Category Archives: Collins, Max Allan

The Will to Kill: Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins

Where there’s a will …

In The Will to Kill, Mike Hammer is back in a tightly-woven PI tale of greed, dysfunctional siblings and a legacy of millions of dollars. When the novel opens, it’s past midnight and Mike Hammer has a quiet moment watching the Hudson River. A slab of ice caught by the pier carries strange cargo–half of a body. Hammer asks himself “what was it about me that attracted death? What turned a reflective moment at the waterfront into a damn crime scene?”

The half-a-body is identified as Jamison Elder, a bachelor and a butler in his sixties. The official story, according to his employers, the four wealthy Dunbar siblings, is that Jamison’s sister was ill, and he left the family estate near Monticello, to rush to her side. Somewhere along the way, his car ploughed into a snow bank, and then the story gets blurry. Police speculate that somehow or another Jamison fell into the river and suffered extensive injuries that caused his death.

the will to kill

Captain Pat Chambers, Mike Hammer’s old friend, finds Jamison’s death suspicious. Add that to the death a few years earlier of Jamison’s employer, ex-cop turned inventor, millionaire Chester Dunbar. Chester Dunbar was Chambers’ precinct captain when Chambers graduated from the academy, and now Chambers feels a sense of moral obligation to investigate both Dunbar and Jamison’s deaths. Since the case is outside of Chambers’ jurisdiction, he hires Hammer reasoning that “if Mike Hammer can’t sniff out murder, nobody can.”

Hammer contacts the four Dunbar siblings who live together at the family estate. There’s Wake and Dex adopted by Chester Dunbar when he married their widowed mother, and Dorena and Chickie, Dunbar’s own children. According to Chambers, “two are bums, one’s beautiful and one’s a congenital idiot.” All four Dunbar offspring are waiting for their generous inheritance which only comes their way as they each turn forty.

Hammer stays at the estate, and curiously the three eldest Dunbar offspring welcome an investigation into the death of their father while 20-year-old Chickie is too busy playing with his toys to have an opinion. There’s a lot of dirt and scandal under the surface of the Dunbar estate. Wake is married to a beautiful gold-digger, and Dex is a compulsive gambler. Dorena, a budding playwright, seems to be the only normal one of the bunch, but with millions of dollars at stake in the will, Hammer reasons, “no wonder there’s murder in the air.”

Although this tale is lean, Hammer’s observations, always laced with a bitter humour, give a strong sense of time, place and character. Here he is meeting the Dunbar family lawyer in a low-rent diner:

I went down and slid in opposite him in a high-backed booth, tossing my hat on the table. He had what must have been a sturdy frame before time and pie–he was halfway through a piece of coconut crème-caught up with him. His charcoal worsted would have been too good for the place if it hadn’t looked slept in. The black-and-white silk tie seemed fresh enough

The tale, full of snappy dialogue and Hammer’s wry, cynical wit, rips along with very little down time as Hammer moves from one corpse to another, meeting a number of beautiful, seductive women along the way. A Will to Kill is another product of Mickey Spillane’s unfinished work now seamlessly completed by Max Allan Collins who inherited Spillane’s unfinished manuscripts upon his death. As usual, it’s impossible to tell where Mickey Spillane ends and Max Allan Collins begins, so fans should be pleased.

review copy

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King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

“You’re lucky you’re a Fed,” I said. “Putting a bullet in you isn’t worth the red tape… Let’s have those hands up.”

Mike Hammer, that ultra-tough, individualistic PI is back in another Mickey Spillane/Max Allan Collins collaboration, the unabashedly primal, King of the Weeds. This hard-nosed tale of long-delayed revenge is set against a challenge to both the capabilities of the aging Hammer and also to the career of Hammer’s long-time pal, Captain of Homicide, Pat Chambers.

