Detective fiction has changed a lot over the years. Some crime/mystery novels no longer even feature detectives or police as a part of their main ensemble, instead preferring to let a sharp-eyed civilian unravel the story. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote come to mind on that score.
Older detective fiction can be especially intriguing to the modern reader, as it offers a glimpse into social dynamics long outgrown. Mickey Spillane – and by association his fictional detective Mike Hammer – lived and worked from 1918 through to 1960 (the date of publication of his first novel) where this particular book is set. The cultural and political tension of this era is quite racially charged, and the book makes no attempt to shy away from problematic terms like “negro” or “commie”.
Another cultural issue the book faithfully reproduces is the ‘femme fatale’ figure – women who use their (always heterosexual) sexuality as a weapon. Having read the somewhat prequel The Girl Hunters shortly before picking up Complex 90, I have to say that Collins’ reproduction of Spillane’s artistic style and iconic characters is done both deftly and faithfully. (Spillane passed away in 2006, so this book, the seventh published since his death, was completed by his friend and literary executor Max Allan Collins.) The same colours and tones fill the book, and it has the same noirish grittiness. Hardcore fans won’t be disappointed.
The mystery unravels quite skilfully – these books are more about espionage and political machinations than they are about the street-level, garden-variety thefts and homicides that many other of its ilk choose to feature.
Though written in first person, the reader is privy to little of Hammer’s revelations as he grapples with socialites, FBI and KGB agents alike to reveal the shadowy figures responsible for the events he is once again caught up in. This novel is very much about Hammer versus politics – both American and Soviet.
A mundane bodyguard gig takes Hammer to Cold War-torn Russia, where he is almost immediately taken in by the KGB. Hammer is annoyed but not surprised that they accuse him of being a spy, in an era where everybody seemed to dabble in espionage. Both the genre and the series’ history lead Hammer and the reader to suspect foul play from all parties, so Hammer decides that rather than waiting on his own government to ride to the rescue, he’s going to do it his own way. He escapes quite quickly to America, leaving behind a rather alarming (and perhaps unrealistic) body count. You can read this book without knowing too much about the Cold War era, but I think people with at least a passing knowledge of history will definitely get more out of it.
The book starts off with Hammer incarcerated on American soil, with a gang of military and politicos wanting a damn good explanation as to why he decided to initiate a small massacre in Russia when they are already at loggerheads with the US. His subsequent trip, capture and escape are told by Hammer to his government ally Rickerby. After the events of The Girl Hunters, the pseudo-prequel to this novel, Hammer’s suspicion towards his own government and authorities is definitely justified.
Whether due to his arrogance or whatever choices in the past his P.I. career led him to make, he has few friends left in high places. Hammer is very much an anti-hero type. He has his own code of conduct and doesn’t like being played with. He’s willing to do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing to do, and he’s not above vigilante justice (in fact, it’s exactly kind of his thing). His realisation that he’s stuck in a political game is quite understandably violent, and the unsympathetic reaction of his own government puts his hackles up.
Where the book falls down for me, and the reason that I was unable to enjoy the storytelling and cultural insights, is the book’s unwillingness to deal with the stereotypes that hold onto its supporting cast like ticks to a dog.
Having a femme fatale is central to any good noir tale. It’s a staple of the genre and can create a wonderfully complex, intriguing character whose true alignment remains a mystery for a great deal of the story. However, take out the excessive physical descriptions of the women in Complex 90 and they could all pass as being the same character. None of them talk or act any differently to one another, and they all serve the same base function. That is: sex appeal. Present as usual are Hammer’s philandering ways, despite his being united with the love of his life, Thelma. His dalliance with a Russian translator results in her dying a couple of chapters after her introduction. A brilliant female scientist makes several appearances throughout the book as well. Of course, Hammer is far more impressed with her body than he is with her brain.
I understand the trope that women are attracted to men who are a little bit dangerous – that trope has survived the test of time with a large amount of stubbornness – but having every woman that Hammer meets literally throw themselves at him, sometime mere hours after meeting him? The first time it happens, it’s a little strange, but excusable. The second time gets me raising an eyebrow a little bit. The third time results in me putting the book down and wondering if I’d imagined the repeated encounters in The Girl Hunters in which Hammer says to other characters (and himself) how out of shape he is, how you can tell he’s been living in the gutter for seven years and how he’s not ‘big’ like he used to be. Faithful reproduction of writing style, socio-cultural accuracy, adherence to genre – I don’t really care what label you slap on it, it’s just bad characterisation and horribly off-putting to a large section of readers.
There are many, many ways to create good femme fatale characters – and we’re not even shooting for complex, here! You can also replicate the deeply sexist culture of the pre-1970s without resorting to making all your female characters plot devices with breasts. The amount of time in this book devoted to describing each female character’s physical appearance – especially in regards to breasts, lips, and legs – just became gross. Each re-appearance came tagged with more textual leering and at times I just wanted to look away. Sadly, you can’t do that when you’re reading.
As a devotee of crime and mystery novels, I wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, I felt so relieved when I finished reading it I couldn’t enjoy the reveal at the end, or even the vigilante justice being dealt out to the bad guys by Hammer and his supposed partner Velda. I had absolutely no reason to take Velda seriously as a person, let alone a one-time P.I. You can sympathise with characters you don’t like, but you can’t empathise with characters you don’t believe.