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Once, while having my writing discussed in a graduate workshop, I was asked by another participant, "Have you read Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space?" I was tempted to respond with the first words that came into my head: "No, but I've read Mikael Spillane's My Gun Is Quick." And why not, if I were really serious about becoming a better writer? As Paddy Chayefsky had a character say in the 1955 Marty, "Boy, that Mickey Spillane, boy — he could write." (The character who said it knew that better than Chayefsky did.)
Spillane died in 2006, but the books just keep on coming. A few years before his death he entrusted the six unfinished manuscripts featuring his detective-hero Mike Hammer to his friend, mystery writer Max Allan Collins. The fifth of these, Complex 90, in which Mike kills his way out of the 1964 USSR and finds Soviet assassins have followed him home to New York (a bad idea), was published this May.
The numbers of Spillane's career — 225 million books sold worldwide, seven titles in a 1980 poll of the top-selling 15 novels of all time — tell a part of the story but by themselves are no guarantee of anything. The eventual respect he earned from his colleagues tells a more important part. It was a while coming. In a 1952 letter, Raymond Chandler dismissed Spillane as a writer of comic books (which Spillane had in fact done). When, in 1995, Elmore Leonard, acting as president of the Mystery Writers of America, bestowed the title of Grand Master, the group's highest honor, on Spillane, it was over the objection of some members who, reportedly, didn't like the political sensibility that had won Spillane the praise of that evil old hack Ayn Rand.
To be fair, it's not that there isn't anything to object to in Mickey Spillane. The politics are Red-baiting paranoid enough to prove Richard Hofstadter right. ("Don't underplay the Reds. They're filthy bastards, every one, but they're on the ball when it comes to thinking out the dirty work." — The Girl Hunters) Mike's sadism can be so virulent as to ruin the fun. ("The other guy with the hole in his leg sobbed for me to call a doctor. I told him to do it himself." — Vengeance Is Mine!) And GLAAD will not be honoring Spillane anytime soon.
But to imply, as Paddy Chayefsky did, that it was simply the dum-dum public lapping up the sadism and sex that accounted for Spillane's popularity is to ignore the thing that stands out in book after book: Spillane took palpable pleasure in writing. We may have become so used to the idea that good writing can come only from torment, so enamored of the monkish conception of writing put forth amidst incense burning in respected books like Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, that we have lost the ability to recognize someone who's just crazy about words, and, as Spillane was, about plots. I confess at times that trying to untie the knots of the cases Mike gets involved in have left me feeling like a fingerless Boy Scout trying to earn a merit badge. But even when the plots get too complex for their own good, there are still passage like this, from The Girl Hunters, of Mike waking up from a seven- year drunk, mourning his beloved secretary Velda, who he falsely believes is dead:
When the fuzziness went away I sat up, trying to remember what happened. I was on the couch this time, dressed in a navy blue suit. The shirt was clean and white, the top button open and the black knitted tie hanging down loose. Even the shoes were new and in the open part of my mind it was like the simple wonder of a child discovering the new and strange world of the ants when he turns over a rock.Pay attention to the writing, which is concise, delineates the line between drunken vagueness and the sudden, disconcerting clarity of a hangover, and ends with a metaphor that's both direct and conveys a sense of disembodied awe. Or consider this passage from Black Alley, the last Mike Hammer novel Spillane completed:
The street I was on was strange, yet one I knew. A dim light came from either end, but I was in the middle, and something was there in front and behind that I didn't want to face. Right beside me was an opening. It went somewhere. No...it went nowhere, but it was a way to escape the street. It looked cool and comfortable, an alley I could be safe in. It was black.If you came upon that without knowing the exact circumstances it describes — Mike, shot twice, nearly slipping into death — it could stand for the psychic fog that surrounds any noir hero. The language is no less evocative, no less enveloping for being so spare. And notice that Spillane is so sensitive to rhythm he knows what to withhold. "Something was there in front and behind" is clipped and just elusive enough to be eerie in a way that "something was there in front of me and behind me" would not be. It's almost as if Mike, near death, cannot refer to himself as a corporeal being.
Reviewer: Charles Taylor
Posted September 27, 2013
This novel is based on an original manuscript written by Mickey Spillane, one of two entrusted “for safekeeping” to Mr. Collins shortly before his death. It was originally scheduled for publication in the 1960’s, but never appeared. It is now made possible through Collins’ collaborative effort.
Complex 90 is set during the Cold War, pitting one-man army Mike Hammer against the entire might of the USSR. It begins when he takes on a job as a bodyguard to protect a U.S. Senator during a party in his home. A gunman invades the home, shoots and kills another security person, a friend named Marley, and a bullet hits Mike in the thigh. Mike replaces Marley as the Senator’s bodyguard on a trip to Moscow on a fact-finding tour. There Mike is arrested and taken to a prison, from which he escapes, killing 45 Russians, and, after two months, crossing into Turkey, where he gets on a plane to return to the U.S. Russia demands extradition, and Mike thumbs his nose. (All of this action transpires very early in the book.)
Will it be a major international incident, or will Mike overpower both the American and Soviet governments? Of course, the gore and sex which play a prominent part in the novel are trademarks of Spillane, purely Mike Hammer at his wise-cracking best. It’s hard to tell where Spillane leaves off and Collins picks up.
Posted May 8, 2013
No text was provided for this review.