[CRIME CORNER] Finishing The Job: Collins Completes Spillane Swan Song
by Brendan McCall
Halloween is a time of tricks and mischief. This past Halloween marked the release date of a special treat for crime fiction fans: a new book by Mickey Spillane, the godfather of the pulps. Dead Street (Hard Case Crime) bears a number of resemblances to a trail he first blazed with I, The Jury in 1947. There are Spillane's signature descriptions of violence, so visual and percussive, the undercurrent of desire, passion, and sexuality, and there is the loner anti-hero at the center of this maelstrom—Jack Stang. But if there is a single theme that threads through Dead Street—and, in fact, all of Spillane's books, including the Mike Hammer series—it would be friendship.
But wait a minute: there's more mystery here than just Dead Street's gorgeously lurid cover painting by Arthur Suydam. Mickey Spillane died in July of 2006, and at that time, only 8 of the book's 11 chapters were complete. The rest of the story was an elaborate jigsaw of notes, plot outlines, and characterizations. Who finished the job, and helped bring the book to publication 16 months later?
The novel's hero, Jack Stang, is named after a real-life cop and old friend of Spillane in upstate New York—a clue as to how central friendship and loyalty were in his life as well as his fiction. Fittingly, it was another old friend who helped bring Dead Street completion: Max Allan Collins.
While perhaps most famous for his graphic novel The Road to Perdition (later made into the popular film directed by Sam Mendes), Collins is one of mystery's Renaissance men. He has written novels (Two for the Money, The Last Quarry), comic strips (Dick Tracy), comic books (Ms. Tree, Batman), and television novelizations (CSI, Dark Angel),
“There's a misconception that Mickey and I wrote together,” clarifies Collins. “We didn't. Mickey was fiercely protective of his writing.” Yet the pair has worked creatively before. The two developed the Mike Danger comic book together; Spillane appeared in two of Collins' independent feature films, Mommy and Mommy 2; and for the documentary Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane, was “generously given full access” by the author. Collins admiration for Spillane is evident. “On the projects we did together, he was gracious and generous, often deferring to me. I could select stories for the anthologies and he'd just read them over --he never rejected any. His trust grew out of our friendship. I was probably the only writer of my generation who would sit and talk craft with him. We'd talk deep into the night about writing, a subject he couldn't explore with any of his friends or family there in South Carolina.”
While Spillane's books exceed 130,000,000 sold (at one time, he was one of the best selling novelists of all time), they also tend to get dismissed rather easily by crime fiction readers. Sure, people love to cite Dashiell Hammet's Maltese Falcon (1941) or Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye as classic books of the genre, but not I, the Jury. These “attacks on Mickey obviously grew out of what was perceived as the overtly violent, sexual nature of the novels,” Collins explains. “These were, in the context of the times, ‘dirty books'.” Though the first seven novels in the Mike Hammer series remain shocking in their intense, emotional violence, Collins thinks that their sexuality must seem pretty mild in our “post-Larry Flynt world.”
“If Mickey hadn't been such an intense and vivid writer, his success wouldn't have offended so many,” Collins continues. “Mickey didn't write lean like Hammett, or with the careful poetry of Chandler. He had a first-person style that seemed effortless, and a surrealistic, expressionistic way of describing Hammer's nightmare world that simply puzzled and offended most literary critics.”
And while the numbers speak for themselves, and the name of Spillane remains synonymous with hardboiled, Collins earnestly believes Mickey needs to be re-read for his craft as a writer. “He liked to pretend writing was unimportant to him, just a way to make a buck,” Collins explains, “but this was a defense mechanism and part of his jovial tough guy image. He loved storytelling. When he was discussing writing, or better still, spinning a story out loud that he hoped to write, he was on fire with enthusiasm.”
That enthusiasm must be infectious, as you can tell that Collins' completion of Dead Street was done in the furnace of friendship. The resulting work is seamless: only someone who was intimately knowledgeable about Spillane's process, thinking, motives, and patterns could have filled in the blanks.
How did Collins finish the job?
“The editing was tricky,” Collins admits. “Mickey had written Dead Street over a period of time ... and no matter what he said about never rewriting, he did in fact polish and shape his work. All I did was try to keep Jack Stang's voice going and make sure that the proper, hard-hitting, shocking end-of-the-book Spillane approach came into full play.”
Collins reveals that Dead Street is not the end of the story for Spillane fans. An adventure novel he was working on simultaneously with Dead Street, entitled The Last Stand, is coming up soon.
And there is a lot more Mike Hammer in the future. Otto Penzler is publishing “the half a dozen half-finished Mike Hammer novels that I'll be finishing” at Harcourt, Collins reveals. “I'm working right now on The Goliath Bone, the last Hammer that Mickey was working on.” There's also The Big Bang, a Hammer manuscript from 1965, as well as The King of the Weeds, which Spillane was also working on before he died. All of this in addition to Collins own writing, most recently his novel Deadly Beloved (Hard Case Crime), published in December 2007.
Max Allen Collins wrote the graphic novel Road to Perdition, later made into a film starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, and his novels The Last Quarry, Two for the Money, and most recently Deadly Beloved have all been published by Hard Case Crime. He lives in Iowa with his family.
Brendan McCall is a freelance director and writer based in New York City.