Book Review – THE TWISTED THING (1966) by Mickey Spillane

THE TWISTED THING (1966) ****
by Mickey Spillane
This paperback edition published in The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 3 by Obsidian, 2010, 178pp (524pp) with The Girl Hunters (1962) and The Snake (1964)
Introduction by Max Allan Collins
First published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, 1962
ISBN: 978-0-451-23124-6
      Blurb: This is some household. The kid is a genius, the father a scientist of international repute. Money is a problem. Not a shortage of money, but the opposite: too much. The sort of money that brings the envious and the scheming clustering like flies around offal: nieces, nephews, cousins … a family of mean minds and gross appetites. The staff has its peculiarities, too: the chauffeur is an ex-con; the governess formerly a featured act in strip clubs from New York to Miami; and the secretary has a well-developed taste in other women. Yes, it’s some household – and not all that welcoming of PI Mike Hammer, not when the kid has been kidnapped and everyone’s a suspect.
      Comment: This ninth Mike Hammer novel from the pen of Mickey Spillane seems to hark back to the noir mystery thrillers of the 40s and 50s. There’s a reason for that. This was in fact the second Mike Hammer book Spillane wrote (after I, the Jury – published in 1947). It had initially been rejected by Spillane’s publisher who was looking for something tougher, more violent, sexy and vengeance-driven after the success of the first book. So, Spillane obliged with My Gun is Quick and shelved The Twisted Thing for 18 years.  It’s easy to see why the book was initially passed as it tends to blend into the more traditional field that surrounded it at the time. That said the book is not without its moments of violence and sex. The main difference is Hammer is less driven by vengeance and his two-fisted ways of obtaining his leads and works more as a detective in the Chandler or MacDonald mode. Indeed a softer side to his character is shown in his attachment to the kidnapped boy. As such, the book is refreshing with its complex kidnap/murder plot built around a large dysfunctional family and has distinct echoes of some of the classics of the genre. Excepting one or two fanciful advancements of the plot, Spillane keeps the reader engaged throughout and his writing is often impressive as Spillane sticks with the tried and tested first-person narrative until its twist ending. The setting is mostly a small town in New York state, so the change of environment also serves to freshen up the formula. One of the best of the later published Mike Hammer novels, this is worth seeking out.

Book Review – THE SNAKE (1964) by Mickey Spillane

THE SNAKE (1964) ***
by Mickey Spillane
This paperback edition published in The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 3 by Obsidian, 2010, 158pp (524pp) with The Girl Hunters (1962) and The Twisted Thing (1966)
Introduction by Max Allan Collins
First published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, 1962
ISBN: 978-0-451-23124-6
      Blurb: New York PI Mike Hammer has traced his lost love and secretary, Velda, who went missing seven years ago. In a race against time, Mike has to move her to another location, but she is sheltering a young woman who fears for her life. Finally safe once again, Hammer devotes his time to helping the young woman, who is being threatened by her stepfather. But as Hammer investigates some leads on the seedier side of town, he finds himself caught up in a three-decades-old mystery involving a great deal of money that’s gone missing. And just who is The Snake? Mike is going to have to figure that one out, or three lives – his, Velda’s and the girl’s – are in danger.
      Comment: Mickey Spillane had returned to his most famous creation, New York PI Mike Hammer, with 1962’s The Girl Hunters. In that book, we saw Hammer come out of a 7-year drinking bender when he learned his secretary and love Velda, who he had assumed dead, is still alive. That book ended before Hammer and Velda were reunited. The Snake picks up immediately where The Girl Hunters left off and pitches Hammer into a new case. Whilst rescuing Velda, Hammer also rescues a young blonde girl on the run from her stepfather, who is a high-moving politician. The girl believes her stepfather killed her mother. It becomes clear the case is linked to a robbery that took place more than 30 years earlier, which the girl’s father prosecuted as a DA. The Snake is a less successful novel than its predecessor and feels a little lacking in inspiration. The plot is familiar to genre fans in its exploration of themes around familial disharmony, trust, power and greed. Many of the plot progressions that lead Hammer to the eventual solution are incredibly contrived and coincidental. The “when will they” dilly-dallying between Hammer and Velda also becomes a little tiresome and irritating. That said it is a quick and easy read and will broadly entertain fans of thick-ear hard-boiled mysteries. Its lack of sophistication may hold it back from other stronger examples in the field, but there are moments when Spillane captures a rhythm with his prose that suggests a stronger book could have emerged if more time had been spent ironing out some of the plot difficulties which led to the writer taking the easy way out. The Snake sits in the lower rankings in the Mike Hammer bibliography but is a required read for those wanting to tie the outstanding threads from The Girl Hunters.

