Max Allan Collins (‘Road to Perdition’) on carrying on Mickey Spillane’s legacy
A week before he died in 2006, author Mickey Spillane turned to his wife and said, “When I’m gone, there’s going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max – he’ll know what to do.”
“Max” is Max Allan Collins. He was, for a number of reasons, an ideal choice to be the keeper of the Spillane flame.
A fan of Spillane’s since he’d been a kid, Collins had met the mystery writer at a convention in the early 1980s. The connection developed into both friendship and regular collaboration. But Collins was no junior partner in the duo.
Born in Muscatine, Iowa in 1948, he’s been writing mysteries since he was a kid, eventually studying in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, one of the most renowned writing programs in the country.
By the late 1970s, Collins had published his first novel. Since then, he’s published 49 more, another 17 movie or TV tie-in novels, and worked in almost every other literary format from comic strips to short stories to graphic novels and even to trading cards. His stature in his field is measured by his unmatched 16 Private Eye Writers of America Shamus nominations, as well as his regular nods from the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards.
Out of that enormous body of work, possibly his most recognized piece is the three-part graphic novel Road to Perdition on which he worked with illustrator Richard Piers Rayner, and which served as the basis for the acclaimed 2002 hit film directed by Sam Mendes, adapted by David Self, and starring Tom Hanks.
According to a 2002 interview, Collins’ inspiration for Perdition was two-fold: “I’d been wanting to do something with the true story of (1930s crime boss) John Looney (the family name was changed to Rooney in the film) and his warped son Connor for a long, long time…” The other reason: “What made it an ‘irresistible creative opportunity’ was my need for work: I’d just been fired from the (Dick) Tracy strip…”
Perdition is moodier, more morally complex, and more melancholic than Spillane’s work, yet in it one can still see what made Collins and Spillane such kindred spirits, and Collins such a perfectly-matched collaborator. Perdition’s Michael Sullivan – a hit man on a relentless crusade for revenge against the man who’d murdered his wife and younger son, and against the father figure who has sheltered the killer who is his own son – is a direct descendant of Spillane’s iconic private eye, Mike Hammer, an equally relentless, equally brutal dealer in rough justice (which, in Hammer novels, is often interchangeable with revenge).
Here, Max Allan Collins talks about carrying on Spillane’s work, the mystery writer’s place in the genre’s pantheon of big name talents, and his own Road to Perdition.
When you say “Mickey Spillane,” what are the characteristics of his work that, to you, are his trademarks? As a brand, what does “Mickey Spillane” mean?
Today, Mike Hammer probably personifies the traditional tough private eye. That flows not just from Mickey’s books, but from the various Stacy Keach TV shows. In the last century — you know, the 20th Century — Mickey Spillane was the epitome of sex and violence in crime fiction. Mike Hammer novels were “dirty books” in the 1950s and even early ’60s.
The actual characteristics of his work are not so simplistic. Hammer is a combat veteran unhappy with the postwar world, a guy who values friendship in the way one G.I. in a foxhole values his buddy. As a hero, he was the first really dark protagonist, a tough, remorseless man who uses the bad guy’s methods against the bad guys — the first hero to execute a villain, not turn that villain over to the authorities. Hammer is also the first private eye to sleep around with the lovely, willing women he meets. James Bond is only one of the other characters who would not have happened if Spillane hadn’t shown the way.
What gets lost (in talking about his work) is Spillane’s storytelling, which can be hypnotic — he is particularly good at arresting openings and shocking, surprising conclusions — and his noir poetry (is) a kind of surrealistic fever dream.
How did you and Mickey Spillane hook up?
Spillane was my obsession as an adolescent. I had discovered him and Hammett and Chandler about the same time, loved them all, but was dismayed to learn that Mickey did not share the critical praise heaped on the other two; that in fact he was blamed for all kinds of social ills from causing juvenile delinquency to lowering the standards of reading tastes. Before my career got off the ground, and after as well, I was his defender in articles and letters of comment. So, when the 1981 Bouchercon, in Milwaukee, needed a liaison between the con and Mickey, who was one of their guests of honor, I was asked.
Mickey and I hit off, and did a memorable two-man panel at the con, which was his first appearance at such an event. He had the mistaken idea that he might not be greeted warmly by mystery fans, since a lot of his fellow mystery writers had been vicious in their criticism of him. Anyway, we became friends and I was one of his writer pals since Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina (where Spillane lived), wasn’t exactly a writers’ commune.