Spillane intended King of the Weeds to be the final Hammer novel, and according to an intro by Max Allan Collins, it’s the sequel to the 1996 Black Alley, the last Hammer novel published by Spillane before he died. Max explains that Spillane set aside King of the Weeds in order to write The Goliath Bone. After Spillane’s death, his widow gave Max all of her husband’s unfinished manuscripts; this was Spillane’s wish, and now Max Allan Collins has finished six novels for grateful fans. There’s always buzz about whether or not unfinished novels should stay that way, but in this case, it’s a definite: hell, no!

king of the weedsKing of the Weeds finds Hammer in his mid 60s, slower, older, and not fully recovered from bullet wounds taken the year before. He’s engaged to Velda, his savvy, sexy and tough secretary. Retirement is just around the corner, but before Hammer can file his PI license for the last time, the past comes back with a vengeance. It’s a near miss for Hammer when an assassin hunts him down early one morning:

When you suddenly realize you’re about to be killed, all your mind does is tell you that you were dumb. You had the experience, you had the physical abilities, you had the animal instincts.

But you were dumb,

Maybe you had played the game too long. Maybe that last round of injuries had left a deeper wound than you thought.

The little man in the tailored navy blue suit, a raincoat draped over his arm, was waiting on my floor when the elevator opened and I stepped out. He never raised his head to look at me, the brim of his pale blue hat even with my nose. He smelled faintly of too-strong aftershave. I thought nothing of it, but did wonder why that raincoat was dry on a rainy morning like this.

So I got off and began to walk away, knowing–just a stupid fraction of a second later than I should have–that he was a killer and I was the target, and I jerked my head around to see the face of the bastard who would take me down. He was just inside the elevator, his foot holding the door open while he aimed the silenced gun at me from six feet away, the weapon emerging for a good look at me from under that draped raincoat, and both of us knew there was no hope for me at all, because it was six-thirty in the morning and no one but me would be on the eighth floor this early.

This is the book’s opening paragraphs, and if you like the tone, the voice, and the pacing, then you’ll enjoy this rugged tale which pits an aging Mike Hammer against someone who wants him dead. During his checkered career, Hammer has made more than his share of enemies, and the list of those who would be happy to see him dead is so long, it’s not worth wasting the paper. Hammer suspects that the attempted hit may have something to do with 89 billion dollars of stashed mob money or then again perhaps the hit was placed by slimy Rudy Olaf, a man Hammer and his old pal, Pat Chambers put away in Sing-Sing forty years earlier for a string of robberies and brutal murders targeting gay men, known as the Bowery Bum slayings. Seems that a certain lowlife named Brogan, a “crony” of Olaf’s has decided to step up on his deathbed and confess to the crimes. Rudy Olaf is about to be released as a man who served a wrongful imprisonment, and he’s certain to harbor a grudge against Hammer and Chambers. But is the grudge big enough to propel a hit man Hammer’s way?

Hammer tries to discover who wants him dead while juggling the decades old Rudy Olaf case with the mystery deaths of New York cops who are dropping like flies in mysterious circumstances. Some of the deaths appear to be natural; other cops just seemed to be in the wrong place at the right time, but others are slaughtered in a “serial killing by coincidence” way.  According to Chambers, the chances of this number of cops dying in such a short period of time are “about ten times the likelihood of winning the Irish Sweepstakes.” With no clues why the ranks of the NYPD ranks are being decimated, Pat Chamber’s career on the line, and with both the mob and government after Hammer to spill the location of $89 billion in mob money, it’s up to Hammer to tie together all the connections between these problems.

This is a hard-hitting, fast-paced Hammer tale, and while Hammer may be in rocking chair territory, in this novel, Hammer’s aging actually works for him. With his low-rent office, he’s always been easy to underestimate, and that’s the mistake his enemies make repeatedly. He may be gray, he may be a little heavier and slower, but he’s still intelligent, aggressive, and with a savagery just beneath that laid-back façade–a PI whose sense of justice has no place within the confines of an institution.

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Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins has written a number of Nathan Heller novels which focus on real events, including the assassination of Huey Long, the Black Dahlia murder, and the Lindbergh kidnapping. In common with the Nathan Heller series, The Seduction of the Innocent, is also inspired by true events. Collins explains, however, that while the Heller books “hew religiously to actual events” he opted to take a different tack with this latest release from Hard Case Crime, and if you read the book, it’s easy to see why (more of that later). In his latest novel, Collins appears to have a lot of fun with his characters, and as a result, The Seduction of the Innocent is laced with the sort of humour that reminds me of Donald Westlake.

seduction of the innocentMeshing fact and fiction into a perfect blend, the novel centres on the comic book industry–specifically our narrator Jack Starr, part owner of The Strip Joint, a Manhattan restaurant that’s just one part of the Starr Syndicate’s business concerns. Stripper Maggie Starr, known professionally as Libidia Von Stackpole, is Jack’s sexy stepmother who is the brains of the operation, and since she owns 75 % of the Starr Syndicate, she’s also his boss. The Starr Syndicate is also involved in the comic book business, and that’s a prickly business to be in as comic book crusader Dr. Werner Frederick  has made it his mission to clean up comic books and their perceived bad influence on children. Frederick’s book Ravage the Lambs is getting a lot of press in a society in which censorship and blacklisting are the results of the vicious, paranoid politics of the times, and with a grand jury investigation about to begin, those within the comic book industry are feeling a lot of pressure. With tempers running high, a murder occurs, and the killer left a calling card which implicates that this is a crime committed by someone in the comic book biz. Jack Starr steps up to investigate, and along the way he tangles with a few colourful characters and a very sexy dame.

On one level, this is a great pulp story, full of eccentric and sometimes badly behaved characters: there’s Will Allison, a promising young artist, Bob Price, a comic book publisher who naively believes that testifying before the grand jury will help argue his cause, luscious artist Lyla Lamont and her abusive boyfriend, Pete Pine, and sexy psychologist, Sylvia who admits to mixed feelings about Dr. Frederick. While she disagrees strongly with Frederick’s position on comic book censorship, she admires other aspects of his career.

While Seduction of the Innocent is a great romp through the comic book scene of the 50s, it’s a lot more than that, and the novel also addresses the issue of censorship with one cast of characters arguing vehemently against any policing of their industry, and Dr. Frederick arguing that comic books poison the minds of children. Dr. Frederick seems to be a rational enough, even open-minded human being, but get him started on comic books, and we see a normally reasonable, gentle man go ballistic:

“I do not dispute that the comic strip,” he said, mildly irritated, “has blossomed in its limited way in the greater garden of the American newspaper. But its bastard child the comic book is a poisonous weed that infests our newsstands. A dozen state legislatures have worked to ban or limit this blight upon our children, and many parents have risen up, even having public burnings of these wretched pamphlets.”

And here I thought the doc didn’t like the Nazis….

With emotions in the comic book biz running at an all time high, it’s no wonder that someone ends up dead, and it’s Jack Starr’s job to make sure that the right man (or woman) takes the rap for this dastardly crime.

One of the aspects of this book that I enjoyed the most was the way the author used the facts of the times to create a good, solid pulp story which manages to include some very serious moral questions, and we see the catastrophic results of one man with a few credentials seizing the moral high ground, “riding the comet of a controversy of his own creation,” while the rest of the characters struggle to justify their existence. The real life comic book crusader, Dr. Fredric Wertham is, of course, the model for the fictional Dr. Frederick, and Wertham’s expose book was called Seduction of the Innocent (hence the tongue-in-cheek title of the book). So here Max Allan Collins turns a tense period of history into a crime zone that could so-easily have happened with just a little stretch of the imagination. While some of the aspects of the fictional Dr. Frederick character may seem over-the-top or bizarre just go read about the person this character is based on and you’ll see that this is not an exaggeration. In one part of the novel, our fictional Dr. Frederick has a fit over the content of several comics. He sees evil and smut where it doesn’t exist and conversely, he fails to see evil when it stares him in the face. Dr. Frederick shows glimpses of homophobia in his gross misinterpretation of some of the comic book heroes:

The undercurrent of homosexuality in the Batwing comic book,” he said as if tasting something sour, “is extremely damaging to impressionable minds, and children are inherently in that category.”

“Homosexual?” I asked.

That got me another flash of a look from Maggie.

“Impressionable,” he said sternly. “And the Amazonia comic book is rife with fetishistic bondage, and the lead character herself is clearly lesbian.”

“She has a boyfriend, doesn’t she?” I asked innocently. Some captain in the army or air force?”

“Amazonia is a closeted lesbian, frequently shown participating in semi-clothed frolicking with other lesbians.”