Film Review – THE GIRL HUNTERS (1963)

The Girl Hunters (1963) - The Stalking MoonTHE GIRL HUNTERS (UK, 1963) **½
      Distributor: Colorama Features (USA) / Twentieth Century Fox Film Company (UK); Production Company: Fellane; Release Date: 12 June 1963 (USA), 16 July 1964 (UK); Running Time: 98m; Colour: B&W; Sound Mix: Mono (Westrex Recording System); Film Format: 35mm; Film Process: Panavision (anamorphic); Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1; BBFC Cert: 12.
      Director: Roy Rowland; Writer: Mickey Spillane, Robert Fellows, Roy Rowland (based on the novel by Mickey Spillane); Producer: Robert Fellows; Associate Producer: Charles Reynolds; Director of Photography: Kenneth Talbot; Music Composer: Philip Green; Film Editor: Sidney Stone; Art Director: Tony Inglis; Costumes: Rene Coke, Dan Millstein (Miss Eaton’s wardrobe); Make-up: Sidney Turner, Alice Holmes; Sound: Jim Roddan, Hugh Strain, Gerry Turner.
      Cast: Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer), Lloyd Nolan (Federal Agent Arthur Rickerby), Shirley Eaton (Laura Knapp), Scott Peters (Police Captain Pat Chambers), Guy Kingsley Poynter (Dr. Larry Snyder), James Dyrenforth (Bayliss Henry), Charles Farrell (Joe Grissi), Kim Tracy (Nurse), Hy Gardner (Hy Gardner – the Columnist), Benny Lee (Nat Drutman), Murray Kash (Richie Cole), Bill Nagy (Georgie), Clive Endersby (Duck-Duck), Ricardo Montez (Skinny Guy), Larry Cross (Red Markham), Tony Arpino (Cab driver), Hal Galili (Bouncer), Nellie Hanham (Landlady), Robert Gallico (Dr. Leo Daniels), Michael Brennan (Policeman), Howard Greene (Policeman), Grant Holden (Policeman), Francis Napier (Detective), Larry Taylor (The Dragon).
      Synopsis: Legendary detective Mike Hammer has spent seven years in an alcoholic funk after the supposed death of his secretary, Velda. He is brought back to the land of the living by his old friendly enemy, police lieutenant Pat Chambers.
     Comment: Mickey Spillane plays his own literary creation, New York PI Mike Hammer, in this straight adaptation of his seventh Hammer novel. Here Hammer has been 7-years a drunken bum following the assumed death of his secretary Velda. When he is given hope Velda is still alive by a dying man, Hammer seeks to find the truth behind her disappearance and becomes embroiled in an espionage plot which puts him at the centre of the target for a professional killer. Eaton plays the widow of a US senator who was also involved in the plot and Nolan a government agent who has Hammer working to unravel the mystery. Made in the UK, art director Inglis does well to create authentic street scenes and sets. Spillane is stiff as Hammer and struggles to deliver his own dialogue with the tough intensity one imagines on the written page. Nolan is the movie’s bright spot along with Green’s mournful score. Like its source, the movie fails to close out the story and a sequel (an adaptation of Spillane’s follow-up novel The Snake) was intended but never shot. The tough-guy antics,  moody atmosphere and black-and-white photography suggest the movie belongs in another time – unfortunately its execution falls short of its ambition.