I visited his home once a year or so, and we began doing projects together — co-editing anthologies, creating a comic book, doing a number of movie projects, including my documentary about him, “Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane,” which you can find on the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray of Kiss Me Deadly.
How did you come to pick up the baton on the Spillane novels?
Mickey asked me to complete The Goliath Bone if necessary, which was the book he was working on when he became ill. He asked his wife, Jane, to have me complete the various other unfinished works, and she asked me to, and, of course, I said yes to all of that. Mickey was my hero as a kid, and I was a defender of his in my early career — he was, and is, very controversial — and we’d become friends in the early ’80s. We did numerous projects together, anthologies, comic books, films.
Is Lady, Go Die! the first Spillane novel you’ve completed?
There were six substantial Hammer unfinished novel manuscripts. I did The Goliath Bone, The Big Bang, and Kiss Her Goodbye for Otto Penzler’s line at Harcourt. This second round of three novels is being done for Titan, who I feel have a real grasp of popular culture and an unusual sense of history, for a publisher.
How incomplete was the manuscript? Any idea why Spillane never finished the book/didn’t submit it for publication?
This was by far the earliest unfinished manuscript, dating to 1945, and with references in the text that made it clear it was the sequel to the first, hugely famous and popular I, the Jury (1947). The next earliest of the unfinished novels was The Big Bang, which dated to around 1965. So, this was a major find. But it was the shortest of the substantial manuscripts at around 80 pages. I found a single chapter from a later unfinished book with a similar theme, a similar set of crimes, and was able to use that as well, bringing the Spillane content up to match that of the other novels.
As to why he didn’t finish it, I have two theories. One is that I, the Jury didn’t sell well in hardcover — it didn’t become a blockbuster till it hit paperback — and so he decided not to pursue a sequel.
The other is that he may have gone too far (in Lady, Go Die!) with the relationship between Mike Hammer and his secretary, Velda, and decided to back off. Spillane always wrestled with the love between Hammer and Velda because readers expected Hammer to be a randy guy bedding all sorts of “dames,” but also would resent him if he betrayed the love of his life.
You have your own credits. Is it hard to suppress your own creative voice to pick up Spillane’s? Did you ever find yourself being moved to take the story a certain way, but then holding yourself back because you realized that was more Max Allan Collins than Mickey Spillane?
I immerse myself in Mickey’s work, reading and re-reading and marking up the several novels adjacent in time to the manuscript I’m completing. Initially, of course, I am working inside Mickey’s manuscript, expanding and extending it, weaving my own stuff in, but staying faithful to the character, the tone, the style. By the time I run out of Spillane material, I’m fully absorbed in the voice of that book and it’s really no problem.
Stylistically, I do watch myself in a couple of areas — Mickey’s sentences tend to be simpler than mine, unless he’s writing a stream-of-conscious passage, and he rarely uses semicolons, and I use a lot of those. Also, our sense of humor is different. Mine is sarcastic, his is more of a macho, Howard Hawks kind of dialogue. So I keep an eye on that.
Your original, Road to Perdition, has a brooding melancholy quality which seems 180 degrees away from the more visceral, hard-boiled quality of Spillane. How much of a reach for you was it – at least initially – to go from something like Perdition to pick up Spillane’s voice?
Every story has its appropriate tone and voice. I just try to do what’s appropriate for the story at hand. Moving from one thing to another – say, first-person to third-person — or from one form to another — say, graphic novel to novel — really is a positive thing, keeps me fresh and enthusiastic. So I’d say it’s not a reach at all.
When you pick up Lady or any of your other collaborations now, can you see where Spillane ends and Max Collins begins? Or is it a seamless melding?
That’s for others to say, but, again, I don’t pick up where Spillane ends. I collaborate with him. I turn his 100 pages into 200 or more pages before I take over, and sometimes even then I’ve held back material of his to use later in the book.
In Lady, Go Die!, Velda gets kidnapped at the end of Spillane’s fourth chapter. I held that back till much, much later in the book. In fact, I think that’s another reason he may have put the manuscript aside — he realized he had gotten Velda kidnapped too early. Mike can’t go on his rampage at the end of Chapter Four — that doesn’t come till around Chapter Eleven.
