Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Max Allan Collins is well on his way to doubling the number of Mike Hammer private-eye novels in existence. Counting the new Murder Never Knocks (Titan), he has penned eight Hammer books based on an abundance of unfinished, unpublished material that Mickey Spillane—whose 98th birthday would have been today—left in his care when he passed away back in 2006; during his 50-year career, Spillane himself produced only 13 novels starring his hard-headed, harder-fisted Gotham gumshoe. This latest collaborative work (which Spillane had originally titled Don’t Look Behind You) is set firmly in the mid-1960s, an era of economic and social decline for New York City, when it experienced labor strikes, “white flight” to the suburbs, a major power blackout, and the shuttering of at least two of its biggest newspapers, the New York Daily Mirror and The New York Herald Tribune. Murder Never Knocks kicks off with a contract killer’s attempt to bring an early curtain down on Hammer’s life. This is hardly the first time someone has taken a shot at our wisecracking hero … and the confrontation doesn’t end well for the hit man. Still, Hammer would like to know who paid to get him out of the way, as would his partner-lover, Velda Sterling, and Captain Pat Chambers, his police buddy who’s spent far too long trying to keep Hammer from being killed or killing others. Could there be some link between the recent assault, a past hit-and-run accident, and the injured newsstand hawker who’d observed that tragedy unfold? While Hammer tries to get to the bottom of it all, he and Velda are busy with the unusual assignment of body guarding the particularly beautiful body of a Hollywood producer’s fiancée at her bridal shower. Mob toughs, Greenwich Village habitués, real-life New York gossip columnist Hy Gardner, and an elusive malefactor all figure into the careening plot.

Although Elizabeth Wilson, a British fictionist and academic specializing in popular culture, first came to my attention with the 2013 U.S. publication of The Girl in Berlin (a novel about Cold War-era secrets and spies), that book—as Wilson explains on her Web site—was just one in an evolving succession of “linked crime novels set in the late 1940s and 1950s exploring the changed world of Britain and specifically London after 1945.” The new She Died Young (Serpent’s Tail) is the fourth entry in said series. It transports readers to 1956 London, where a lovely young woman has taken a tumble down the stairs of a seedy King’s Cross hotel and broken her neck. An accident? Crime reporter Gerry Blackstone, the son of a wealthy undertaker, doesn’t think so. The problem is to convince Detective Chief Inspector Jack McGovern of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch that his assessment of the situation is correct. He’s lucky in that McGovern wants Blackstone’s assistance in a different matter: keeping an investigation of dishonest Yard officers out of the news and helping him expose a corrupt cop. Meanwhile, concerns have surfaced regarding Soviet spies among the refugees flowing in to England from Eastern Europe. Throw in assorted other suspect secondary players, and She Died Young becomes a most engaging tale that, by the way, illuminates the rapidly changing postwar face of the British capital.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

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