Book Review – THE GIRL HUNTERS (1962) by Mickey Spillane

THE GIRL HUNTERS (1962) ***½
by Mickey Spillane
This paperback edition published in The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 3 by Obsidian, 2010, 171pp (524pp) with The Snake (1964) and The Twisted Thing (1966)
Introduction by Max Allan Collins
First published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, 1962
ISBN: 978-0-451-23124-6
      Blurb: Seven years of hitting the hard stuff have taken it out of PI Mike Hammer. That’s how long it’s been since he gave his beloved secretary the job from which she never returned. Now he’s back with a vengeance. Velda is alive, if only he can reach her in time. But New York’s toughest investigator still has friends in the right places. And his long-neglected .45 is definitely one of those. Piecing together the puzzling deaths of a senator, a newsagent and an FBI man, Hammer finds the missing link in a murderous network of international spies. One that turns out to be Spillane’s kind of beauty – and who knows a good deal more than she should.
      Comment: There was a 10-year gap between Mickey Spillane’s sixth and seventh Mike Hammer novels (Kiss Me Deadly and The Girl Hunters).  During this period Spillane semi-retired from writing and had become a Jehovah’s Witness. The Girl Hunters addresses the absence of Mike Hammer novels during this period by introducing a plot element that has Hammer’s secretary Velda missing in action for the last seven years. Hammer believing her dead has turned to drink, lost his PI licence and his friendship with NYPD captain Pat Chambers. But when a dying man gives Hammer hope Velda is still alive, he sobers up and resolves to find her. The mystery elements are blended well as the dying man is linked to the murder of a US senator and these events, in turn, are linked to the case Hammer and Velda were working on before her disappearance. Meanwhile, Hammer has become involved with Laura, the senator’s widow. The plot may be fanciful with its mix of espionage and hit-men, but Spillane manages to keep the reader from dwelling on the absurdities and emboils us in Hammer’s search for Velda. Whilst the early passages are slow as we become re-acquainted with Hammer and learn of the nature of Velda’s disappearance, once this set-up has been explained the pace quickens and the action is tough, sexy and intriguing. The finale is pure Spillane and will satisfy his loyal fan base. Written with tough-guy dialogue and in a spare first-person narrative prose, Spillane hits his stride once more and would enter a second prolific phase of writing, which could have been written ten years earlier.  A year later the book was adapted into a movie, in which Spillane played his own creation.

Book Review – THE SLEEPWALKER (2019) by Joseph Knox

THE SLEEPWALKER (2019) ****
by Joseph Knox
This paperback edition published by Black Swan, 2020, 433pp
First published in hardcover by Doubleday, 2019
© Joesph Knox, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-7841-6218-4
      Blurb: As a series of rolling blackouts plunge the city into darkness, Detective Aidan Waits sits on an abandoned hospital ward, watching a mass murderer slowly die. Transferred from his usual night shift duties and onto protective custody, he has just one job. To extract the location of Martin Wick’s final victim before the notorious mass murderer passes away. Wick has spent over a decade in prison, in near-total silence, having confessed to an unspeakable crime that shocked the nation and earned him the nickname of The Sleepwalker. But when a daring premeditated attack leaves one police officer dead and another one fighting for his life, Wick’s whispered last words will send Waits on a journey into the heart of darkness. Manipulated by a reticent psychopath from his past, and under investigation from his new partner, Detective Constable Naomi Black, Waits realises too late that a remorseless contract killer is at work. Can Aidan Waits solve his last case before fleeing justice?
      Comment: The third book in Joesph Knox’s Aidan Waits series sees the author put his protagonist through even darker territory than in Sirens or The Smiling Man. The result is a fast-paced page-turning thriller full of twists. The main plot concerns the murder of a convicted killer, convicted for the deaths of a woman and her two children but claiming his innocence as he dies as a result of a hate attack. As Waits and his new partner, Naomi Black, delve deeper they uncover a broader web of cover-ups within the force relating to another case involving a missing female detective. Alongside this, Knox delves more into Waits’ personal past and his relationship with his sister and mother. To fully understand this latter sub-plot it is advised to read Knox’s books in order. If that wasn’t enough there is a further sub-plot involving Knox’s personal nemesis and drug crime lord, Zain Carver, who has put a contract out on the detective. Knox juggles the main plot and the various sub-plots extremely well, so the book does not feel overly cluttered until he tries to resolve (or not as the case may be) each of them in a finale which builds crescendo on crescendo.  Therein lies the problem. The book tries to cram so much exposition into its final act and whilst doing so has an ambiguous ending that will leave some readers distinctly unsatisfied. It may make for thrilling reading and certainly is exciting, but does make the reader question its contrived nature. This is where the modern novel is now mimicking the TV mini-series, which in itself mimicked the novel. The need to pile on shock revelation after shock revelation has removed an element of logic and plausibility from the narrative. That said this was still a hugely enjoyable read for those willing to forgive the contrivances and submit to Knox’s dark view of the world. It will be interesting to see what this challenging and gifted writer delivers next as I have the feeling there is a masterpiece within his gifts, just waiting to be unleashed.

