Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, December 14, 2023


Dig Two Graves by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, 2023
Too Many Bullets by Max Allan Collins, 2023

Normally, this is the space where I would take a look at a 'Forgotten Book."  But we're in the holiday season and I decided to treat myself to two recent novels from one of my favorite writers.  Both books are excellent reads, completely different fronm each other, and either (or both) would make a fantastic holiday gift for yourself or for the mystery fan in your life.

I have made no bones about y admiration for the multi-talented Max Allan Collins and his writing. The thing about Max Allan Collins is that everything he does is good.  Damned good.

Mickey Spillane tasked his friend Collins to take charge of his vast trove of uncompleted manuscripts and synopses following his death.  With the blessings of Jane Spillane and the Spillane estate, Collins has been able to add over thirty books to the Spillane oevre -- novels, short story collections, plays, and a graphic novel.   Fourteen of those novels feature Mike Hammer, covering the gamut of Hammer's fictional timeline.  Many of the works were based on near-completed manuscripts and drafts; others were culled from fragments and notes, some contradictory.  Dig Two Graves is based on two manuscripts -- one a potential Hammer novella, the other an early and different take on what would later become the non-Hammer Dead Street; one dating from the 60s, the other from the early 2000s.  Collins seamlessly joined the two, placing the tale in the 60s, shortly after his secretary/partner/girlfriend Velda Sterling returned after disappearing for seven years.

During those seven years, Mike Hammer hit the skids, became an alcolholic, and ended up sleeping in the gutter.  Now that Velda is back, Hammer has regained his dignity, has sobered up, and is back in the PI business.  But Hammer's lost years have left their mark; he's tough, but not as fit as he had been in the past.

Velda's mother now has a very strained relationship with her.  She resents Velda for letting her think she was dead for the past seven years.  Hammer negotiates a truce btetween the two and has set a dinner date where they can iron out their problems.  Before that could happen, car deliberately slams into Velda's mother, nearly killing her.  The driver turns out to be a contract killer whose weapon of choice is an automobile.

At the hospital, Velda learns that the man she had known as her father wasn't.  Her birth father was gangster Rhino Massey, notorious in the underword for planning armored car robberies.  Rainey walked out on Velda's mother when he discovered she was pregnant.  He later died.  Or did he?

Rainey was inducted into a nascant witness protection program by the Justice Department.  In thse early days, the government set up an exclusive retirement community outside of Phoenix to house some 300 criminals in their witness relocation program, loosely guarded by about 100 federal officers.  The crooks are given new identities and pledge to put aside past differences with rival gangsters, so Dreamland Park has become an idyllic retirement home where everybody behaves themselves.  (Yeah.  This whole idea strains credulity, but credulity-straining is a hallmark of the Hammer series.  Remember this is the guy who killed his way out from behind the Iron Curtain and the guy who snagged over a billion dollars in cash.)

So Hammer goes down to Arizona, only to discover that Rhino Massey, now known as Ranier Miller, had died (a second time) in a mugging on Phoenix several months earlier.  Rhino's brother, Joey (Velma's uncle), has come down to claim Rhino's property -- including the mortuary and cemetery the feds had given him as a "legit" cover.  If Mike Hammer is around, there are bound to be people tryng to kill him.  And so it goes. exploding into a fast-action tale of hidden millions, mixed identities, contract killers, surprise villains, and jealous women.

Mike Hammer is the archetype of the tough private investigator -- perhaps even more archetypical than  Carrol John Daly's brutal Race Williams.   Hammer has a strong core of decency and a sense of justice.  He tends to be there for the little guy as both protector and avenging angel.  Below the surface, Hammer has a sense of humor (he always "grins", never smiles).  Hammer began as a male fantasy for returning WWII vets, a no-nonsense tough guy who will ignore the rules whenever necessary.  Mickey Spillane was the consummate, knowledgable showman, always playing to his audience, whether on paper or in his day-to-day persona.  Nothing points this out more clearly than his creation Mike Hammer, and Collins has continue to imbue the detective with the essence of Spillane.

Max Allan Collin's major fictional character is Nathan Heller,  a flawed detective whom Collins has followed since True Detective (1983), set in the Capone gangster era of Chicago in the 30s, bringing him up to the 60s of the Kenedys  J. Edgar Hoover, and Jimmy Hoffa.  An ex-cop who becomes a private eye, Heller meets and interacts with historic figures, eventuall becoming the "detective to the stars" and bulding his small agency to a nationwide concern.  Over the years he become involved in some of the most famous and notorious crimes in America, from the assassination of Huey Long, to the kidnapping of the Linbergh baby. from the death of Marilyn Monroe to assassination attemps on John F. Kennedy.  Meticulously researched, each of Heller's cases offer a rational, possible solution to mysteries that may have been muddled by history.

Too Many Bullets involves the assassination of Heller's friend Bob Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968.  When Kennedy's normal security man is unable to attend, Kennedy asks Heller to act as his security guard.  One caveat, however:  Bob Kennedy demands that his security not be armed, just as he has refused the aid of the local police department, fearing either would send a wrong message to his supporters.  In compulsively readable detail, Collins take us through the victory rally and then through the crowded kitchen of the Ambassador, where bullets ring out.  Heller is gulty that he was not able to stop the assassination, but he is convinced that Sirhan Sirhan is the assassin -- he saw him fire the bullets.  But questions begin to arise after an abyssmally inept investigtion by the LA Police Department.  Why are there too many bullets?

Heller begins the novel by admitting that the entire story might never be told and that some of the guilty will probably never be published..But some of the unknown guilty have been punished, by Heller.

A fascinating look into a horrible time.  This book perhaps hit too close to home for me because I remember those days all too well in detail.


  1. Kind of an emotional revenge for Collins, too, that second one. Certainly RFK, Jr., is an interesting case, wonders how much of his worldview results from being the son of an assassinated politician. I've liked the Collins books I've read, though haven't read any of the Spillane expansions/completions.

    1. He was fouteen years old and was present when his father was murdered; he firmly believes that Sirhan Sirhan was not his father's killer. Both he and his father were convinced that Oswald did not act alone in the JFK assassination, and has stated that he feels the CIA was involved. (Meanwhile, Jackie quietly pointed her finger at LBJ.) Whether there is any truth to any of these claims is up in the air, but it seems to have made RFK, Jr., ripe for conspiracy theories, including his ideas on vaccination, Covid, HIV/AIDS, food allergies, the election process, the EPA, the FDA, and the innocence of his cousin Michael Skakel in the murder of Martha Moxley

    2. Indeed. As if, for that matter, the CIA would have it in for JFK...or that Oswald would need much more trigger than the mutual chest-pounding of JFK and Khrushchev, when they could've settled a trade of US missiles out of Turkey for not deploying in Cuba (as they eventually did) in a short afternoon.