Book Review – Complex 90

Complex-90Earlier this month, we had the distinct pleasure of speaking at length with author Max Allan Collins, crime fiction writer extraordinaire and hand-picked successor of the late, great Mickey Spillane.  Within the scope of that interview, I mentioned that Spillane’s Mike Hammer shared “Big 3” status with fellow private eye legends Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.  Carrying that torch to modern readers, Collins builds upon and completes the notes and outlines Spillane left unfinished, and the result is the newest work in the Mike Hammer series, Complex 90.

From the publisher:

Hammer accompanies a conservative politician to Moscow on a fact-finding mission. While there, he is arrested by the KGB on a bogus charge, and imprisoned; but he quickly escapes, creating an international incident by getting into a fire fight with Russian agents.
On his stateside return, the government is none too happy with Mr. Hammer. Russia is insisting upon his return to stand charges, and various government agencies are following him. A question dogs our hero: why him? Why does Russia want him back, and why (as evidence increasingly indicates) was he singled out to accompany the senator to Russia in the first place?

As you can no doubt tell by the synopsis, this is a Cold War era thriller, and dammit, that’s how it should be!  The more you update the time and place on classic characters, the more outdated they can potentially become.  Reference James Bond.  Fleming’s Bond is a product of his time, and while updating is successful, his character’s attitudes still show through as being from that bygone era.  Change that, you change Bond irrevocably, and thus he ceases to be Bond.  The same holds true for a pulp detective character like Mike Hammer.  Pulp detectives work best between the late 1920s and the mid-1970s, with all of the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and politically-charged baggage that comes from whatever year the story takes place.  Hammer is a product of his time.  He has a big mouth and a big gun, and he’s not afraid to use either or both.  The era defines how he goes about that.  To displace him would be, well, criminal.  Thankfully the custodianship of Max Allan Collins is such that somewhere from the Great Beyond, Mickey Spillane is smiling.

That being said, one should not go into this novel blindly.  You can, as it’s an excellent first read for anyone just discovering Mike Hammer, but I think there’s a better approach.  It’s a continuation of the events from 1961 Hammer novel The Girl Hunters.  Being a quick and fun read as most pulp detective stories tend to be, this is your cue to go find that book and read it.  In fact, not only would I recommend that just for story purposes, but if you’re like me, you like to compare the writing styles too.  This is the perfect way to prove how skilled Collins is as an author, assuming you’re not familiar with his work before this point.  I defy you to be able to tell, even knowing what he told us in our podcast interview, which parts of the story are Spillane’s, and which are his own.  This book feels like it was written in 1964 when 007 was dominating the big screen, tensions with the Soviet Union were riding high, the space race was upon us, and the United States was about to enter the Vietnam era in the wake of JFK’s assassination.  In regards to that kind of historical weight… Complex 90 is a pulp masterpiece.  You feel like you’re there, alongside Hammer, seeing firsthand just how brutal and scary that world could have been if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And really, isn’t the wrong place / wrong time formula how heroes are forged?  Much like Spillane’s novels of the time, it holds up today for all of the same reasons it was popular back then: it’s great storytelling.  Put on Miles Davis, pour yourself a glass of your favorite drink, turn out all the lights except for the one you read by (because it’s the law that pulp detectives have only one light, ever), and prepare to get lost in a fantastic adventure.

I had hoped to have this review out sooner, but sometimes the mailing systems have a mind of their own, thusly my review copy was delayed in arrival.  So with profound apologies and special thanks to Max Allan Collins and our friends at Titan Books, I hope this makes up for lost time.

Complex 90 is available to buy now from Titan Books.