Book Review – THE SMILING MAN (2018) by Joseph Knox

THE SMILING MAN (2018) ****
by Joseph Knox
This paperback edition published by Black Swan, 2019, 454pp
First published in hardcover by Doubleday, 2018
© Joesph Knox, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-7841-6219-1
      Blurb: A body has been found on the fourth floor of Manchester’s vast and empty Palace Hotel. The man is dead. And he is smiling. The tags have been removed from his clothes. His teeth have been replaced. Even his fingertips are not his own. Only a patch sewn into his trousers offers any information about him. Detective Aidan Waits and his unwilling partner, DI Sutcliffe, must piece together the scant clues to identify the stranger. But as they do, Aidan realises that a ghost from his past haunts the investigation. He soon recognises that to discover who the smiling man really is, he must first confront the scattered debris of his own life . . .
      Comment: Joesph Knox’s first book, Sirens, introduced us to Detective Aidan Waits. It was a dark, grim and macabre tale that proved to be one of the best debut novels in recent years. His follow-up, The Smiling Man, continues in the same vein. Waits is paired on the night shift with DI Peter Sutcliffe (Knox’s penchant for referencing serial killers both real and fictional is one of his traits). On attending the crime scene at a disused hotel they find a man’s body in one of the rooms. It cannot be identified and is distinguished only by the disturbing smile on his face. The investigation runs concurrently with events from Waits’ past, which re-surface on the release from prison of the psychotic Bateman. The plots are not directly linked but weave between each other throughout the novel, with Waits trying to rid himself of the events that led to his dark personality. It’s a psychological rollercoaster and Knox handles the elements well through his first-person narrative. The creepy elements in the Smiling Man mystery are reminiscent of cases such as The Black Dahlia. Knox admirably captures the darkness of the locale, despite being set during a rare Manchester heatwave, and showcases a cast of violent, eccentric and flawed characters. As such this book is not for those who don’t like their mysteries to veer too much toward the disturbingly dark side, but fans of Knox’s first novel will not be disappointed with this stylish follow-up.

