Saturday, July 10, 2021

My buddy Mike Hammer and "Complex 90" by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

There a far too few writers like Mickey Spillane around, in fact there was only ever one writer (not author) like Mickey. He was a true American original who enthralled countless readers since his days writing them funny books (i.e. comics) but with the creation of Mike Hammer, Mickey found himself a winner and when I found both Mickey and Mike I found a life-long companion. Back when I was getting into private eye fiction and surfing the web for any recommendations I didn't know how to feel about Mickey. Too many folks looked down on him, some did it blatantly, some hid behind a bit of sarcasm or humor and then some folks flat-out loved him. There didn't seem to be a middle ground, which seems to fit the world of Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane since they are men of extremes.

So, like I'm one to do I bought any Mickey Spillane I could find but held off reading him. Would Mike Hammer be too tough? Well, yeah he's the toughest S.O.B. Noir-Superman ever put on the page read "One Lonely Night" and see what I mean. Would the much degraded prose of Spillane be too much for me to take? Pssh. Other then my personal preference for short chapters, Mickey is one of the most compulsively readable writers I'd ever come across in my literary travels. 

I found myself in a hotel room, well a cabin by a lake with a Ex who'd be a fitting femme fatale antagonist. Earlier in the day, I had done what I usually do when I hit a strange town: find a used bookstore. This used bookstore wasn't actually very good. But there on the floor leveling a rack full of copies of "Twilight" was "The Erection Set." That might be hyperbole, but the dusty copy of the Mickey-stand-alone was the only thing I had to read in that cabin and femme fatales are finicky so I had time to kill. Man, I burned through that book, Dogeron Kelley and his problems that involved sexy-sex, guns, murder, and money were all I needed to be a life-long Mickey-fan, Mickey's-then wife naked on the cover didn't hurt either. I soon ran through the Mike Hammers and the rest (read "The Deep" and thank me, its underrated) and I even plowed through some of his Tiger Mann novels (I have one or two left for later consumption) who as enough like Hammer to work for me. 

CONFESSION TIME. I'm not too hot on Raymond Chandler. Or Ross MacDonald. Whoops. My bad. Sorry and all that. Marlowe's only seems to exist on the page to be a sad momma's boy/drunk man's ideal self-image and a bit of a whimp (how many times can he have his gun taken off him and still afford a new one) too boot. Lew Archer should have figured out the pattern to all of his cases real soon, cause surprise rich families suck. That may all seem harsh, but never fear! I do have complete collections of MacDonald and Chandler's work and every now and then feel romantic enough to crack one of their spines. I can absorbed the fine prose and long-winded prose just fine. Plus they've made damned fined films out of them. I digress. I bring them up cause they are two-parts of the "Holy Trinity" of mystery writers. The other? Hammett. I'm a Hammett man through and through, he never wrote a bad sentence and oozed reality. He was tough when he needed to be and sentimental with the perfect ratio. Now Mickey didn't deal in "real," Hammers (and the rest of his work) seems to exist in a wild world hard-boiled, comic strip and noir clich├ęs working in perfect unison. Hammer is a man to have as a friend, I mean. If something happened to you at least the baddies would eat slugs from a .45 for their trouble. So, my personal "Holy Trinity" is Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane and John D. MacDonald, cause you can't not love Travis McGee.

Like a lot of people I preferred the early stuff back when Hammer was a young WWII vet and his trigger finger was itchy as hell. "One Lonely Night" is Mickey and Mike at his pinnacle, followed closely "My Gun is Quick" and "Kiss Me Deadly." His later stuff is just as readable but the fire had died down a bit. I'm not saying you'll be disappointed but it's not where I'd start. As a old-friend "The Snake" or "Survival Zero" goes down easier. Still, you'll have to try to not be entertained with one of Mickey's books in your hands. 

