Lady, Go Die!: A Behind The Scenes Look At Completing Mickey Spillane's Lost 'Mike Hammer' Novels

In the final week of his life, Mickey Spillane said to his wife Jane, “When I’m gone, there’ll be a treasure hunt around here.  Take everything you find and give it to Max.  He’ll know what to do.”

Mickey had already called me, a week before, asking me to finish the final Mike Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone, if he was unable to.

I had been Mickey’s fan since the early ‘60s, when as an adolescent I’d discovered his fever-dream prose.  I was led there by the Darren McGavin TV series (“Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer,” 1958-1960).  The late fifties and early sixties saw a wave of private eye TV shows, with the Hammer imitation “Peter Gunn” leading the pack.  “Perry Mason” (from Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels) was another hugely popular show then, and it – and such less successful series as “The Thin Man” (from Dashiell Hammett’s novel) and “Phillip Marlowe” (based on Raymond Chandler’s famous character) – had led me to the original novels that were the source material.  I became a big fan of Gardner, Hammett and Chandler, but a fanatic about Spillane, whose noir poetry mingled with a level of sex and violence unavailable in other mysteries of the day, exploding my thirteen year-old skull into fragments as if by Hammer’s .45 automatic.

I began publishing in the early 1970s and, along the way, became known as Spillane’s defender – though he was the most popular American mystery writer of the 20th Century, Mickey’s work was attacked with a fervor unparalleled in American letters.  He was blamed for juvenile delinquency and for ruining the reading habits of adults, too.  The Atlantic eviscerated him and so did Parent’s Magazine; self-righteous shrink Dr. Frederic Wertham singled out Spillane in his anti-comic book screed, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), the only writer of prose fiction to be so vilified.

Because I’d written articles defending and praising Spillane, I was invited to be the liaison between him and the 1981 Bouchercon (the major mystery fan convention, named for New York Times critic Anthony Boucher, who was among the first wave of Spillane’s attackers).  Held in Milwaukee, the con was tying into that city’s beer persona by having Spillane, then starring in very successful and clever commercials for Miller Lite, as a guest of honor.

I had written Mickey perhaps one-hundred fan letters, but the only one he answered was in 1973, when I sent him my first published novel (Bait Money), and he welcomed me to the professional community of writers.  So when I was introduced to Mickey, he said, “Oh, I know Max!  We’ve been corresponding for years.”  And I said, “That’s right, Mickey – one hundred letters from me, one letter from you.”

And we became fast friends.

This led to me visiting him, from time to time, in his Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, home.  I was there when he met Jane Rogers, who would become his wife (well, he’d first known her when she was a little kid who had moved away).  He accepted when I asked him to be my son Nathan’s godfather.  We collaborated on numerous projects together, including anthologies, an early 1990s comic book series (MIKE DANGER, a science-fiction private eye), and a biographical documentary (“Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane,” 1999, featured on the Criterion DVD/Blu-ray of the great noir, “Kiss Me Deadly”).

For days, Barb, Jane and I sat around the big Spillane dining room table – piled with stacks of manuscript pages – and would sort through.  Now and then someone would shout, “I’ve got a Hammer!”

On my visits to South Carolina, we would talk writing.  He had many friends in that part of the world, but no writer friends.  He liked to talk shop.  Deep into the night, in any one of his three offices, he would share with me his plans for various Mike Hammer novels, often acting out the wild endings that were his trademark.  On one visit, he sent two 100-page-plus unfinished Hammer manuscripts home with me for safekeeping.

With my wife Barb – she and I write the “Antiques” mystery series together, as “Barbara Allan” (Antiques Disposal just came out) – I went down to Murrells Inlet for a special post-funeral celebration of Mickey’s life.  We stayed on to go through the many stacks of unpublished material that Mickey had left behind.  For days, Barb, Jane and I sat around the big Spillane dining room table – piled with stacks of manuscript pages – and would sort through.  Now and then someone would shout, “I’ve got a Hammer!”

Why Mickey left behind so many unfinished works – particularly since his prose was so valuable commercially – cannot be answered simply.  Part of it had to do with his religious conversion to the conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses, who at least twice disenfranchised him due to the level of sex and violence in his work.  In other words, Mickey’s church told him to quit writing like Mickey Spillane.  They did not, however, ask him to quit tithing.

But there were other factors.  Mickey often had more than one novel going – he would get “stuck” on one, and turn to another.  Also, he loved doing beginnings and endings – and no one in the genre was ever better at either – but sometimes got bored in the middle.  His favorite form was the 20,000-word novelette, and he spent almost a decade at the height of his fame writing them for low-end men’s magazines that paid him a pittance.  His fertile imagination sometimes worked against him – he’d get a new idea, and set aside a manuscript to pursue it.

Unlike Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner – his contemporaries – Mickey did not write scores of novels about his famous character.  There are around one-hundred Perry Mason novels, but Mickey published only thirteen Mike Hammer novels.  This made the half-dozen significant Hammer manuscripts – again, usually in the 100- page range – such an exhilarating find.

Each of the novels I have completed has had its own unique challenges.

The first novel I completed, The Goliath Bone, had a nearly complete first draft, short only of two chapters with a roughed-out ending included.  But Mickey knew he was dying when he wrote it, and the manuscript came to only around 130 pages.  So this required expansion within the chapters.  To prepare, I read and re-read Mickey’s final published Hammer novels, The Killing Man (1989) and Black Alley (1996), marking them up like a college student preparing for an exam.  My idea was, and remains, that I should write Mike Hammer appropriately to the era in which the unfinished manuscript was devised.  The Hammer of the first batch of Spillane novels (1947-1952) was very different from the Hammer of the second batch (1962 -1970).  And the Hammer of Mickey’s last two novels was distinctly an older, mellowed version of the famous character.

