Carte Blanche and Kiss Her Goodbye

CARTE BLANCE
By Jeffrey Deaver
KISS HER GOODBYE
By Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Things were simpler in the mid-twentieth century, a time when action novels starred men who were men, and women who loved them for it. Two heroes in particular – the American private eye Mike Hammer (whose first appearance was in 1947’s I, the Jury), and British secret agent James Bond (his debut was 1953’s Casino Royale) – went on to become immensely successful and long-lived franchises, both on page and screen.

It seems impossible that Hammer and Bond can still be going strong in a world that has gone through the rigours of political correctness and laughed at Austin Powers movies. But here we are in 2011 with both heroes still saving the world, killing bad guys, and (of course) getting the girl.

While surprising, there is really no secret to their success. Genre fiction doesn’t mess with a winning formula. Whoever happens to be writing their books, or whatever actor plays them on the big screen, fans know what to expect from these guys. In the case of a James Bond story this means exotic locations, high-tech toys, monomaniacal supervillains, and sexy girlfriends. Jeffrey Deaver, who is the fifth author to continue where Ian Fleming left off, hits for the cycle with Carte Blanche, a contemporary re-set of the franchise that has a fresh young James Bond jetting about the world trying to stop a sinister waste management tycoon from unleashing Operation Gehenna. Armed for the information age, he gets to play with an impressive array of wireless gadgets while still finding time to flirt with bombshells like Ophelia Maidenstone and (are you ready for this?) Felicity Willing.

It’s a slick, suspenseful story that moves at a rapid pace and won’t disappoint Bond fans. As much attention is given to detailing the tech specs of various weapons as to Bond’s consumption of the best house wines and caviar (“beluga, of course”). Throughout, Deaver is respectful of his source – the book is even dedicated to Fleming, “the man who taught us we could still believe in heroes” – and nicely captures Bond’s essential boyishness: the sense that no matter how high the stakes or how much danger he may be in, he’s still having fun.

If Bond is a Bentley Continental GT coupé with “supple black hide” interior, turbo W12 engine, and a “silken, millisecond-response Quickshift gearbox,” then Mike Hammer is a Sherman tank. While Bond practices the “tradecraft” of international espionage, Hammer likes to take the more direct approach: asking questions first, yes, but definitely shooting later.

Max Allan Collins is Hammer creator Mickey Spillane’s handpicked literary heir, and Kiss Her Goodbye is his fourth novel in the series. It is also a sort of collaboration, constructed partially out of notes for a novel that Spillane left behind. As a result the book is not a modern re-set but rather a throwback, returning us to a dirty, 1970s New York City where the action revolves around discos, drugs, and Nazi diamonds.

Even given the retro setting, Hammer is an anachronism. Walking into one nightspot wearing his trademark porkpie hat people recognize him as a living legend, “a cartoon character come to life.” But though a bit older and feeling his age, he is, emphatically, “still Mike Hammer” and that means finding out who killed his mentor and getting some payback. Along the way the bodies pile up (mainly courtesy of Hammer’s Colt .45 with speedloader), and a host of women – also known as babes, dames, dolls, fillies, and skirts – throw themselves at our hero’s feet. These bimbos are just wallpaper however, since there is only one gal woman enough to satisfy Mike Hammer and that’s his curvaceous former assistant Velda. Now there’s a gal capable of making even the hardest of hard men wax Shakespeherian. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but Velda has “a mouth that fed your hunger even as it encouraged you to sup some more.”

As with Deaver, Collins is thoroughly respectful of his original. It’s more a self-conscious trip down memory lane than the Bond book, with less art in the telling, but that’s not something you can hold against it. The point of franchise fiction, like franchise food, is to give the customer exactly the kind of experience they’ve come to expect. And you have to admit there’s something comforting in seeing these larger-than-life characters from yesteryear serenely cruising into the troubled waters of the twenty-first century novel. How can this be the end of the book if Bond and Hammer are still around?

Notes:
Review first published August 13, 2011.