How could life get any better than to have an unpublished Mike Hammer novel see the light of day? The story goes that Mickey Spillane, creator of the Hammer mythos, started writing THE BIG BANG in the mid-1960s but set it aside in favor of another book. It languished until 1982, at which point Spillane showed the manuscript to Max Allan Collins, an occasional Spillane collaborator and legend in his own right. The gentlemen discussed the book at various times through the years, and now that manuscript, with some seamless touches from Collins, is available to all. And what a thing of dark, rugged beauty it is.
My first exposure to Mike Hammer was in 1960 when I was just nine years old, a precocious lad who visited the revolving wire display of paperbacks in the local drugstore --- the long-departed Kingsdale Pharmacy in Upper Arlington, Ohio --- as often as I surreptitiously could. Several Hammer books were in print at that point, all of them blessed with garish, lurid covers that left little, but just enough, to the imagination. With the unwitting assistance of a cashier who didn’t care who was buying what, I obtained copies of such Hammer novels as I, THE JURY and VENGEANCE IS MINE!, and the result happily warped me for life. I mention this only to establish my bona fides before I tell you that THE BIG BANG is the real deal, the real Spillane and the real Hammer, the lecherous, wise-cracking, violent Hammer the initiated know and love.
THE BIG BANG is set in a summer of love in the mid-1960s and begins when Hammer happens upon a young hospital messenger who is besieged by a group of punks. Hammer intercedes with the expected results --- two dead and one grievously wounded --- and a chain reaction that puts him in the crosshairs of an unknown adversary. It seems the assailants wanted to use the messenger’s hospital access to avail themselves of the ready supply of narcotics that such establishments keep at the ready for more benevolent purposes. The supply of controlled drugs on the streets has dried up, and dealers are desperate to get more. When Hammer sticks his nose, fists and guns into the situation, there is no lack of suspects who might be angry with him --- from an old-school Mafia don who may have an old score to settle to the shady owner of one of New York’s newest and most popular nightclubs.
Hammer is more than up to the task, maintaining an uneasy peace with local law enforcement in general and New York Homicide Detective Pat Chambers in particular, and a constant war with anyone who wants to do battle with him. But he remains equal parts lover and fighter. Velda, his attractive, loyal and tough professional and personal partner, is always there and willing, as are a bevy of attractive women who keep Hammer sniffing like a blind dog in a meat house. Nevertheless, Hammer is able to focus when he needs to, and his ability to follow a trail never lets him down, though it does lead him into dire peril that results in a climactic, bloody shootout that sets up one of the most haunting endings you are liable to encounter this year.
THE BIG BANG is just that --- a brand-new bang from the past that will satisfy the hardcore, hard-boiled Spillane fan and send the uninitiated off in search of both Spillane’s and Collins’s backlists. And a special nod goes out to Collins, whose completion of the book is so grand and sound and true that every word of it reads as if it came straight from Spillane’s fingers. It gets no better than that.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010