Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Mike Hammer Collection, Volume III by Mickey Spillane

Mikey Spillane (1918-2006) was one of the most popular and most successful writers of the 20th Century.  At the time of his death, it was reported that there were almost 200 million copies of his books in print.  It's not going out on a limb to say that the overwhelming majority of those books were in his popular Mike Hammer series.

Hard boiled and unapologetically pulpy, the books were variations on a theme.  Mike Hammer, a New York private eye, was as fast with the ladies as he was with the gun.  His cases took on the form of personal vendettas which left nobody standing in his way.  The world of Mike Hammer was black, white, and Red.  The red could stand for blood (someone counted that Hammer personally kills 34 people in the first five books), but also for the streak of anti-communism running through the series.  The popular 1950's phrase "better dead than Red" could be Hammer's personal motto.

In recent years, the Hammer books have been collected into single three-novel volumes.  I read the first two (both published in 2001) while working in New York and enjoyed them greatly.  Then the third one was printed in 2010, I made sure to pick up my copy.

The Girl Hunters (1962):  There was nearly a decade between the publishing of the previous Hammer book, Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), and this one.  Time didn't stand still for Hammer, though, as this book takes place after a seven year dry spell.  Dry may not be the right word here.  After a botched protection detail, Hammer's long-suffering secretary Velda disappeared and was presumed dead.  Hammer then spends seven long years in the gutter drinking himself to death.  When a government agent is shot, he refuses to talk to anybody but Hammer.  The agent tells him that Velda is alive and being hunted by a dangerous assassin codenamed The Dragon.  Older, weaker, and slower, the news nonetheless breaks Hammer out of his self-pity and sets him on a traditional quest to rescue Velda and kill those responsible for taking her from him.

It had been a while since I read a Hammer book, but I did notice that this was a bit different than the first six.  Hammer is worn down and beaten and given to self-examination.  It's quite telling that of all the bodies dropped in this book, Hammer didn't pull the trigger on any of them (though he did set one up).  A worthy addition to the Hammer cannon.

The Snake (1964):  The action starts off roughly thirty minutes after the end of The Girl Hunters with Hammer's long-awaited reunion with Velda.  The case involves a young woman who is convinced her stepfather, a crusading politician angling himself at a run for governor, is trying to kill her.  There's also a shadowy presence who is trying to consolidate power in the New York underworld and a possible link to an old bank heist gone wrong.  This didn't feel like a typical Hammer case.  The plot wasn't personal and the jeopardy didn't seem all that high.  Not a bad read, but not one of my favorite Hammers.

The Twisted Thing (1966):  The case deals with a kidnapped child and family squabbles in a shore town.   The setting and the subject matter seems more in Ross Macdonald territory instead of Hammer.  That is until we run across a lesbian and a murdered man with a meat cleaver in his head.  Not only do we have the family dynamic (which makes it unique to the Hammer oeuvre), but there's some Agatha Christie-like detective work and a casino right out of The Big Sleep.  Of course, being a Hammer novel, there is a last-second reveal that still shocks and packs a punch.

None of these three rise to the level of the initial three classics, but they are strong examples of 1950's and 1960's pulp fiction.

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