SEPTEMBER 17, 2011
2011 IS TURNING OUT to be a banner year for crime fiction. Despite all the hubbub over the encroaching death of the publishing industry, crime lit continues to flourish, branching out like so many rivulets from an endless pool of blood. First-time authors and beloved mainstays have found homes with new publishers of various sizes. Among the most welcome arrivals is Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Still only a few months old, their roster already boasts such fine writers as the backwoods bard Daniel Woodrell, with his astoundingly atmospheric The Bayou Trilogy, as well as Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block and his A Drop of the Hard Stuff, a dark (and sober) night of the soul featuring series favorite, Matthew Scudder. On the indie scene, New Pulp Press is still going strong in its third year, ushering in several noteworthy debuts, including Heath Lowrance’s The Bastard Hand (a wicked good “Bad Preacher” story: Gil Brewer meets Night of the Hunter). Four of the summer’s most anticipated novels come from rising stars poised to break into the mainstream: Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Jason Starr’s The Pack, and Duane Swierczynski’s Fun & Games. This summer also marks the return of the legendary private eye Mike Hammer. In Kiss Her Goodbye, the late Mickey Spillane and his co-author, Max Allan Collins, have a few new tricks up their sleeves for the gat-wielding shamus. Each of the authors above take bold steps in new directions. Their risks pay off on the page, resulting in some of the finest novels of their respective careers.
In Kiss Her Goodbye, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer — one of the preeminent archetypes of the private detective — is back on the streets of the Big Apple. The latest Hammer novel began as a manuscript Spillane started and abandoned in the 1970s. Half a decade after his death in 2006, Spillane’s close friend and collaborator, Max Allan Collins, completed the book. With all these young writers taking crime fiction into new territory, the reappearance of Hammer is an interesting counterpoint, to say the least. A WWII vet, complete with crew cut and hyper-masculine drive, Hammer would seem like an anachronism in any era other than Eisenhower’s America. So it’s to Spillane and Collins’s great credit that they manage to place Hammer in the middle of coked-up, disco-centric, late-seventies New York without turning the whole show into an In Like Flint parody.
As Kiss Her Goodbye begins, Hammer is in Florida. He’s been away for a year in semi-retirement after a deadly shootout with a mob boss. The supposed suicide of his former mentor calls Hammer back to New York, and he doesn’t like what he sees. The city has changed, so have the people he knew, and so has Hammer. Now it’s time to get things back to the way they were. Convinced his friend’s suicide was staged, Hammer opens the case and uncovers corrupt politicians, international drug schemes, mob wars, wayward young women, androgynous Brazilian singers, and a complex web of mysteries that only Hammer and his trusty .45 can solve.
Kiss Her Goodbye is a throwback in the best sense of the word: it reminds us why Spillane was so good in the first place; and Collins, too, for that matter. Dexterous and dynamic plotting, swift and explosive action, snappy dialogue, graphic metaphors, and energetic characters that come alive: this is action-mystery par excellence. Spillane’s style is unmistakable, but it is also nuanced. At times, it’s as staccato as a gunshot. At others it resembles stream of consciousness, a torrent of thought and action with which words can hardly keep up. In his more experimental moments, Spillane’s prose even shows traces of Imagism (though I’m sure he’d shun such scholarly tags). And few dare to use italics as often — and as effectively — as Spillane:
…my head still full of the wild banging of handguns and the crazy booming of shotguns, echoing across the pier, flame belching right past my face and even though I didn’t feel the impact of the slugs that took me down I could remember the numbness and the slow drifting away that began to smother me. The face was there, too, blood smeared across the Bonetti kid’s mouth, tight in a mad grin as he poked the barrel of his .357 against my forehead and said, “Die, you bastard,” as he started to squeeze the trigger but he shouldn’t have taken the time to say it because the .45 in my fist went off and his finger couldn’t make the squeeze because the brain that should have sent it signals shut off like a switch as Bonetti’s head came apart in crimson chunks like a target-range watermelon.
At the same time, Kiss Her Goodbye isn’t a mere rehashing of the past. While Hammer himself struggles to fit into the 1970s, Spillane and Collins have no trouble keeping him up to date. (The fact that Hammer no longer smokes is, perhaps, a little too up to date.) While he’s more liberal and no longer lambasts the Communists (or blasts them, either), there’s something timeless about Hammer’s persona that would fit any era: he’s an individual driven by his intolerance toward a complacent society. Where law and order seeks to “keep the peace,” Hammer prefers to create disorder, in order to highlight injustice and corruption. He’s also funny, charming, quick with a gun, lands a hard punch… and so what if he’s a bit arrogant? That’s all just part of the appeal. Kiss Her Goodbye has all the blood of One Lonely Night, and a shocking finale that rivals Vengeance is Mine. In short, it’s classic Spillane, as good as the old stuff, or any of the newer books on the shelves. Spillane (thanks to Collins) can still keep up with the new generation, and maybe even teach them a lesson or two.