Lady, Go Die! (2012), by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane is everything a good detective story should be. Steeped in traditions of the noir detective thriller, this novel is a fun read and a page turner until the end.
- Mild interpretive spoilers-
It’s not often that a novel sequel gets released 65 years after its first instalment. During the 1950s and 1960s, Mickey Spillane was one of the most popular detective writers going around. The murder mystery I the Jury (1974), Spillane’s first novel and the first to feature the hard boiled, tough-as-nails private investigator, Mike Hammer, was a best seller, and set the standard for many noir thrillers to follow. When Spillane died in 2006, his friend Max Allan Collins was given the task of sorting through Spillane’s left manuscripts. Among the files was the manuscript for Lady, Go Die!, a never finished sequel to I, the Jury.
Lady, Go Die! picks up with Mike Hammer and his secretary, Velda after the events of I, the Jury. While knowledge of the first book is not in any way necessary to enjoy this yarn, it does provide a little extra character context for our P.I, Hammer. In this story, Mike Hammer and Velda are off to sleepy seaside village, Sidon for a bit of rest and relaxation and escape New York for a while. Except rest is anything they find as they wind up in the middle of a grisly murder case, uncovering a town full of corrupt cops and officials, illegal gambling dens and layers upon layers of gritty mystery.
Anyone who has ever read a pulp detective novel, or seen a film noir movie will be familiar with the tropes at work in Lady, Go Die! Mike Hammer is an iron tough and whip smart former cop, with a sentimental heart, out for only one thing – justice, usually at the end of his fist or .45, both of which he uses with abandon. And “Mike Hammer” – what a brilliant name for a hard-ass detective!
Hammer in love with his secretary, a P.I in her own right and while the two do have a little tryst going on, it doesn’t stop him from falling into the silks of the seductive temptress, Marion. While the vixen Marion is at most a side character, she has an important generic role to play, as the dazzling beauty to play opposite the more plain but still stunning true love interest, Velda. What’s interesting about this situation and the whole novel though, is that Marion is not a femme fatal. There is no real femme fatal in Lady Go, Die!, and the only one that even comes close is Sharron Wesley, the centre of the mystery who does not actively appear in the story.
The male and female interplay is an interesting thing to read in this novel. Commonly, 1940s detective stories were riddled with sexist men, and women were fulfilled their functions as either objects to love, who were never allowed anywhere near the real life of the P.I, or objects to be distracted by. While one can’t go as far as to say “enlightened” – there is still plenty of “sweetheart,” “doll”, “dame” and “kid” peppering the dialogue to make any feminist oriented reader pull his or her hair out – Lady, Go Die! puts its noir women in a slightly different position. Velda is a great and quite strong character. She’s as good as an investigator as Hammer, while not nearly as tough or ruthless and Hammer gives her her own part to play in solving the case.
The revelations on Sharron’s character too are not wholly what one would expect from a noir-esque femme fatal. Not a lot is known about the seductress, Marion though she does work as a bookkeeper and is given a position of power over the men she seduces. Though yes, everything Velda does is at Hammer’s instruction, and Sharron too had her dependencies on men, and Marion’s sharpest weapon is her body. This is still very much a man’s world and that might not sit all that comfortably with modern readers not accustomed to the tropes of the genre.
Lady Go, Die! is not in any way high literature and neither does it (nor should it have to) pretend to be. It is though, exceptionally well written. The finished book is around double the length of the original found manuscript. Spillane had laid out the mystery and basic plot and it was up to Collins to expand on that, adding twists and turns along the way.
The story rolls right off the page with seamless flow. Every detail of every scene springs to life through masterful description. Each chapter ends at precisely the right point to get that next page turned and will have many a reader staying up late just to see what happens next.
The ultimate revelation is, without giving anything away, was satisfying though did feel a little too simply convenient for my tastes. And while everything gets ties up, all questions answered, the ending was far too abrupt. My only other gripe is with the title, the meaning of which I pondered for a while and then had to roll my eyes just a little when it was revealed. Yes, it works in the context of the story, but is still a little clumsy for my modern eyes. However it is well suited to Spillane’s body of work rife with commas and exclamation points, so really I’m just being overly picky.
Lady Go, Die! is a fine volume. Far removed from the cheap pulpy paperbacks these stories were born in, this is a good looking hardcover with a striking dust jacket, the hard cover underneath inset with a photograph of Spillane, in suit and hat, looking very much the part of the noir detective.
Lady Go, Die! is one of a number of Mickey Spillane drafted Hammer novels to be completed by Collins. Complex 90 and King of the Weeds are due out in 2013 and 2014 respectively, from Titan Books. Fans of the genre will be delighted with these new, genuine 1940s detective thrillers and for new comers to the genre, Spillane, Collins and Mike Hammer provide a great place to start.