I never get invited to the good parties…

Dr. Frederick also sees comic book hero Wonder Guy as a “reprehensible exhibition of the Nazi theme of the Superman.”

Anyone that reads that much dirt into a character who is a patent do-gooder like Wonder Guy deserves to be handcuffed, gagged, dressed in latex, and spanked by someone named The Gimp. But I’d guess that Dr. Frederick would probably enjoy that too much.

To complement the subject, there are several appropriate illustrations throughout the novel, and in the afterword, Max Allan Collins talks about his “fact-inspired” novel, the real comic book crusade, Dr Wertham and comic book censorship along with further reading suggestions on the topic.

Review copy.

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Skin by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

“Somebody had a seriously screwed-up upbringing.”

Last year I read and throughly enjoyed the hard-boiled crime novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, from authors Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Mickey Spillane is best remembered for his iconic bad-ass anti-hero, Mike Hammer (I, the Jury, My Gun is Quick), and when Spillane died in 2006, he left several unfinished manuscripts along with the instructions that they should go to his long-time friend, Max Allan Collins (The Road to Perdition). The good news for Hammer fans is that Max Allan Collins, Spillane’s natural successor, has put those manuscripts to good use, and as a result new work is surfacing: Kiss Her Goodbye, The Goliath Bone, Dead Street, The Consummata are all Spillane/Collins collaborations. Skin, a short story is the latest work to appear. Mickey Spillane apparently began the story in 2005, and chronologically it places Hammer in one of his last cases before retirement. It’s a slight work in comparison to the other, weighty novels in which violent action slams down hard on the heels of more violent action. Still for fans, Skin, which runs at round 41 pages, brings back Hammer, and I for one am always glad to see this character. Yes, he’s labeled with a lot of very PC-unfriendly words, but for this reader, he’s also a breath of fresh air.

The story begins with Hammer and Pat Chamber, captain of Homicide staring at a mangled pile of flesh that looks like “roadkill” located just off the side of the road. This is Hammer’s grisly find, and it’s an incident which underscores the idea that Hammer is a trouble-magnet.  Along with the unidentifiable flesh is one intact hand, and that hand belongs to missing Broadway producer, Victor King.

Hammer meets King’s wife who also happens to be the prime suspect in her husband’s disappearance. She’s not exactly ruffled by her husband’s disappearance:

The next morning around ten, I was sitting in the lavish living room of Victor King’s penthouse apartment on upper Fifth Avenue, with a view on Central Park. The furnishings were vintage art deco and what wasn’t white was black, and what wasn’t blond wood was chrome, and everything had curves. Including Mrs. King, who was also blond. As expected, she was a very lovely twenty-five or so; the stark red of her silk pajamas matched her finger-and toenails, jumping out at me  like the devil against the white of the couch, her legs crossed, a hand caressing a knee. Her mouth was similarly red, but her eyes were baby blue with blue eye shadow and a sleepy look, like a cheerleader on her third  beer after the big game.

I couldn’t imagine any man wanting to sleep with her, unless he was heterosexual and had a pulse.

So the grieving widow puts Hammer on retainer and he takes the case….

Since this is a short story, and an action-packed one at that, there isn’t much down time and the scenes seem to spin through at warped speed. Soon Hammer has a good idea of what kind of monster he’s hunting, and he delivers his own special Hammer-style justice which has very little to do with judges and courtrooms.

The gristly, hyper-violent Skin places Hammer close to retirement, and in this story, he clearly knows his physical limitations. He hasn’t changed, but he has aged, and so the story’s title has several meanings. Hammer still feels strong sexual attraction to women, but now he’s at the point that he’s not going to take the bait. Instead it’s all business, and Hammer doesn’t believe in leaving loose strings behind.

Review copy from the publisher.

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The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011

“They’ve got you so tight inside you need an enema. No cheating on the wife, no cheating on the taxes, no cheating on the church. And somebody bends the rules a little, your panties get all bunched up.”

