Mickey Spillane -- at it once again

November 24, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,sun staff

"Black Alley," by Mickey Spillane, Dutton. 234 pages. $23.95.

Question! Can Mike Hammer hack it in the '90s? I mean, with female sleuths to the left of him and 20-minute eggs to the right, does anybody care about this throwback stuck in the middle with Velda?

Answer: Spillane does and his passion is almost - almost - enough to propel this time-worn series forward.

The time is now. At least, it appears to be now, because there is talk of computers and a transfer of power from the old Mafia dons to the next generation, and the elusive treasure at the center of the story is a mind-boggling $89 billion.

Hammer is coming out of a coma after a bloody gun fight, a nice touch. A few bonus points for irony here.

"Black Alley" is at its best in the opening scenes, as Hammer recovers under the tender touch of a disgraced doc, an alcoholic who just happened to be there for the bloody shoot-out on New York City's West Side docks, in which an old Don was almost assassinated by his own son. Hammer killed the son, but not before catching a few bullets in his side - which, he explains later, has messed up his thinking.

"The temperature was six below zero and it kept me from dying on the spot because the blood coagulated and clotted in ugly smears of cloth and skin and the pain hadn't started yet, so when the little fat guy who saw my eyes open and still bright pulled me away from the carnage he was almost in the shock I was going into. Nobody would listen to him. He was a drunk. I was nearly dead."

It's easy prose to mock. The fact is, heartless youngsters such as myself probably read and saw Mickey Spillane parodies before reading the real thing. But he is a pro when it comes to pacing.

Even with a nasty wound in his side, Mike Hammer is strong enough to carry a reader piggy-back through this efficient little story about the mob, money and matrimony. (Yeah, matrimony. Would you believe Hammer and Velda are engaged? And that he's decided to opt for abstinence? Of course, Velda's not wild about the idea, but Hammer steadfastly protects his virtue. Seriously.)

Is it a problem that Hammer hasn't aged much since his debut in 1948? Not for me, but the age issue is obviously on Spillane's mind here, resulting in some true head-scratchers. Hammer's old army buddy, for example, is described as "[s]till young, but almost of retirement age." Look, I accept that Mike Hammer can't be in AARP, or haggling over a senior citizen discount at the dry cleaners, but he can't be young, either.

In the end, the search for the $89 billion doesn't insult a reader's intelligence and Hammer's engagement to Velda turns out as one would expect. (Hint: Don't get stressed out about what to buy them for a wedding gift). The writing ranges from admirable to goofy - "His hardness flushed his face." I've re-read this sentence perhaps 20 times, and all I come up with is the image of a Mafia don with a handle on his forehead.

In the end, the extraordinary fact about the Mike Hammer series is not that it has lasted 48 years, but that Spillane has remained PTC faithful to the same publisher during that period. Now that's a remarkable story. But you wouldn't necessarily want to read a novel about it.

Laura Lippman is a feature writer at The Sun who write frequently about publishing. Her first mystery novel, "Baltimore Blues," will be published next year by Avon Books.

` Pub Date: 11/24/96

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