Survival...Zero! Paperback – Jan 11 1990
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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.
A dying Lippy Sullivan called Mike Hammer from his rooming house. Mike arrived and called the police. There are no prime suspects (Chapter 1). Why did someone kill this nobody? Mike continues to investigate Lippy’s life. Lippy had been a pickpocket. They find many wallets in the garbage (Chapter 2). Mike returns the stolen goods to their owners. A TV reporter tells about the subway victim and his suspicions that it was caused by the government’s germ warfare research (Chapter 3). Mike is taken to an office building on Madison Avenue. He is told about a plan for germ warfare. Later he goes to see Heidi Anders and discovers a fact about her (Chapter 4). Mike returns the stolen wallets. He tries to find out the names of pickpockets who may have known Lippy. Two men were searching Lippy’s room, Velda’s arrival saves Mike’s life (Chapter 5).
Mike gets a partial description of the two men who attacked him. A convoy of Army trucks pass in the street. Mike talks to Eddie Dandy about Woody Ballinger’s racket (Chapter 6). Officials are concerned about that dead man in the subway. When Mike returns home with Renée there is a surprise in his flat (Chapter 7)! Mike wants to find Velda now. There is a credible threat from bacteriological warfare. Mike gets a mug shot of the pickpocket he’s looking for (Chapter 8). Mike visits Heidi. He hasn’t heard from Velda. He goes to see Renée. Background noise provides a clue to where that pickpocket is hiding (Chapter 9). Mike gets bad news from Eddie Dandy, who is kept in his office now. He goes to the area by Columbus Avenue and a Hundred-tenth Street to look around.
Mike learns about two men who went into an abandoned and condemned building (Chapter 10). Velda meets Mike, who finds four dead men there! He leaves to visit Caesar and talk to his two customers. Mike goes to that hotel and finds his quarry: Beaver won’t talk. But Mike finds a hidden sheet of paper that the killer missed (Chapter 11). Mike tells Eddie Dandy the facts in that hidden sheet of paper. Then he goes to that luxury hotel to pay an unexpected visit to those six men. The killer of Lippy dies by his own knife, another man isn’t fast enough with his gun. Mike discovers the head of this operation and his girlfriend. [Were you surprised?] Mike tells them that vaccine doesn’t make them immune, and they take their last resort. There is one last desperate action but it fails (Chapter 12).
This is another story that traps the reader’s interest until the last page. Spillane’s stories seem to grow better with age and experience. Mike Hammer’s Anger Management problem continues; is that a gimmick to hold the reader’s interest? It seems like a comic book cartoon at time, a style different from the stories of Hammett and Chandler, which dealt with smaller problems than the possible extermination of all life in this world due to a government’s flawed policies. A government is only as good (or bad) as its Ruling Class, the powers that control every government.
This book has Hammer involved in a Tiger Mannish plot involving a potential doomsday scenario courtesy of biological weapons hidden by the Russians across the U.S. decades earlier. Meanwhile, Hammer also has other fish to fry: getting revenge on whoever killed his buddy at the book’s opening. Main squeeze Velda makes an appearance, as does police captain/Hammer enabler Pat Chambers, who seems to have totally forgotten all about his murderous feud with Hammer over Velda (see The Girl Hunters and The Snake).
Plot is never the main reason for reading Spillane books, at least not for me, and trying to figure the one here out could drive you bonkers. Just go with it.
On the other hand, you do get Spillane’s totally over-the-top tough guy posturing through Hammer’s interactions with friend and foe alike. There’s also his hilariously total mastery of babes, to the point where one drop-dead gorgeous star of stage and screen is willing to cold turkey her nasty heroin habit if will bring just one kind word from the big lug.
If Spillane is your guilty pleasure, Survival…Zero won’t disappoint. If you are coming to him for the first time, this should serve as a good into as any, though I would definitely recommend you check out some of the early Hammer books from the late 40s and early 50s as well.
IN HIS STYLE, INCLUDING THE ENDING. I WAS HAPPY TO SEE SOMEONE FINISHED HIS STORIES FOR HIM. I READ ALL 7 OR 8 OF HIS BOOKS IN THE FIFTIES.