Those who deserve to die, die the death they deserve. Write that down. It’s an original thought.
—Mr. Big in Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die (1954), the second James Bond novel
. . . I’m not letting the killer go through the tedious process of the law. You know what happens, damn it. They get the best lawyer there is and screw up the whole thing and wind up a hero! The dead can’t speak for themselves. They can’t tell what happened. How could Jack tell a jury what it was like to have his insides ripped out by a dumdum? . . . No, damn it. A jury is cold and impartial like they’re supposed to be, while some snotty lawyer makes them pour tears as he tells how his client was insane at the moment or had to shoot in self-defense. Swell. The law is fine. But this time I’m the law and I’m not going to be cold and impartial.
—Private investigator Mike Hammer reacting to the murder of his friend, Jack, in I, The Jury, (1947), the first Mike Hammer novel
With all the controversy surrounding the graphic violence, sex, and crude writing in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the books are mysteries, who-done-its, after all. They were so denigrated in their day by many of the literary elite for being tasteless that one might forget Spillane was working the same genre as Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler (much preferred by the intellectuals), Ralph McInerny, S.S. Van Dine, and Dorothy Sayers (another beloved by intellectuals). Spillane’s books, as are theirs, are built on the clever twist at the end, the surprise, the wizardry of the unexpected climax.
There is certainly brutality to spare in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, contemporaneous with Spillane’s Hammer books. Bond’s dispatch of the Black henchman Tee Hee in Live and Let Die (1954) was more brutal than anything I had ever read when I was thirteen:
[Bond] bent a little and his right hand, straight and flat as a board, whipped round and inwards. He felt it thud hard into the target. The negro (sic) screamed shrilly like a wounded rabbit. Bond felt his left arm come free. He whirled round, pulling out his empty gun with his right hand. The negro was bent double, his hands between his legs, uttering little panting screams. Bond whipped the gun down hard on the back of the woolly skull. It gave back a dull klonk as if he had hammered on a door, but the negro groaned and fell forward on his knees, throwing out his hands for support. Bond got behind him and with all the force he could put behind the steel-capped show, he gave one mighty kick below the lavender-coloured seat of the negro’s pants.
A final short scream was driven out of the man as he sailed the few feet to the stairs. His head hit the side of the iron banisters and then, a twisting wheel of arms and legs, he disappeared over the edge, down the well. (Live and Let Die, Chapter 8)
More brutal, that is, until I read Mike Hammer’s fight scene in a Black bar against two Blacks (“high yellow” and “coal black,” as they are called) in I, The Jury:
The knife came out again and this time I got the hand in a wristlock and twisted. The tendons stretched, and the bones snapped sickeningly. The high yellow let out a scream and dropped the knife. I was on my feet in a flash. The big black buck was up and came charging into me, his head down.
There was no sense in busting my hand on his skull, so I lashed out with my foot and the toe of my shoe caught the guy right in the face. He toppled over sideways, still running, and collapsed against the wall. His lower teeth were protruding through his lip. Two of his incisors were lying beside his nose, plastered there with blood.1
I became used to tough White men beating up and killing tough Black men in pulp fiction and Black characters talking in a minstrel-like dialect that only White authors heard. (I felt it was a small price to pay to read the books because I liked them. As I became older, I was less willing to pay the price.) Call it social outcast fiction depicting a macho, Darwinian world of force and chaos or a primitive, allegorical representation of colonialism where tough White men are harsh cops, either for the state or self-employed. But the similarity ends there, with the brutality. In Live and Let Die there is no big reveal at the end about who the villain is. In Bond novels, the reader knows who the villain is when M gives Bond his assignment or soon after.
With all the controversy surrounding the graphic violence, sex, and crude writing in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the books are mysteries, who-done-its, after all.
