Book Review: The Body Lovers by Mickey Spillane

Title: The Body Lovers

Author: Mickey Spillane

Format: Paperback, Signet Books

Published: 1967

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When people talk about classic Private Eye writers, three usually bubble to the top.  It’s normally Dashiell Hammett for refining the classic ‘hard boiled’ detective, Raymond Chandler for bestowing upon the trench coated fedora wearing gumshoe the possibility of being a modern day knight, and then Mickey Spillane for giving a rough, balls to the wall, overtly violent edge to the PI character.  Of course, each has their signature character, Spillane’s being the tough as nails, very nearly psychopathic (according to some) Mike Hammer, ready to deliver death at a moment’s notice to those who deserve it.

‘The Body Lovers’ is the tenth Mike Hammer book in the series and a prime example of what I’ve said for sometime.  I think Mike Hammer gets a bum rap often from supposed experts in the Private Eye Fiction field and maybe even some fans.  Spillane’s Hammer is often, if not nearly always described as some sort of seething, angry monster walking on the edges of justice, ready to strike out at his own discretion with deadly violence against the depraved, be they threats against national security or near demons passing through humanity nearly unnoticed.  He is not seen as ever reaching the sophistication of sorts that Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe seems to be credited with from the first story forward, nor is he ever described as a multifaceted character, something that is normally always said about Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.

In ‘The Body Lovers’, Hammer happens onto a scared kid at a  construction site who has found a dead woman in a negligee.  Insistent to stay on the outside of this particular situation, Hammer ends up pulled in not only when links are drawn between this death and the alleged suicide of another woman previously, also found wearing a negligee, but also when a con Mike sent up the river sends him a message and hires him to find his sister to make sure she’s not the third victim.

What unfolds, once Mike is involved, is a case that involves evil at all stages of society, from foreign dignitaries to the rich upper crust of New York down into the bowels of Greenwich Village and even into the ghetto.  No one is immune from the darkness that seems to be engulfing these women, nor are they protected from the justice seeking Mike Hammer.

This is top of the line Spillane.  Every word is keyed to illicit the perfect reaction, the phrasing is top notch, and the characters are cut from the hardest asphalt any city has to offer.  Mike is on full display here, along with Velda and Pat Chambers.  But, be warned. If You’re reading this to find the unhinged, rather over the top Mike Hammer that you read in ‘I, The Jury’ or ‘One Lonely Night’, then you’re likely to be disappointed. Yes, Hammer has his savage moments in ‘The Body Lovers’, his the rules be damned way of dealing with things.  But that’s not the core of Hammer in this book, not at all.

And why should it be? I think Mickey Spillane is often underrated as an author, especially when compared to others in his field.  Spillane’s Hammer grew and developed with each book, sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically.  Spillane revealed facets to this dark diamond, and Mike often exceeded, but sometimes regressed to the character at his most primal.  To say that Mike Hammer remained the same throughout each book and what changed was the story around him, which several have insinuated, is unfair to both the author and the character, as well as the reader.

‘The Body Lovers’ puts a more methodical, a more detective like Mike Hammer on stage for all to see, a man who doesn’t have to prove how violent he can be or out of control his methods are, because we know that already.  The fact that Mike is the center of most of the news stories when he just stumbles across the body at the beginning of the book establishes that he is good copy, that he has a reputation.  And although that is a recurrent theme in the book, Spillane does not feel like he has to prove to us that Mike can only be that.  We see Mike work a case from the ground up, after spending a few pages trying to not even be involved.  Mike’s street wise intelligence shines through much more in this book than does his reliance on shooting his way out of things that so many people associate with the character.  ‘The Body Lovers’ is definitely Spillane at not only the top of his Mike Hammer game, but showing his chops as a true author with every single page.

‘The Body Lovers’ is an easy five out of five pages.  Not a missed beat anywhere between the covers.

It’s also a fully loaded six out of six bullets.  Spillane balances violence, crime solving, and characterization like the truly professional author he was, and in my opinion, this is what makes him one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review- He Done Her Wrong: A Toby Peters Mystery by Stuart Kaminsky

Title: He Done Her Wrong: A Toby Peters Mystery

Author: Stuart Kaminsky

Format: Paperback edition by iBooks

Published: 2001

hedoneherwrong

If you’ve read my reviews, it’s no doubt that I am a massive fan of detective stories, particularly series.  It will also be evident to you, depending on how long you’ve been reading these, that I have already reviewed a Toby Peters book by Stuart Kaminsky, the one that precedes He Done Her Wrong in the series, by coincidence.  Even with that, though, this particular volume of Toby’s adventures left me less than satisfied, unlike almost every other Kaminsky book with Peters in it that I’ve read.

He Done Her Wrong opens with Toby in a room full of Mae Wests in 1942.  He has been invited to a party by the aging starlet who turned sarcasm into a career because West needs to get back a tell all manuscript that she’s penned from a blackmailer, who is to attend the party, a shindig that required all attendees to come as the hostess herself.  Toby encounters the bad guy, gets walloped pretty good, and the chase is then on. A chase that leads to two murders, Toby taking on protecting Cecil B. Demille as well, and even a short stint in an insane asylum for our hero.  Along the way, Toby uncovers family secrets, both of those he comes into contact with and even of his own family and takes quite a pounding, both physically and otherwise while doing it.

On the surface, this is a typical Stuart Kaminsky Toby Peters tale. Toby argues with his police officer brother, who is actually the person who involves Toby in this case, and he calls on his wonderful cast of friends, including the ever dapper little person Gunther Wherthman and the poetic giant Jeremy Butler, for help.  There is the requisite mix of classic Hollywood lore that Kaminsky is known for and Toby’s typical more bad than good luck is evident as well. Almost too much so, as a matter of fact.

