When Mickey Spillane died in 2006 at age 88, leaving half a dozen “substantial,” unfinished novels about tougher-than-thou New York private eye Mike Hammer in the care of his friend and fellow author Max Allan Collins, it seemed unlikely that those books would ever make it into print. The job of completing so many works—dating from throughout Spillane’s 60-year career—seemed too big, too great a sacrifice for anyone else to take on. Yet the prolific Collins, whose own renown derives from a different series, featuring historical Chicago shamus Nate Heller, got to work right away honing the Hammers for publication. The first such collaboration, The Goliath Bone, reached stores in 2008, and the last of those original six, King of the Weeds, is due for release next week, ending what Collins calls “a voyage of discovery” through the rough drafts of one of the 20th century’s most influential, if oft-maligned, PI novelists.
King of the Weeds was supposed to have been Hammer’s swan song, a sequel to Spillane’s 1996 novel, Black Alley. Instead, the author put it aside after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on Manhattan and Washington, D.C., in order to pen Goliath, a crime story–cum–political thriller that finds Hammer pursuing a colossal thigh bone of biblical import. The action in Weeds, by contrast, has Spillane’s aging hero and his voluptuous secretary/partner, Velda Sterling, embroiled in two entwining story lines: the first involving a string of “accidental” deaths among Gotham cops; the second focusing on Rudolph Olaf, a slum denizen arrested four decades ago for slaying gay men, but now potentially eligible for release—and a huge settlement from the City of New York—thanks to someone else having copped to those hate crimes. This yarn pops with moments of humor (as when Velda tells Hammer to quit talking like an Eisenhower-era gumshoe—“People are starting to look at you funny”), but packs plenty of what Collins calls the “traditional crime elements” Hammer fans expect.
I recently asked Collins about his efforts to complete Mickey Spillane’s work and how King of the Weeds fits within the Hammer canon.
How much of King of the Weeds did Spillane leave behind?
King of the Weeds was very much conceived by Mickey as the last Mike Hammer novel. He took two runs at it, then combined elements—not rewriting, rather cutting and pasting manuscript—into a third version. For example, the opening chapter was originally Chapter 3. So I had to look at all the material and make sense of it in several contexts. Dealing with that took carpentry and care, but the material that didn’t go into his final cut-and-paste version yielded benefits, and scenes he’d cut went back in, after revision.
Ultimately, I put together 135 pages of double-spaced manuscript from Mickey’s various versions…
Let’s make this clear: I don’t drop Mickey’s section in and then pick up where he left off. I revise and expand Mickey’s work, and in King of the Weeds his 135 pages probably became 250 pages. That makes the collaboration smoother and extends his writing participation deep into each book. On the last page of the novel, there’s a very cool conversation between Velda and Mike about “the king of the weeds” that is derived from a stray page I found in his papers. So his writing is on the very last page of the novel.
To put it in perspective, my final manuscript was 334 double-spaced pages. But I’d also had numerous conversations about the book with Mickey, and one night in his upstairs office in his Murrells Inlet [South Carolina] home, he told me the ending in detail. It was incredible. I felt like I was sitting around a campfire listening to the world’s greatest storyteller spin one.
This story revisits one of Black Alley’s plot elements: the theft of $89 billion from U.S. mobsters, dough that was hidden away from the dons and that Hammer learned about from a dying old army buddy. In King of the Weeds, Treasury Department agents as well as less upstanding parties want that money found. Would it be best for people to digest Black Alley before diving into Weeds?
I went out of my way to make King of the Weeds user-friendly to anyone who hadn’t read Black Alley. I think it’s very much self-contained. But readers who want to start with Black Alley—or go back and read it after this book—will, I think, find the experience more rewarding than it was for readers back in ’96, who had only Black Alley to go on. That was a novel very much designed by Mickey to be followed by a sequel that would pay off any number of things that were set up in Book One.
Actually, I had one Spillane version of the story that left out the $89 billion call-back to Black Alley, so I considered dropping all of the material about those billions. I knew some readers might resist reading a sequel to a book they either hadn’t read, or read long ago and only vaguely recalled. Without the billions, and just the cop-killer plot, the novel would have been cleaner, would stand better on its own. But the mob fortune aspect of the story was very important to Mickey, and he wanted to pay it off, bigger, in a second book. In fact, an early title for King of the Weeds was The Billions. So finally I included and even embraced it.
Weeds also introduces one of the most intriguingly contemptible villains in the Hammer canon: Rudy Olaf. How do you see Olaf, relative to Spillane’s other high-profiled baddies? And how fun was he to write?
