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Pulp Fiction's Bad Boy Mike Hammer Returns In 'Complex 90'

Mickey Spillane, pictured here in 1963, wrote his first Mike Hammer novel in three fevered weeks after returning from World War II.
Mickey Spillane, pictured here in 1963, wrote his first Mike Hammer novel in three fevered weeks after returning from World War II.

The late Mickey Spillane wrote mysteries that practically created the American paperback industry — more than 225 million copies of his books have been sold since he was first published in 1947. Spillane was the best-selling mystery writer of the 20th century — not Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or other signature writers whose works were sometimes judged to have moved from detective mystery to work of literature.

Mickey Spillane died in 2006, but his hard-boiled, pre-Age of Aquarius detective, Mike Hammer, lives on thanks to acclaimed mystery writer and graphic novelist Max Allan Collins. Collins was Spillane's friend and literary executor, and since 2006, he's been hard at work completing several of Spillane's unfinished Mike Hammer manuscripts.

Complex 90 is the latest book to come out of that effort. In it, Hammer accompanies a U.S. senator to Moscow, where he has to shoot his way out of a KGB trap. He makes it back to the U.S. only to learn that the Soviets, as they were called in the mid-1960s, want him returned so he can stand trial — and some in the U.S. government are willing oblige them.

Collins tells NPR's Scott Simon about how he and Spillane became friends and when Spillane asked him to finish his manuscripts.

Interview Highlights

On how completion of the manuscripts fell to him

"Mickey knew that he was dying, quite frankly. He had pancreatic cancer and he was working on a book called The Goliath Bone, which he envisioned as the last Mike Hammer novel. And he called me literally a week before he passed and said, 'I'm not gonna get to the end of this book. Will you pick up where I left off?' And that was an incredible honor to me and I said, 'Absolutely. I hope I don't have to, Mickey, but if that's what happens I'll be glad to do that.' And then a few days later he spoke to his wife, Jane, and said, 'When I'm gone there's gonna be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max.'

"So, indeed, we did have a treasure hunt. My wife, Barb, and I went down to South Carolina and the great find was half a dozen Mike Hammer manuscripts that are substantial — hundred page-plus. And these have become the basis of these half-dozen Mike Hammer novels that I've committed to complete."

On how much of Complex 90 is Spillane, and how much is Collins

"I usually describe this as about a 50/50 collaboration. Mickey usually has done about a third of the book when I set out to do my portion. But you have to consider the fact that he has plotted the book: He's created not only Mike Hammer, but all the characters; everything is in motion; sometimes the ending is already written. And I usually take the 100 or 125 pages that he's written and I revise them. I treat it as a rough draft and that usually expands to about 200 to 250 pages."

On how he and Spillane became friends

"When I was 13 and I discovered the writers you mentioned — Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler — I also discovered Mickey Spillane, and I was kind of startled to find out that Hammett and Chandler were revered and Mickey, though the most popular, was reviled. And I was always sort of his unrequested defender: I would write articles; I wrote my thesis at the [Iowa Writers'] Workshop here at Iowa City about Mickey Spillane. And Mickey came to know that I was the Mike Hammer defender and we really, really hit it off. Wonderful man, sweet man."

On why Spillane didn't get the same respect as Hammett and Chandler

"He's a writer like Grandma Moses was a painter. And really, he writes more vividly than Hammett. Of course Hammett was stylistically very objective, that was his approach. And Chandler was a guy that did metaphors, primarily — that's what he's really, really famous for. But Mickey would go in and he would paint the night like a sort of demented poet. You know, Mike Hammer is the most emotional of these guys. He is really somewhat psychotic, which is one of the reasons why I think the books got criticized; that he kills 45 people in the first, I don't know, 40 or 50 pages of the book. I'm tasteful so some of that's off-screen."

On what made Spillane's books so popular

"I think that there's a lot to do with his mastery of first-person prose and pulling you into not just the situation, but the character. He was very careful never to describe Mike Hammer in detail. It's one of the reasons why there really — other than Kiss Me Deadly — was not a great film made for many of his books; because the Mike Hammer on-screen never matched up to the Mike Hammer of the mind.

Max Allan Collins' 1998 graphic novel <em>Road to Perdition</em> inspired an Academy Award-winning film.
/ Courtesy Titan Books
Courtesy Titan Books
Max Allan Collins' 1998 graphic novel Road to Perdition inspired an Academy Award-winning film.

"The other thing that Mickey had — the core idea which was so, so important in popular culture, for good or ill — is that Hammer is where, for the first time, the hero uses the methods of the bad guys. The way Mickey described it was, 'He wears the black hat but he's the hero.' I thought that was a good way to put it. ... You know both James Bond and Shaft were sold, respectively, as the British Mike Hammer and the black Mike Hammer. Hammer is where really all this stuff comes from."

On how he knows he's done justice to Spillane's work

"One of the things I love to see is a reviewer [who] quote[s] four or five lines that are typical Mickey Spillane lines from one of these books, and I'll see two of them that I know I wrote. Then I feel like, 'OK, I'm getting this right.' "

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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