Thu 28 Feb 2013
by Francis M. Nevins
The first time I saw Mickey Spillane was at a Bouchercon, back when he was the public face of Miller Lite beer. The second and last time I saw him was on April 27, 1995, the evening of that year’s MWA dinner. As 1994 Awards chair I got to host the pre-dinner cocktail party for Edgar nominees, and Spillane got to attend because, over vehement objections from some older mystery writers who were on the other side of the culture wars of the HUAC-McCarthy-Red Menace era, he was about to be given the Grand Master award.
Like just about everyone else in America I had read Spillane’s early novels — the septet of bestsellers that began with I, the Jury (1947) and climaxed, if that’s the word, with Kiss Me Deadly (1952) — but almost nothing that he’d written in the Sixties and later. Like just about no one else in America except intellectuals and critics, I thought his books were terrible. What turned me off was not so much the rabid right-wing politics or the gruesome sadism of the action scenes as it was the inept plotting and linguistic boners.
The basic storyline of I, the Jury is simplicity itself. Manhattan PI Mike Hammer vows to personally execute the murderer of his buddy, ex-cop Jack Williams, who had lost an arm in the Pacific saving Hammer’s life. In his search he meets a seductive female psychiatrist, a pair of man-hungry twin sisters, a medical student who lives with a racket boss, and other lovables. After wading through the carnage of four more murders he gets to carry out his grim sentence, gut-shooting the psychiatrist and narcotics queenpin Charlotte Manning. The last two lines of the book are justly famous, or at least infamous. Manning: “How c-could you?” Hammer: “It was easy.”
I could devote several pages to how and where I, the Jury goes off the rails but will limit myself to three specimens of track-jumping, the first trivial but telling, the others crucial.
(2) The second and third murders take place in a whorehouse which Hammer has under personal surveillance. Both the second victim and Charlotte Manning, the murderer, are by this time well known to our sleuth, and neither of them knows he’s on the scene, yet both manage to get in by the front door without Hammer spotting them. Miraculous luck is again with Charlotte as she escapes from the house and area while police have the whole block surrounded.
(3) The fourth and final murder victim is Jack Williams’ fiancée Myrna Devlin and the crime takes place at a society party with 250 guests. Would you believe that every blessed one of them turns out to have an alibi for the fatal minutes? At the time Charlotte shoots her, Myrna is wearing Charlotte’s coat. (Don’t bother to ask why.) This means that afterwards she has to take her coat off Myrna’s body, find Myrna’s coat, put a bullet hole in exactly the spot to coincide with the hole in Myrna, put that coat on the dead woman, and cover up the hole in her own coat. She also has to gamble that neither the gun nor its silencer nor the hole in her coat will be noticed during the investigation and that she’ll be able to get all three items off the premises under Hammer’s eagle eye. Once again miraculous luck sits on her shapely shoulders. Yikes!
In Chapter 12 Hammer visits a movie theater and sees a crime film, calling it “a fantastic murder mystery which had more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese.” The perfect description for any Spillane novel!
One of the things that surprised me when I revisited I, the Jury recently was that so much of the writing is so pedestrian and ordinaire. Clearly Spillane hadn’t yet mastered the psychotic rants which pockmark his novels of the early Fifties. But every so often one finds a linguistic flub that lingers in the memory:
“Living alone with one maid, a few rooms was all that was necessary.”
“It gave me ideas, which I quickly ignored.”
“He took off like a herd of turtles.”
“When Velda heard about this she’d throw the roof at me.”
“‘Well, you know that he was in a medical school. Pre-med, to be exact.’”
Talk about a distinction with a difference! Was Spillane the inspiration for all those lunatic lines that began streaming from the smoking typewriter of Michael Avallone a few years later?
A year and some months after Spillane was named a Grand Master, the publisher of the prestigious Library of America series asked me to comment on the authors and titles tentatively selected for the Library’s two-volume American Noir project. My only suggestion for Volume One, which covered the Nineteen Thirties and Forties, was that Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man be replaced by three or four of his short novels.
Volume Two, which dealt with the Fifties, was slated to include two books I didn’t think could be called American Noir: Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, because most of it doesn’t take place in America, and Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, because having a series character and first-person narrator readers can easily identify with (Lew Archer, of course) seemed to me to rule it out as noir.
I proposed as a substitute someone who was conspicuous by his absence in the table of contents. You guessed it. Mickey Spillane. As a writer, I argued, Spillane stands beside Highsmith and Macdonald roughly where Ed Wood stands among film-makers vis-a-vis Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. But in terms of the development of noir he’s of such immense historical significance that American crime fiction and crime films of the Fifties just can’t be understood without him. (This is why I never objected to his receiving that Grand Master award.)
Mike Hammer of course is a series character and first-person narrator just as much as Lew Archer but he’s certainly not one readers can easily identify with. In fact, I contended, critics would long ago have ranked Hammer with Lou Ford in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me as one of the genre’s most convincing sociopaths if only Spillane hadn’t labored under the delusion that he’d created a hero.
I’ve been commenting on mystery fiction and mystery writers for almost half a century but have discussed Spillane only once in a chartreuse moon and have never advocated for him except in my correspondence with Library of America. How did Atticus Finch do? Miserably. How many of my suggestions were accepted? You guessed it. None. But I did enjoy the interchange and wound up with complimentary copies of some very nice volumes. One of which I expect to figure in my next column.