While spring has so far failed to show itself much around some corners of the United States, temperatures have lately been more than comfortable here in Seattle, leading me to carry out an annual rite: the unearthing of my front-porch Adirondack chairs. My house boasts a large back deck and an expansive rear garden patio. Yet it’s to the covered entranceway on the street side that I most often head, book (and, occasionally, cigar) in hand, when the weather turns warmer. There I can escape into stories filled with intriguing misdeeds, magnetic characters, and either historical or futuristic settings…but also look up every now and then to observe the local pedestrian life.
There’s no real science behind which novels I choose to help me inaugurate each new spring on the porch. I hope they’ll be entertaining, but also that they won’t prove embarrassing if the postman spots them in my hands as he brings mail to my doorstep. This year I began the season with three fresh releases, two of which turned out to be rewarding, while one failed to live up to its hype.
First on the roster: Murder Never Knocks, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins.
Although Spillane, who passed away in 2006, is remembered well for his sometimes violent yarns featuring hard-headed, harder-fisted New York City gumshoe Mike Hammer (beginning with 1947’s I, the Jury), he penned only 13 books in that series over his half-century-long career. Collins, his longtime Iowa admirer and friend, to whom Spillane bequeathed an “amazing trove” of unfinished novels and “significant manuscripts” after his death, has now completed eight additional entries in that lineup, with more to come. Murder Never Knocks (which Spillane had originally titled Don’t Look Behind You) finds its footing squarely in the mid-1960s, an era of economic and social decline for Gotham, when it experienced labor strikes, “white flight” to the suburbs, a major power blackout, and the shuttering of two of its biggest newspapers, the New York Daily Mirror and The New York Herald Tribune.
Murder Never Knocks kicks off in high-action fashion with a contract killer’s attempt to ring down the curtain early on Hammer’s life. This is by no means the first time someone has taken a shot at our wisecracking hero…and the confrontation doesn’t end well for the overconfident hit man. (I won’t give too much away, but will note that it’s lucky for Hammer he’s a smoker.) In the aftermath, the private eye is more than a little curious to know who paid to get him out of the way, and why. So are Velda Sterling, his prepossessing partner, secretary, and lover, and Captain Pat Chambers, the police buddy who’s spent far too much time trying to prevent Hammer from being killed or killing others. Could there be some connection between this latest assault on the shamus, a near-past hit-and-run accident, and the attempted murder of a short-statured newsstand hawker who’d witnessed that accident unfold? While Hammer and Velda ponder the possibilities, they take on the unusual assignment of bodyguarding the particularly beautiful body of a Hollywood producer’s fiancée at her bridal shower—another opportunity for choreographed gunplay.
Sharkskin-suited mobsters, a perceptive young Village Voice reporter, real-life Manhattan gossip columnist Hy Gardner, a killer with high expectations, plenty of concealed motives, moments of unconcealed lust—they all figure into the careening plot of Murder Never Knocks. But there’s room here, too, for humor, which is one of Collins’ most significant contributions to Spillane’s series. An early scene, for instance, has Hammer and Velda in their office, drinking coffee and munching pastries while they check out the morning headlines.
She picked up the News from her blotter. “’PRIVATE EYE IS PUBLIC TARGET.’ ‘Who’s out to get the infamous Mike Hammer?’”
I was halfway through my Danish. “What’s the difference between ‘infamous’ and ‘famous,’ anyway?
With books such as King of the Weeds (2014), last year’s Kill Me, Darling, and now this one, Collins has given Mike Hammer new life. And bullets enough to protect it.
I wish I could be equally enthusiastic on the subject of Susan Crawford’s The Other Widow. I cannot. This author gained a following with her debut novel, a 2015 psychological thriller-cum-whodunit titled The Pocket Wife, about a suburban New Jersey homemaker—beleaguered by bipolar disorder—whose stumbling inquiry into the vicious slaying of a neighbor is fueled by her fear that she herself might have been responsible for that crime. The Other Widow endeavors to outdo the previous work’s suspense, but manages instead to irritate with its contrived twists, superfluous complications, and angst-riddled players.