All your real-life heroes die. As a writer, Mickey is one of my personal heroes. We probably wouldn't have seen eye-to-eye on everything but we would have hopefully enjoyed a beer together (maybe even a Miller Lite) and had a good time. Even if I never met Mickey, it feels like I knew him. There's too much Mickey in the books for you not to get some notion of the guy. When Max Allan Collins (another immensely readable author if there ever was one) a long-time fan and friend of Mickey took up the mantle to complete all the manuscripts, fragments, parts and pieces that Mickey left when he died, I was excited. Max is the only guy for the job. I bought them all, but they sat on the shelf. Maybe I was intimidated again. I read the stand-alone's and loved 'em, but the Hammer's were left unread. All your real-life heroes die, but your fictional ones only sometime do. 

I was at a crossroads again. Not shacked up in a cabin with a cut-rate femme fatale, but a nervous night-before a wife's surgery. It wasn't the first but like any husband worth his salt you get a case of nerves from planned injury to your spose. Spoiler, it turned out fine but I needed a old friend to keep me company in a waiting room. "Complex 90" seemed to leap into my hand. By howdy, some things a kismet. The book is a quasi-sequel to "The Girl Hunters," a novel I haven't read in ten years or more. Luckily my Blu-ray copy of the movie version was waiting in the wings which I watched in the middle of reading the book. Mickey Spillane IS Mike Hammer, Max encourages you to picture Mickey as Mike when you read the book in the preface. "The Girl Hunters" the movie is top-shelf Hammer-on-film too (it's free on Tubi right now too) so check it out. 

"Complex 90" is a rollicking action novel chock full of 60's flavor, i.e. Russian agent with stainless steel teeth who's boiling hot enough for you to forget he teeth look like the bumper of a Buick. Hammer is older and mellower, sure, but he does kill over 45 people over the course of the book. Jeez. Gotta slow down some time, I suppose. Velda is right there with him, backing him up like a .32 to a .45 and being one hell of a woman too boot. Pat Chamber, Art Rickerby and Hy Gardner pop up plus some new backup in the form of Korean War vet Des Casey. The baddies are obviously the Communists, out for blood and to save face for Hammer's whoomphing of them across Europe or maybe more. It's a Mickey book so the plot twisty and turns like a mountain road. Max seamlessly weaves in his own high-caliber work and practically wraps the whole thing up in a pitch-black noir bow. I haven't had this much fun with a book for a while. 

This book has probably sent me down a Mickey rabbit-hole. I've already starting picking up the Titan Mass Market reprints to replace my smattering of trade paperback and hardcovers for the Max/Mickey collaborations. Cause a Mike Hammer novel feels at home in a mass market paperback. 


  1. What a lovely review. I am a Hammett man, too, and find Ross M. overrated, though I remain a sucker for the Marlowe voice. COMPLEX 90 was a special one for me -- it had been announced by Dutton and never came out. Mickey's 100-pages began with Mike being questioned and the entire Russian trip was condensed and kind of thrown away. So I began with it, fleshing it and, unusually for the process, most of the Mickey stuff appears mid-stream. I think it's one of the best of our collaborations. When you read the others, know that I am strict about writing Hammer in the period that the unfinished material was conceived and written. Some people wish all I did was the young psychotic Hammer, but my mandate is to complete Mickey's work, as best I can, as he envisioned each project. So far the young Hammer appears only in LADY GO, DIE! and KILL ME, DARLING, follow-ups to I, THE JURY and KISS ME, DEADLY respectively. Monday I begin KILL ME IF YOU CAN, which also follows on KISS ME, DEADLY and provides a bridge to THE GIRL HUNTERS. Thanks again.

  2. You're very welcome. Since writing this I think I figured out that for me Marlowe works the best in short stories. I must tire of him easily. The growth and change in Hammer is one of the things that is most interesting to me, he could have gotten stale otherwise so I'm glad all phases are represented in your collaborations. Thanks for the kind words and the plug on your site!

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  4. I agree Mickey in hardcover and trades just doesn't seem right