Book Review – THE SHAMELESS (2019) by Ace Atkins

THE SHAMELESS (2019) ***½
by Ace Atkins
This paperback edition published by Corsair, 2020, 446pp
First published in hardcover by Corsair, 2019
© Ace Atkins, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-4721-5500-9
The Shameless (Quinn Colson Book 9) by [Atkins, Ace]      Blurb: Twenty years ago, teenager Brandon Taylor walked into the Big Woods north of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, and never returned. For former Army Ranger-turned-sheriff Quinn Colson, the Taylor case has a particular meaning. As a ten-year-old, Colson had been lost in those same woods and came back from them alive and a local legend. Years later, bones of a child are found in the woods, confirming for many the end to the Taylor story. As the case reopens, some point fingers to Quinn’s uncle, the former sheriff, who took his own life in a cloud of corruption and shame. Still, Quinn’s wife, Maggie, can’t believe it. As a childhood friend of the Taylor boy, she thinks there’s a darker conspiracy at work. Letters she receives from a mysterious inmate at a Tennessee state pen may hold the answers. With a heated election for governor on the horizon and the strengthening of a criminal syndicate’s death grip on the state, Quinn’s search for answers will upset the corruption that’s plagued his home since before he came back from Afghanistan. Greed, false piety, power, bigotry, and dirty deals make for a dangerous mix he knows all too well.
      Comment: Number 9 in the Sheriff Quinn Colson series takes Ace Atkins’ hero into a cold case that hits close to home. It’s a slow-burning story, built around two New York reporters arriving in Tibbehah County to investigate what really happened to a teenager who allegedly killed himself in the woods. Again the characters are rich and the dialogue superb. Those who have been with the series from the start and seen how it has developed will consider this book a crossroads in a story arc that has built throughout, with its cliffhanger ending and some major shifts for most of the characters. What it lacks in action (a hitherto pre-requisite of the series) it makes up for in plot progression. Quinn, newly married to Maggie is up against forces that would have him removed from office, sister Caddy takes up with a man affiliated to those forces, Fannie Hathcock looks to broaden her criminal empire and battle those who would oppose her, Boom struggles with alcoholism following events from the previous book, THE SINNERS. Many of these plot threads remain unresolved by the book’s conclusion, giving it the feel of a transitionary novel with its lack of closure potentially leaving readers unfulfilled. Casual readers would, therefore, be advised to start from the beginning with THE RANGER, to get acquainted with the core characters, their back-story and the setting. They will be rewarded with a series that has matured with each book and leaves you wanting more.

The Quinn Colson series:
The Ranger (2011) ***
The Lost Ones (2012) ***
The Broken Place (2013) ***
The Forsaken (2014) ***½
The Redeemers (2015) ****
The Innocents (2016) ***½
The Fallen (2017) ****
The Sinners (2018) ***½
The Shameless (2019) ***½

Book Review – THE SINNERS (2018) by Ace Atkins

THE SINNERS (2018) ***½
by Ace Atkins
This paperback edition published by Putnam, June 2019, 432pp (417pp)
First published in hardcover by Putnam, June 2018
Includes an excerpt from the follow-up, THE SHAMELESS (2019)
© Ace Atkins, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-399-57675-1
      Blurb: The Pritchards had never been worth a damn–an evil, greedy family who made their living dealing drugs and committing mayhem. Years ago, Colson’s late uncle had put the clan’s patriarch in prison, but now he’s getting out, with revenge, power, and family business on his mind. To make matters worse, a shady trucking firm with possible ties to the Gulf Coast syndicate has moved into Tibbehah, and they have their own methods of intimidation. With his longtime deputy Lillie Virgil now working up in Memphis, Quinn Colson finds himself having to fall back on some brand-new deputies to help him out, but with Old West-style violence breaking out, and his own wedding on the horizon, this is without doubt Colson’s most trying times as sheriff. Cracks are opening up all over the county, and shadowy figures are crawling out through them – and they’re all heading directly for him.
      Comment: This is the eighth book in Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series. Here the sheriff is pitted against two country boys and their ex-con uncle as they attempt to take the narcotics trade away from organised crime. Atkins’ strength lies in his ability to create three-dimensional characters and craft wonderful dialogue. This helps carry the book over its rather simple plot-line, which unravels at a leisurely pace until the all-action finale. This does, however, give the colourful characters room to breathe and the result is a satisfying read in a very consistent series that plays to its strengths. Some plot threads are left open and will undoubtedly continue into the next book. It’s a series well worth investing in and one that favourably recalls the writing of one of Atkins’ heroes – Elmore Leonard.

The Quinn Colson series:
The Ranger (2011) ***
The Lost Ones (2012) ***
The Broken Place (2013) ***
The Forsaken (2014) ***½
The Redeemers (2015) ****
The Innocents (2016) ***½
The Fallen (2017) ****
The Sinners (2018) ***½
The Shameless (2019)

