’s possible that several other non-Hammer manuscripts, again in the 40-page range, could become new novels, possibly even reworked as Hammer books, but only if there is real demand for it. My first goal was to get the six substantial Hammer manuscripts finished, and I’m on book five of that now. Getting those other three done would be very cool, and all of them are from the 1950s-1960s era.

I also wanted to get the non-Hammer, Dead Street, out there, along with the Morgan the Raider book, The Consummata, which Hard Case Crime has done. Dead Street was a very substantial manuscript--I only wrote three chapters of that one--and The Consummata was another sizable, 100-page-plus manuscript.

JKP: You’ve written a couple of Hammer audio novels based on work Spillane left to you. Are there more of those in the offing?

MAC: Not at the moment. I’m very proud of those--they are full-cast productions with Stacy Keach as Mike Hammer. Stacy is great in them and, for once, is doing Spillane stories. We won an Audie for Best Original Work for The Little Death and have been nominated for Encore for Murder. Carl Amari is producing those and he did a fantastic job. But they are incredibly expensive to do.

JKP: Off the subjects of Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer ... You have a new Nate Heller novel coming out sometime soon--Target Lancer, based around President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. There have been lots of novels with that same backdrop. How is Target Lancer going to be different? What do you and Heller bring to the story that other novelists haven’t had available?

MAC: I am dealing with an aspect of the assassination that no one else ever has, at least not in depth, certainly not in book-length format ... and I’m talking about non-fiction works. I don’t want to reveal too much at this point, but I will say that most of the book takes place 20-some days before the assassination and is set wholly in Chicago. You have not read this JFK book before.

JKP: And you’re working on a third Jack Starr novel for Hard Case Crime, right? Tell us something about the plot for that one.

MAC: I was delighted to get the chance to do another Jack and Maggie Starr mystery. I had initially intended this to be at least a trilogy, and Hard Case Crime has made that possible. It’s all about the witch hunt waged on comic books in the early ’50s by various do-gooders and politicians. The murder victim is based on Dr. Frederic Wertham, whose anti-comics screed, Seduction of the Innocent [1954], provided the title for my mystery novel. Terry Beatty has again contributed comics illustrations to the project, including a comic-strip challenge to the reader, toward the end, à la the old Ellery Queen TV show. It’s a little tougher than I was able to do for the previous publisher. More sex and violence. Which is a good thing.

JKP: Finally, I understand you’ve been working with a guy named James L. Traylor on Mickey Spillane on Screen, a non-fiction book about movies based on Spillane’s fiction. Where does that project stand?

MAC: That book was delivered earlier this year, and Jim and I just did the final touches on it. It had been slated for a September 2012 release, but publisher McFarland’s online store lists the book as shipping now. Jim and I collaborated on One Lonely Knight: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, the first book-length study on Spillane, which was nominated for an Edgar back in the ’80s. This one covers every movie and TV show to date adapted from Spillane. It’s ... depressingly expensive, but I’m very pleased with it.

READ MORE:The Evolution of Detectives in Fiction,” by Max Allan Collins (The Huffington Post); “ Where’s the Love for--and in--Hard-boiled?,” by Max Allan Collins (Criminal Element).

1 comment:

Robin at CrimeTimePreview said...

Wonderful interview. Really makes me want to go back to the books. Interesting to see how careful Max is in crafting his stories, and how the character evolved.