Mickey had only written the first scene about Olaf, but I strongly felt this was a major character, a villain on the order of [Professor James] Moriarty. He’s not really in the book much, but then Moriarty isn’t in [Arthur] Conan Doyle’s stories much, either. And it seemed so wonderful that Hammer and Pat Chambers, at the end of their careers, would have to face the very first villain they had put away. Their final confrontation is my favorite scene in any of the collaborative Hammer novels.
So let’s talk about Capt. Chambers of NYPD Homicide. He has a lot at stake in this yarn: He was responsible for nailing Olaf in the first place, and any hope of his winning the inspector’s rank may go down the tubes if Olaf is released. I have to tell you, though, that even after all these years, Chambers still seems rather flat and typecast as a character, constantly overshadowed by his pal Hammer. How do you see the role of Pat Chambers in Spillane’s series?
You won’t be surprised that I disagree with you about Chambers, though he is clearly the prototypical example of the PI’s “cop pal” in tough mystery fiction. Mickey rounded out Chambers in The Girl Hunters , where we find Chambers has soured on Mike, even hates him, blaming the private eye for the assumed death of Velda, years before. It’s revealed that Chambers also loved Velda, and that provides interesting moments throughout the later novels. I was tempted to kill Chambers off in King of the Weeds, bringing Hammer full circle with I, the Jury , where avenging a close friend is the engine of the narrative. But Chambers is still alive in The Goliath Bone, which in the chronology occurs later. So that option wasn’t open to me.
Chambers represents who Hammer would have been if he had stayed on the force and played by the rules. Pat’s there to try to get Hammer not to go off on a vengeance tear, and of course Hammer never listens. From a storytelling standpoint, Chambers is an “exposition carrier”—he’s there in part to save steps for Hammer. Mickey outrageously always let Chambers and Velda do the off-stage investigative heavy-lifting, leaving Mike with the fun stuff, like killing bad guys and sleeping with beautiful women.
How do you assess your contributions to the Hammer series?
Obviously my major contribution is finishing six Mike Hammer novels, using prime and considerable Spillane material in the process, and expanding the 13 books in the series to 19. That I was Mickey’s own choice to do so gave me a confidence in myself and credibility among others that was inordinately helpful. I am a very capable craftsman and when carpentry was needed, I was up for it. Steeped in Spillane as I am, I have a real feel for Hammer and his small recurring cast—I’m not just some guy who landed the job. I have been extremely conscientious about studying the Hammer books written around the time that the unfinished manuscript was begun. Some hired gun would have come in and written his idea of Mickey Spillane. I strive to make the Mike Hammer of I, the Jury and My Gun Is Quick  be the Mike Hammer of Lady, Go Die! , which fits between them. The Mike Hammer of King of the Weeds is very much the Mike Hammer of the last two novels published during Mickey’s lifetime, The Killing Man  and Black Alley. This applies to the style of the writing, the voice, as well, although I don’t flat-out mimic. These are collaborations, and things I would do that Mickey wouldn’t—descriptions of clothing, for example—I still do. There is maybe more humor, but I try to stay with Mickey’s macho Howard Hawks–ian type of humor.
The key thing, and maybe the most surprising, is that I do most of the violence and sex. Not all of it—first-chapter violence is mostly pure Mickey, part of him setting the hook. But you have to remember, the reason most of these books were put aside is that Mickey was conflicted, after his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses [in the 1950s], about writing the kind of violent, sexy books he was famous for. He was disenfranchised by his church at least once and was threatened to be numerous times. The Spillane manuscript of The Big Bang  stops right after a steamy sex scene, and that’s no accident. Somebody early on asked what of The Goliath Bone was written by me, and I facetiously said, “The Spillane stuff.” Meaning, of course, the sex and violence.
Funny thing—after Mickey told his wife Jane to give all the unpublished, unfinished material to me, because I’d “know what to do with it,” she said to him, “Now Mickey – you know Max isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. He’s going to finish these books with all the stops out.” And Mickey gave her and me his blessing. He died a few days later.
Is there any chance you’ll produce more Hammer novels, or is that series now done?
I have just signed to do three more Hammers, with [publisher] Titan again, based on what I’m terming significant manuscripts. These are more in the 30- to 50-page range, though one has plot notes and an ending. There are two or three possibilities after that. I have no plans or desire to do a Hammer without significant Spillane content. As you probably know, I’ve been developing short stories from the less substantial Hammer fragments. One of these, “So Long, Chief,” is up for an Edgar Award this year. There will be eight of these, eventually…six are done. Obviously, I’m looking at collecting them into a book.
J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.