In his ten rules for writing, Elmore Leonard forgoes the advice of Ernest Hemingway, and says: “Never open a book with weather.” Well, Mickey Spillane isn’t one for niceties or poetry, and he certainly lived by that code, as the late author’s “Lady, Go Die!” doesn’t mince words from the get go: “They were kicking the hell out of the little guy.”
Shamus Award-winning author, screenwriter, filmmaker and more, Max Allan Collins — perhaps best known as the man behind “Road To Perdition,” and whose “Black Hats” currently has Harrison Ford attached — has been tasked by the Spillane estate to tackle the author’s various manuscripts and incomplete novels, and bring them to bookshelves. As he explained to us last fall, he takes a very careful approach, not just filling in the blanks, but also studying the context of where in Spillane’s career (with whom he was a friend) the book fell, and how the writer’s style was working at the time. And from there he views it as a collaborative work, one that honors Spillane, but also gives Collins the flexibility to add scenes and bring in the connective and aesthetic tissue the material needs. The results so far have been very good, but “Lady, Go Die!” comes with an added bit of pressure: It was Spillane’s abandoned Mike Hammer novel, which would have immediate followed “I, The Jury.” There are few figures in noir/crime fiction as iconic as Hammer, but fans will be relieved that Spillane does the character proud.
For all intents and purposes, “Lady, Go Die!” reads exactly like you would expect a Hammer or Spillane novel to read. Right from the opening, which sees Hammer step in to break up the fight by leaving three guys bruised and battered on the ground in a dark alley, the prose is crisp and deliciously blunt, the story is engaging and it has the requisite sex and violence you’d want from a piece of pulp fiction. But don’t get it twisted. Crime writers are often undervalued, their work treated as less literary than more high falutin’ authors. But the very best of the genre have stories that move with rhythm and energy (not an easy feat, as anyone who’s read a truly bad dime store novel knows), with characters that keep you engaged (even if they aren’t always likeable) and a mystery worth unraveling (though, in this department, the book stumbles slightly).
“Lady, Go Die!” finds Hammer and his sexy (but no less able) secretary Velda, taking a brief respite from the grind of New York City, in the seemingly peaceful, seasonal resort town of Sidon. But it isn’t long before Hammer gets tangled up in case that will involve corrupt police, gangsters, a potential serial killer and more. So much for a vacation. After Hammer rescues a simple minded beach bum from the beating of a lifetime by a bunch of Sidon PD goons, it’s not long before a deeper whodunit unravels. It turns out millionaire party gal Sharron Wesley has gone missing, and it isn’t long before she turns up dead, displayed for all to see naked, on a sculpture of a horse in a park in town like Lady Godiva. Hence the title. Not trusting anybody to do the job right, and smelling something bigger at play, Hammer is on the case.
To run through the plot is to spoil the surprises, but needless to say, this brisk story is carried by Hammer, who is one helluva narrator. Never without a quick line, a pack of Luckys and a gun (with the safety usually switched off), he barrels his way through the case mostly with brawn, some brains and just a little bit of sex appeal, to get what he wants. He cares for Velda, he’s not beyond chasing a skirt when he can, and his brand of justice usually involves cracking skulls first, and asking questions later. And while that all makes for a riproaring read, it’s not enough to forgive the finale. The twist is a bit predictable and obvious, and one fans of the genre will see coming from a mile off, and an excess of first person narration ties up all the loose ends rather clumsily. The firecracker closing line, which is almost too abrupt, only makes the deficiencies of the climax stand out a bit more, and you wish the destination had been worth the journey.
But the book is still worth seeking out. Hammer is a character you don’t mind spending the time with, even if the story doesn’t quite come up to scratch. In an era of conflicted heroes and leading men, Hammer is a refreshing change of pace — raw, masculine, with little in the way of self-doubt. He’s the kind of guy who dispenses justice with his fists, and if the court system happens to catch up and agree with him, well that works too. “Lady, Go Die!” isn’t a revelation or a miraculous find in the wealth of incomplete or unfinished Spillane work, but it’s an efficient, workmanlike thriller, that checks in at 9, gets out at 5 and gets the job done. And it’s hard to argue with that. [B-]
“Lady, Go Die!” is in bookstores today.