The Magazine

Back on the Job

Familiar faces, contemporary cases.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By JON L. BREEN
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For me, the biggest drawback to Spillane is not the vivid sex and violence, not the vigilante justice and reactionary political slant, and certainly not the atmospheric prose and humor, but a distinct lack of the compulsive readability his admirers claim for him. Maybe Spillane, in opening up the mystery form to male aggressive and sexual impulses not fully represented in earlier popular fiction, made his books a masculine equivalent of the Nancy Drew juveniles revered by so many women mystery writers—another case of far superior work being traced to an original inspiration of limited artistic quality. (In fairness, Spillane’s works do score higher on literary value than the Nancy Drews.)

Of the latter-day writers and critics who have celebrated Spillane’s mysteries, none has been more vocal and effective than his friend and posthumous collaborator Max Allan Collins, a vastly better writer. Collins, though best known for historical novels based on true crimes or disasters, has successfully written virtually every type of crime fiction. After the death of Spillane, he inherited the job of mining the unfinished works and fragments. Kiss Her Goodbye, the third Mike Hammer novel to carry their joint byline, is based on two partial manuscripts found among Spillane’s effects. All the expected features are here: evocative descriptions, frequent use of italics, bursts of explicit violence, over-abundance of beautiful women, and a dramatic final scene with a shock twist.

Hammer, who has been in Florida recuperating from gunshot wounds, reluctantly returns to a changed New York in the 1970s for the funeral of an old friend and mentor. He claims to have put his avenger days behind him, but he can’t believe ex-cop Bill Doolan would have committed suicide. Hammer is a Manhattan celebrity, known by reputation to everyone he meets. It’s hard to imagine anyone but sometime-actor Spillane himself speaking the humorous tough-guy dialogue. Sex scenes are more explicit than Spillane could get away with in his early days, but the enthusiastically graphic violence needs no stepping up. Collins’s faithful imitation ultimately does Spillane better than the man himself ever managed. (I have a hunch that the creator of Mike Hammer, who never seemed to take himself too seriously and could afford to be generous to his fellow writers, would agree.)

Four pastiches, each to at least some degree worthy of its model and one surpassing the original. Whether the increasing franchising of dead bestsellers and successful series characters is salutary or not—and I suspect it is not—this quartet bolsters the case for the defense.

Jon L. Breen is the author, most recently, of Probable Claus.