New York City, the west fifties. Stair rods of rain hammer from the heavens, playing a devils drumbeat on the roof of “the heap” and Private Eye Mike Hammer is chaining back his fifth pack of Lucky Strikes. Across the rain swept street, there is a dame in a down market coffee shop. Her sad little life is swimming around the drain, but she is about to find love like she never found it before…
Mickey Spillane was the man who distilled hardboiled crime fiction into something new and addictive for the pulp crime market. While Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler provided an opiate for the thrill seeking masses, Spillane stripped the form to its white powder essence and mainlined it straight into the jugular.
The debut Hammer book I The Jury is a twisted story of revenge and murder, that Spillane says he wrote in three weeks; adapting it from a failed comic strip, Mike Danger that he worked up with illustrator Mike Roy. A none too enthusiastic E. P. Dutton & Co picked up the book in 1947 figuring there “might be a market for it” and by 1953, when it was made into a movie, it had sold 3.5 million copies. This book has it all: Dames in diaphanous night attire, twisted psychiatry, gonzo plastic surgery and more crimetastic caperings than you could catch in a cocked hat. The laughably brutal ending sets the standard for all the books that follow.
It is clear from the get go that Hammer is a .45cal kind of guy that you won’t want to mess with. Veteran of a “Jap-filled jungle hell” He affectionately names his Colt 1911 “Betsy” and you can bet he draws her out to “bark fire” at bad guys at every opportunity. I The Jury is aptly named. Mike Hammer is a one-man war on crime. He hates murderers and makes it clear to his long suffering cop buddy, Capt. Pat Chambers that “there ain’t no way in hell” the red-tape legal system is going to get chance to send any killers to the chair when Mike Hammer is in town. Big-lug irony of the most entertainingly unconstitutional kind.
My Gun is Quick? Damn right it is. Betsy is barking from the get go when horny Mike meets a redheaded prostitute at an all night coffee shop. He sweeps her away for a midnight assignation at the beach, where she writes V.D. in the sand. Mike pops the lucky lady one anyway, because he’s “not prejudiced” when it come to Dames. Naturally, the lucky girl falls deeply in love with our hero before he has even “stirred her coffee” for her. You can almost hear the wedding bells ringing before gunfire drowns them out. MEN WILL PAY FOR THIS! You betcha.
Vengeance is Mine! Damn that red tape loving liberal SOB at the DA’s office, damn him! Mike gets his gun permit and PI license revoked after one of his buddies carelessly loses the top of his head in a whiskey related incident involving Mike’s gun. Blackmailing underworld stereotypes of the “fat and slimy and suspicious” type must be involved. A veritable hail of gunfire ensues. Velda, Hammer’s long-suffering secretary, gets to pop her murder cherry. That babe is Hottttttt! Why on earth does Mike not see this? Is it because he is so driven by his mission to clean up the streets of Gotham? Is it because he has terminal halitosis? Or is it the charabanc of blondes, brunettes and redheads, [dressed in diaphanous night attire], who have just turned up at the office door—tearfully and pneumatically proposing marriage? [sigh].
One Lonely Night. Could it be true? Mike Hammer has a conscience? His tortured soul screaming into the endless snow filled night, as he balances on a lonely bridge contemplating the horrible existential choices he must make? Fear not dear Crimeziner. Clutch not your tear stained handkerchiefs! It is 1951, so Communists are at work! Stretching their nefarious tentacles of workers rights and organized labor into every orifice of the American dream—the deluded brainwashed saps. Wouldn’t it be great to twist them all on the end of a bayonet?
Right wing political crank and long-lost Addams family relative, Ayn Rand was a big league Spillane fan. No doubt she loved the unambiguous right wing politics and the chain-smoking histrionics. Rand singled out Spillane’s black and white morality as admirable. Praising Spillane publicly, she described him as, “An underrated if uneven stylist.”
The Big Kill. You got the idea by now. Murderers, they gots to die! Dames they get to walk past lamps and windows wearing see-through nylon scanties, and they are wearing nothing underneath! [Pant] Natch, all of them are “in love” with Mike. All of them I tell you! Even though he never bathes, [except in whiskey] has bullet riddled clothing, and chains back five cartons of Luckies a day.
But oh-no! What is this? A kid cramping Mike’s style? WTF! That snot-nosed little punk ain’t going to no lousy children’s home! He can stay home Chez Hammer with a goddamn wet nurse, fingering firearms until the big dénouement comes. Yay!
Until it meets the final furlong, Kiss Me Deadly is the best Mike Hammer story by far. The trouble with Spillane is he was never much of a hand with plot and endings in particular gave him a great deal of trouble. He tried just about everything: expositional blah-de-blah a la Agatha Christie; explosive, apocalyptic gunfight/car wreck finales, and twisted ‘brakes on’ revelations that leave the reader questioning the very nature of God and his relationship, or lack there of, to the Spillanian muse. Kiss me Deadly is an excellent read, but it is perhaps best remembered for the panting and high-wired 1955 film-noir adaptation by Robert Aldrich, featuring Ralph Meeker as Hammer and Maxine Cooper as the long suffering Velda. A glorious piece of movie kitsch that was described by morality Nazis in the Kefauver Committee as, “a film designed to ruin young viewers”. Which is recommendation enough in Crimezine’s view.
There you have it, the first six by Spillane. Why six ? Well you can buy them as two omnibus editions from the crimetastic New American Library. [determined readers will also dig a third omnibus edition in the series] There are those who will tell you that Spillane is a bad writer—by his own admission he only put pen to paper for money, and although you will find rich seams of wonderment within his work, you will also laugh yourself hoarse at the abundant failings. Many of the attitudes contained within his work are old-fashioned, although many are still worryingly prevalent: sexism, homophobia, bigotry and cliché are all well represented. But there is something much more vital and important on offer here: the distilled essence of crime fiction personified.
These influential books dictated the rules of crime fiction for many long decades, and there is not a single private eye book after 1950 that does not in some way pay homage to the legend that is Mike Hammer. Moneypenny in James Bond? That is Velda. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry? That is Mike Hammer turned Cop. And those crazy- assed soliloquies by Marv in Frank Miller’s Sin City—every single one of them straight out of the Spillane playbook. Yes, Crimeziners, no one said it would be pretty. Matter of fact it is a dirty ugly business, but there is just no way it is possible to put crime fiction into any kind of context without reading Spillane. Do it today, tell ’em Crimezine sent ya.
Afterword: It is widely accepted that Spillane’s later work lacked the primal urgency of his early years. It should also be noted that Spillane’s literary executor, the awesome Max Allan [Road to Perdition] Collins, has done sterling work with the Hammer brand.