A short story collection presents me with a dilemma. Which ones should I mention in the review? I inevitably land on those I liked the best or those that stuck out from the pack for one reason or another. This makes short story collections more difficult to review I think, but at the same time, they can also be infinitely rewarding as for this reader they act as a showcase for new authors. I discovered Jonathan Coe thanks to a short story collection, and so I approach a new collection as a way to collect fresh names.

The Best American Mystery Stories is a series that’s run now for 14 years. The 2011 edition brings Harlan Coben as the guest editor with Otto Penzler (and I’m a fan of Penzler’s for all he’s done for the crime/mystery genre) as series editor. Penzler gives what he states is “fair warning” that a mystery is not necessarily a detective story. Penzler argues:

I regard the detective story as one subgenre of a much bigger genre, which I define as any short work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot.

Patricia Highsmith, of course, we think of as a mystery writer, so then the 2011 Best Mystery Collection, is not, and it’s a good thing, all detectives–although some detectives appear as well as a wide range of other characters in these pages. In Audacious by Brock Adams there’s a pickpocket, in Beth Ann Fennelly & Tom Franklin’s What His Hands had Been Waiting For there’s a couple of ranger types in a world I had, at first, some difficulty dating, and there’s a female serial killer in Lawrence Block’s Clean Slate. There are some big names here including a story from Joe Lansdale and a collaboration by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane, a great Mike Hammer short story called A Long Time Dead.

Chewing over the stories, I’ve landed on some favourites which also happen to be by writers I’ve never read before, and Dennis McFadden’s Diamond Alley makes the short list. It’s a story told by a man who reminisces about his past,  and those memories include a young woman named Carol Siebenrock, a beautiful nubile girl who became the sex fantasy of every boy who attended the same high school. The author recalls how groups of boys organised Peeping Tom sessions at her remote country home. While this is all very familiar territory, in McFadden’s hands the story becomes sublime:

The year we were seniors in high school, a girl in our class was murdered, and the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. Which was the more momentous event? No contest, of course; how could a game,  a boys’ game at that, compete with the death of a classmate, a girl who was our friend? Yet somehow, despite our lip service to the contrary, these two happenings seemed to attain a shameful equality in our minds. And if anything, now that so many years have passed, Mazeroski rounding the bases in jubilation after his homer had vanquished the big,bad Yankees is more vivid in our memories than the image of  Carol Siebenrock, young, beautiful, and naked as seen from the darkness beyond her window.

The narrator describes that senior year in Harts Grove, Pennsylvania–a year of promise & hope , rampant sexual fantasies, and yet also a certain innocence that is smashed by Carol’s disappearance. The story charts the chilling appropriateness of her last comment to her male admirers, loss, collective guilt, and the passage of time. School all too frequently becomes the place where we first experience death of peers, and McFadden’s story captures all the nuances of the narrator’s experience as Carol passes from the real, the desired and the unattainable to the iconic.

Andrew Riconda’s Heart like a Balloon is one of the meanest contract killer short stories I’ve ever read, so it makes the short list for its one track nastiness which still managed to shock and surprise me. The story is told by Brian Rehill, a contractor/fixer of “dirty business” who is meeting with Denny back in New York after an absence of three years:

We’d been friends of sorts until I did a favor for him to keep him out of jail. Subsequently he got leery of our association. Denny could deal with the blood on his hands as long as he didn’t have a daily reminder of it. Shit, it wasn’t all that much blood. And it wasn’t even like someone had been killed. That being said, I certainly didn’t mourn the loss of our friendship. I’d mainlined enough Dr. Phil while unemployed to recognize the toxic people in my life, and when this bastard broke wind, the room smelled of almonds and burned Legos.

After doing a “favour” for Denny, Brian suspects he was subtly blacklisted:

And even though I suspected Denny had quietly put a few bad words in for me here and there, after I did him his little favour, putting the kibosh on jobs I should’ve gotten, including a couple of big sheetrocking contracts that would’ve put me into a whole other tax bracket, I didn’t care now. This pariah’s subsequent relocation westward turned out to be the best move I’d ever made. And L.A., much to the bemusement of my condescending New Yorker mentality, turned out to be paradise–professionally, romantically, and even, god help me, spiritually (I hadn’t done anything I was ashamed of in nearly two years). I was even thinking about buying my first house, although I still needed to somehow come up with a big chunk for a downpayment. Somehow….

