Wed
May 25 2016 4:00pm

Nate Heller & Mike Hammer

Read this exclusive guest post from Max Allan Collins, author of Better Dead, comparing his own Nate Heller series to finishing Mickey Spillane's posthumous Mike Hammer manuscripts, and then make sure you're signed in and comment for a chance to win a copy of his newest Nate Heller thriller!

I have been writing about my fictional P.I. Nate Heller for over thirty years. During that time, he’s solved some of the greatest unsolved crimes of the 20th Century, mostly in the 1930s and ‘40s, though more recently, I skipped forward to the 1960s for novels about Marilyn Monroe’s death (Bye Bye, Baby, 2011) and the JFK assassination (Target Lancer, 2012; Ask Not, 2013). The only ‘50s novel was Chicago Confidential (2002), set at the beginning of that decade.

In the world of crime fiction, the private eye who ruled the 1950s was Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. Hammer’s first half dozen cases (starting with I, The Jury, 1947) remain the bestselling private eye novels of all time. The character was wildly popular, but also extremely controversial, even vilified. The left attacked Spillane for Hammer’s vigilante ways, and the right pilloried him for what was the then extreme sexual content of the novels.

Throughout my career, I’ve been linked to Spillane, as I emerged the unlikely defender of the bestselling mystery writer of the Twentieth Century. Since the early ‘70s, I’ve written articles and reviews that praised his work, and even co-wrote a critical appreciation (One Lonely Knight: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, with James L. Traylor, 1984). 

In the early ‘80s, after a co-appearance with Spillane at a Bouchercon, he and I became friends. We worked on numerous projects together, including short story collections, comic books, and even a documentary about his life. On the personal side, he became my son Nathan’s godfather.

He played a role in the Nathan Heller story, as well. When my then agent was unenthusiastic about the first novel, True Detective (1983), Mickey read the book and had glowing praise for it, expressing a willingness to provide a cover blurb when the time came. 

Ultimately, in 2006, Mickey—in failing health—asked me to take on the job of completing a number of manuscripts in his files...and there were plenty. Thus far, I’ve finished eleven novels, including eight Mike Hammer’s (most recently Murder Never Knocks).

I grew up not only on Mickey’s work, but also such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Chester Himes and Rex Stout. So, while Mickey had a big effect on how my writing developed, he was not the sole influence. I never considered myself a Spillane imitator, and rarely has that charge been made (although the posthumous collaborations have been called “seamless” by a number of reviewers).

Hammer’s influence on Heller is undeniable but not overriding. Hammer, if he voted (and he doesn’t), would be a conservative. Heller is a democrat who voted for FDR. The world of Mike Hammer is fairly black and white. Heller’s world is decidedly gray—a place where the bad guys sometimes get away with it. That would never happen in a Hammer novel.

Hammer is a classic P.I.—perhaps the classic P.I.—with a limited past history (he served in the Pacific in WWII). He has a best friend who’s a cop and a secretary who is a sometimes love interest. Standard stuff for the genre, although Spillane’s high-wattage, fever-dream style is anything but standard.

Heller, appearing in lengthy works whose object is to explore famous unsolved crimes on big landscapes, is a guy who has a family history and who ages as the books go along, starting in a one-room office and building a nationwide detective agency. He, too, is traumatized in WWII, but we witness it. Like Hammer, he is a randy sort, but he marries and has a son about midway through the saga. If a mob boss threatens Mike Hammer, Hammer shoves the guy’s teeth in. When Capone’s successor, Frank Nitti, tells Heller to drop a certain case and bribes him to do so, Heller goes out and buys a new suit, since the alternative is to wind up dead in a ditch.

But, in writing the new Heller, Better Dead, with its Red Scare theme, I found myself plopping Nate Heller down in the midst of the Mike Hammer ‘50s. Heller works both sides of the fence—taking jobs from Joe McCarthy as well as famously leftist Dashiell Hammett, though ultimately working for himself. When he’s backed into a corner by the CIA, he does what he’s told. He advises Julius Rosenberg to name names. All of this has to do with my desire to make Heller a more rounded, real human being than Hammer and the many fictional private eyes who followed.

See also: Better Dead: New Excerpt

But, there are times in Better Dead when the craziness of the early ‘50s and all the Commie witch-hunting infects Heller, and the Mike Hammer in both him and his creator comes bubbling up. In the novel, Bettie Page—the real-life pin-up queen who is just one of Heller’s love interests this time around—is glimpsed reading Spillane’s One Lonely Night. Shortly thereafter, she is kidnapped, and Heller must go after her and rescue her...and dispatch her captors in a very Mike Hammer manner.

Writing this and a prior shoot-out scene in Better Dead, I began to wonder if completing the Hammer novels in Mickey’s files had made Mike and Nate blur together. Was I forgetting which series I was writing? 

Or was the lunacy of the early ‘50s just catching me up in its sway? 
 