The second posthumous novel, The Big Bang, was developed from a wonderful hundred-plus pages, plus many plot and character notes, and I remembered the ending from one of my late-night sessions with Mickey in South Carolina.  The third novel, Kiss Her Goodbye, similarly offered over one hundred pages plus plot and character notes.  There are two climaxes – two villains – to be dispatched at the end of that one, and one came from another late-night session in South Carolina, and the other came from me extrapolating where I figured Mickey was heading.  The non-Hammer novel, The Consummata, had a wonderful hundred-page-plus opening, but no plot notes or indication of the ending.  But I have lived inside Mickey’s prose for so long now, I really can see and sense where he’s headed.

Lady, Go Die! is a unique treasure in Mickey’s papers.  Alone among the manuscripts, it dates to the beginning of both Mickey’s career as a novelist and Mike Hammer’s as a detective.  Initially, I thought the yellowed, brittle pages were a rough draft of The Twisted Thing, the second Hammer novel completed by Mickey (though not published till 1966).  Glancing through the pages, I saw familiar character names from Twisted Thing, as well as the fictional Long Island village of Sidon, and set the manuscript aside.

Lady, Go Die!  is a unique treasure in Mickey’s papers.  Alone among the manuscripts, it dates to the beginning of both Mickey’s career as a novelist and Mike Hammer’s as a detective.

When I returned to those brittle pages, I found a story no way related to that other novel, other than the Sidon setting and those character names.  Reading it closely, I realized this was the second Mike Hammer novel – with references to Hammer’s previous investigation, “the Williams case.”  That was I, the Jury (1947), the first Hammer novel and a modern classic of crime fiction.

There were difficulties.  The fragment began with Chapter Two, and ran out at the end of Chapter Four.  But they were lengthy chapters, and amounted to a good eighty pages (typically, Mickey wrote ten to thirteen chapters).  This would be the first time I had to write the first chapter myself – and Spillane was famous for his strong opening chapters. 

Further, this was the shortest of the substantial manuscripts.  Going through the Spillane material, I found a 1960s opening chapter that dealt with a similar series of serial killings.  I tried using it as the opening chapter, but the carpentry required was just too elaborate.

Then it occurred to me this chapter (in which Hammer is called to a quarry where an ex-cop asks him to search for a serial killer) might pick up at the end of Spillane’s chapter four.  When I got to that point, I tried using that chapter, and it worked fine.  Of course, it meant transforming the ‘60s version of Hammer into the 1947, younger one, but that was not a major challenge.

Also, I did not have notes for the ending.  The identity of the murderer was something I would have to determine myself.  Frankly, I know Mickey well enough to believe I picked up on the clues and in fact chose the right cast member to be the culprit.  Despite the characteristic punctuation, the title is also mine; but I believe it would have been Mickey’s, too, since he so elaborately set up the Lady Godiva motif.

To prepare for this novel, my homework was to read and re-read and mark up copies of the first two Hammer novels, I, the Jury and My Gun is Quick, and the second-written Hammer novel, The Twisted Thing.

Why did Mickey put Lady, Go Die! aside?  Possibly disappointing sales of I, the Jury in hardcover were responsible – the book wasn’t a hit until the paperback, which was so successful it changed the state of publishing.  But there’s another possibility.

Velda, Hammer’s secretary, gradually becomes the love of the private eye’s life throughout the novels – she is a tough P.I. herself, a former O.S.S. agent, and essentially becomes the second lead.  But she’s also a problem, because Mike Hammer is a famously randy dude, and readers enjoyed seeing him “bed” the “dames,” but would at the same time resent him for cheating on Velda.  In Mickey’s manuscript, Hammer and Velda are on a weekend getaway; they have their first kiss.  At the end of the manuscript, she is kidnapped – as she would be any number of times in later Hammer yarns – and Hammer must save her.

My hunch is that Mickey felt he’d gone too far, too early, with the Mike/Velda relationship.  And he got her kidnapped too soon in the narrative.  The end of chapter four is too early to send Mike flipping out with .45 blazing.  This section of chapter four I held back till much nearer the end of the story.

How do I work?  Why is that so many reviewers have been kind enough to suggest that you can’t tell where Spillane ends and I begin?  Well, I view this as a collaboration.  I do not just pick up where Mickey left off.  In Lady, Go Die!, of course, I obviously wrote the first chapter myself.  But when I’m working on any of these manuscripts, I treat Mickey’s work as rough draft, and expand it and weave my own writing through and in and around his.  So it’s a collaborative voice, and it allows me to keep the Spillane material going deep into the novel.  The three chapters I worked from on Lady, Go Die! evolved into six chapters plus part of another.   Add to that the additional chapter from a later period that got turned into another chapter, and there’s considerable Spillane writing appearing two-thirds of the way in.

I’m sure some purists would balk.  But Mickey trusted me to do the right thing, which is come up with an entertaining, authentically Spillane-flavored Mike Hammer novel.  I like to think I’ve done right by my friend, mentor and hero.

Max Allan Collins

Column by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins is the bestselling, award-winning author of Road to Perdition, the graphic novel that inspired the Oscar-winning movie starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, and of the acclaimed Nathan Heller series of historical hardboiled mysteries. Also a filmmaker himself, Collins' films include the documentary Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane.

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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine May 8, 2012 - 7:22am

Saw that doc on the Criterion disc. Great stuff. Spillane was such an interesting dude.

Jason C's picture
Jason C from Quad Cities, Iowa is reading Growing Up Dead In Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 8, 2012 - 5:21pm

Glad to see Max Allan Collins on Lit Reactor. I see him walking around the Quad Cities every now and then.

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