Saturday, October 04, 2008

That Hammer Guy Returns

When crime novelist Mickey Spillane died in July 2006, at age 88, it might have spelled the end, too, for his hardest of hard-boiled private eyes, Mike Hammer. But Spillane was conscious of his legacy and concerned about the novels he had in progress at the time of his demise. So he left both in the hands of Iowa writer Max Allan Collins, his longtime friend and occasional collaborator, and the creator of another distinctive fictional detective, Nate Heller (last seen in the 2002 novel Chicago Confidential). As Collins told me late last year, he had inherited at least three incomplete Hammer novels from Spillane and was preparing them for print--a posthumous partnership he said was “thrilling to me beyond words.”

The first of those books, and the first new Hammer adventure to appear in 12 years--The Goliath Bone--has finally reached American bookstores. Chronologically, it’s supposed to be the last Hammer, bringing the aging New York City gumshoe’s career to a fitting (and fittingly violent) close, and finally hooking him up in matrimony to his extraordinarily patient secretary-associate, Velda Sterling.

While Hammer stories are often timeless, this one is tied firmly to the post-September 11 world. The action begins on a chilly Manhattan night, when Hammer spots a young couple exiting a Chinese restaurant, the male of the pair clutching “a tubular brown-paper-wrapped package that was three feet long or more and a good six inches thick.” When a “bronze-faced figure” in a hooded sweatshirt steps out of a cab and follows that pair toward the nearest subway station, Hammer senses that “something was going to happen.” Drawing his Colt .45, he gives chase, only to wind up in a confrontation that causes the sweatshirted guy to fall to his death.

Naturally, Hammer wants to know what the hell he’s gotten himself into--and so commences a rapid-paced and satisfyingly knotty tale that’s part crime story, part political thriller. The young people he’s just saved are Matthew Hurley and his stepsister (and not-so-secret lover), Jenna Sheffield, the children of two married professors at New York University. They have recently returned to the States from Israel’s Valley of Elah--site of the biblical battle between young David and the giant Goliath--bearing an oversize thigh bone they dug up from the desert, and which they believe once belonged to that 10-foot-tall Philistine fighter of legend. Concerned that their historical relic might lead them to premature deaths, Matthew and Jenna agree to hire Hammer as protection. He at least understands the risks they’re running, holding onto a hunk of history that both al-Qaeda terrorists and Israeli extremists might wish to have for themselves, regardless of what blood might be spilled to acquire it. In short order, Hammer and the gorgeous Velda are mixing it up with international assassins, federal agents, archaeologists, Broadway showmen, and at least one retired cop who’s having a hard time following the straight and narrow. As corpses drop left and right, Hammer struggles to safeguard his clients from mortal harm, while also engineering a disposal of Goliath’s femur that will prevent fanatics from coming after him and his long-awaited bride.

The Goliath Bone doesn’t send Hammer in a new direction, or cause one to rethink Spillane’s series as a whole. It’s a solid capper to Hammer’s professional arc, though, and a valuable reminder of this series’ strengths--fast action, a fully realized protagonist, and mayhem not inconsistent with Hammer’s urban jungle milieu and the dangers of his assignments. It is hard to tell exactly where Collins flexed his authorial muscles, but there are moments of humor, points at which Hammer acknowledges the truth of his anachronistic status, and some of the dialogue between Hammer and Velda that all suggest Collins’ influence. Collins has done an excellent job of hiding his brushstrokes, however, which bodes well for the next two posthumous Mike Hammer novels to come down the publishing pike.

Being the curious sort, I took advantage of a recent opportunity to question Max Allan Collins (who I have interviewed before) about how he came to be the keeper of Spillane’s flame, what those future Hammer novels offer, why it took so long for Hammer to ask for Velda’s hand in marriage, and the lasting value of Spillane’s work.

J. Kingston Pierce: I was interested to read, in your author’s notes at the end of The Goliath Bone, that this work was designed to be “the final Hammer novel”--and yet it’s being released before two other unfinished Hammers that Spillane left behind, The Big Bang and King of the Weeds. Why did you not complete and publish the books in chronological order?

