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‘Complex 90:’ Book Review

Complex 90


Complex 90“In one unintentionally comic motion, my audience all swung around in their seats to face me, ready to hang on my every word, minds already dancing with accusations at the same time they were formulating their own finely worded excuses.  It was too bad my buddy Ralph Marley wasn’t here to watch the show. But, Marley was dead. And, that left only me to play Scrooge.”

Detective fiction comes in many flavors.  You’ve got your dainty Miss Marples, your wise and mysterious Charlie Chans, your erudite Sherlock Holmes, your witty and pithy Nick and Nora Charles, your agoraphobic gourmet Rex Stout, but coming in ahead of all of them in terms of flavor and style, there is only one . . .  Mike Hammer.  As penned by Mickey Spillane, Hammer puts the “hard” in hard-boiled.

Set in early 1964, Complex 90 opens with Hammer being grilled by a select group of politicos from the alphabet agencies as well as political leaders about the fallout from his latest assignment.  Typically a detective, Hammer has accepted a bodyguard assignment protecting United States Senator Allen Jasper, heading to Soviet Russia on a fact-finding mission.  For an anti-communist like Hammer, this is akin to travelling into the belly of the beast.  But, he manages to behave himself . . . right up to the minute he’s abducted on the street one night and thrown into a Soviet prison. 

But, it’s not his capture that has the government up in arms . . . it’s his subsequent escape and the mounting body count as he made his way across Eastern Europe and back to the US that has them alarmed about the possibility of a growing international incident.  And now, back on the streets of New York, Hammer finds that that danger has followed him home and has its roots in his very own history, come back to haunt him again, in more ways than one.

A product of the post-war ’40s and ’50s, Hammer spilled forth in the pages of I, The Jury, adapted from a story Spillane had written for comic strip character Mike Danger.  While other pulp detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are cut from the same cloth as Hammer, they still have a respect for the line between right and wrong, good and evil.

Hammer is only loosely acquainted with that line.  And, the acquaintanceship is uneasy at best.  They may have had a drink or two, but it didn’t take.   Nowadays, they don’t meet each other’s gaze as they pass and feign ignorance at the mention of each other’s name.  A hard-drinking, hard-loving bruiser, Hammer is a threat to the men who cross him and equally as potent to the women who attract him:

“Still seated, [Zora Tabakova] half-turned toward me and unbelted the terrycloth robe and dropped it to her waist.  She put her shoulders back to emphasize breasts that were already full and high with copper-colored aerolae and reddish accusatory tips.  The damn things were like the nose cones of missiles she was threatening to launch at me.

Fire away, a voice in my skull suggested.”

Spillane’s co-author, Max Alan Collins, may be best known for his work on the Road to Perdition illustrated series, the Dick Tracy strips, and one of the Batman comics for a while, but he also has a deep pedigree in mystery, most notably on the Nathan Heller series about a Chicago PI who gets involved with famous people and infamous crimes in the 1930s and ’40s.

Long considered one of the “lost” Mike Hammer books, Complex 90 has a history as interesting as the story itself.  Originally intended for publication in the early ’60s, it never saw the light of day.  During a visit with Spillane in the early ’80s, the author gave Collins a copy of the manuscript and asked for his thoughts.  Seven years later, Spillane gave up the manuscript and asked Collins to take it with him “for safekeeping” . . . just weeks before Spillane’s South Carolina home was devastated by Hurricane Hugo.  With his death in 2006, Spillane’s legacy fell to Collins, as well as control of Complex 90 and several other unfinished works.

There’s often a danger when a modern audience reads or a modern author attempts to mine the rich lode of hard-boiled fiction.  Self-parody becomes a distinct possibility, but there’s no threat of that here.  Collins draws on Spillane’s rich Hammer legacy in pulling this tale together, weaving his words into Spillane’s unfinished work with nary a seam in sight.  Collins captures the rich spartan writing Spillane is famous for with no sense of “this was Spillane, that was Collins” that might have troubled lesser writers.   No stranger to the mystery and noir genre, he proves himself an apt and able caretaker of the Spillane mantle.

If you’ve never read any Mike Hammer, this is a great place to start, full of rich flavor and action, always moving and sometimes emotional, but never boring.  This is the second of three Spillane books that Collins will write, with Lady, Go Die published in 2012 and King of the Weeds due out in 2014.  In the meantime, go back and pick up the originals, starting with I, The Jury and steep yourself in this rich, rich genre.

“I have no prejudice against muscles, Mike.  But, I have a feeling you’re more than just brawn yourself.  A detective of your . . . caliber?  Could hardly have achieved that status without considerable mental prowess.”

“Maybe.  But my caliber is .45, and hanging around with a gal who’s got a PhD in physics could give a guy an inferiority complex.”

“She smiled and her tongue darted over the red lips, making them glisten wetly.  She squeezed my shoulder, with a nice familiarity before withdrawing it.” 

“Mike, you have nothing to worry about.”

5 Hard-Knuckled Right-Crosses out of 5



Tony Caballero, Fanbase Press Contributor



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