Mike Hammer is back again! I've written about the posthumous Mickey Spillane-Max Allan Collins collaborations before, and indicated my distinct preference for keeping Hammer in period, and in character. And that's exactly what Kill Me, Darling does and does well: it's vintage peak-era Spillane so seamless it's hard to see where the Spillane ends and the Collins picks up.
As Max explains, Kill Me, Darling was originally conceived as a follow-up to Kiss Me, Deadly, published in 1952, and a massive best-seller in both hardcover and paperback. I, The Jury had appeared in 1947, but the next five Hammer novels all were published between 1950 and 52, a surge of creativity which followed a pause which I like to think may have been partially due to Mickey's surprise at his first book's success.
After Kiss Me Deadly no Hammer novel would appear for a decade, and The Girl Hunters (1962) was a different sort of Hammer. This ten-year gap is often explained by Mickey's conversion to Jehovah's Witnesses, but I find that glib. I think it's more likely that he'd written Hammer out for the moment, that the success of Kiss Me, Deadly allowed him to relax, and perhaps that he was tired of defending his writing against fierce critics (not least Robert Aldrich and Buzz Bezzerides, director and writer of the film of Kiss Me, Deadly, which deconstructed Hammer in the last flattering and most apocalyptic way).
But Mickey did start a Hammer novel after Kiss Me, Deadly. It began with Hammer drunk and abandoned by Velda, his secretary/partner/true love, as if he wanted to take away what had made his character work. Mickey reused that opening in The Girl Hunters, and it may be the best part of the book, but he took that story in a different direction. Here Collins has borrowed a different, but similar, beginning from another Spillane fragment, then followed the original story line, taking Hammer, after the murder of the vice cop who brought him and Velda together, to Miami in pursuit of his love, who's shacked up with a vice-lord, the kind of guy who should be her natural enemy.
Hammer is as out of place in Miami as he is at home in New York: a number of times he stands out to the point of literally seeming like a target. The story follows some familiar arcs: he hooks up with a friendly reporter and cop to help his investigation, and some less familiar ones, including an offer from the heads of Mafia families. He survives one beating and two attempts on his life, but one of the two most interesting parts of the story is the way the violence is toned down: Hammer is practical here, never reaching that white heat of rage, and having dried himself out, given up Luckies and restricted himself to a sobering four beers a day, seems like a more rational, if not cerebral character.
But the key to the story is sex. 'Sex was always in it somewhere,' as Hammer himself notes. Nolly Quinn ran a brothel in New York, but with reform taking place in Miami, he's looking to branch out in other directions. Quinn's handsome, fastidious, smokes with cigarette holder, and possesses a stiff sort of charm: I kept seeing George Montgomery playing him. Hammer's convinced Velda's actually undercover, and he becomes convinced that Quinn (whose very name seems ambiguous) isn't a 'threat' to her because he must be 'queer'. Here he presents an amazing rationale: Quinn must be queer because he hasn't tried to consummate his relationship with Velda. 'No guy with factory wiring could shack up with a sensuous female like Velda and not lay a glove on her,' is his logic, but of course one of the oddities of the Hammer/Velda relationship is that Mike himself has always been waiting to make 'an honest woman' of Velda before laying the big glove on her. The layers of ambiguity are almost priceless here.
It builds to a denouement which actually surprises, with a fairly predictible betrayal and a shock revelation that gives the book its title. Oddly enough, this finish would be even better had not Hammer been so true to Velda; had he given in to the charms of Quinn's former lovers who offer, as he might have in previous years, the shock ending would have carried even more impact. But this is, in some ways, a kinder gentler Mike Hammer, a white knight reborn. It works better in many ways than The Girl Hunters did, and is enough to make one wonder how Hammer and Velda might have progressed had Spillane decided not to take a break from his archetypical character.
Kill Me, Darling by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Titan Books, £17.99 ISBN 9781783291380
Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)