With Further Ado #091: Down These Mean Streets with MAX ALLAN COLLINS (part 1)

I like a lot of detective heroes found in books, movies and TV shows. Part of the fun of an adventure with any of Philip Marlowe, Jim Rockford, Pete Fernandez, Spenser, or Myron Bolitar is that I think it would be fun to hang out with that guy.  Even the heroes who are a bit prickly, like Sherlock Holmes or Stumptown’s Dex Parios, would still be a riot to run around with for an adventure or two. They are all so likeable.

But I never used to like Mike Hammer, the toughest of the tough guy detectives.  I knew he was a big deal and his novels, written by Mickey Spillane, were successful. I would learn later that, at one point, Spillane was the world’s best-selling author, having written seven of the top ten best-selling novels. It turns out that it happened was when he had only written seven novels.

Yes, this guy Spillane was seven for seven. Incredible, right?

I think that, initially, the character Hammer was just too brutal for me. He gave the bad guys what they deserved, however gruesome.  He always “colored outside the lines” of both the legal system and good taste. Unlike that classical 1930s and 1940s detective who would walk down those mean streets like a modern day knight of the round table, adhering to a personal code of honor, Spillane’s Mike Hammer took it way over the edge.

But my perception changed when I started reading the “new” Mike Hammer novels.  After an incredible writing career, and second act in a long-lived Miller Lite advertising campaign, Mickey Spillane left behind a treasure trove of partially-finished stories, and story ideas, that he only trusted one man to finish – Max Allan Collins.

Max Allan Collins has emerged as one of the top mystery writers in his own right. He’s incredibly prolific, and it’s astounding that he never seems let his level quality slip; not in any of his novels (Nate Heller, Quarry), comics (Ms. Tree, Batman), adaptations (CSI, Criminal Minds) and comic strips (Dick Tracy, Batman.) You might also know he was the guy wrote the brilliant graphic novel, The Road To Perdition, which also became a movie starring Tom Hanks.

Collins had two big obsessions in his youth. The first was Dick Tracy and then, as an adolescent, it was Mike Hammer, as written by Mickey Spillane.

Collins and Spillane had developed a relationship that far transcended the Fanboy-Professional template that may been its original foundation.  “I got to know him in ‘81”, revealed Collins.  Before he passed, Spillane told his wife to give all his partially written works to Max because “He’ll know what to do with them.”

“He was very protective [of his literary work], so it surprised me,” said Collins. “He trusted me back then, but he never said, ‘Will you help me?’”.

But I am so glad that, in essence, Spillane did.  Max Allan Collins has posthumously collaborated with his literary idol to create new Mike Hammer adventures.

Which brings me back to my initial dislike of that character, even though I had developed a ravenous appreciation of the work of Max Allan Collins.

A few years at San Diego Comic-Con, I was speaking to Collins telling him that, while I loved his worked, I didn’t really enjoy Mike Hammer stories. “Try this one”, he suggested, handing me one of the collaborations. I was hooked.

I could have started this column by simply recounting how I recently caught up with Max Allan Collins to discuss his latest Mike Hammer novel, Masquerade for Murder from Titan Books, but the backstory is important. During my conversation with Collins, as I expected, he had a lot to say, and it was all fascinating.

Masquerade For Murder

The latest novel, the twenty-fifth in the series and the twelfth Spillane-Collins collaboration, is a detective story set in New York City in the ’80s.  It’s a thriller with creative characters and clever action sequences, that is also a trip back to the recent past without getting overly nostalgic or too cute.

Mike Hammer is tough and witty. His supporting characters are all so interesting that you wish they had more time onstage (especially his “secretary” Velda), and the NYC cast is deliciously wicked.

Collins weaves wisps of everything we remember of the ’80s – nightclubs, suspenders, financial excess, shooting (film) on location – but keeps it all fresh. It never feels like a history lesson. If you picked up this novel with a vintage cover, you might assume it was published in 1987.

When I talked about the lead character, Mike Hammer, Collins shared an unique observation.

Bond and Hammer

Max made a case for the relationship between James Bond and Mike Hammer that I had never thought about. As he elaborated on this notion, it made all the sense the world.

He argued that Bond came one hundred percent out of Mike Hammer. How could that be? The erudite and refined Brit doesn’t seem to have anything in common with that tough-as-nails private eye, Hammer. Collins explained it in this way: that Bond is the good guy who uses the bad guy’s methods to get where he needs to be.

“Think about Bond for a second. The key moment comes about midway through the first film, Dr. No, as 007 kills a minor bad guy. That’s his license to kill – he’s allowed to do that,“ said Collins. “That was the Hammer moment.”

Given the popularity of the Hammer series, it made sense that the Ian Fleming’s publisher, Signet, tried to market 007 as the British Mike Hammer.

While we all have our favorite Bond actor (sometimes I try to imagine a 007 novel with Roger Moore, and I just can’t seem to do it), Mike Hammer doesn’t have a definitive screen image. For fans of a certain age, Stacy Keach might be iconic, but he came to the party once it was well underway.

The reason that there isn’t an iconic actor associated with Hammer is because Mickey Spillane planned it that way. He would describe Hammer very sparingly in each novel.

Author Photos

Oh, and there’s one other interesting Bond connection. Collins explained that Spillane used those ubiquitous “author photos” as a marketing tool. Spillane was the first author to pose in way that reflected his protagonist and the genre of his stories. So Spillane would always wear a  fedora in his author photos, just as Hammer and so many other PI’s would.

And then it was Ian Fleming who would follow suit years later. He’d pose in a dashing way, with cigarettes and guns.

I might argue that it was done so much, and so well, that we don’t think about it twice anymore.

Next week – more of my conversation with Max Allan Collins. Don’t miss it.