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?
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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.