Monday, December 31, 2007

Book Review: Mickey Spillane's Dead Street

When I was a teenager, I wasn't very rebellious in comparison to my contemporaries, but the one way I did express rebellion was through my selection of reading material (which is to say, again, that I wasn't very rebellious). With comics, 14-year-old Dr. K found that mature fare like Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! and Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland's Camelot 3000 could easily fly under the parental radar when mixed with Batman and The Legion of Super-Heroes. And with books, I tended to read novels that had been banned or were otherwise controversial (at least for a 14 year old), and such interests often led me toward adventure and pulp fiction. At 14 or 15, I had read every James Bond novel, and by 15 I had moved from those to the works of Mickey Spillane.

I had moved to Mickey Spillane for several reasons. First, the Mike Hammer TV series, starring Stacy Keach, was getting started, and I saw a certain appeal in that sort of private detective. At the same time, Spillane's own Miller Lite commercials had made the author a household name. This, in particular, made me even more interested in Spillane, as his appearances on television brought out an interesting bit of our family history: my grandfather had gone to high school with Mickey Spillane, and they both grew up in the same neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. My father even remembered seeing Mickey on occasion, when the writer came back to Elizabeth to visit old friends.

During my sophomore year of high school, my English teacher required us to read for 15 minutes at the beginning of class and to keep a reading log that he would check over regularly. We were free, the teacher said, to read whatever we wanted. This, then, inspired one miniscule act of rebellion, where I decided that all I would read was Mickey Spillane novels.

Now, while it was pretty easy to hide more adult-oriented comics from my parents and other authorities, as they could easily be mixed with more innocuous comics, hiding Mickey Spillane books was much more difficult. The primary problem was the covers: all of Spillane's novels published in the 70s (and the ones I could most easily find in used bookstores for around 50 cents) had naked women on the covers, whose nudity was only partially obscured by the book's title or by a banner proclaiming the number of Spillane novels currently in print.

The cover for The Erection Set was particularly controversial because it featured Spillane's second wife, Sherri Malinou, as the model. This was also one of the books I chose for quiet reading time, and, to my English teacher's credit, he just laughed it off and said, "Well, I did tell you you could read anything you wanted to read."

(Now that I look back on that time from the perspective of being an English teacher, I would totally be happy if I had a student who was attempting to challenge authority through reading, so I understand why my mini-rebellion met with such an anticlimactic reaction.)

My memories of The Erection Set, like my memories of most Spillane novels, are sketchy at best. I remember that the novel's hero, Dog Kelly, returns to his neighborhood after decades away. There, he is met by a young woman who, as a child, was saved by Dog and has "saved herself" for the possibility of her hero's return. The novel teases out some sexual tension between the two, as Dog (or is it the woman?) refuses to consummate the relationship until his job (which I think involves eliminating some local gangsters) is done. I distinctly remember one scene in which Dog brings the woman to orgasm with a hairbrush--an act that truly challenged my 15-year-old imagination. And, if I remember right, Spillane brings the two plot elements together in the final chapter, with Dog killing the bad guys, who happen to invade his home, while he is having sex.

And that, I think, summarizes Mickey Spillane in a nutshell. My sensibilities and gender politics have since advanced well beyond that point in my life (and even at 15, I found the characterization of the woman in the novel, waiting decades for the off-chance that one man would return to her small town, as preposterous), and Spillane's work now appeals to me more for its ridiculousness and excesses, though I haven't read much of his writing since those teenage years.

I bring up my memories of The Erection Set here because I was reminded of that book frequently while reading the recent, posthumously published Spillane novel, Dead Street.
When the mystery publisher Hard Case Crime announced that they would be publishing Spillane's final novel, completed (or "prepared for publication," as the cover states) by mystery writer and Spillane pal Max Allen Collins, I was interested out of a combination of nostalgia and curiosity.

Though Spillane's terse, economical prose and quick pacing are in evidence here, the novel lacks the visceral impact of his earlier work, with surprisingly little sex or violence. The plot, which involves the mob, nuclear material, and the Saudis, is both preposterous and threadbare. Jack Stang, a recently retired New York police officer known affectionately on the force as "The Shooter" for his frequent use of deadly force, discovers that his long lost love, Bettie, is actually alive--though blind and amnesiac--and living a safe and protected life inside a Florida retirement community for cops and firemen (the heavily armed, cop retirement community is a clever idea that deserves life beyond this novel). Twenty years earlier, fortyish Jack had been dating 20-year-old Bettie, until Bettie was abducted by the mob because of some secret she knew, but before the secret could be revealed, the van containing her and her abductors was run into the river during a botched police chase. Everyone was presumed dead.

