Saturday, March 19, 2016

MURDER NEVER KNOCKS by Max Allan Collins


 MURDER NEVER KNOCKS is such a superior example of Great American Pulp Fiction I suspect many readers will have the same problem I did. I couldn't stop reading it. 
    The set-up is masterful. A number of hit men attempt to kill Mike Hammer. Given their mission they seem odd choices for assassins. They look more like small city insurance men for one thing and their kill skills are no match for Hammer's. Their peculiarity lends the novel its first stroke of darkness. As if they are not quite human. A fantastical touch I  really enjoyed.
   What the hell is going on? This question propels the novel from first page to last. Not only are Hammer and Velda in mortal danger throughout the book so are a number of other people who seem to have no connection with each other or with the mystery assassin.
    The city scenes of violence stay with you from the savage death of a cabbie to a hit-and-run at a newsstand. They remind us how easily civilization can be violated.
    Hammer even picks up a security gig, something he rarely agrees to. A Hollywood producer's fiance, a beautiful woman Collins creates carefully and perfectly, is having a pre-wedding party. Given the swells who'll be there there will be a king's ransom worth expensive gifts. Hammer's hand (and gun) is the protection the producer needs. The portrait of the producer is spot on. Easy to imagine that Max used some of his own Hollywood experiences in creating the guy.
    The party is just one of several set pieces that demonstrate Collins' writerly gifts. Throughout the book he gives us indelible glimpses into the Manhattan of the mid-Sixties, even including the presence of then fashionable gossip columnist Hy Gardner who helps in sussing out some of the murky showbiz angles of the story. And this certainly includes an unexpectedly gentle scene with a young hippie woman Hammer comes to like.  
    But as I said it is the mystery--coupled with the shadowy violence--that drives the novel. The resolution stunned me. Though Manhattan is a long way from Agatha Christie's British countryside, I'd put the ending (and the motive for the killings) of MURDER NEVER KNOCKS in league with hers. It's that fresh and startling.

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