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Better Dead by Max Allan Collins!

To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

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Better Dead Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2016/05/nate-heller-and-mike-hammer-max-allan-collins-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) May 25, 2016. Sweepstakes ends 3:59 p.m. ET June 3, 2016. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

 

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Max Allan Collins is the author of the acclaimed graphic novel Road to Perdition (the basis for the Academy Award-winning Tom Hanks film) and its sequels, as well as the Nathan Heller mysteries, including Bye Bye, Baby, Target Lancer, and Ask Not. An independent filmmaker, Collins lives in eastern Iowa.

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70 comments
Jane Schwarz
1. Janeschwarz
Liked the article. Thanks for the great giveaway.
Bill Cook
2. Jazdog
I love the Nate Heller books and how Mr. Collins mixes in interesting history - especially that of Chicago! I'm looking forward to reading Better Dead!
Sandy Klocinski
4. attea2d
Loved the guest post. I'm looking forward to reading the book
5. Tara O.
This book sounds great! Can't wait to read!
Tara Overby
6. taravanh
This book sounds great! Can't wait to read!
Gordon Bingham
8. gordonbingham
Been reaqdind the Nate Heller books since 1983 - of of the few series I make it a point not to miss ...
Gary Anderson
9. gwander
This sounds like a book to read on a hot summer afternoon. Count me as a buyer.
Barbara Lima
11. barblima
I love the 50s. I was born in the 40s.
Jane Wright
14. azgarfan
Love all of Max Allan Collins works and looking forward to reading this one. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.
Kimberly Hilbert
16. asketcher2
I haven't heard of this book/series, I'll be looking for it when I get another book to read.
Michele Baron
17. angel320
My husband would love this book...he is a big mystery fan.
Michelle  Garrity
20. mgarrity
Sounds intriguing. Would like to start reading the series!
Susan Pertierra
21. orchidlady01
It seems like bringing in the craziness of the early 1950s to a detective novel always makes it seem seedier and more nostalgic.
Susan Smoaks
24. susansmoaks
thank you for the chance to win. i love to read.
dan breslin
26. knight99
I REALLY ENJOYED COLLINS QYARRY NOVELS BUT I HAVE ALWAYS FELT THAT THE HAMMER NOVELS DONE BY COLLINS DO NOT MATCH THE QUALITY OF QUARRY
JAMES LYNAM
27. jpl123456
My kind of book. Also will be part of my library.
Barbara Rogan
28. Griffymom
This is the type of story I enjoy reading. Thank you for the chance to win.
Ed Nemmers
32. saturdaynightfever
I would like to read the work of Max Allan Collins.
Jerry Marquardt
36. versatileer
I cannot wait to read Nate Heller & Mike Hammer as it looks like a great book. I thank you for featuring it today, and for giving us all the chance.
Faye Gates
40. ClickClick
I love all I have read so far. I can't wait to read the book.
Mike Markland
42. Bones65
I'm a Big Fan Of Max Allan Collins and Would Love To Win .
peter gladue
44. peterg201
Need to Read Max Allan Collins, Loved to WIN
45. Caslyn
Love a chance to read this
Barbara Bibel
48. bbibel
This sounds like a fascinating read. Heller is full of contradictions.
Joyce Lokitus
52. Joyce710113
Interesting premise - mixing historical news with fiction wrapped up in a Mike Hammer resolve.
Robin Weatherington
54. rawfish
I'm looking forward to reading Better Dead!
Lana Hood
55. ManitobaPearl
Thank you for the great article and the opportunity to win a book.
Joanne Mielczarski
57. jtmswim
Can't wait to read this book - sounds great.
Barbara Lima
58. barblima
I was born in the 40s. I remember when all men wore fedoras.
Lucinda Larson
63. JohnsJane
I love mysteries, thank you for the giveaway!
Joy Isley
64. JOYE
I love reading mystery stories. I grew up reading Mike Hammer.
I now have a collection of all of Mickey Spillane's books. I think he and Raymond Chandler set the tone for the mysteries we have available now.
Brad Bonds
65. rbonds008
I enjoyed the article and I would like to win the new Heller book.
Kelly Rodriguez
67. krodriguez630
I would love to win the newest Nate Heller thriller!
Melissa Keith
69. melly801
Dear God! I missed this! There are real tears in my eyes. I love ANYTHING by Max Allan Collins. Ok, nose is snotty so I need a Kleenex. So many giveaways! Thank you. I adore you, Crime HQ!! PS. I'm having a biopsy next week. That 'calling card' contest rocks! I'll be reading a lot of books this summer. Hope some are from you!!
Laura Shangraw
70. fritterbit
This book would be passed along through my whole household.
Kimberly Dull
71. kimdulina
This could be interesting. I've never read any Heller novels before.
Jud Hanson
72. trekie70
I've recently become a big fan of noir crime and look forward to reading this book.
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