Mickey Spillane is still at it, so, raise one for indomitability

On Books

November 23, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

At 85, the guy's still writing and getting published; you've gotta give him something just for that. As a young man, he earned a living as a trampoline artist with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, a department store clerk, a comic-book story writer, a lifeguard, and a flight instructor for the U.S. Army Air Corps, and later a movie actor and a television pitchman. All that experience gave him the stuff to liven up a story. His previous 26 books have sold at least 140 million copies, including translations into 14 languages, and have been fashioned into seven movies and four television series; you can be pretty sure somebody out there likes him.

He was a good friend of Ayn Rand, the late archpriestess of libertarianism, who was a huge fan of his work; there's got to be some substance there, even if it's weird.

He's been a devoted Jehovah's Witness for 50 years, carries a pocket Bible and does door-to-door missionary work and has often attended divine services five times a week; you've gotta believe.

So here comes Mickey Spillane, who lives in Murrells Inlet, S.C., with his wife, and has just produced number 27, Something's Down There (Simon & Schuster, 275 pages, $24).

It starts right off with bright, fresh sentences, good but not flashy sensory data. His brisk writing moves swiftly and puts you at the scene -- on a 40-foot, beat-up fishing boat moored at an island in the Bermuda Triangle, in the Gulf Stream on a hot July day.

Mako -- yes, as in mako shark -- Hooker, retired both as U.S. Army colonel and as a senior CIA operative, and his hired Carib boatman, Billy Bright, sail off in response to a radioed plea for rescue from another fishing boat that's been attacked from below. They get there. Part of the bottom of its hull has been bitten out, by some mysterious force -- the sixth such boat to be "et." There are 6-inch tooth marks on the damaged hull. Everybody's scared trembling of "the eater."

(In case you are old enough to remember and now are wondering about Mike Hammer -- which would mean you are getting right along -- he never turns up. Although there's some gunplay and an easy death or two, this is no bloodbath.)

Spillane is a master of detail -- the magnification and focal length of a pair of binoculars, the exact footage of a boat, intricate descriptions of buildings and grounds as well as the hardware of boats and piers, electronic gear and coral reefs. He knows a barnacle when he sees one -- and makes the reader see it too. He presents good dialog and dialect.

Billy is saving film canisters. Mako speaks up:

" 'Why, Billy?'

" 'I don't know. Keep good things maybe. You tell me good things come in little package boxes. Someday I get good things to keep.' Mako gave him a sidewise glance and Billy added, 'I know. I am one crazy Carib.'

" 'I didn't say that.'

" 'Sar, you think very loud.' "

Amid all this buddy talk, a local guy, a "Company" implant, Charlie Berger, reports that eight apparently very old mines have drifted up on the shore of a nearby uninhabited island. Lots of World War I and II naval action happened around here. The mines are assumed to have been released by corrosion of crating and binding from a U.S. Naval ship that had gone down long ago.

It turns out that the CIA, the U.S. government, secretly are deeply concerned about the reports of the undersea terror. This is presumably because of an assumption that the mines were U.S. weapons and the damage and fear spread by them will damage relations with the independent Caribbean nations there and nearby.

The central female character is Judy Durant, the beautiful, talented daughter of a very successful banker and business developer who is now dead. Hooker recognizes Judy's late father's partner as an old Mafioso from Brooklyn, though he now affects the name and presence of a slick, cosmopolitan venture capitalist. All of Spillane's characters have pasts, many or even most of them intersecting in the worlds of organized crime, intelligence operations or international financial intrigue.

Inevitably, Hooker gets dragged into the swirling, sinister conflicts and undersea dangers. "He had figured himself to be out of that business now, but 'now' hadn't lasted very long at all. He almost had it made, retirement in a lush area, his own boat and suddenly a lovely woman. And in one shot the meteor had landed on his head and he was back in the jumbled mass of intrigue that kept this old-world system seemingly turned upside down."

It rollicks on. Contrasts tend to be too easy: The rich are super-rich, the islanders a simple, superstitious lot living off easy catches; the threats all are very, very deadly. Still, I found it gripping. The "eater" haunts the local waters, and evokes a crescendo of anxiety among locals and outsiders alike.

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