Max Allan Collins: The Goliath Bone was the last Mike Hammer novel that Mickey conceived and was working on--although he did do some work on King of the Weeds, too, during the same period. He had three offices at his South Carolina home, and had at least one novel going in each.

There are five substantial [and unpublished] Mike Hammer manuscripts, and a number of less substantial ones, in Mickey’s files. Our current contract is to do three Hammer novels, but I hope to at least be able to complete those other two Hammers-in-progress.

The Goliath Bone had a topical aspect that I felt meant it needed to get out there right away--it was Mickey’s post-9/11 novel, whereas the other novels were either clearly set in period (two are mid-’60s stories) or in a more timeless Manhattan.

Also, I thought Goliath Bone was especially strong, conceptually--the sort of Da Vinci Code Meets Maltese Falcon aspect of it--and wanted to get it out there. It’s also satisfying to have a novel that completes a famous series, like [Agatha Christie’s Hercule] Poirot in Curtain or the final Inspector Morse novel.

JKP: You’ve said that Spillane was reinvigorated by the idea of Mike Hammer operating in a post-9/11 world. Did you and he have any conversations about that tragic series of events as a turning point for Hammer? Had Spillane previously been wondering whether he could carry on the series, with Hammer continuing to confront conventional criminals?

MAC: I had no great in-depth discussions with Mickey about 9/11. He usually liked to keep Hammer in a fairly timeless Manhattan--it’s to Mike Hammer what Gotham City is to Batman, after all. But I think the tragedy gave him a new angle on a different kind of Hammer story to tell.

Part of the reason why there are so many works-in-progress left behind by Mickey is that he operated off enthusiasm--if some new story appealed to him, he would set whatever he was working on aside and go for the new idea, fully intending to get back to the other story at some point. And often he did--the last book published during his lifetime, a non-Hammer called Something’s Down There [2003], he’d been working on off and on for probably 20 years.

JKP: Recall for me your last memories of Mickey Spillane, and how you learned that he had left you his trove of unfinished Hammers.

MAC: I knew there was a treasure trove of Hammers. In the ’80s, he had sent home with me two sizable Hammer manuscripts--I’m working on one now, The Big Bang, a ’60s thriller pitting Hammer against the drug problem--saying that “Someday we may do something with these.” I feel now that he knew he’d never get back to them, and was entrusting them to me for eventual completion.

And I knew about both The Goliath Bone and King of the Weeds, because he was working on them when I visited him various times, and we spoke about each at length. I did not know about one Hammer, Death Trophy, which we turned up on our treasure hunt through his offices, nor was I expecting to find so many fragments. There are many Hammer fragments, some consisting of first and second chapters with notes that may one day become full novels. Recently, I turned one fragment--about half a chapter’s worth--into a short story that will appear in The Strand Mystery Magazine.

There’s lots of non-Hammer stuff, too. The last thing Mickey completed, literally days before his death, was a novella called The Last Stand. I hope at some point to do a collection of his novellas that leads off with that.

Also, I recently turned an unproduced radio play, again non-Hammer, into a short story for Ellery Queen [Mystery Magazine].

I can say without hesitation that no major mystery writer ever left behind such an amazing trove, as you put it, of worthwhile unpublished material. Just days before he passed, Mickey told his wife, Jane, “After I’m gone, there’s going to be a treasure hunt around here. Give anything you find to Max--he’ll know what to do.”

My last memory of Mickey was the phone call during which he asked me to finish Goliath Bone for him. I told him I loved him, something I’d never managed to get out to this king of the tough-guy writers, but he said, “I love you, too, buddy.” The saddest and sweetest moment of our friendship.

JKP: Having known Spillane and read his Hammer novels, how do you see the evolution of his storytelling and of his detective character over the last six decades?

MAC: The first six books are masterpieces of pure talent unleashed, almost primitive in their compelling storytelling, astonishing action and violence, and expressionistic descriptions. Noir detective novels don’t get better than One Lonely Night [1951], The Big Kill [1951], and so on. I think Mickey had a certain amount of emotional turmoil, frustration, and rage over the postwar era, that was funneled into those books, and which tapped into similar feelings among other military veterans.

