Review by C.J. Bunce
Author Max Allan Collins has so far completed ten novels featuring detective Mike Hammer, novels that were started by Mickey Spillane but never finished. That tenth novel is Killing Town, and not only is it one of many from the stack of unfinished Hammer novels Spillane left behind upon his death in 2006, Collins put it aside to release this year in celebration of the 100th centenary of Spillane’s birth. For fans of Mike Hammer, it’s an even bigger celebration, as Killing Town is Spillane’s very first Mike Hammer story, set in the character’s first days of opening his own detective agency. Most of the world knows I, the Jury as the first work to feature private investigator Mike Hammer and the debut novel of the celebrated crime fiction writer. But in Spillane’s later years, according to Collins, on one of his many visits to Spillane’s house, Spillane handed him a copy of Killing Town and Collins read it while sitting across from him, having no idea one day it would be he who would complete it and release it to the world. Collins asked, “Is this what I think it is?” Spillane nodded and smiled.
Written around 1945 and now available for the first time ever as part of Titan Books’ series of noir novels, Killing Town is as defining of noir crime pulp novels as anything you’re likely to have ever read, by Spillane or anyone else. It has the hardboiled, put-upon, would-be shlub detective trying to get himself out of big trouble with the mob, it has a mysterious femme fatale (more than one actually), it has the smoke-filled diner (with pie), the smoke-filled bar (lots of booze), the police station stacked with crooked cops, and it takes place in a crappy little town nobody could possibly want to visit, let alone read about. It has loads of crime, a few fist fights, a con or two, some ugly people and some pretty people, some poor people and some rich people. And it has a murder (or two or three). That’s really all you need to know.
A little more? Okay. When we first meet Mike Hammer (and as Spillane first puts Hammer’s origin story into type) he’s sneaking into the little burgh called Killington hanging underneath a train with $30,000 in his pocket and a job to carry out. From his first steps into the town he should have known nothing was going to drop in his favor. You might not think his position could be any worse when only a few hours after his arrival the police arrest him and charge him with the rape and murder of a local secretary of the owner of the big local mill. But it does get worse, as Spillane drives Hammer deeper and deeper into despair to the point that the reader is going to ask: “How can you possibly get out of this one, Mike?”
This “killing town” of Killington is going to be the death of Hammer, unless he can carve out his own power play in the town, and maybe deliver some payback while he’s trying to figure out who was behind his lock-up, and what is motivating this beautiful, wealthy woman who walked into his life. And hopefully finish the job that landed him in this town in the first place.
If you’re not a reader familiar with noir crime novels, take heed to a note in Collins’ introduction. These stories are from another era. As Collins puts it, “You are cautioned to keep in mind that this is a story begun and conceived over seventy years ago by a writer who was about to rock the conventions of popular culture with a new level of violence and sexual content. You are advised to drop all notions of political correctness in the basket at the door of the Mickey Spillane Theater.” If you love crime fiction like Ed McBain’s Cut Me In, Roger Zelazny’s The Dead Man’s Brother, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Turn on the Heat, Lawrence Block’s Sinner Man, Gore Vidal’s Thieves Fall Out, Michael Crichton’s Scratch One, Donald E. Westlake’s Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner, James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, or Stephen King’s Joyland, then Killing Town is for you. Like Chinatown, Laura, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, or The Big Sleep, Killing Town is one of those rich, dark stories that probably has already been made into a noir thriller and is on a list of the best film noir of decades past in some parallel dimension. If only Spillane had finished it 70 years ago in this dimension. But then we wouldn’t have this new Mike Hammer novel to savor right now.
As a reader I am always left wondering who wrote what in a novel when it’s created by an author of the past and another author editing or completing the story. It’s a little like reading a decision in a Supreme Court case–you’re never sure how much was written by the judge and how much was written by the law clerk. But it probably doesn’t matter. With ten of these joint Hammer projects completed, Collins has proven he knows how to create a seamless end result.
In case you missed it–Spillane fans should check out my review of the other Mickey Spillane centenary release, his final completed novel published earlier this year for the first time, The Last Stand, reviewed here at borg.com.
Get your copy of Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins’ Mike Hammer novel Killing Town now, available in hardcover here at Amazon. Collins has published 20 novels with Spillane in all, plus he wrote Road to Perdition and he’s known for his Quarry series (adapted into a Cinemax TV series) among other writings. Learn more about him at his website.