When people who don’t have much first-hand experience with reading hardboiled detective fiction imitate the “so I socked that chump in the jaw, then I socked his dame in the jaw, too, just ’cause she looked like she was asking for it and might like it” style, they’re imitating Mickey Spillane. When it comes to elevating tough-guy talk to sublime and absurd levels, it’s hard to beat Spillane. Every sentence is boiling over with hate and disgust. Every thought is of violence. Motivation for his signature creation, private detective Mike Hammer, ranges from vengeance to rage to hate with not much in between. Spillane’s prose is punchy, abrupt, and maybe not that good — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Immersing oneself in the world of Mike Hammer is to come out needing a shower, filled slightly with loathing. But for some reason, you’ll go back. Mike Hammer is a gruesome accident you can’t help but glance at, a blister on the inside of your mouth you bite just to spite yourself. He is hate incarnate. And he’s the hero.
With a back story that couldn’t have been more perfect if it had been fiction, Mickey Spillane was the born-in-Brooklyn, raised-in-Jersey son of an Irish bartender. He worked as a lifeguard in Queens, a salesman in Gimbels department store, and somehow fell into a job as a trampoline artist for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before joining the Army Air Corps on December 8, 1941. He wrote for comic books and, in 1945, when he and his wife were trying to finance a new home, figured he might as well give novel-writing a go. The result was I, the Jury, which he reportedly dashed off in 19 days, leveraging a character he’d previously developed for a “Mike Danger” comic book that never got off the ground. I, the Jury was poorly received by critics, to say the least. It also sold millions of copies, as these things have a way of doing. As Spillane once said, “You can sell a lot more peanuts than caviar.”
In I, the Jury, Mike Danger became Mike Hammer, a war veteran and ex-cop (like every detective of the era) with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge against pretty much everyone and everything in the world, except maybe his secretary/love interest, Velda. As the novels opens, Hammer is called to the scene of a murder, but not just any murder. The victim is an old war buddy of his, Jack Williams, who lost an arm saving Hammer’s ass on some godforsaken island in the Pacific. And he wasn’t just murdered; he was shot in the gut and then left to bleed out, a particularly cruel, painful, slow way to die. Hammer, whose default setting is one of teeth-grinding rage, vows to track down the killer and kill them in the same way.
Naturally, there’s a list of suspects that grows as Hammer pries into the murky past of the man who sacrificed an arm to save a life. First and foremost is Williams’ wife, Myrna, a pretty, fragile young thing with a history of suicide attempts and addiction. And then there’s the lovely Bellamy twins, one of whom is a nymphomaniac. Or maybe it was Hal Kines, a shady student of psychiatrist Charlotte Manning, who happened to be treating Myrna. Or the shifty lawyer, Harmon Wilder, and his assistant. Or maybe it’s someone else entirely. Whoever it is, rest assured that Hammer’s neck veins will throb with white-hot hatred as he works his way through the list of suspects, fantasizing about how he will torture, brutalize, and eventually kill whoever’s responsible for Jack’s death.
Raymond Chandler wrote detective fiction that was heavy with a world-weary sense of existential loneliness, communicated in haunting, poetic prose that was shockingly beautiful. He used it to guide his own detective, Philip Marlowe, through a maze of seedy, surreal California locations and subcultures, often entangling Marlowe with some family of ultra-wealthy lunatics. Spillane does much the same thing with Mike Hammer, only instead of world-weariness there’s wrath, and instead of poetry there’s terse, journalistic writing born from Spillane’s background in comics, where you have a very limited amount of space to do your job. It’s a style that, while obviously not as lyrical or contemplative as Chandler’s, is no less effective within context. There’s no time for waxing poetic. It’s a perfect match for the seething cauldron of fury that is Mike Hammer.
Post-War America was a stew of optimism, exhaustion, trauma, hope, and uncertainty. The war so big and so devastating that we can barely conceive of its scale was support it all out, make the world a better, safer, brighter place. Instead, everything came out fractured and damaged. That darkness lurking beneath the shiny things is where Mike Hammer exists. Where Philip Marlowe was a warrior with a broken heart, who fought the hopeless good fight because somewhere, beneath it all, he still believed there was good in the world, Mike Hammer is a warrior with no heart, hollowed out (whether it was the author’s intention or not) by the violence and unable to see the light in which Marlowe has faith. Like Marlowe, the case takes Hammer on an odyssey through some truly bizarre places, including a sun-dappled retreat for the filthy rich, and crosses his path with all sorts of crazy people. Some he’ll have sex with, some he’ll sock in the jaw, and some he’ll do both to. For Hammer, there is only ugliness, and the only way to meet it is with even uglier ugliness.
Spillane isn’t presenting him as an anti-hero, however, or even as particularly damaged. As far Spillane is concerned, this violent, out-of-control detective is a righteous crusader in a world of evil and filth, a white knight even though his every thought is about how he can hurt someone. For Hammer, due process and civil rights were just liberal commie nonsense that the weak and the wicked wielded to abuse right-living, right-thinking American men and women. Every act of violence against those who transgressed against Mike Hammer and the morals he championed was, as far as he and the author were concerned, justified. He’s not a guy you are going to like, but that doesn’t stop him from being an interesting character.
Lots of old detective fiction requires the more socially conscious modern reader to roll with some distasteful words and attitudes here and there. This one…even more so — and this is Mickey Spillane on his best behavior! For all that one may find offensive, if one so chooses, there is just as much that is thrilling, if at times in a sick sort of way. Spillane was no poet, but he certainly knew how to write an engaging potboiler. Spillane only wants to deliver fast-paced sex and violence with a gut-punch style. It’s blunt, ugly stuff, but it’s possessed of a visceral appeal that has made it the de facto “voice” to imitate when writing hardboiled pulp fiction. It certainly struck a chord with readers, who turned it into one of the best-selling books of the era despite the eye-rolling of critics. I, the Jury is the kind of slim pulp paperback you can polish off in a day, a single commute if the trains are delayed (and they are). Afterward, you might feel a bit dirty and disgusted, but sometimes it’s good to feel dirty and disgusting.