Mike Hammer is one tough son of a bitch.
That was the one thought that kept returning to me as I read Complex 90, the latest in the Mike Hammer series, a novel started by Mickey Spillane, Hammer’s creator, back in the 60s and now recently completed by Max Allan Collins. Mike Hammer is one of the most infamous characters of 20th century American literature and had a hand in more that 225 million copies of Spillane’s work selling world wide. In the late 40s, Spillane unleashed Hammer on a unsuspected public in 1947 and the hardboiled detective took off on a roaring rampage of sex and violence that would be seen as tame in the modern era but was like nothing else at the time. Spillane continued to revisit the character throughout the years and his work has lived on past his death as Collins has completed a number of unfinished Hammer novels over the past decade. Complex 90 is their latest collaboration. While other Hammer stories have touched upon espionage before, this book is firmly planted in the spy genre with Hammer making his trip to Russia. I got the chance to speak with Collins a few weeks ago about the book and he said that at the time, Spillane was trying to go toe to toe with Ian Flemming and that is evident in the subject matter. But what makes this book stand out from most spy novels is the raw depiction of the action and emotions. Hammer feels like a living, breathing entity as you can feel his intensity come off the page. To class Complex 90 as just another spy novel would be a disservice.
The story follows Hammer as he goes behind the Iron Curtain in the middle of the cold war. Mike accompanies a U.S. Senator to Moscow on a fact finding mission when he finds himself in police custody on trumped up charges. Being a resourceful fella and not one to roll over, he escapes and through a rough ride and high body count, makes his way back to America. But the story doesn’t end there. Once back in the States, Hammer becomes a target for K.G.B. agents acting on American soil and with the help of his partner, Velda, and a M.P. Officer named Des Casey, he has to figure out who’s gunning for him and why. The clues lead to government and scientific conspiracy much bigger than one would expect for a private dick to solve.
This was the first Hammer story I’ve ever read. While I’ve always been a fan of crime noir, I haven’t really had the opportunity to pick up any hardboiled fiction until recently. What makes this novel interesting is that for the first third of the book, the story is pretty much a spy novel. It isn’t until we get State side once again that the detective story comes to the forefront. But this switch in genre is seamless as the logical steps of Hammer’s journey are laid out. The beauty of a character like Hammer is that you can almost put him in any situation and by virtue of his “take no shit” attitude, he feels right at home in each setting. What’s amazing is that the character is both larger than life and yet very relatable. He could take on 40+ spies yet still has a sense of humor about himself. He’s an uncommon “common man”. Really, the characters is less a man and more a force of nature. It’s his natural instincts that the reader can identify with. Although we might not always agree with his methods, it’s not hard to understand his motivations. And like I said earlier, Hammer is one tough son of a bitch and it’s hard not to like that in an antihero.
What I love is that even though the book deals with larger than life characters and situations, the relationships have genuine emotions behind them. When Hammer finally gets to spend time with Velda alone, their emotional intimacy pours off the page. This is all the more amazing seeing as both characters are not the type to usually be open with their emotions. Even if you’re like myself and this is your first Hammer novel, it’s inherent that these two characters only feel safe being 100% themselves with each other.
The descriptions in the book are spot on. The sex and violence, while not gratuitous or rude, is very visceral and raw. Your mind can paint a very vivid picture from the words on the page and it’s amazing how much you feel the events as they happen. The women are sexy. The villains are deadly. It’s all things we would expect in a dectective novel but Spillane and Collins put you in the moment perfectly. Every hit, every touch and every temptation can be felt. It keeps the reader excited for every turn of the page. Add to this the almost musical dialogue that’s fitting for the era and there’s never a dull moment.
My only real complaint with the book would be the abruptness of the ending. It feels very much that once the climax is reached, there’s only a half of page to obsorb it. There’s no wrap up. We don’t get the classic “so here’s how everything worked out” speech from Hammer. Maybe all Hammer novels dispense with this device but it felt like it could’ve been helpful here for the reader to come down from the adrenaline rush of the action.
If you’re a fan of Mike Hammer, dectective novels in general, or you’re just looking for a protagonist who doesn’t take shit from anyone, Complex 90 is the book for you. I enjoyed this book so much that I think I might correct the mistake of not reading any of the other Hammer novels. I know I’m late to the game on this one…..really late….so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Complex 90 is avaiable now wherever books are sold.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!