It’s been over a half-century since the peak of the popularity of the Mike Hammer novels, yet people are obviously still reading them. What is it about the books which still engages an audience?
The books have enormous energy, and Hammer is one of the great first-person voices in mystery fiction. Only Philip Marlowe and Archie Goodwin (narrator of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries) equal him, I think. The emotional content is still surprisingly strong, and, despite a passage of time that includes (the work of) everybody from Sam Peckinpah to John Woo, Spillane’s violence is still shocking, really powerful.
Do you think it’s a fair appraisal that Spillane was a better storyteller than he was – from a literary point of view – a writer? Or do you think he’s been short-changed by the critics?
Spillane has consistently been short-changed by critics. He was a born storyteller, but sometimes that term is used as a left-handed compliment.
Mickey was a writer who could do things that even Hammett and Chandler couldn’t — his fever-dream prose was his own, and the strong emotional content was something very new to the mystery genre. He could construct better openings and opening sentences than anyone in the field, and his endings were astonishing. The first seven books, written when he was a relatively young man, have a rough-hewn quality — he was notorious for going with his first draft, just lightly edited — but incredible passion and energy. His later books lack some of that, but are much more polished, better-crafted. Early Spillane is primitive genius. Later Spillane is polished professional.
Clearly, he belongs in the top tier of crime writers, certainly one of the big three private eye writers: Hammett, Chandler, Spillane. Ross MacDonald often is given Mickey’s spot on that list, but MacDonald, good as he was, was chiefly a Chandler imitator (and Chandler knew it, and didn’t like it). You might need to add Robert B. Parker to the list of major private eye writers. I’m not a huge fan, but, like Mickey, he changed the field and opened a door for the rest of us.
That’s the frustrating thing to me — I understand that just because Parker is not my cup of tea that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a major figure. Those who dislike Mickey’s work ignore the obvious impact he had on mystery fiction and popular fiction in general, and really all of popular culture. No James Bond without Mike Hammer, or Shaft or Dirty Harry or Jack Bauer or Spencer’s pal Hawk for that matter, and dozens of other tough protagonists who take the law into their own hands and buck the system.
There’ve been a number of TV and film incarnations of Mike Hammer including one starring Spillane himself. The one that probably gets the most attention is Kiss Me Deadly (1955), although it’s my understanding it veers off significantly from the novel. Which do you think did the most justice to the character? Which did Mike Hammer the greatest disservice?
Kiss Me Deadly is a great movie. Director Robert Aldrich does attempt to deal with right-wing Spillane from a critical left-wing perspective, but nonetheless captures the mood and energy of Spillane’s work, and is more faithful to the book than its given credit for. Actually, the screenwriter (A. I. Bezzerides) claimed to have thrown the book out, but the film follows the plot closely, the characters and incidents are largely the same. The major difference is that (in the novel) the mysterious box contains drugs, not atomic material, though both have similar fiery endings.
The worst movie was a TV one, Come Die With Me (Come Die with Me: A Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer Mystery, 1994), with Rob Estes as Hammer and Pamela Anderson as Velda, set in Miami Beach. I never got through it till recently when I had to for a book I’ve done with Jim Traylor for McFarland called Mickey Spillane On Screen (out in September).
The worst traditional Hammer film is My Gun Is Quick (1957), but it has its guilty pleasures. The various series’ with Stacy Keach benefit from his great performance, but they can be on the campy side. Recently, the wonderful 1958-60 Darren McGavin series (Mike Hammer), all 78 episodes, has been released by A & E, and those are great shows capturing much (of the) Spillane/Hammer flavor. No Velda, though. No time for her in a half-hour show.
What did Spillane think of the film/TV adaptations of his work? I’m especially interested in his reaction to Kiss Me Deadly, and also to The Girl Hunters (1963) where he rather brazenly starred as Mike Hammer.
Mickey was generally unhappy with the film versions of his work, which is why he chose to play Hammer himself in The Girl Hunters from a screenplay he wrote. He did, in later years, come to appreciate the film of Kiss Me, Deadly, which initially he disliked. And, he was fairly positive about both TV versions of his work: the Darren McGavin 1950s series, and the Stacy Keach 1980s-90s series. But it would be fair to say he was more complimentary about McGavin and Keach than he was about the shows — in other words, he thought they were both good Hammers, but that neither series completely conveyed the nature of the novels.