Book Review – THE LADY IN THE LAKE (1943) by Raymond Chandler

THE LADY IN THE LAKE (1943) ****
by Raymond Chandler
This paperback edition published by Penguin, 2011, 284pp
First published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1944
© Raymond Chandler, 1943
ISBN: 978-0-241-95632-8
      Blurb: Private Investigator Philip Marlowe is hired to find a missing woman. Derace Kingsley’s wife ran away to Mexico to get a divorce and marry a hunk named Chris Lavery. Or so the note she left her husband says. Trouble is when Philip Marlowe asks Lavery about it he denies everything. But when Marlowe next encounters Lavery, he’s denying nothing – on account of the two bullet holes in his heart. Now Marlowe’s on the trail of a killer, who leads him out of smoggy Los Angeles all the way to a murky mountain lake . . .
      Comment: This is the fourth novel by Raymond Chandler featuring his highly influential private eye, Philip Marlowe. The novel was adapted from an earlier short story, written in 1939 for the Dime Detective pulp magazine and later included in the short story collection Killer in the Rain. The plot is as complex as ever but set between a tighter cast of characters than usual, so the reader is never taken to the point of bafflement. Chandler’s prose and dialogue is fluid as he unravels the mystery of a disappearing wife through his customary first-person account. Whilst the novel is not Chandler at his peak, it remains an intriguing and satisfying mystery that is as efficient as they come – its lengthening from the original short story length feels natural and includes more plot elements. The interchange of setting between the fictional Bay City suburb of Los Angeles and the mountain lake provides a neat contrast. The tie-up finale may seem a little too convenient in the way Marlowe unravels the clues seemingly very quickly, with Chandler not having shared his protagonist’s thoughts on the lead-up, but it makes for a strong and surprising, revelation in the book’s final scenes. Chandler demonstrates throughout his mastery of the form, even though here his plot is less challenging than say those of his first two novels.

The Philip Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler:
The Big Sleep (1939) *****
Farewell, My Lovely (1940) *****
The High Window (1942) ****
The Lady in the Lake (1943) ****
The Little Sister (1949) ****
The Long Goodbye (1953) *****
Playback (1958) ***

Book Review – THE ROCKFORD FILES: DEVIL ON MY DOORSTEP (1998) by Stuart M. Kaminsky

THE ROCKFORD FILES: DEVIL ON MY DOORSTEP (1998) ***
by Stuart M. Kaminsky
This paperback edition published by Forge, May 2001, 304pp
First published in March 1998
© MCA Publishing Rights, 1998
Based on the Universal Television series The Rockford Files created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell
ISBN: 0-812-57106-1
book cover of Devil on My Doorstep      Blurb: Jim Rockford is in one hell of a mess–the credit companies are after his stuff, his buddy Angel has cooked up another scheme that is a sure thing (sure enough to get them both killed), and he’s way behind on everything. When a beautiful young girl shows up at his door claiming to be the daughter of an old flame, he’s dubious. When she claims that she’s his daughter, all the bells go off. She’s on the run, scared, and tells Jim that she thinks someone has killed her mother…and that someone is her stepfather. Whatever the outcome, Jim will do what it takes to find the truth, no matter how painful it may be. And he’ll even try not to get killed in the process.
      Comment: Kaminsky delivers a thoroughly competent novel based on the popular ’70s TV show The Rockford Files, or more accurately the ’90s revival TV movies – the period in which this story is set. This is the second of two novels Kaminsky wrote featuring private eye Jim Rockford, the first being The Green Bottle in 1996. The author is obviously a connoisseur of the series and gets the characterisations of the regulars spot on. Whilst relaying the story in the first person is par for the genre, it is an interesting approach given the series was not geared that way. It gives us the opportunity to see everything that happens in this convoluted tale through Rockford’s eyes. The approach works very well in keeping the reader hooked on the mystery elements as Rockford plays off the gangsters and the Feds as he tries to discover the truth about the disappearance of an old flame and the girl who claims to be his daughter. Whilst the plot feels a little overplayed at times the writing is good and the dialogue entertaining – notably the banter between Rockford and con-man Angel. Kaminsky also introduces an eccentric assassin who quotes classic poetry. The rest of the gangster plot is standard stuff. It’s a shame Kaminsky’s series stalled after just two books – for whatever reason – as Rockford is one of the most engaging modern private eyes and the charisma of James Garner from the TV series bleeds through onto the written page.