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Originally published in 1970, “Survival Zero” is the eleventh Mike Hammer novel in the series and the fifth book of the 1960’s-era Mike Hammer which began with “The Girl Hunters” in 1962. After this novel, Spillane took another long break in his Hammer series, not publishing another novel in the series until 1989’s “The Killing Man.”
Like every single one of the Mike Hammer novels he wrote, “Survival Zero” is filled with top-notch writing, breathtaking descriptions, and a solid plot. The Mike Hammer series, which began in 1947 features the world’s most hardboiled detective, the tough, take-no-prisoners guy who doesn’t want justice to take a backseat to political niceness or legal technicalities. At one point in the book, he advises folks in the bad neighborhood to stay under the lights, “and carry a roll of quarters in your fist. The damn liberals haven’t outlawed money as a deadly weapon yet.” In a world where many heroes had become morally compromised and gray rather than black and white, Hammer has always stood for justice and rightness and this novel is no exception to that rule. As far as police go, Hammer explains that they are “in a tough, rough, underpaid racket with their lives on the line every minute of the day. They get slammed by the public, sappy court decisions and crusading politicians, but somehow they get the job done.”
In typical Spillane fashion, this novel starts with a violent description of a scene Hammer comes upon: “They had left him for dead in the middle of a pool of blood in his own bedroom, his belly slit open like gaping barn doors, the hilt of the knife wedged against his sternum. But the only trouble was that he had stayed alive somehow, his life pumping out, managing to knock the telephone off the little table and dial me.” Most authors would take half a book getting to this point. But, here, Spillane gives it to the reader straight. Within the first six words, you have a corpse (or a near-corpse) and a description of the condition of that near-corpse guaranteed to wake the reader up out of whatever daydream the reader is about to fade into. Quite often, Hammer doesn’t really have a paying client and, in this case, Lippy Sullivan isn’t in any position to offer any fee. Lippy is a two-time loser with nothing to his name or no one who really gives a damn about him. Hammer knew him from way back in school, but he was called and its up to him to mete out justice even when no one else cares.
The descriptions in this book of the people inhabiting Hammer’s world are first-class all the way, taking the reader into a hardboiled, nasty world. The superintendent of the apartment is a “fat-faced guy with the beery breath” squinting up at Hammer. Velda, Hammer’s secretary and fiancé, is “curled up like a sleek cat at the end of the sofa, all lovely long legs that the miniskirt couldn’t begin to hide and a neckline it didn’t try to.” She had “that silky pageboy of autumn hair framing a face that was much too pretty for anybody’s good.”
In the background of this search for Lippy’s killer is another story lurking, one of a Soviet spy ring and biological terror that seems far more modern than the publication date of this book. Although obviously there is a link between the two stories, the focus of the book is the search for Lippy’s killer and where that search takes Hammer. On the way, Hammer encounters hippies, hookers, street beggars with various con games, and a movie star “prettier than any centerfold picture in a girlie magazine” and with a “crazy navel with the eyelashes painted around it like an oversexed Cyclops.”
This book is terrific all the way through from beginning to end. Highly recommended.