Bettie, however, survived and was rescued by a wealthy veterinarian (this, I think, requires some suspension of disbelief), who set her up in this retirement community as a means to protect her from the mob, who was still after her secret. Once the veterinarian dies, his son reveals to Jack that Bettie survived, though without her memory, and the father had set up a sizeable bank account for the detective along with a home next door to Bettie. He had hoped that Jack would both protect her and help jog her lost memory.

It is the Jack/Bettie relationship that reminded me the most of The Erection Set. Both novels involve May/December relationships, and both involve characters whose lives seem to be put on hold for decades while waiting for someone. Jack describes Bettie as unchanged over twenty years, and she has made absolutely no progress on recovering her memory during that time. Jack, also, never emotionally recovered from the loss of Bettie. This is an interesting, though somewhat unrealistic, conception of loss and paralyzing nostalgia that Spillane presents in these characters.

Meanwhile, Jack's old neighborhood back in Manhattan--the "Dead Street" of the title--is in the process of being leveled for some kind of civic improvement, and all of the residents have been moved out. Jack, therefore, has lost his home, so there is little to dissuade him from taking the veterinarian's offer.

In the process of helping Bettie bring her memory back, Jack discovers that his old neighborhood still holds one secret: 20 years ago, a group of mobsters stole some nuclear material from a military convoy, and it was hidden somewhere on Dead Street. Whoever stole it was now offering it for sale to the Saudis for use in a nuclear bomb that would destroy NYC.

And it is here that the novel is its most preposterous. In the most successful film adaptation of a Spillane novel, Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955), the filmmakers added a plot involving the recovery of nuclear material, which was contained in a lead box that glowed and burned as characters opened it to see what was inside. Though the film's depiction of such material was naive, the overall plot was effective: detective Mike Hammer discovers that, as a small-time PI used to handling infidelity cases, he is in way over his head when he realizes the international impact of his case. It's curious, then, that Spillane would take a plot element added to an adaptation of his own book and use it here. Stang seems little affected by the potential consequences of his case, and, despite being a retired police officer, he is still allowed to continue investigating it even when government authorities are made aware of the situation.

Spillane never hid his conservative politics in his writing, and that makes some of his stuff written during the Cold War seem quaint today, though his racial politics are still disturbingly problematic. Here, Spillane's politics appear evident especially when dealing with the Saudis who are interested in the nuclear material. For example, when Stang learns that his old neighborhood has been bought by a "Saudi investment group," who plans on replacing the tenements with luxury apartments, he responds, "They took down two buildings, didn't they? Ought to put up a few." That Spillane would have his hero, one who is frequently commended for his strong detective skills and keen mind, make such a gross generalization is problematic on many levels, both within the story and without, in the novel's place in post-9/11 American culture.

That being said, Max Allen Collins's work in completing the novel for publication is remarkable. In an afterword, Collins notes that Spillane had finished the first eight chapters, and the last three were written by Collins, following Spillane's notes. However, if I hadn't read the afterword, I wouldn't know where one writer ends and the other begins, as Collins does a masterful job of duplicating Spillane's style. And the climactic fight is as violent and bloody as one would expect from Spillane. To Collins's credit, the novel doesn't end with Bettie suddenly getting both her sight and memory back--a plot development that Spillane probably would have included. However, the wrap up of the nuclear plot takes place "off-screen," which may be an indication that Collins was aware of the plot's credibility problems.

The afterword also states that Spillane was working on four novels to varying degrees of completion at the end of his life: in addition to Dead Street, there are two Mike Hammer mysteries and an adventure novel called The Last Stand, which was completed. Despite my disappointment in Dead Street, I do hope that these final novels see the light of day and that Max Allen Collins will complete the unfinished work with the same care and skill that he brought to this novel. In addition, it would be nice if Hard Case Crime were to publish these last novels as well: the trade dress and lurid, painted covers seem especially suited for Spillane's work, and I've been very impressed with what I've seen from this publisher so far.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That particular copy of The Erection Set was a favorite of mine when I was young and rebellious too.. 8th grade at Blessed Sacrament Elementary. I got about the same reaction..

Rebelling with Mickey Spillane is apparently pretty cool. Still love the noir stuff..