The big reveal is not how Fleming’s books worked. But Spillane prided himself on the shocking revelation. Biographers Max Allan Collins, who finished some posthumously published Hammer novels that Spillane left incomplete, and James L. Traylor tell the story in Spillane: King of the Pulps of Spillane of Spillane telling his editor at Dutton that “‘a perfect book is written with the climax on the last word of the last page.’” (86) The editor disagreed. Spillane bet a thousand dollars that the editor would not understand his next book without the last word on the last page. The editor took the bet and lost. The last word on the last page of Vengeance Is Mine! (1950) indeed explains the story, when the villain’s sex is revealed. His biographers are right: Spillane cared more about craft and construction than many gave him credit for. He had a literary integrity. And when Spillane had Mike Hammer kill the female villain at the end of his first novel, I, the Jury, in exactly the way the character’s friend/war buddy was killed, he had, in effect, made a motto of Mr. Big’s “original thought,” well before Ian Fleming thought up Mr. Big. When the villain, a murdering psychiatrist running a dope ring, asks Hammer how he could kill her in cold blood. He replies, “‘It was easy.’” The private investigator as the avenging angel. The true revelation in this mystery is that the heartless killer is the villain, not the hero, who is filled with righteous indignation, righteous hatred. The cool killer and the hot detective, the cool versus the hot.2 What I learned from this as a boy is that it was not a bad thing to hate in the cause of revenging a wrong. Maybe as a Black kid reader that was a worthwhile thing to learn. Or as director Billy Wilder once put it, some like it hot. Some might need to.
Spillane, born in Brooklyn in 1918, started his writing career in earnest in the comic book industry, which shows just how strong the ties are between comic books and pulp literature. I began with comic books as a child and moved to pulp literature with ease as an adolescent. Spillane “scripted Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, Captain America,” romance comics, horror comics, “‘oh—a whole kit and kaboodle of ‘em,’” he said. (34) His days as a comic book writer were “the happiest of my life,’” he said, “‘I could walk anywhere and nobody knew who I was.’” Spillane wound up being a bigger celebrity than any actor who played his most famous character. (36)
The comic book writing prepared him well for the hard-boiled pulp fiction he was to become known for. He had to grind out stories quickly that could be easily read and understood by a mass audience. The stories needed a punchy narrative arc, reach speedy climaxes, and satisfy audiences either with their predictability (the superhero stories) or with their moralistic surprise (the horror or science fiction stories). WWII, in which he served as a flight instructor, interrupted his comic book career, in effect, ended it when he discovered the industry had changed when he tried to return to it. This led him to novel writing instead of trying to survive writing pieces for the pulps or for the Saturday Evening Post and other slicks. Most of his comic book writing cronies were not impressed by the manuscript of I, The Jury. But an editor at E. P. Dutton was. The book, as a hardcover title, did not sell immediately and, like Ian Fleming, Spillane was quite concerned about sales.3 But a cheap paperback run of 150,000 sold out in a matter of days. I, The Jury had found its platform, as we might say today, and through that platform found its audience, WWII veterans and, surprisingly, many women who evidently did not know enough to recognize misogyny or knew enough to recognize something else besides misogyny.
Spillane bet a thousand dollars that the editor would not understand his next book without the last word on the last page. The editor took the bet and lost.
With the success of I, The Jury, Spillane began an incredible grind of Hammer novels: My Gun is Quick (1950), Vengeance is Mine! (1950), One Lonely Night (1951), The Big Kill (1951), and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). It is upon this body of work that Mickey Spillane’s reputation rests, that the Mike Hammer mythology is built just as surely as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels built his grand Southern gothic mythology. Spillane would publish seven more Hammer novels in his lifetime but those mentioned above are the holy grail, the essence of Spillane’s art, the ones that either energized the American novel (Spillane’s admirers) or wrecked American literature (his detractors). Both admirers and detractors are legion.
By 1952, Spillane’s Hammer novels had sold in the tens of millions. He was a rich man. It would be years before he would write another Hammer novel. But he was a prolific writer, in the end. He constantly walked the tightrope of his fame and infamy.
As the world becomes more primitive, its treasures become more fabulous.