Well the “somehow” is handed to Brian when Denny asks him for yet another favour–it’s a long story that begins, classically (and I see Dennis Farina in this role) saying, “there’s this guy…”. This ‘guy’ as it turns out, is Joe, the soon-to-be ex-husband of Denny’s mistress, Sucrete. The schmuck doesn’t get the message that the marriage is over, and loser that he is, he’s bugging Sucrete. Restraining orders haven’t worked, so Denny asks Brian to put a “permanent restraint” on Joe: “whatever you deem … most permanent.”

Anyway, that clip gives a sense of style and voice (both excellent) and the set-up….

Another favourite is a story written by Ed Gorman, Flying Solo, a story about two widowed cancer sufferers in their 60s who meet during chemo sessions. One man is retired cop Ralph and the other is Tom, a retired English teacher. Ralph has terminal prostate cancer and Tom has colon cancer. They begin scheduling chemo on the same days and watch films to pass the time:

The DVD players were small and you could set them up on a wheeled table right in front of your recliner while you were getting the juice . One day I brought season two of the Rockford Files , with James Garner. When I got about two minutes into the episode I heard Ralph sort of snicker.

“What’s so funny?”

“You. I should’ve figured your for a Garner type of guy.”

“What’s wrong with Garner?”

“He’s a wuss. Sort of femmy.”

“James Garner is sort of femmy?”

“Yeah. He’s always whining and bitching. You know, like a woman. I’m more of a Clint Eastwood fan myself.”

Ralph and Tom, in a what-do-we-have-to-lose way, decide to take the law into their own hands and improve the world a little bit with what time they have left. Author Ed Gorman wrote the story as “the result of sitting in chemo rooms for the past nine years dealing with [my] multiple myeloma.” Gorman captures the idea that for those dealing with chronic or terminal illness, sometimes a little empathy, a little recognition of the trials of others, goes a long way.

My copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on the kindle.

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Incredible News from Hard Case Crime

Charles Ardai, founder of Hard Case Crime just announced that after a 9-year search, Hard Case Crime has “located and secured the rights” to a never-before published James M. Cain novel. The book is called The Cocktail Waitress. Here’s a quote from Charles:

It’s the story of a beautiful young widow whose first husband died under suspicious circumstances and who finds herself pursued by two new men, each of whom has something she wants.  But she can’t have both of them…or can she?  It’s steamy, gritty, suspenseful, and altogether worthy of the legacy of this great writer. We can’t wait to show it to you.

And I can’t wait to read it.

In the meantime, after a short hiatus, HARD CASE CRIME is back! So crime fans, let’s make sure they stay. Here’s the autumn line up:

Quarry’s Ex by Max Allan Collins

Getting Off  by Lawrence Block

Choke Hold by Christa Faust (a follow up to Money Shot)

The Consummata by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

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Kiss Her Goodbye by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

When you went to Florida, you took your fishing rod. For Manhattan, a rod of a different kind was called for.”

American crime author, Mickey Spillane created his iconic fictional flawed hero, Mike Hammer decades ago, and it’s nothing short of fantastic to see Hammer back, badder than ever, for this 2011 release. Over the years, Spillane produced a series of books featuring Hammer and his faithful sidekick, his long-term loyal secretary and lover, Velda. Many of these books made it to film (I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick, Kiss Me Deadly, The Girl Hunters just to name a few). When Spillane died in 2006, it seemed as though Hammer would die with him, but Spillane left several unfinished manuscripts behind, and in the week before his death he told his wife:

“When I’m gone, there’s going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max–he’ll know what to do with it.”

The ‘Max’ referred to by Spillane is another giant of American crime fiction, Max Allan Collins. Collins is the creator of a dazzling number of crime series featuring some marvellous characters including Eliot Ness, Dick Tracy, and my personal favourite, Quarry. If none of these sound familiar to you, try the film Road to Perdition based on the author’s book. In my opinion, Collins is Spillane’s natural successor in the world of American crime writing. Clearly Spillane saw Collins in that light, and trusted his abilities enough to leave him the incredible legacy of a bunch of unfinished manuscripts–manuscripts other writers (and many publishers) would kill to get their hands on. Max Allan Collins, by the way, was a long-term fan of Spillane’s and the two men later became friends.

