Saturday, May 2, 2020


Max Allan Collins: 
Completing Mike Hammer

Masquerade for Murder marks the twelfth Mike Hammer novel I’ve completed from unpublished materials in Mickey Spillane’s files. Additionally, a collection (A Long Time Dead) gathers eight short stories developed from fragmentary material, which doubles the number of Mike Hammer books. Only thirteen Hammer novels were published in Mickey’s lifetime, a surprising tally for a fictional detective of such fame and impact.

A number of factors conspired to make that list shorter than you might expect. Chief among them was Mickey’s conversion to the conservative religious sect, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the height of his fame in the early 1950s, Mickey felt pressure from his church to stop writing the controversial fare that had made him synonymous with sex and violence in popular fiction.

In addition, Mickey was distracted by other opportunities. Those first six Mike Hammer novels (and the non-Hammer The Long Wait) were making money hand over fist. He always claimed that his inspiration to write was an urgent need for money – and he didn’t need any. Those seven novels, after all, were for many years seven of the ten all-time bestselling books(and, as he once pointed out to a snooty critic, he’d only written seven). Also, he was selling books to the movies and television, and starred in a John Wayne-produced movie playing himself (Ring of Fear).

Meanwhile, he was squabbling with his publishers (Dutton and Signet) over royalties, even as he was pursuing such macho day-dreams as touring with a circus as a trampoline artist, racing stock cars, and doing undercover work for various law enforcement entities.

When he started writing Mike Hammer again, after a decade-long hiatus, he had fallen out with his church. So throughout the ‘60s and through the mid-‘70s, he was writing typically Spillane material and having a blast. But eventually he returned to his church, and with his later Hammer novels (The Killing Man and Black Alley) found himself walking on eggs with the church elders. So his output was limited, while the money started rolling in from the various Stacy Keach TV shows and his own participation in the incredibly popular Miller Lite commercials. He spoofed himself in that campaign, which lasted an astonishing eighteen years.

In the last fifteen years or so of his life, he and I began doing projects together – editing anthologies, co-creating a comic book (Mike Danger, a private eye/science-fiction hybrid), and working on movie projects – he appeared in my two indie movies, Mommy and Mommy’s Day, in the mid-‘90s, and cooperated in a documentary, Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane, in 1999, seen now on the Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray of Kiss Me Deadly.

Shortly before his death Mickey called and said he didn’t think he’d be able to complete what he planned as his final Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone. Would I finish it for him, if necessary? Of course, I said I would, but hoped I wouldn’t have to. He was gone within the week.

During that week he told his wife, Jane, “Take everything you find around here and give it to Max – he’ll know what to do.” In doing so, he paid me the greatest honor I could ever imagine in this strange career of mine.

A short while later, Jane said to him, “Mickey, you know Max isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness – he’s not going to censor the sex and violence.” And Mickey said, “I’m fine with that.”

With my wife Barb – who writes the Antiques humorous cozy mystery series with me – I went down to Mickey’s home near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for a memorial tribute. We stayed with Jane and went through Mickey’s three offices, in what Mickey had described would be a “treasure hunt.”

I discovered that Mickey had begun a number of Hammer novels that stopped after 100 pages or so – often after a particularly sexy or violent scene. I could imagine him frowning at a page in his typewriter and thinking that the Church Elders would never let him get away with that....

In one case (The Big Bang), he seems to have stopped because he owed his publisher a book and was about to miss deadline. So he put the current novel aside and sent a completed Hammer manuscript that had been rejected by Dutton in 1948, before the paperback of I, the Jury took off – Whom the Gods Would Destroy, which he retitled The Twisted Thing.

I, of course, began with The Goliath Bone. Mickey had almost completed a draft, missing only the last few chapters, though he’d roughed out a climactic scene. I also found a false start, and three different versions of the first chapter (Mickey’s claim that he never rewrote was just bravado). Because he was racing the clock, his chapters were much shorter than usual. So I had plenty to do.

The Big Bang had a 100-page beginning (of a 300-page manuscript), but no character or plot notes. Mickey had, however, told me the ending. Kiss Her Goodbye had 100 pages with plot and character notes, and a fragmentary false start with a different murder mystery. I wove both mysteries together. I never viewed Mickey’s worth as Holy Writ – these were unpublished, unfinished materials. I became his collaborator, polishing and expanding. If Mickey wrote around a scene – something almost all writers do occasionally, setting action off-stage to not have to deal with it – I would write that scene.

For example, early in The Big Bang, a scene in Mike’s cop pal Pat Chambers’ office picks up after a blow-up with the D.A. I start the scene with that blow-up on-stage. In Complex 90, Mickey’s 100 pages begin with Hammer being interrogated by CIA spooks, who he gives a condensed rundown of adventures he had in Russia. I replaced that summary with two chapters putting Mike’s exploits behind the Iron Curtain on stage.

Fascinatingly, the unfinished manuscripts ranged all over Mickey’s career. The Big Bang and Complex 90 were mid-‘60s. Kiss Her Goodbye was ‘70s. King of the Weeds was the late ‘90s. But two manuscripts dated to the ‘40s! Lady, Go Die! was Mickey’s first pass at a follow-up to I, the Jury. Killing Town pre-dated I, the Jury and was Mickey’s first attempt at a Hammer novel.

Each of the books has presented its own unique challenges. Lady, Go Die! was a 70-page manuscript, but missing a first chapter. Spillane is justifiably famous for his first chapters, and I put off dealing with this manuscript until I felt comfortable enough to write a first chapter in a Spillane book myself. King of the Weeds was a sequel to Black Alley, which had been out of print for some time – how to write a sequel to a book that people either hadn’t read or read twenty years ago?

Kill Me, Darling, begun in the mid-‘50s, was a different take on The Girl Hunters. Instead of Velda being missing behind the Iron Curtain, she was in Florida, an undercover vice cop living with a gangster. The story Mickey had set up, in about a 40-page fragment, was terrific, but it clashed with one of his most famous books. I had to figure out how to tap dance around that.

Mickey made several runs at new Hammer novels when the Keach TV movies and series were airing. He seldom got past a few chapters, but enough was there to build authentic Spillane-style Hammer yarns – Murder Never Knocks and The Will to Kill are examples of these.

The current Masquerade for Murder, and the previous Hammer novel (Murder, My Love), were the first time I had little or no Spillane prose to incorporate. They have been developed from synopses Mickey appears to have written with Keach TV movies in mind. I am gratified that readers and reviewers have accepted these as worthy contributions to the canon.

My philosophy throughout has been not to “continue” the Mike Hammer series. I have no intention or desire to do original Hammer novels. The idea is not to continue, but to complete. To make sure that there is genuine Spillane content and contribution to each of these books.

Max Allan Collins was hailed in 2004 by Publisher's Weekly as "a new breed of writer." A frequent Mystery Writers of America nominee in both fiction and non-fiction categories, he has earned an unprecedented eighteen Private Eye Writers of America nominations, winning for his Nathan Heller novels, True Detective (1983) and Stolen Away (1991). In 2002, his graphic novel Road to Perdition was adapted into an Academy-Award winning film, starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law and Daniel Craig. He lives in Iowa, USA. Max Allan Collins' latest Mike Hammer novel:  Masquerade for Murder is available now in hardcover and e-book from HardCaseCrime; his other recent mysteries include the Nate Heller Novel Do No Harm and the Krista Larson mystery Girl Can't Help It!

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