Saturday, August 04, 2018

Tracking Hammer’s Hesitant First Steps

While everybody else figured that Mickey Spillane had created his industrial-strength New York City private eye, Mike Hammer, specifically for the best-selling 1947 novel I, the Jury, his fellow fiction writer and friend, Max Allan Collins, knew differently—and had known for years. Collins recalls that long before Hammer’s “father” passed away in 2006, he’d shown him a “browning, crumble-edged” manuscript of about 30 single-spaced pages in length, which Collins recognized quickly as an earlier, incomplete attempt by Spillane to introduce his protagonist to the reading public. That Hammer “prequel” didn’t finally see print until this year, when—after being finished by Collins—it was released as Killing Town (Titan).

Touted as “The Lost First Mike Hammer Thriller,” Killing Town is among a handful of publications Collins has been instrumental in bringing out over the last several months to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Spillane’s birth in 1918. It followed the March release of The Last Stand and preceded the recent debut of a four-issue comic-book series, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, all from Hard Case Crime.

This new yarn, set about a year before the events in I, the Jury, commences with a striptease. After hitching a risky ride on the bottom of a train boxcar from Manhattan to the small (fictional) Rhode Island municipality of Killington—or “Killing Town,” as one of the locals derides it—Hammer spots a toothsome young blonde nonchalantly disrobing in an adjacent, sidetracked sleeper car. Although he insists he’s “no peeping Tom,” the detective lingers and watches through the window long enough to see the “very grown woman with baby-doll features” admire herself in a door-hung mirror … but not so long that he falls prey to train yard cops flushing freeloading hoboes from elsewhere along the line of carriages. Before being spotted, Hammer dashes for the train station, cleans up a bit, and then heads to a “sloppy hash house” for a breakfast of bacon and eggs.

At this point, we don’t know why Hammer had to bum a ride on an iron horse, or why he’s landed in this burg that reeks so thoroughly of rotting fish. What we find out soon enough, however, is that Spillane’s man is 27 years old. He’s an ex-soldier, a veteran of World War II who served “briefly” with the New York City Police Department. He’s only been a fully licensed private investigator for “about a month.”

And he’s in deep trouble.

Based on scant evidence, but with lots of motivation to make a quick arrest, the Killington cops have tagged Hammer as a sex murderer. It seems the looker he had eyeballed undressing in the sleeper compartment was Jean Warburton, a well-known employee of the town’s fish-canning factory, who was raped and murdered soon after Hammer departed the railway yard. The police figure Hammer—the most convenient stranger in town—was behind that violence. For reasons not immediately discernible, our hero doesn’t rush to mount a defense for himself. Yes, he maintains his innocence; but he’s circumspect as to why he has come to Killington, neglects to mention his P.I. credentials, endures beatings meant to bleed a confession from his hide, and doesn’t appear especially worried when it becomes obvious that he’s in the frame for homicide.

Then, just when hope is running mighty thin, a surprise witness comes forward to speak on Hammett’s behalf. She’s Melba Charles, the daughter of former Rhode Island state senator Ernest Charles, “a small-town big wheel” said to “own half of Killington,” including the seafood-processing plant and its equally malodorous cousin, the fish glue factory. Hammer doesn’t recognize this new blonde in the least; yet he can’t help appreciating her physical attributes, describing her as “one-hundred-thirty pounds of female flesh in a dress so green it made her hair seem almost white, and so form-fittingly stylish she may have gone to Paris for it. She was being mighty careless with her legs, too, just by having them attached to her body like that.”

So why is Melba willing to alibi Hammer out of this jam, claiming to have seen him still wolfing down his breakfast at the time of Warburton’s molestation? Another, better question: Why, now that she’s sprung the shamus, does she want to marry him as soon as possible, insisting he go along with it as the price of his freedom?

As with the previous nine Hammer novels Collins has completed since Spillane’s demise (from 2008’s The Goliath Bone through 2017’s The Will to Kill), Killing Town offers a heady, hard-edged mix of overt brutality, rapid-fire wisecracking, casual sex, and corruption-steeped cops. Even a couple of New York mobsters manage to elbow their way among the dramatis personae. Suspicious of his having been roped into matrimony, and bewildered at how accepting Melba’s well-established family is of their pending nuptials, Hammer probes that clan’s relationship with the late Jean Warburton, in the course of it unearthing threads of blatant exploitation and envy. Concurrently, he endeavors to fulfill his original intent in coming to Killington, carrying out a death-bed request that may result in his own death. And in the background, crying out for explanation, is the mystery of Melba: what leads her to demand Hammer’s hand in marriage, when she’s so evidently fragile in the ways of lovemaking?

Collins observes in his introduction to Killing Town that Spillane’s partial manuscript of this novel contained no mention of two characters who later became staples of the Hammer series: his best friend from their war years together, New York City policeman Patrick Chambers, and Velda Sterling, Hammer’s curvaceous secretary and future partner in crime-solving. Collins ultimately found a way to fit the former into this plot, about halfway through, when the gumshoe telephones Chambers (still a patrolman) to let him know he’s still among the living. He also has Chambers—who’s been having difficulty contacting Hammer up to then—suggest that the P.I. could use a secretary, a playful hint at Spillane’s later casting decision.

What Collins can’t do as easily is explain why Spillane didn’t finish writing Killing Town, but instead moved on to I, the Jury. When I asked him about that recently, Collins replied:
Mickey never said why he set this aside, but my guess it that he set up this intriguing situation of Hammer having to marry the Senator’s daughter, and then didn’t quite know what to do with it. The natural place to go was that Hammer and Melba would eventually consummate their marriage and live happily ever after … which would have short-circuited a detective series. (He had a similar problem with another early Hammer I completed, Lady, Go Die!, in which Hammer and Velda are getting too hot and heavy, too early in the series.) Mickey’s material ends after Chapter Five, those pages incorporating my own expansion and polishing. But as usual in the manuscripts I’ve been honored to complete, he has set everything up, introduced or at least mentioned all the major players, and given me the tantalizing fact of a fish glue factory to figure out why he did that. I believe the ending I came up with was what he implied.
One remarkable thing about Collins’ posthumous collaborations with Mickey Spillane is that it’s nearly impossible, without hints, to distinguish where one author’s work leaves off and the other’s begins. To date, Collins has added 10 Mike Hammer novels to the original series of 13. (Two more books—Murder, My Love in 2019, and Masquerade for Murder in 2020—“will be developed primarily from plot synopses and notes,” according to Collins.) He’s also produced a variety of Hammer short stories from fragments Spillane left behind, collected in 2017’s A Long Time Dead. So familiar is Collins with his friend’s storytelling style and roughneck protagonist, that he could turn Killing Town into a credible, valuable addition to the Hammer series, even when the P.I.’s own creator could not.

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