SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There's a new Mike Hammer novel by Mickey Spillane. Hey, wait, didn't Mickey Spillane die in 2006? But Mike Hammer endures. "Complex 90" tells the story of the hardboiled pre-Age of Aquarius detective accompanying the U.S. senator to Moscow where he has to shoot his way out of a KGB trap.
Ha. Could happen to anybody. The Soviets, as they were called in the mid-1960s, want Mike back to stand trial. So why do some people in the U.S. government want to oblige them? Why was Mike chosen to accompany the senator? And is there a place in the modern mid-1960s, or even now, for a man with a 1940s sense of honor and a guy who still calls women doll?
The late Mickey Spillane wrote mysteries that practically created the American paperback industry. Over 225 million copies of his books have been sold since he was first published in 1947. Mickey Spillane, not Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or other creators of signature detectives whose works were sometimes judged to have moved into literature, was the best-selling mystery writer of the 20th Century.
Now, Mickey Spillane was 88 when he died and Max Allan Collins, himself an acclaimed mystery writer, and graphic novelist, including, "Road to Perdition," was his friend and literary executor, and he's helped complete "Complex 90." Max Allan Collins joins us from WSUI in Iowa City, Iowa. Thanks so much for being with us.
MAX ALLAN COLLINS: It's really a pleasure and it's fun to hear you talk about the book.
SIMON: Well, how did this story come into your hands?
COLLINS: Well, 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 going to get to the end of this book. Will you pick up where I left off? And it 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 going to 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, 100-page plus, and these have become the basis of this half-dozen Mike Hammer novels that I've committed to complete.
SIMON: How did you guys become friends?
COLLINS: Well, I was his biggest fan, which is saying something when you're the best-selling mystery writer of the 20th Century. 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, although the most popular, was reviled.
And I was always sort of his unrequested defender. I would write articles and Mickey came to know that I was the Mike Hammer defender and we really, really hit it off.
SIMON: And may we ask this book, "Complex 90," how much of it is you, how much of it is Mickey Spillane?
COLLINS: Well, 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 has 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 rough draft and that usually expands to about 200, 250 pages.
SIMON: I want to get you to read a couple of paragraphs if we could. So Mike Hammer is in Moscow with the senator?
COLLINS: That's right. That day they've had the big November 7th rally in Red Square and Mike has just gone out by himself, had a big meal at a restaurant and now just kind of walking in Moscow.
(Reading) Hands in my trench coat pockets, my breath like the ghost I was chasing. I took a nice brisk walk, even if my Praga(ph) feast remained a lump in my belly. Famous buildings were scattered around the Hotel National as if dropped there by a bored giant. Saint Basil's Cathedral, the Bolshoi Theatre, this museum, that art gallery. After all the pomp and circumstance of the day, the grand citadel of the Kremlin was asleep on this nearly moonless night.
SIMON: That section that you just read had some - I circled some of the wonderful flourishes. I mean, things like breath like a ghost, and the buildings as if dropped there by a bored giant. Why do you think Mickey Spillane, with his Mike Hammer novels, didn't get some of the respect Dashiell Hammett did with Sam Spade?
COLLINS: Well, Mickey was, I would say, a primitive. He's a writer like Grandma Moses was a painter. 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. He kills 45 people in the first, I don't know, 40 or 50 pages of the book.
COLLINS: I'm tasteful, so some of that's off-screen. But he does in fact.
SIMON: At one point, a U.S. security man says to Mike Hammer: Guys who carry big guns are compensating. I got to tell you, that sounds, to me, like a 2013 line that a clever writer has put into a 1964 story. Is that the case?
COLLINS: Well, you know, he had a fun way of really addressing the critical response to him. He would often, in the context of the novels, thumb his nose at the critics by even repeating the things that he'd been accused of doing. There's a lot of black humor in these books. I wouldn't go so far as to say tongue-in-cheek or campy but there is definitely a sense, on both our parts, of what we're up to, I think.
SIMON: Well, and to pursue this a bit, from the perspective of 2013, was Mike Hammer compensating?
COLLINS: You know, I don't think he was because, you know, there's an interesting thing in Spillane, which is that most tough guys in literature are understated. You know, Randolph Scott, for example, these guys, they don't say much. And usually a tough guy who talks a lot isn't really tough. Hammer is odd in that fashion, 'cause he will come in and he will give you a paragraph about the terrible things he's going to do to you if you mess with him. And then they mess with him and he does those things. So, he's not kidding. He's just this crazy.
SIMON: Max Allan Collins. He is the award-winning mystery writer who, as Mickey Spillane's literary executor, has finished another Mike Hammer novel, "Complex 90." Mr. Collins, thanks so much for being with us.
COLLINS: It was really my pleasure. Thank you for the wonderful questions.