This brings me back to Kiss Her Goodbye–the latest of Spillane’s manuscripts to make publication through Max’s creativity and understanding of just what Spillane was all about. Kiss Her Goodbye follows Dead Street, The Goliath Bone (Spillane was working on this novel right before his death), and The Big Bang–all Spillane/Collins collaborations. Hard Case Crime will publish The Consummata later this year (and you bet I’ll be reading it), and for lucky fans there may be more to come.

Spillane’s Kiss Her Goodbye came to Max as “plot, character notes, as well as a shorter false start.” Max eventually “combined, shaped, and expanded” two “partial manuscripts” into Kiss Her Goodbye. The result is a kick-ass, violent, Hammer novel which will make one of my top reads of 2011.

Kiss her Goodbye finds Hammer aging, recuperating, and very possibly mellowing in the Florida sunshine. It’s been about a year since the mob shoot-out that left Hammer badly wounded, but at least he was better off than his enemy, psychotic gangster, Sal Bonetti. Initially not expected to survive, Hammer’s recuperation has been long and painful, and even now he’s not what he once was.  

Hammer receives a phone call from New York homicide cop, Captain Bill Chambers that Hammer’s old mentor, retired cop Bill Doolan is dead. The official version is that Doolan, suffering from terminal cancer, has committed suicide, but Hammer doesn’t swallow that line. He flies to New York and begins digging into the circumstances of Doolan’s death. While it appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide, Hammer sniffs a few details that don’t add up. And then there’s every indication that Doolan was working on something just before he died….

When Hammer first arrives back in New York, he’s reluctant to be there, reluctant to be back in his old killing grounds and as far as New York’s concerned, he’s ready to “kiss her goodbye.” In spite of the fact that he’s recognised everywhere he goes, and that he’s such a New York fixture that Cohen’s Deli even names a sandwich after him (The Mike Hammer mile-high sandwich), Hammer isn’t happy to be back:

Now it was the city’s turn to pass in review and it did a lousy job. Nothing had changed. No sudden sense of deja vu–the smells were the same, the noise still grating, the people out there looking and waiting but never seeing anything at all. If they did, they sure as hell didn’t let anyone know about it.

While New York is essentially the same, Hammer isn’t. He suffers from aches and pains and still has a piece of a bullet lodged in his buttocks. Initially, he isn’t interested in returning to the world of New York crime: 

I’m not in it any more. I haven’t the slightest faintest fucking desire to get wrapped up in that bundle of bullshit again. I’ve done it, it’s past me. I’m retired.

For an example of the genre, it really doesn’t get any better than Kiss Her Goodbye. This explosive PI crime novel is firmly rooted in pulp, and while the story begins with a damaged Hammer, once he’s back in New York where he belongs, he gradually moves from alienation to thinking that  “I was getting the feeling that I was back in my own ballpark again.” He morphs from sleepy, invalided semi-retirement, aches and pains and pill-popping to hair-trigger, violent action. He’s a virtual killing machine.

Since this is a Hammer novel, there are some beautiful babes and also, believe it or not, some humour, Hammer style. As Pat tells Hammer:

As I recall, killing people and banging dames is where you excel, and sometimes there’s a blurring between the lines.

The women in Hammer’s life are a study in contrasts: there’s Chrome, a sultry South American singer who has a permanent gig at Club 52–the go-to-destination for coke and roman-style orgies, and there’s also the new assistant DA, shapely Angela Marshall:

She looked like a schoolteacher you were really afraid of and also wanted to jump.

While power-suited Angela sees Hammer as some sort of male anachronism, there’s a chemistry between the two:

To you,” I said, “I’m an exercise. A far-out, way-out exercise to test your inherent abilities and your well-honed skills. Until now, everything has gone your way, because you have that glossiness beautiful girls get on their way to being women–that smooth surface that makes guys slide right off them. But someplace, way back, somebody smart warned you to watch out for a guy who had sandpaper on his hands, and who wouldn’t slide off at all. You never thought you’d need that kind of guy, but baby, you do now.”

