I’ve noticed that many of the recent “rediscovery” publications from Hard Case Crime are older novels packaged with a extra short story or two. Whether I really liked (Robert Silverberg’s Blood on the Mink), disliked (Lawrence Block’s Borderline) or have been mostly indifferent about the featured novel, the extra content (always from the writers’ early efforts) has always been worthwhile for the added perspective. This is definitely the case for “A Bullet for Satisfaction,” the 1950s-era novella included in the volume containing Mickey Spillane’s long-unpublished final novel, The Last Stand (2018).
For those familiar with Spillane’s famously two-fisted detective novels — my only experience with his work had been the infamous I, the Jury — “A Bullet for Satisfaction” could be described as the Spillane you would expect. Captain Rod Dexter, a tough homicide police detective, is called to the best hotel in his city to investigate a murder. A local politician has been shot in the face with a large caliber bullet, making it not only a killing but a message. Already suspicious of the local crime syndicate, Dexter heads out to the victim’s wife and her sister, and after a brief interview he’s convinced that both the gangsters and their connected District Attorney are wrapped up in the business.
One problem for Dexter is that the crooked D.A., Frank Graham, is in a position of power within the city, particularly over the high command of the police force. Having managed to stay at arm’s length from him in the past, Dexter is forced to confront him about his relationship with the victim, Mayes Rogers. Dexter handles this situation with all the tact of a typical Spillane hero:
When he saw my face, he made a nervous gesture with one hand, and gave me a broad smile that showed off teeth so white they had to be caps or choppers.
“Captain Dexter, just the man I hoped to see today! How’s the Rogers case coming? Any developments?”
I took a chair opposite him. “Getting hotter all the time. Finding things out every day.”
His smile curdled and he squirmed in his chair, but he managed, “I appreciate you keeping me up to date. I hope I’ll be prosecuting Mayes’ murderer one day soon.”
“You and Rodgers were good friends, I take it?”
“You even got together socially, I understand. Went to parties together and such.”
His smile recovered, but his forehead frowned. “Time to time, sure. What are you driving at, Rod?”
I settled back in my chair and stared at him for a good long ten seconds, then said, “I’m driving at you being one of those rotten apples we hear so much about, Graham. You know — in the barrel?”
His fat face reddened and his neck muscles bulged. “What the hell–”
“Spare me the indignation, Graham. You might be a big man to some, but to me you’re nothing but a fat slob with your hand in the till. You know, I’m torn between throwing you in the can or just messing you up, real pretty.”
This exchange ends up costing Dexter his job, but he carries on anyway, with perhaps less restraints on his behavior than if he still had his badge. The various associates of Rodgers, especially his sister-in-law Ginger, cooperate with his fact-finding and help him avoid the worst of the gangsters’ attention when they can. As pointed out in this review, Spillane has packed a lot of tough talk and swift action (as well as come customary hanky-panky) into the story, which could have easily been a novel twice its length. I imagine the editorial efforts of Max Allan Collins, the present caretaker of Spillane’s legacy, helped make “A Bullet for Satisfaction” as readable as it is. That said, digesting this story requires both the ability to suspend disbelief for Dexter’s successes (he should have been dead on several occasions, or at least put into the hospital) and swallow the brutality of a scene when the criminals catch up with a woman who turns on them.
While “Bullet” may be thought of as typical Spillane, the late novel The Last Stand shows that the author had changed much in his writing since the early 1950s. TLS replaces the bluster and cruelty of a Mike Hammer novel with a more cerebral mystery combined with a impressively patient buildup of tension.
Amateur pilot Joe Gillian has experienced an electrical failure in his WWII-era plane and has made an unplanned landing somewhere in the dusty plain of a Southwestern Indian reservation. Being stranded in a desert without any sort of reasonable transportation to civilization, and out of radio range for calling help, must be no picnic, but Joe takes the situation stoically and remembers his cooler of beer:
Joe climbed up on the wing, tugged a beer out of its wrapping and grunted approvingly. Lady Lite was still plenty cold. He popped the top with a quick pull and was about to take that first beautiful swig.
A voice said, “You happen to have another one of those, buddy?”
He turned slowly. There was a ran over by the rocks, sitting where Joe had been just a minute before.
“You an Indian?” Joe said. He stepped off the wing.
“Betcha tail I’m one. Don’t I look like one?”
“Not like they have on TV.”
“Hell, those guys only show up at the ceremonies. Didn’t you ever read Tony Hillerman’s yarns about the red men?”
“So how about that beer?”
Joe nodded. “Come on down.”
Joe and his new friend Pete — the pair form a bond while trekking their way out of trouble together — discover a peculiar arrowhead in the sand. As they make their way on foot to Pete’s dwelling, they converse about the way profiteers scour the reservation for artifacts. Figurines and jewelry are harvested, usually by local indigenous scavengers, for sale to private collectors. Joe and Pete discover that one of the older scavengers has been beaten up for information regarding a cache of almost priceless material, possibly of Aztec origin. They then contrive to stop a well-funded attempt to raid this collection, chasing traditional sleuth-style clues as well as hints encoded in the local folklore.
Incidentally, the long quote pulled from TLS was the first extended conversation of the story, just like the quote I pulled from “A Bullet for Satisfaction” above. It demonstrates how far Spillane changed the pace of his storytelling, and how much more believable he portrays the male-to-male sizing-up process through dialogue in the novel.
There is also a cautiously treated subplot involving Joe and Pete’s attractive sister Running Fox, which arouses the jealousy of a local thug named “Big Arms.” Joe demonstrates the character of a Spillane hero in showing no fear of “Big Arms,” despite their difference in age and size. The moment of reckoning between the two is used to build an expectation of violence, so much so that there’s not as much pressure to manufacture a feeling of menace out of the other villains (a rich profiteer and his associates, plus a couple of prying federal agents) in the story. This is to the novel’s benefit, as the reasons behind the arrowhead’s potential value is frankly implausible and takes on the traits of a macguffin.
That complaint aside, there are plenty of colorful side characters and setting details that form a rich picture of this corner of the American Southwest. TLS is an entertaining, evocative novel that contains more parts that work that parts that don’t. It represents a significant evolution of style and pacing from the likes of I, the Jury and “A Bullet for Satisfaction.” Collins and Hard Case Crime put together a worthwhile volume of heretofore undiscovered works from both ends of this important genre writer’s career. 6/10.