The Consummata (2011) is one of the first new releases from Hard Case Crime, the modern noir publisher that's just returned from a year-long hiatus. The Consummata has also been on a hiatus of sorts - pulp master Mickey Spillane began the book in the late 1960s but never finished it. He left this manuscript (amongst others) with Max Allan Collins, who edited Spillane's work and then completed the story.
The Consummata is a sequel to The Delta Factor (1967), Mr. Spillane's first (and, for forty years, only) book featuring Morgan the Raider. Morgan is a bit of a gray figure. He steals (a lot), but only from the wealthy and corrupt. He kills (a lot), but only in self-defense. He's hunted by the government (a lot), but he's not anti-American. He is, in short, the perfect anti-hero.
The book picks up almost immediately after where its predecessor lets off and throws the reader straight into the action. Morgan is scampering around Miami trying to elude federal agents. He was involved in a forty-million dollar heist in The Delta Factor and the agents would love to rope him in and find the money. Morgan doesn't actually know where it is. This helps give him the moral high ground - he's not the bad guy - but the men in black suits refuse to listen.
Morgan is just about to get nabbed by the Powers that Be when he's saved by a group of Cuban immigrants. After a few tense hours hiding in a tiny storage space, Morgan spills back out into the light of day - only to learn that his rescuers weren't acting out of pure anti-governmental charity. They know who Morgan is and, after a few bottles of beer and some ropa vieja, they're hoping he'll do them a favour. Morgan's new friends are part of an anti-Castro resistance group, desperately saving their pennies and nickels to help overthrow Castro and reunite them with their families. Unfortunately, the young man they appointed as treasurer turned out to be a rat. He's absconded with their money - $75,000 - and they'd like it back.
For a man of Morgan's unique talents, this should be a relatively simple case. Naturally, it isn't. Morgan's new base of operations is an expensive brothel, one where the madam is an old enemy and the various escorts all have their own mysterious (and often political) ambitions. Plus, as Morgan soon learns, brothels have a tendency to create their own distractions. Furthermore, people keep dying. Jaimie Helaquez (the bad guy) has managed to perforate three previous repo men, and, in his attempts to throw Morgan off the trail, is hacking down the gentle people of Miami willy-nilly.
The government are still looming about in the background - and Morgan is astounded to learn that they're not just there for him. Apparently this Helaquez character has earned the attention of higher powers, hinting there's far more to the affair than the stack of cash. Morgan scampers around this game of espionage "Marco Polo". Every now and then, a spy sticks his or her head out of the water, only to be tossed back into the pool.
The Cuban Revolution and the decade that followed it made great grist for the noir mill. Here is the grim spectre of Communism in our backyard. The Bay of Pigs was like an elaborate plot out of a thriller already, with its bizarre triangulation of Mafia, CIA and revolutionaries. Throw in the less bizarre trauma of the Missile Crisis (and Kennedy's assassination) and the literary obsession with our island neighbours became, if not explicable, at least a little more understandable. The Consummata paints good guys and bad guys and helps rationalise the American relationship with both. It isn't the most progressive understanding of the Cuban political scene, but it is a digestible one, and it paints a picture that keeps Americans in the foreground. Morgan stumbles into a world where two non-American factions are using the US as a battleground. This is, both jingoistically and thematically, unacceptable. By inserting Morgan into the picture, the political skirmish is re-framed as something under American control. And, as the plot unfolds, the struggle between the Cuban factions is scratched away, showing how it was an American interest all along. Finally, that is removed to show that the entire messy episode was really about Morgan from start to finish. When reduced to these terms, it feels a little silly - but this is Mr. Collins and Mr. Spillane capturing the contemporary (to 1967) vibe and, in a strange way, providing some catharsis.
And a messy catharsis it is. Although I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, Mr. Spillane was never my favorite of the noir writers. The Mike Hammer books, at least, always felt too visceral and gooey - I preferred the more distant prose of Raymond Chandler or (especially) Dashiell Hammett. From the later batch, I was always stuck on John D. MacDonald. Although Travis McGee had his own distinctive gooeyness, it expressed itself more as emo, stream-of-consciousness wibbling. Mike Hammer was too hard and too aggressive, to sure of himself and his rightness.
Morgan, however, is a bit more my style. He's still Hammer-hard; a stone-cold killer with a dame in every, er, room (given his accommodation in The Consummata), but in-between the stabbin' and the sexin', he's a slightly more cerebral hero. He does, however, err on the side of the ubermensch. Rather than puzzling things out, Morgan has strange instinctual tinglings that lead him from one place to another. He runs on his gut which is... fine... but that's an unfair disadvantage over the reader. Morgan rarely rationalises his hunches, which is disappointing.
However The Consummata isn't really about detailed detective work. Morgan strides from place to place, with vital clues surfacing in a timely and linear fashion (including a safe deposit key that arrives on something close to a silver platter). It isn't about the substance of the mystery, it is about its style. Morgan is the clever, outside the law, lone wolf, super American and, when it comes down to it, is a lot of fun to travel in his wake.
The Consummata does follow on quite closely from The Delta Factor, which can be a little distracting. Many of the characters are significant because of their role in the previous book and, indeed, the culmination of The Consummata is tied in closely with Morgan's earlier escapades. Although the authors include enough exposition to keep the reader from getting lost, the book is more a sequel than a standalone. (Mr. Collins, presumably, sets up a third book as well.) I don't mind this structure per se (I'm a huge fan of the evolution of the Chester Drum series from individual adventures to a single meta-thriller), but it is certainly worth noting coming in. As with the 'detection' portions of The Consummata, the best approach is to relax and enjoy the show. Even if it doesn't all make sense immediately, the lead character has charisma and the special effects are great.
By Jared (@pornokitsch), who would also fight assassins for cold beer and a plate of ropa vieja