But as he grew older, and more successful, and found religion, he mellowed. The vengeance and rage that characterizes the young Spillane, and the young Hammer, is less in evidence in the ’60s (and later novels), though you find a more polished craftsman, a better wordsmith, even if the books are not as magical. Still, even in the second tier of Hammer novels, nobody ever wrote about sexier women, nobody ever wrote better, more disturbing scenes of violence, and nobody ever did or ever will write better about New York in the rain.

JKP: In The Goliath Bone, Hammer is finally set to tie the knot with his secretary, Velda Sterling. Is this something that Spillane had been planning for a long while, or was there a much later point at which he finally decided their marriage was inevitable?

MAC: Mickey had great affection for the Velda character, but she was a problem. (Revealing her last name as “Sterling” is a new addition to the canon, by the way.) She and Mike were genuinely in love, which hampered Hammer as the most famous horndog P.I. [Mickey] talked and threatened about marrying them off, and finally set it up to happen in The Goliath Bone.

JKP: A couple of Goliath Bone reviews suggest that you were responsible for “reducing the body count” in this new book. Is that a fact, or did Spillane tone down the violence himself?

MAC: Haven’t seen those reviews. It was the opposite. I upped the violence ante. Most of the violence in The Goliath Bone is mine. Mickey had mellowed, and while Mike stayed tough in attitude, Mickey pulled way back on the onstage violence. Almost all of the violence in the first Spillane I completed, Dead Street [2007], was mine. What the reviewers are talking about is probably that this is an older, more mature, less hotheaded Mike Hammer--but that’s the Hammer of the last couple Spillane Hammer novels, as well.

(Left) Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins at the Tower of London in 1999. They had traveled to England together for a Spillane film festival, part of a film noir retrospective presented by the British Film Institute at the National Film Theatre.

JKP: And since we’re on the subject of your finishing Spillane’s book, let me ask: How much of The Goliath Bone is your work, and how much is that of your “literary father,” Spillane? How far along was Spillane in the story before he died? And did you leave what he’d completed intact, or go through it and make significant changes?

MAC: Mickey had written 10 of the 12 chapters, plus the first half of the last chapter. But they were essentially rough draft. I expanded and fleshed out ... quite a bit, and rearranged material. Also, Mickey had an extensive false start on the novel that I drew upon. I would say it’s 60 percent Mickey, 40 percent me, but the story is chiefly his, and there’s not one chapter in the book that doesn’t have significant Spillane content. I am not intimidated by rewriting and revising him--these are unfinished works, and need to be completed, and that includes polishing and expanding them. Incidentally, Mickey pushed the myth that he never rewrote, but that was just part of the legend he built up. He took heavy pen to his pages, often wrote extensive inserts, and even did page-one rewrites.

JKP: I was amused, in reading The Goliath Bone, by how many times Hammer acknowledges that he has become an anachronism. Was that Spillane’s own recognition, or your addition?

MAC: Some was Mickey, some was me. It was meant to be taking place at the end of Hammer’s career--his last case.

JKP: It seems to me that if Hammer, a Battle of Guadalcanal veteran, had aged chronologically, he would now be ... oh, 84 at least. That’s a bit long in the tooth to still be drawing down on thugs in Manhattan’s streets. How old, though, do you estimate him being in Spillane’s last novels? And I don’t remember the age difference between Hammer and lovely Velda. Enlighten me.

MAC: How old is Robin Hood? How old is Batman? Or Tarzan? Poirot would have been 125 or something. I think Mickey froze Mike at around 45 or 50. I see him in this novel as in his mid-60s, and Velda a beautiful woman in her 50s. My wife is 60 and is a knockout, so this is not strictly fantasy. So I fudge the time factor but don’t ignore it. Incidentally, I don’t believe Mickey ever said Hammer was a Guadalcanal vet, just that he fought in the Pacific. You may be thinking of another detective--Nathan Heller--who was at Guadalcanal.

JKP: Tell me about the plots of The Big Bang and King of the Weeds. And will they be prequels to The Goliath Bone?

