Once, when someone complained that Mickey Spillane had eight books in a top 10 chart, he replied along the lines that the reader should be thankful he didn’t write two more. It’s hard to overestimate Spillane’s popularity in the 1950s and 60s. He has sold over 225 million copies and when he died in 2006 left a wealth of unfinished stories, many of them featuring his hardboiled PI, Mike Hammer. That’s where Max Allan Collins comes in. A crime fiction author with a solid record of his own, including Quarry and The Road to Redemption, he was invited to carry on Spillane’s legacy and Dig Two Graves is the 14th Hammer novel he’s developed and finished.
The story is set in 1964 and Allan Collins has slotted it into place in the series at the appropriate point. Velma is Mike’s girlfriend, and the US has government borrowed her for a little job behind the Iron Curtain because she’s a former cop and secret service agent, but nobody told Mike. He hits the bottle hard thinking Velma has been kidnapped or, maybe worse, killed. Then Velma just turns up, Mike pulls himself around and they’re a team again.
There are other bridges to be mended though and Velma is about to meet up with her mother to smooth over her disappearing act. At the rendezvous the woman is mowed down in front of Velma and Mike. The Chevy responsible crashes a little bit further up the road and Mike is on the driver immediately but can’t squeeze anything out of the man before he dies.
Clearly it’s no accident. In the hospital Velma’s mother suddenly confesses that Velma’s father is not the man she grew up with, who died in the line of duty. Instead, it was a gangster named Rhinegold Massey – AKA Rhino. Is this somehow connected? Mike pumps his police friend Captain Chambers for info. It turns out Rhino died in an armoured car robbery and his then girlfriend, Judy, vanished years ago. But that’s all a cover and actually Rhino was placed in witness protection, the first such programme set up.
Rhino is linked to a retirement village in Phoenix called Dreamland Park so Mike decides to head out there, and there’s no way Velma will be left behind. When they arrive, it turns out a lot of people with connections to Rhino have been dying in mysterious circumstances lately. Mike books himself into the village and it’s not long before he’s being shot at and, naturally, he shoots back.
Blood and bullets are easier to come by than answers for much of the novel. A game of cat and mouse ensues, played out against the backdrop of lies, secrets, conspiracy and revenge. And, did I mention a double cross love betrayal? Allan Collins and Spillane riff nicely on a theme that goes back to Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
Spillane wrote page turners and some of the best action scenes in crime fiction and that’s his great strength. Max Allan Collins knows that Mike Hammer readers want more and there’s no shortage of it here. He’s a subtler writer than Spillane so he nuances the plot, refines it for modern sensibilities without gutting the style. The characters have a little more depth but not too much.
The action is propulsive and the bodies drop regularly. It’s a deft art to recreating a novel that has to slot into a particular time in the Hammer cycle but the fact that Hammer has an arc means it’s crucial. In this case it’s Velma’s Russian sojourn and Mike’s descent into alcoholism in her absence. They add some humour to the plot, with references to his fitness and jibes along the lines of, “You used to be Mike Hammer.”
There’s a hint of sex smouldering behind the scenes and some cracking one liners in the snappy dialogue that give off a hardboiled vibe. Early in the book, the pace is a little more sedate than expected but it’s smoking by the denouement. Max Allan Collins really gets what makes Mike Hammer fun and never loses sight of that in the narrative. It’s a juggling act refreshing the form but maintaining the original ethos and mood, but mostly it is mission accomplished here. Hardboiled is alive and kicking; for a pulp fix this nails it pretty good.
For more revitalised Mike Hammer, see Murder Never Knocks.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars