by Shawn Kelly (@DearShawnie)
Late author Mickey Spillane, renowned crime novelist, is back at it again with the help of co-author Max Allen Collins. Released this month, Complex 90 is one of several uncompleted works entrusted to Collins following the death of Spillane in July of 2007 at the age of 88. With over 225 million copies of his books sold internationally, Spillane is considered to be one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
Complex 90 revolves around Mike Hammer — Spillane’s most famous character who, aside from the books, has spawned several movies, radio and television series, and even a comic book series. Fitting, considering Mike Hammer was birthed from Spillane’s comic book character Mike Danger. Hammer is a hardened, ill-tempered army veteran turned NYC detective who is fueled by a genuine righteous indignation to combat the injustice of the world, even if it means inflicting brutal violence on his enemies — a staple of the books that some critics have taken issue with. Hammer plays by his own rules and doesn’t mind forcing others to follow them as well. Yet even under his rough demeanor, Hammer is endearing and offers a certain roguish charm. Spillane was so certain of his vision for this character that he even played Hammer himself in the film version of his 1961 novel, The Girl Hunters. As Complex 90 is an unofficial sequel to The Girl Hunters, Collins urges readers in the author’s note to picture Mike Hammer as Mickey Spillane.
The book opens as Hammer joins conservative senator Allen Jasper for personal security on a fact-finding trip to Moscow and quickly finds himself the target of a KGB operation. Hammer is arrested on false charges and thrown into prison, but not for long. In 1964 with rising Cold War tensions keeping the U.S. and Soviet Union on edge, Complex 90 follows Hammer’s escape from the shadows of the Iron Curtain. Upon his return stateside, Hammer discovers that his means of getting home (killing forty soviets in the process) have caused an international incident. Who can he trust when evidence points the harsh reality that he was specifically chosen to accompany Senator Jasper? With his own government threatening to send him back to Moscow and the KGB pursuing him at every turn, Hammer realizes that he is alone on this mission to discover why Russia wants him so desperately.
Patriotism is a major theme throughout the novel with Hammer showing his devotion to the U.S. and the preservation of her liberties, even as international communism breathes down the neck of freedom. Some of Spillane’s own love of country shines through, specifically in reference to the military men littered throughout the novel.
The older M.P. — a Negro with a scarred face and triple row of ribbons — grinned back at me with his eyes speaking a silent language I’d rarely heard since the war. Not this Cold War, either, but that hot one I’d fought in, in the Pacific… So there was one guy around, anyway, who would understand what I was saying.
Spillane, who enlisted in the Army Air Corps the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, was a fighter pilot and instructor himself; his respect for matters of military service is apparent throughout the book. It’s a refreshing and somewhat foreign perspective that is rarely present in modern literature. There are many things this book does well, but the balance of old-school pro-American sentiment with a well-crafted plot that is still exciting today is its best offering to readers. This mash-up is done seamlessly, which is a testament to Collins who finished the manuscript in a way that leaves no real line of demarcation between Spillane’s writing and his own.
Hammer is a character that could easily come across unlikable if he wasn’t developed well enough. Readers can’t and won’t rely on previously published Mike Hammer novels to get a good feel for the character. Thankfully, Complex 90 doesn’t force the reader’s hand in that regard. If you’re familiar with the other books, he remains consistent with the Hammer you know and love, if not a little hardened from time and experience. If you’re an unfamiliar reader, Hammer is well-rounded and emotionally developed enough throughout this book that a connection is likely to be made. It may even be strong enough for you to dip into the older installments and explore a little bit of Hammer’s history.
One thing that stands out is the poetry. Spillane is known for his violent, straightforward, and often sexual elements to his writing. These things exist and do drive Complex 90 forward in a way that would leave it lacking should they have been left out. However there is an element of imagery that Spillane, or perhaps Collins, doesn’t get enough credit for. He paints an eloquent picture that isn’t heavy-handed or obnoxious, reeking of some pretentious need to sound artistic. It just is artistic, simply put.
It was coming down hard now, rain filling the gutters, machine-gunning umbrellas, sending even those New Yorkers made of the sternest stuff to seek shelter under marquees or to huddle in doorways or to cram inside bars that offered a more soothing kind of wet.
Little portions of the book like this offer a reprieve from the high-stakes, fast-moving pace. It is because these moments are rare that they are so poignant when they do appear. It’s like you’re craving a shady spot in the middle of a hot desert and Spillane knows just when and where to place the palm-sheltered watering hole.
The book is thoroughly entertaining and I would encourage anyone who loves classic crime thrillers to pick this one up. Spillane and Collins are a well-balanced team. Fans of Spillane are lucky to have Collins, a dedicated and loyal friend to Spillane, be the keeper of his literary legacy. He understands Hammer the way Spillane intended him to be understood, and Complex 90 is the product of this effortlessly cohesive partnership.