He was pleased with The Girl Hunters, but disappointed that it wasn’t shot in color. It was intended to be, but budgetary concerns at the last minute made that impossible.
I suspect all authors, when they toy with the idea their work might wind up on the screen, have a vision in their heads of what their story should look like. Then there’s a natural adjustment – and often dissatisfaction – with the actual result. But with Road to Perdition, since it wasn’t a prose work but a graphic novel, you actually had a concrete visual template for your story and your characters. When Zack Snyder adapted 300 (2006) and Watchmen (2009), he stayed so close to his graphic novel sources he actually recreated certain panels on screen. Sam Mendes didn’t do that with Perdition (2002). What did you feel the first time you sat down to watch Perdition, saw that the actors had a physicality and voice different from what you’d envisioned, that the film had its own look and rhythm? Do you write it off thinking, “Oh, that’s just what the movies do to your stuff,” or do the differences make sense to you?
With apologies, I have to disagree with your premise. Mendes and particularly cinematographer Conrad Hall were very influenced by Richard Piers Rayner’s art and the storytelling of the graphic novel. The most famous shot in the movie is a recreation of one of Richard’s panels — the city of Chicago reflected on the car window that the wide-eyed boy is looking through. I felt the voice was very similar and that the film captured the spirit of the graphic novel beautifully. The first half or more is quite faithful to the graphic novel, and departs only when the graphic novel’s episodic nature and length were impossible to contain in a two-hour movie.
My only disappointment was Mendes toning down the violence, which I felt was an important aspect of the father’s life, and I’m not wild about what I consider to be a Hollywood ending. But, it’s a great film, and I’m proud, and lucky, to have it out there representing my work.
You mentioned, as sort of descendants on the Mike Hammer family tree, characters like James Bond, Dirty Harry, Shaft, yet Mike Hammer never quite connected on the screen the way they did. Any thoughts on why that might be?
Two reasons, I think. Hammer was a first-person character who Mickey never described physically to encourage reader identification. A hero as strong as Hammer but who was left to the reader’s imagination to picture is impossible to capture on screen. Bond was a third-person character, very exterior, while Hammer is an interior experience.
Also, when Hammer was at his most popular, the movies couldn’t probably convey the level of sex and violence that the books did. By the Dr. No movie (1962 – first theatrical feature in the James Bond series), that kind of sex and violence could be depicted. I, the Jury was filmed in 1953. Big difference. (Note: an I, the Jury remake was filmed in 1982 with Armand Assante as Mike Hammer).
Consider the great literary and film/TV private eyes: Sherlock Holmes, Nick Charles, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, The Rockford Files’ Jim Rockford, Chinatown’s J.J. Gittes – where does Mike Hammer fit on that spectrum? Is there anything he shares with them? What is it that distinguishes him; that makes Mike Hammer Mike Hammer?
That’s a great list. Hammer is the toughest, the randiest, and probably the most famous. What all the private eyes share is a rugged individualism, a distrust of the system, and a reliance on rough justice; none rougher than Hammer.
Are there more Mike Hammers coming? If you ever exhausted Spillane’s backlog, would you ever consider writing a Mike Hammer novel from scratch as has been done with the James Bond novels?
There are two more coming from Titan from substantial manuscripts – Complex 90 and King of the Weeds. There are three more significant but shorter works — 40-page range — that I will complete if readers are interested. I doubt we’d go past that, but if we do, there are plenty of shorter fragments, including complete opening chapters, from non-Hammer Spillane stories that could be converted into Hammer yarns. There’s no need for me to create anything from whole cloth.
This isn’t about the market, to me. It’s about getting Mickey’s work out there in a finished form. Mickey only wrote 13 complete Hammer novels in his lifetime. Characters like Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, and Perry Mason were in 75 or more. In the 1950s and early ’60s, when Mickey was the bestselling mystery writer in the world — a position he held for decades — he had only written seven novels. So, finding Mike Hammer material, unpublished, in his files is a major find. And, for me, a major responsibility. Adding six books to the canon — and as these are co-written by Mickey and largely plotted by him, they are canon — is a big deal. At least it is to me.
Collins’s most recently published collaboration with Spillane, Mike Hammer: Lady, Go Die!, is in bookstores now.