I was no Mike Hammer either or even Shell Scott, but living alone with just a carpet to talk to at night I began a long and enduring love affair with two unlikely men: two word mangling gumshoes who used metaphors like shrapnel and lived in a haze of bourbon and dames.
I think it was Gareth Williams living in the flat below who brought home the first ‘Shell Scott’ book written by a man who must have dreamt books in his sleep. Richard S. Prather was one prolific guy. I knew something was wrong when a wild, hysterical guffaw hit the house. And so I was introduced to Shell Scott. What wasn’t there to like with lines like:
Constanza Carmocha was unarmed – that is, she didn’t have a gun. She didn’t need one either. She had all the weapons that have ruined men from time immemorial – or time immoral…She was surrounded by a guy who resembled a shaved ape and looked as though he could pick himself up with one hand.
Death is just around the coroner when your name is Shell Scott and you’re a private detective with nose for trouble and an eye for dames. The action began in a high class mortuary – the kind where you can die now and pay later (and I was going to be next) Me, Shell Scott, who never even so much as squashed a bug who didn’t have it coming.
What do these two women have in common? The mouth.
We ransacked our local Woolworth’s for the Five Star paperbacks and between us we acquired the entire collection, hooting appreciatively through long winter nights.
Then I moved on to laugh-aloud darker stuff. Mickey Spillane. Mike Hammer just hit me in the face. (Well he was that kind of guy) I loved the genre, I loved him. He was un-politically correct before the term had meaning. I knew he had no time for ugly dames and he hated commies but I never quite worked out who Mike Hammer hated most: reds, ‘yellow bastards’, fags, pansies, or getting hit on the head.
Note the woman in the background and that final cigarette. You might think there's a missing picture here, but 'Mike' wasn't that kind of guy. He set Velda on a pedestal but was too busy drinking or killing to do anything about it.
He got hit on the head quite often. I saw a film once – Kiss Me Deadly starring Ralph Meeker. It’s an old black and white classic and me and Gareth bought a bottle of bourbon each just to get in the mood. The idea was that every time ‘Mike’ would have a drink, we’d have a drink. Every time ‘Mike’ got hit on the head, we’d …have a drink. Problem was that the film condensed a weeks worth of alcohol and concussion in 90 minutes and we were thoroughly pissed by the end. I vaguely remember a black box and a big explosion.
From that moment on I walked the mean streets of Newport wearing my invisible trench coat and fedora pulled low. I’d learnt the art of soundless dialogue from unmoving lips as a child delivering papers. Then my fantasies centred around cowboys and Nazis. Things change and stay the same. Now not a dame was safe…at least in my mind. I was Mike Hammer, war-damaged, crazy music in my head, the lot. Magic lines from book after book whispered their madness:
I could feel the madness in my brain eating its way through my veins, chewing the edges of my nerves raw, leaving me something that resembled a man and that was all. There had been pleasure in all that killing, an obscene pleasure that froze your face in a grin even when you were charged with fear. Like when I cut down that Jap with his own machete and laughed like hell while I made slices of his scrawny body then went on to do the same thing again and again because it got to be fun…I enjoyed that killing, every bit of it. I killed because I had to and I killed things that needed killing…
I was back in the jungle again, and I had that feeling…Death and I knew him well. I had seen him plenty of times before and I laughed in his face because I was me, see? I was Mike Hammer and I could laugh because what did I give a damn about death?
Feeney tried to say ‘no!’ but my hands had his throat, squeezing . . . slamming his head to the concrete floor until he went completely limp. I rolled on top of him and took that head like a sodden rag and smashed and smashed and smashed and there was no satisfying, solid thump, but a sickening squashing sound that splashed all over me.
And then one magical day a new hero was born. Clay Cross; Clayton Z Cross to give him his full name - Clayton Zacrowski - anglicised because hell, he was no East European commie. It was my first OWWSF work shopped book. The name came from the Derbyshire village of Clay Cross.
To get more fully in character I sent off several letters to the local Newspaper (‘The South Wales Argus’) as Clayton Z Cross. I was trying to pin down the mindset of a bigoted cold war warrior, vulnerable, decent, even well meaning, but possessed of a cock-sure certainty. To my astonishment every one of them was published. To my even greater astonishment some took them seriously and answered back – with vitriol instead of ink.
I’ll post them daily starting from Monday