He Done Her Wrong at best is just a typical Toby Peters tale.  Throughout the story, there is a heavy feeling that Kaminsky for some reason decided to put Toby through as much punishment as humanly possible, pitting him against a villain who seems to be one step ahead of him every step of the way. The twist at the end is good, but not enough to salvage the book from the feeling that this was simply and excuse to show in painful measures that Toby isn’t really that great at his job, but truly just does stumble through cases, as he is known for saying.

Another thing about this particular book that isn’t evident in other Peters stories is that Kaminsky spends pages on completely useless near interludes.  One of the running subplots in the Peters books is that Toby’s landlady, Mrs. Plaut, is writing her family history and she’s convinced Toby is an editor, so she delivers pieces of the book to him in different novels.  In He Done Her Wrong, Kaminsky actually spends 2-3 pages quoting Mrs. Plaut’s family treatise and this does nothing but slow down an already weak story.   He does something else similar when Toby is in the sanitarium, devoting pages to essentially a soliloquy that simply adds nothing to the action or the pacing of the tale at all.

He Done Her Wrong gets three out of five pages from me.  It is definitely one of the weakest entrants into the Toby Peters series and, if it’s the first one a reader picks up, will be the reason that reader doesn’t go any farther.  Something completists will want to read, but that’s about it.

This one gets three out of six bullets from me.  Read it if You haven’t and You like Toby. But don’t waste your time if you don’t already like the character from other better Kaminsky novels.

Book Review-Devil’s Garden by Ace Atkins

Title: Devil’s Garden

Author: Ace Atkins

Format: Paperback edition by Berkley

Published: 2010

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Before Ace Atkins became noted for being the writer chosen by Robert B. Parker’s estate to continue the adventures of Parker’s best known creation, Spenser, he was an accomplished novelist in his own right.  Although definitely a crime/mystery/noir author, Atkins made a career out of tackling some of the biggest crimes out of American history and turning them into knuckle cracking, action packed historical fiction novels. Fortunately for readers of his work, these are also the crime/mystery/noir novels he is known for.

Now, having made the claim above about the crimes Atkins tackles, please note.  Many of the murders, kidnappings, and other assorted evils he turns into great fiction are probably not events most people today recall or even are aware ever happened. These crimes, however, when committed, literally shook the foundation oftentimes of society as it was then.  If you believe that scandals as well as people being tried in the media before in court is a new thing, then Ace Atkins will gladly prove you wrong again and again.  Much of what Atkins tackles in his novels still applies to our modern era, even though they are set in the past, usually the early to mid 20th Century.  And it’s not that Atkins has to stretch or change things for the stories to be timely.  He actually simply tells a good story, using what is available to him.  It just so happens, as Devil’s Garden shows, yesterday and today have a lot more in common than most think.

Devil’s Garden focuses on the events leading to and the trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, beginning in September 1921.  A name lost to history except for its connection to this case, Fatty Arbuckle was the Hollywood comedy star of his day.  Known for playing outlandish characters and particularly making a name for himself in the Keystone Cops shorts, Arbuckle was at the top of his game and lived life as if he were truly king, throwing lavish parties, driving a Pierce-Arrow complete with bar and toilet around, and essentially doing whatever he wanted.  Until a party in a hotel in San Francisco in September 1921 ended with a little known starlet named Virginia Rappe dead and Arbuckle accused of crushing her to death with his enormous body.

With this as a premise, Atkins takes an aspect of the case and turns it into one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.  It turns out that Dashiell Hammett, the author of The Maltese Falcon and one of the leading masters of mystery fiction, often credited for perfecting the hard boiled detective, was assigned to the Arbuckle case. Hammett worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the late teens into the early 1920s and was one of the operatives assigned to help prove that Arbuckle did not have a part in Virginia Rappe’s death.

This book is really three stories in one, and Atkins delivers with all three of them.  First, it is about Hammett and the man he was behind and before the great books he wrote.  Atkins pulls no punches, writing Hammett as a real human being, husband,  tough guy, lunger (Hammett suffered from tuberculosis), and most notably a man struggling with himself as much as the world around him.  Atkins not only paints a complete and full picture of Hammett, but he also gives readers a believable, credible, and fallible hero to follow as Hammett weaves his way through the complicated tangles that made up the Arbuckle case.

Devil’s Garden is also a brilliantly executed courtroom thriller.  As much time is spent on the proceedings in the first Arbuckle trial as is on Hammett’s investigation of the case.  Not only does Atkins deliver fantastic interpretations of the principal players, but he also illustrates the actual courtroom action in a way that makes it as exciting as Hammett chasing down the mysterious ‘Dark Man’, a character integral to the book.

Lastly, this novel turns out to be a multifaceted love story.  Three couples, really, are at the center of the romance here- Hammett and his nurse wife Jose, Arbuckle and his actress wife Minta Durfee, and… well, let’s just say the third couple involved a movie actress and a man who single handedly, for better or worse, may be responsible for the state of journalism today.  As much betrayal, scandal, and heartfelt emotion is displayed by Atkins dissecting these three relationships as is done by any other focus in the book. And the beauty of all of it is Atkins takes all three of these ‘novels within the novel’, and ties them perfectly together into Devil’s Garden, a book that should be counted as a crime noir classic all its own.

Devil’s Garden is definitely a Five Pager for me.  And in my own parlance, this definitely gets six out of six bullets for me. It is a fully loaded gun that goes off and hits every target it aims at.

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