TITLE: The Last Stand
AUTHOR: Mickey Spillane
285 pages, Hard Case Crime, ISBN 9781785656869 (Print)
Publication Date: March 20, 2018 (I received an uncorrected proof ARC in exchange for an honest review), hardcover, $22.99
PREMISE: (back cover copy) On Mickey Spillane’s birthday – a brand-new novel from the master. A tarnished former cop goes on a crusade to find a politician’s killer and avoid the .45-caliber slug with his name on it. A pilot forced to make an emergency landing in the desert finds himself at the center of a struggle between FBI agents, unsavory fortune hunters, and the local Indian tribe to control a mysterious find that could mean wealth and power – or death. Two substantial new works filled with Spillane’s muscular prose and the gorgeous women and two-fisted action the author was famous for, topped off by an introduction from Max Allan Collins describing the history of these lost manuscripts and his long relationship with the writer who was his mentor, his hero, and for much of the last century the bestselling author in the world.
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: As indicated in the back cover copy, this is not one new Spillane novel, but two. The first, A Bullet For Satisfaction, is an unpublished piece from early in his career, while the titular novel is the last full novel Spillane completed before his death. He also left plenty of unfinished stories and novels for Max Allan Collins to complete and publish over the last few years, but Collins (wisely, I think) decided to save The Last Stand for an auspicious occasion: the great author’s 100th birthday.
Collins’ introduction traces Spillane’s life history, concentrating on his writing and how it changed from the early bloody days of the first Mike Hammer novel to the later, more circumspect tales written after he’d converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That difference is pretty apparent when one compares the two short novels in this collection.
A Bullet for Satisfaction is classic noir: rough-and-tumble guys and not one, not two, but three femme fatales. There’s plenty of violence and double-crosses to go around; the violence especially may have been the reason that Spillane chose not to release this after his conversion, as Collins suggests in the introduction. The novel hits all the noir beats: Upright police captain Dexter quickly becomes unfairly disgraced former-captain Dexter, who decides to take a murder investigation into his own hands even though it will shake up city politics and might cause him to become real dead real fast. He falls quickly and deeply in love with a woman who may or may not ultimately do him wrong, falls in lust with another woman from the opposite end of the social scale, and survives more double-crosses and near-death experiences than the reader can count. Still, he carries on, his mind on a combination of justice and vengeance, no matter how many people have to die for him to accomplish it. The descriptive language is dark, dreary, with a lurking undercurrent of menace. The dialogue is snappy, tight, almost violent without being excessively vulgar. The entire story, in fact, is tightly told. There are no padded scenes, no wasted moments. Everything propels plot and sets up character. Each reveal is perfectly timed, leading to the next, leading to the final reveal – and they all make sense, the clues are all right there to pick up as you go along.
The Last Stand, by comparison, is almost laconic. It clocks in at about 70 pages longer than A Bullet for Satisfaction, and Spillane not only takes his time getting to the big pay-off, he takes his time even clueing us in to what the real story is. There’s lots of set-up before the requisite twists and potential double-crosses. Despite some trappings, the story isn’t noir but rather “men’s pulp adventure via Clive Cussler.” As fits Spillane’s religion-based change of heart, there’s far less violence to be seen, and what is there is more damage to vehicles than to people (other than a well-placed sucker-punch or two). The setting is present day, on an unnamed Indian reservation in the southwest. The main characters are the tropes of a different kind of genre lit: the lonely white man who has everything except love, the Indian loner with a secret, the Indian’s lovely but unsurprisingly capable and headstrong sister. This is pulp adventure fiction writ modern and a bit bright and large compared to the dark intimacy of the noir story. Spillane still makes the desolate desert environment as much a character here as the dark small city streets and darker swampy outlands are in the previous story. But while the plot feels like classic Spillane, the longer story length works against the author. There’s a lag in the middle, several scenes that feel like their only purpose is to drag out the tension, and two subplots (the FBI’s hunt for a mysterious arrowhead and the local bruiser looking to rough up the main character over a woman) feel shoe-horned in. I think The Last Stand could have been forty pages shorter, with at least one less sub-plot, and been a much tighter and more exciting story. The dialogue attempts the usual Spillane snap but feels lifeless and repetitive compared to that of the story preceding. We get to know the three main characters well enough by the end thanks to the amount of time they spend together, but I’m not sure how well they get to know each other; the connections seem superficial at best. The potential and perceived bad-guys (gangsters and FBI agents and that big ol’ bruiser of a local who wants the lovely sister to be his own true love) remain personality-less cyphers until the last pages, more place-holders than actual threats. And the end, when it comes, feels a bit too abrupt after the twists and turns Spillane has put us through. The Last Stand is still a solid story, with a couple of riveting action scenes and some really cool ideas embedded along with some great descriptions of the desert. But ultimately, for me it’s just not as exciting as the older story (although your mileage may vary).
Spillane completists of course will flock to the book when it comes out, as they should. People who have read a bit of Spillane before, like me, may enjoy one story or the other even if they don’t enjoy both, and consider the cover price worth it either way. At the very least, in pairing these two stories under one cover Hard Case Crime and Max Allan Collins have given readers a chance to see how Spillane’s storytelling changed over the long span of his career. And to me, that alone is worth the cover price.