Max Allan Collins is one of the most celebrated crime novelists going around. His work has won and been nominated for a swag of prestigious awards including eighteen Private Eye Writers of America “Shamus” nominations, two wins and a PWA Life Time Achievement award in 2007. For decades, Collins has set is talents to all manner of crime, mystery and historical fiction, writing novels, comics, screenplays, short stories, adaptations, plays, games as well as a host of non-fiction.
Collins has worked on some of the most iconic franchises in crime and comics including Dick Tracy, which he took over writing from creator Chester Gould in 1977, as well as working on a number of Batman comics. His Road to Perdition series was made into a successful film in 2002, starring Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig and Jude Law, directed by Sam Mendes. Max Allan Collins was recently named First Lord of Mystery at the International Mystery Writers’ Festival, another award to add to his already impressive collection.
With such a pedigree in crime and mystery, there are few if any better choices to have taken over writing Mickey Spillane’s famed Mike Hammer series of detective novels.
Spillane started the series with I, The Jury, a murder mystery published in 1947. Through the following 40 years, Spillane wrote more than a dozen Mike Hammer novels and even starred as the hard-boiled P.I in a number of film adaptations. Just before his passing in 2006, Spillane asked his friend, Collins to complete his work in progress, what would be the fourteenth Hammer novel, The Goliath Bone (2008).
Among the work left by Spillane was an incomplete manuscript for a sequel to I, The Jury. Collins finished the book and the resulting Lady, Go Die! has just been released from Titan Books.
I had the pleasure of asking Max Allan Collins a few questions about what it was like to work on the incomplete manuscript, and what it is like to take over the reigns from such a celebrated writer.
Kate Krake – How complete was the Lady, Go Die! manuscript before you found it?
Max Allan Collins - This was the shortest of the substantial unfinished Hammer manuscripts. I’d say about 80 pages. I also used a first chapter – although it isn’t positioned as the first chapter in the finished book – of a novel Mickey began in the ’60s about the same serial-killer subject matter… just a very good, lone chapter. It’s the one where the retired inspector at the brick factory wants Mike to look into the murder of his adopted daughter.
KK – Was the manuscript titled when you found it?
MAC - No. I came up with that, based on the Lady Godiva arrangement of the first corpse. Velda’s line about “More like lady go die” is also mine. But I think Mickey may very well have had that title in mind. I love that I could use his characteristic punctuation – a comma and an exclamation point!
KK – Can you please outline the process you went through from finding the draft to publishing the novel?
MAC - The draft I came upon fairly late in the game — I had dismissed it as an early draft of THE TWISTED THING because both stories took place in Sidon and some characters and character names were common to that published book. The corrupt deputy, who I call Dekkert, is Dilwick in the manuscript – same as in THE TWISTED THING. I considered using the character with the original name, but the plot didn’t allow that. Not unless a reader would be okay for the same character to die twice.
When I did realize what I had was the sequel to I, THE JURY – that this was the second Mike Hammer novel – I decided not to do it right away. For one thing, I wanted to have a few Hammer projects under my belt, because this one was minus the first chapter and I’d be one my own at a crucial moment. For another, I had a three-book contract and I saved LADY, GO DIE! for the first of the second batch of three books, in case I needed to go to a new publisher. Which I did. I think Titan really gets it, where Hammer is concerned.
KK – Did you make any significant plot changes to the original draft?
MAC - No plot changes. One of the great things about the substantial manuscripts, which are usually around 100 pages, is that Mickey has laid out the entire mystery and introduced all the characters within that span. I did add twists and turns to the plot as the story rolled along, though.
KK – As a book with both your names on the cover, was it important for you to preserve Spillane’s authorial voice or did you also want some of your own style to come through?
MAC - It’s not so much that I want my style to come through as I just approach it as a collaboration, with a heavy nod toward Mickey’s voice. I always expand his manuscript to almost twice its length, which intertwines my writing with his so that when his material drops out, and I take over, the flow, the feel is there.
KK – A lot of noir style detective thrillers can be quite sexist, even misogynistic when it comes to the representations of women, much of which can be argued as being a product of the era in which they were made. What are your thoughts on this?
MAC - I write a lot of historical stuff, particularly set in the mid-20th Century, and all I do is try to reflect the attitudes and the language of the time, nonjudgmentally. But I don’t find Hammer misogynistic. Hammer loves women, even adores them, and Spillane writes very strong women. Velda is the co-star and a licensed PI. When there’s a femme fatale, she is every bit Hammer’s equal or his superior. In this book, a woman shoves him into a filled bath tub and stands there laughing at him. Does she hate men?
KK – Do you find you are ever at odds as a 20th/21st century writer, writing in a world of entirely different social expectations, to the 1940s social conventions you’re working in, particularly in terms of writing female characters?
MAC - Well, I grew up in the 20th Century. I remember those attitudes. I remember clearly that when my first book came out, I was criticized by a female reviewer for calling good-looking young women “girls.” Actually, I wasn’t doing it, my main character – a crook in his fifties – was, and it was very much in character for him. I just try to stay true to the characters. But I feel I write strong female characters. My comic-book heroine Ms. Tree was arguably the first of the ’80s tough female PIs — she pre-dates both V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone, starting around 1981.
KK – You’ve worked with other people’s creations a lot, including Spillane’s Mike Danger and Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. What is it like working in these existing worlds, particularly something so iconic like Dick Tracy?
MAC - As it happens, I was a huge Dick Tracy fan as a kid. The obsession of my childhood was Dick Tracy, and the obsession of my adolescence was Mike Hammer/Mickey Spillane, and I’ve had this bizarre, wonderful happenstance of getting to take over the characters from their creators in both instances. But I am never intimated, and don’t think of it as entering another writer’s world. I just try to stay in character.
KK – Who would win in a fight, Mike Hammer or Dick Tracy?
MAC - Mike Hammer. He fights dirty.
Lady, Go Die! is out now from Titan Books, and you can read my review of it here on Vivid Scribe. Keep an eye out for further Mike Hammer novels, coming soon from Titan Books.