Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins,
King of the Weeds
(Titan, 2014)

Mickey Spillane published his first Mike Hammer detective novel, I, the Jury, in 1947 and became the best-selling mystery writer in the world, even outselling Agatha Christie. When he died in 2006, several novels lay unfinished in his trunk. He had instructed his wife to turn everything over to his friend and disciple, Max Allan Collins, who has been finishing them off and issuing them under a joint byline.

This one, billed as the penultimate Mike Hammer novel, was intended by Spillane to be the last of the series. In it, we have a unique twist in that Hammer, who has been invincible for close to 70 years now, is feeling his age. He has been shot and almost killed in Black Alley, to which this is a sequel. (This one is self-contained, though; it is not necessary to read Black Alley to understand King of the Weeds).

Having survived his shooting, Hammer is back in New York City, preparing to finally marry his beloved secretary and partner, Velda, and thinking of getting out of the game. He even sometimes walks around without his equally beloved .45 caliber automatic, which he has been using since World War II. (Velda gets him a new one as an early birthday gift.) Going out without his gun, though, proves not to be that cool an idea as he is shot again in the opening pages. His life is saved, though, by the fact that he's carrying in his coat pocket a dictionary for Velda, which takes the bullets.

Hammer has to find out who shot him. As he investigates, he discovers that (a) a serial killer that he and his policeman friend, Pat Chambers, put in prison 40 years ago is about to get out because someone else confessed to the crimes, and (b) a missing $89 billion in mob money is being sought by the mob and by the feds, a stash that Hammer knows the location of, and (c) someone is killing cops.

Are these three things connected? Will Pat Chambers be disgraced and forced into early retirement because the killer that he caught was actually innocent? Can Hammer connect all of this stuff and solve these crimes? Or is he too old and no longer up to the task?

Much in the novel is made of his age -- others characters keep telling him they thought he was dead and openly question his ability to keep up. He even questions it himself from time to time.

The central question of the novel, though, is how do you stop a killer so smart that he never actually kills anyone himself but instead manipulates from behind the scenes, so that others do his crimes for him and no trail leads to him?

Hammer is still the brutal killer he has always been; since that first book in 1947, he is the judge and jury. He decides what punishment the guilty deserve, and that punishment is almost always the death penalty. That has been the formula for Spillane's books from the beginning: Mike Hammer as the instrument of, not justice, but revenge. Sadly, the formula is beginning to wear thin. Spillane and Collins concentrate on the action and ignore the ethical questions that underlie that action. Hammer has no doubts that what he is doing is correct, even if it violates the law. King of the Weeds, in its treatment of its major villain, raises interesting ethical and moral questions but in the end it doesn't deal with them in any deep way.

Entertaining? Damn right? Fast moving, well plotted? As always. Tension? You got it. But don't ask for more. That's the deal you make when you read a Mike Hammer book. Compulsively page-turning, but all on the surface.

Sometimes that's enough.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

10 May 2014

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