Monday, 10 June 2013


Note: this essay originally appeared as my twelfth American Eye column at Shots, in January 2009. I originally posted on this site a link to the piece, but the link no longer functions, hence my reprinting it now. But it prompted a spirited exchange with Max Allan Collins, which you can find with the original post here.


It's always sad to mark the passing of an era, and even sadder when you're reminded of another you'd marked already. This essay is dedicated to two giants of the field, which makes it appropriate that one of the books discussed is The Goliath Bone, the first of a number of Mike Hammer manuscripts Mickey Spillane left behind and which Max Allan Collins has completed. And at the end of January, less than a month after Donald Westlake's sudden death on New Year's Eve, Richard Stark's latest, and I suppose last, Parker novel, Dirty Money appears. It occurs to me you could argue that all the Parker books were begun by Westlake, and finished by Stark from Westlake's notes.

At one point in Dirty Money, the police release an artist's sketch which deliberately makes Parker kinder and softer, exactly what I mentioned when Westlake revived Stark and Parker in 1998 (was it really that long ago?). Kinder and gentler? Parker and Claire actually stay in a Berkshires B&B surrounded by leaf peepers, and Parker manages to blend in, as far as that goes. The subject of Parker aging never comes up, although his attitude toward Claire is somewhat less prehistoric than it was in the first series of books. He doesn't seem to have aged because Parker was never really a child of his time, or any time, but there is one problem: modern technology, surveillance, communications, forensics, have certainly made the life of the professional criminal more difficult.

The story picks up where Ask The Parrot left off, but the botched heist happened two books ago, in Nobody Runs Forever. I am convinced Westlake intended this story to be on-going, from book to book, for just as long as he could manage. Raymond Chandler once wrote that whenever your plotting gets stuck, have someone with a gun come in the room, Westlake has refined that dictum; the characters may or may not have guns, but they almost always have or can discover larcenous motives—double cross has always been the central theme of the Parker books. Parker is looking to collect cash he left behind in a church, and all sorts of people, from a tough-talking lesbian bounty-hunter to a hapless wanna-be true crime writer, are getting involved, and most of them are looking to take some of the dough, or all of it. They are introduced and described with such care, as are others, like the real Tony Soprano, New Jersey crime boss Frank Meany, or the Massachusetts state trooper Gwen Reversia, that you're certain they were destined to appear again. My feeling is that Parker's anonymity would continue to be compromised, book by book, until Westlake reached the point he couldn't write Parker out of. Things always came back to haunt Parker; if his life were easy, it would never have been fun to write about. Or to read. So I'm sad that my dream of Parker's Last Stand will never come about.

According to Mickey Spillane, there could never be a last stand for Mike Hammer, because 'see, heroes never die. John Wayne isn't dead. Elvis isn't can't kill a hero'. He said it to me when I interviewed him, he said it on stage the next night at the NFT, and I'm sure he said it a million more times. And it's true, but only to a point. The Duke didn't die, of course, but he went out perfectly before that death, in The Shootist. Even earlier he'd had the luxury of working his way through a host of different valedictory performances, among them The Cowboys (very good) True Grit (good) and McQ (not so good) before he and Don Siegel made their small classic.

Mike Hammer had no such luck; he's been out of print for a long time, consigned to being a relic of his era; Hammer is firmly entrench-coated into immediate postwar America, he's one of the best representations of the era's unconscious drives, and even though he moved reasonably well into the sixties, the ferocious drive and energy wasn't there; the times had changed (and so, in fairness, had Mickey). Mickey left six Hammer manuscripts in different stages of completion, and The Goliath Bone was the most fully finished, but it's also the most risky with which to launch a Hammer revival, because it's set in post 9/11 New York, thus taking Mike Hammer as far as possible out of own times and into a time warp.

Face it: Hammer has to be in his eighties by the time the jets crash into the World Trade towers. For the story's purposes, he's played as if in his late fifties or early sixties, I'd guess, and he's actually planning on making Velda an honest woman at long last, but it never jells. That's because it's not your disbelief you're being asked to suspend, but your belief, in the character Mickey created, and in the writing he did when he was young and hungry. The writing here, whether it's Mickeys or Max's, just doesn't have the same intensity; it's too knowing. The thing that made Kiss Me Deadly work so well as a film was that Robert Aldrich and Buzz Bezzerides recognised the primal drives that Hammer represented; they felt the energy in the prose, the manic power of the character. That's gone now; this Mike Hammer is far closer to Mickey doing his Miller Lite ads, or telling his fantastic stories; Stacy Keach could play this story in the TV series without too much problem; hell, Mickey might even be able to play it himself, in his 80s. But as Hammer fiction it just doesn't take off.

Not that they don't try. As Velda says, at one point, Mike is taking on, literally, the whole damn world, and the David and Goliath metaphor isn't lost on anyone. This is just before they actually do get married, and Mike turns down a hell of a seduction attempt on the eve of his wedding; this is a kinder gentler Mike Hammer too. Well kinder, maybe. And there are plenty of jokes about relics.

But even as the plot gets going, it winds up depending on his trusty .45 being not so trusty after all. The biggest twist is, if you know the Hammer novels, pretty obvious, and though it's fun, it just isn't the same thing. At one point, Pat Chambers, Hammer's long-time buddy, police foil, and longer-after Velda, says 'nothing lasts forever, Mike'. Velda tells him 'a relic is in the past, Mike'. That contradicts Mickey, who said that heroes never die, but they're both right. Heroes live forever, but they live in the worlds in which they are heroes, and they aren't always such heroes in other worlds. Apparently, some of the other unfinished Hammer novels are period pieces, and some take Hammer through the decades. I'll look forward to seeing what Mickey and Max do with Hammer in the world where he belongs. 

DIRTY MONEY by Richard Stark

Quercus, £16.99 ISBN 9781847247117

THE GOLIATH BONE by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Quercus, £17.99 ISBN9781847245953

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