—Dr. Soberin to Mike Hammer in the 1955 film version of Kiss Me, Deadly
In the 1950s, for a certain period of years, Mickey Spillane was a Jehovah’s Witness. From the testimony of his biographers, he made some attempt at being a faithful follower, but he had an uphill battle. His books went against the creed of the religion; also, he was a member of a pacifist religion that did not recognize loyalty to a nation (patriotism was a kind of carnal idolatry, as they saw it). He had served in WWII and wanted to serve during the Korean War. He was a smoker and a drinker but at least gave up smoking for a time, to obey the tenets of his faith. He went door-to-door, preaching the word and handing out copies of Watchtower and Awake, as a good Witness is supposed to do. He was a believer, not a poseur. Or he wanted to be a believer. Sometimes, though, we cannot obey the tenets, no matter how much we desire the certainty of a faith and the discipline of the tenets.
Being a Jehovah’s Witness was one reason he stopped writing Mike Hammer novels. But the main reason he stopped was because he signed a contract for the Hammer novels to be made into films. The contract entitled producer/director Victor Saville to film not only the existing Hammer novels but any Hammer novels that Spillane might write during the five-year term of the contract. Spillane learned quickly that it was not in his financial or creative interest to write more Hammer novels while under this contract, and so he did not.
Spillane wound up being a bigger celebrity than any actor who played his most famous character.
It was not simply a question of money but also the fact that Spillane did not like the Hammer films that Saville made. Kiss Me Deadly (1955), by director Robert Aldrich, (please note the absence of the comma that distinguishes the film from the novel, a comma placement as important as that for the Christmas hymn, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”), is a film noir classic, deservedly so. Aldrich and scriptwriter A. I. Bezzerides disparaged the novel, but Collins and Traylor make a fairly persuasive case (Chapter 14) that, first, the filmmakers did not discard as much of the novel as they claimed; indeed, their first draft of the film included the box of narcotics as the MacGuffin as did the novel, which, apparently, was only jettisoned because the Hollywood Code would not permit a film about the illegal drug trade. (152) Changing the box to some sort of nuclear bomb or radioactive whatsit was not the original intent of the filmmakers. Second, the film would not have been possible without the source material, without Hammer as a kind pop culture archetype that the filmmakers could creatively alter to fit their needs, or criticize as a fascist figure. Spillane, of course, saw Hammer, to borrow Woody Guthrie’s phrase, as the machine that kills fascists, the lone knight against corruption, the powerful, the organization, the elite, the privileged. (Somebody is clearly misinterpreting this character. I wonder who.) The film may not have made the impact it did if the lead character was some other detective and not Mike Hammer. In short, Aldrich and Bezzerides needed Hammer the boor. And there is something rather snobbish and self-serving about their professed dislike of the novel.
Although these early Hammer films made money, Spillane did not like them very much. Mostly, he did not like the actors who played Hammer. (I think the best actor for the role would have been Charles McGraw.) By the early 1960s, he solved this by playing Hammer himself in The Girl Hunters (1962), with Shirley Eaton who would become famous as the gold-sprayed Jill Masterson in the James Bond film, Goldfinger (1964). He had become something of a pop culture figure by this time, as famous as the character he created. In 1974, he became a pitchman for Miller Lite Beer, which introduced him to an entirely new set of fans, the Vietnam War generation and their discontents. The old Greatest Generation, anti-communist Cold Warrior met the New Left and prospered. The Spillane biography is a good book, if only to remind us of how important Mickey Spillane was to American letters and American popular culture. Now, if only someone would write a solid biography of Frank Yerby.
It rains a lot in Mike Hammer novels. “… in Hammer’s universe it is often raining. Important decisions and actions always seem to come when it’s raining,” write Collins and Traylor. ( For instance, on the day that Hammer has his showdown with the villain Charlotte in I, The Jury, it is raining. “I looked out the window. Monday was no better than the day before. The rain was coming down in buckets.”4 That is always the weather forecast in the noir world of the semi-psycho, staunchly moralist detective (Ayn Rand considered Spillane a moralist): cloudy with occasional pain.