Hammer isn’t exactly what you’d call gallant with the women in his life. He’s too cynical and grounded in jaded realism for roses and chocolates:

Breakfast with a real doll can be damn exciting. They’re awake, showered, and manicured, and all the weapons are pointed right at whatever chump is dumb enough to be sitting across from them. To such dolls, the guy on the other end of the fork is the big, ripe, plum ready for the plucking, because that world of economic dominance he dwells in, whatever male aggression he possesses, are overshadowed by the two most basic hungers.

And finally, lest I give the wrong impression that the novel floats on action alone, there are some beautiful atmospheric passages:

Down on the street, the rain had let up. But a low rumble of thunder echoed across the city. There was an occasional dull glaze of cloud-hidden lightning in the south, and when the wind gusted past, I could smell more rain coming–the kind that was held above the buildings until it was soaked with debris and dust, and when it came down, it wouldn’t be a cleansing rain at all.

Hammer, back in New York, where he belongs…

My copy of Kiss Her Goodbye came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley

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The First Quarry by Max Allan Collins

 “I liked surviving. It was about all I valued.”

In 2007, I discovered the publisher, HARD CASE CRIME, and I rapidly became addicted to their books–a mix of long lost classic pulp novels mixed in with some new titles. By 2008, I had taken the plunge and joined the Hard Case Crime Book Club. Every month, I receive a new title, and with the exception of one book, I’ve never been disappointed. I love these gritty, pulp novels. Sometimes I feel like picking up a classic, and sometimes I need the distraction of Hard Case Crime.

Although The First Quarry is the seventh novel in the Quarry series by Max Allan Collins (author of The Road to Perdition), this book (published 10/08) presents the story of how Quarry, a killer-for-hire, began his violent career. This was my first Quarry novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Set in 1970, the book begins with hitman Quarry on his first job, stuck in a newly built and unoccupied house in Iowa City conducting a stakeout of a libidinous professor. Although it’s the Christmas break, the Professor is still meeting students at his home, but the Professor isn’t driven by altruism. Instead, as Quarry continues his stakeout, it becomes glaringly obvious that egotistical Professor K.J. Byron entertains a constant stream of beautiful young graduate students who pass through his bedroom. Quarry, frozen, bored and eating whatever junk food he can buy at the local convenience store, maintains surveillance of Byron’s house, waiting for an opportune moment to make his hit.

From the start, the situation becomes increasingly more complicated. Byron’s female students rotate in and out, and there’s also a jealous wife somewhere in the background. But things become even murkier when Quarry discovers that he’s not the only man staking out Byron’s house. It seems that several interested parties are watching Byron, and there’s no shortage of people who would like to send the professor on a one-way trip to the morgue. The fact that Byron is also indulging in a steamy dalliance with Annette Girard, the daughter of brutal Chicago mob boss, Lou Girardelli complicates matters even further, and it’s not long before the bodies start piling up.

This terrific crime novel grabbed me from page one. Quarry, and that’s a fake name by the way, is a fascinating character. The novel has an easy, readable, almost affable style, which is in complete contrast to the action and the inevitable violence. Reading the novel, I so enjoyed Quarry’s pithy world-view that I almost forgot his contract obligations. While Quarry is a stone-cold killer, the novel spends some time explaining his code of ethics and the moral justifications he applies to his career in death. Shaped by Vietnam, Quarry sees no difference in working for the army and working as a hitman. While Quarry accepts that his targets are “obituaries waiting to be written” the fact that the professor is a slimeball, just makes his job a little more pleasurable.

Given the subject matter of the book, it may seem odd that the plot is laced with a great deal of humor. While the humor is in contrast to the subject matter, the two elements are not jarring, and this is thanks to the talent of the author who manages to create, very successfully, a hitman with a great sense of humor–a man we can’t help liking in spite of his profession. It’s no small feat to pull off the juxtaposition of cynical murder and humor, but Max Allan Collins manages it and manages it to perfection. Finally, the novel manages to purvey the perfect flavor of the 70s and that includes being decidedly un-PC.

Hard Case Crime will publish Quarry in the Middle November 2009.

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Filed under Collins, Max Allan