Dorreen “Dorrie” Keating works on the sales side of Home Runs Renovations, an apparently successful Boston-area residential-remodeling company. She has a teenage daughter, a distant husband, a lifelong aptitude for acting…and a secret: Dorrie is having an affair with one of Home Runs’ two owners, Joe Lindsay. Then one snowy night, while wheeling about in his old Audi, Joe tells her they have to break off their relationship. “It isn’t safe. For us,” he says. Moments later, Joe barely avoids slamming into another automobile on the icy roadway, but in the course of it he spins his Audi into a tree. Joe dies in that crash and Dorrie—determined to protect her marriage and child—flees the scene, but leaves behind evidence of a passenger having been in the car at the time of the accident. Or was it wholly an accident? Why didn’t Joe’s airbag inflate upon impact, the way Dorrie’s had? And who has been calling her ever since from the burner phone Joe had with him when he perished? Dorrie isn’t the only one with questions. Maggie Brennan, a traumatized Iraq war veteran who, in her mid-30s, gave up being a cop to become an insurance investigator, has her own suspicions about Joe Lindsay’s demise. Why did his wife take out a “substantial life insurance policy” on him only weeks earlier? Could Joe have committed suicide? As if those aren’t enough mysteries, Joe’s grief-stricken spouse, Karen, wonders why her husband’s partner wants so desperately to buy her share of Home Runs. Was there something going on with the company that she should know about, and that might have played a role in Joe’s death?
Crawford stuffs her story with moments of trepidation and haunting uncertainties. At the same time, she tries to make The Other Woman a revelatory work about three women struggling to re-create their lives in the wake of deceptions, fears, and disappointments. None of those characters, though, ever achieves much dimension. And the tale’s resolution is delivered too quickly, with insufficient foreshadowing. I hate to say it, but The Other Widow lives up to the modest outlook for second novels.
Fortunately, I was rescued from that letdown by John H. Watson. Yes, that would be Doctor Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick and sometime flatmate in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s renowned detective yarns. In British author Robert Ryan’s The Sign of Fear, the fourth in a succession of captivating novels that began with Dead Man’s Land (2013), we discover Watson having returned to London in 1917, after surviving not only duty with the Royal Army Medical Corps on the front lines of World War I, but also (in 2015’s A Study in Murder) incarceration in a notorious German POW camp. The capital city has changed considerably from its gaslit Victorian days. Its nights are plagued by the incursion of fixed-wing German Gotha bombers, sending residents to tube stations in pursuit of safety, while days there are exhausted cleaning up the rubble and offering succor to survivors.
Watson, still grieving the shooting death of one warfront friend, is rattled by news that another such ally may have been lost in a torpedo attack on the English Channel. Meanwhile, his concert-going comrade, Sir Gilbert Hastings, has been abducted, along with four other senior members of Britain’s War Injuries Compensation Board, by protestors upset over the government’s stinginess with funds meant to aid servicemen left debilitated by battle—protestors who appear fully willing to mutilate their hostages, one by one, in order to force changes in the system. Finally, a woman seeks Watson’s help in figuring out who deposited a missive on her doorstep (“Do not leave. Wait for me. It won’t be long now.”), supposedly written by her nightwatchman husband—an ex-soldier killed during a Gotha raid months before. With puzzles multiplying and tensions mounting, and with Holmes unavailable, Watson turns for assistance to a most unlikely source: the ruthless German spy known as Miss Pillbody. Although their aims are ultimately different, their mutual investigative efforts prove fruitful, exposing a dastardly plot to undermine the UK economy as well as a shameful scheme to safeguard Britain from the spread of deadly infection.
Ryan incorporates into his expansive plot both the fictional Mycroft Holmes and the historical Frank Shackleton, younger brother of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and a suspect in the 1907 theft of Ireland’s Crown Jewels. However, his principal focus is on Watson, who comes off under his care as compassionate, intelligent, and a surprising brave old gent, someone much deserving of further fictional outings.
J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.