MAC: The Big Bang is set around 1965 and deals with the drug problem as it’s just starting to be a real factor among the youth of America. It’s presented as a period novel, and I’m almost finished with it. Mickey often mentioned this story in interviews, he really had enthusiasm for this one.

King of the Weeds has to do with a serial killer, which shows Spillane keeping up on trends. It, too, is a winding-down tale, with Captain Pat Chambers of Homicide preparing to retire.

JKP: And you mentioned before a previously unknown Hammer story called Death Trophy. Can you tell me a little of what that’s about?

MAC: Death Trophy is a mob-related Hammer, written some time between The Killing Man [1989] and Black Alley [1996].

JKP: Many readers think of Mike Hammer today as past his prime, not just physically but as a character worth following. What do you tell younger readers who haven’t yet discovered Hammer? How do you make the case that Spillane is still worth reading?

MAC: Hammer is one of the handful of great detective characters to come out of fiction. Really, there’s probably only Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple, and Philip Marlowe in that club. Much as I love Nero Wolfe (and Archie Goodwin) and Perry Mason, they are not quite in that league. Hammer is an anachronism, but so are Holmes, Poirot, Marple, and Marlowe ... and, of course, so is James Bond, who even now is a 1960s sexist in a tuxedo.

Speaking of which, Hammer was the character without whom you would have no James Bond, and the list is endless of who else you wouldn’t have--Dirty Harry, Jack Bauer, Spenser, and on and on.

He remains the toughest and nastiest of the great detectives, with a voice that is unmistakable and pure noir. The endings of Hammer stories have incredible impact, second to none in the genre, and there is sex and violence and ... well, everything that makes popular fiction fun.

There are two reasons why Mickey isn’t read as much lately, and it’s just lately, the last decade or so: Mickey didn’t publish much, and his longtime publisher, NAL, stopped keeping him steadily in print. I, The Jury [1947] and Kiss Me, Deadly [1952] have outsold Stephen King and Dean Koontz--not having them readily available to new readers is criminal.

JKP: You’re a prolific guy. If these posthumous Hammer novels sell well, have you thought about continuing the series on your own? Maybe in the form of prequels, set back in Hammer’s heyday?

MAC: The coolest thing about my file of Spillane material is that there are so many significant fragments. I haven’t even mentioned Complex 90, a novel that was announced during Mickey’s lifetime--that’s a wild 1960s Mike Hammer Goes to Communist Russia yarn. I would never have to do my “own” Hammer novels--Mickey did 13 Hammer novels, and there’s enough here to do another 13, always with authentic Spillane content and doing a story Mickey conceived.

READ MORE:Mickey and Me,” by Max Allan Collins (January Magazine); “ The Book You Have to Read: ‘The Twisted Thing,’ by Mickey Spillane,” by Max Allan Collins (The Rap Sheet); “‘Hammer’ Author Mickey Spillane Dies at 88,” by Neda Ulaby (NPR).


Janet Rudolph said...

Just picked up a copy at the NCIBA yesterday and can't wait to read it. Thanks for your article and interview. The publisher rep told me a lot about Max and Mickey, but your blog filled in so many more details.

Anonymous said...

MAC: How old is Robin Hood?......Or Tarzan?

Tarzan and the Foreign Legion — Tarzan told some new friends a story about his saving the life of a witch doctor way back when, with the result that the witch doctor had gratefully dosed him with a secret potion that allegedly made the patient “immortal” — in the sense of “ageless — although not “unkillable.”

In Tarzan’s Quest, Jane’s friend, the Princess Sborov was searching for a way to restore her youth. This quest took the Princess and Jane into the land of the Kavuru, since it was rumored that they had this ability. There were many rumors about the Kavuru; many of these were not true. That their pills could restore youth seems to be one of these. The Kavuru pills arrested the aging process but probably did not rejuvenate. In Tarzan Alive, Philip Jose Farmer carefully noted that although Jane was forty-seven years old, she still moved and looked as if she were in her twenties; therefore there was not a noticeable age difference between Tarzan and Jane. If the pills restored youth, Farmer need not have noted this.

Philip Jose Farmer speculated that Doc Savage successfully synthesized Karavu, “which is why he and his aides have not aged since 1933”[3