Mouth-To-Mouth For Mickey: Spillane’s Long Foreshadow
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/25/02
The Bicentennial summer (of 1976, for you peregrine fools) saw me & my best friend Ricky Gerhardt having many adventures in his grandmother’s country home. The Gerhardt’s had been retreating to that abode since, at least, the Great Depression. Ricky’s Grandma was a thin wiry old bat with a predilection for racist remarks. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our stay. Ricky & I stayed up in the attic room & read through an amazing trove of 1940s & 1950s Golden & Silver Age comic books. Here I read of Captain America’s battles with the Red Skull- in yellowing old comics which would be worth a mint were they mint nowadays. Over the course of the 4th of July week I spent there Ricky & I feuded, fished, & hiked, his younger brother Randy & I had some misadventures in discovering a gruesome act of violence in the woods, I had an episode tinged with psi overtones, Ricky’s older cousin was accused of some sexual wrongdoing with a nubile 15 or 16 year old girl we all dreamt of fucking, & after we had run through all the vintage Batman & Superman & Fantastic 4 comics (Especially keen in my mind was the episode where the Thing got a doppelganger who ended up being wafted through a time warp. Its lonely soliloquy eluded me until a few years ago when I came across it in a Marvel re-release of vintage comics from that era.), I recall pawing through an equally impressive collection of 40s & 50s era pocket books- ranging from Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew mysteries to more ‘adult’ fiction- sci fi & crime books- like Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, & a name I’d heard before from tv- a guy who had become famous for hawking beer was also- a writer? Of course, I refer to Mickey Spillane, up till then known to me for such commercials as:
A film noir scene: MS in an office. A rainy night.
Typewriter keys banging. Voice-over: ‘Chapter 9: I kicked in
the door and shouted 'Freeze!' to the lone figure in the room. Even in the dark
I could see she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever met. Then I saw a Lite
Beer from Miller. ‘
It's got a third less calories than a regular beer, and it's less filling’, she whispered. ‘But the best thing is it tastes so great.' Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place and I knew I'd come to the end of a long, long road. She poured. We drank. To be continued.’
Even in my
youth I had an appreciation for such self-deprecation- a great quality often
overlooked in MS & his work. But I never really thought MS was a writer-
just an actor pretending to be a writer. Lord knows, I was not the 1st
person to think the thought, ‘pretending to be a writer’ re: MS! The
book was something called I, The Jury- I’d seen a movie with that name
once but thought it was called Eye Of The Jury. Although it was better
than alot of the dull Dickens, Tolstoy, &
such I was forced to read at school, I cannot say it left much of an
impression. Someone’s killed. The killer is caught in the end. I saw this
stuff when my mom watched Columbo on tv! Big deal!
I had a life, which passed. In the 1980s I again saw that name arise- this time in a tv show about the main character, Mike Hammer. It starred Stacy Keach. I enjoyed his presence. Too often male characterizations were either too-weak or too-over-the top. Keach seemed to have nailed this character- a vast improvement over other tv gumshoes- a genre I loathed: could Jessica Fletcher, Quincy, Magnum P.I., or Dan Tanna hold a candle to Mike Hammer? No way. Perhaps Hawaii 5-0’s Jack Lord character Steve McGarrett, but that’s it. Yet, even in the I-like-Ike-mimicking Reagan years the show faded after a year or 2. My next encounter would be about 15 years later, when on 8/22/01 I chanced upon an online Washington Post article on MS: Man of Mysteries: It'd Been Years Since Spillane Pulled a Job. Could We Find Him? Yeah. It Was Easy, by John Meroney. While interesting, it did no more than put the notion in my mind that I should, perhaps, check out his writing if I ever ran across it in a used bookstore. A few months later I did run across an anthology, edited by Max Allan Collins, called The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 1. It contained MS’s 1st 3 MH novels: I, the Jury, My Gun Is Quick, & Vengeance Is Mine! I bought it on a lark- as a stimulant to my memories of the few good times my youth endowed me with. It was only $3 or $4, & in great shape. I bought the book for little more than I’d’ve paid for all 3 separate volumes 35 years ago. It was a bargain, yet it sat unread until my reading conveyor belt got to it a few weeks ago. Over the course of a few days I read all 3 books & was greatly impressed with how good a writer MS could be. All the nasty comments on his writing had for years biased me against his possibly being a good writer, much less ‘reading’ him. After all, what mega-selling artist, in any field, is ever good? Doesn’t the Lowest Common Denominator equation hold true in all fields?
Well, not in this case, although I was aware, from the Washington Post piece, that not all of MS’s commentators were negative. Ayn Rand glowed- a mixed endorsement given her turgid writing, & Max Allan Collins wrote glowingly in his introduction- but then I recalled his name from the lame Dick Tracy comic strips of my youth. I came away after reading all 3 books with a definite strong opinion that overall MS was a VERY good writer, who occasionally wrote GREAT prose, & a desire to read other MH novels as I come across them. Yes, his characters & plots were see-through as the outfits his busty heroines sported. But there was a reason: MH was ALL archetype- not the stereotype so often & wrongly portrayed. He was a very mythic character who had a lot more in common with the comic book superheroes I grew up on, rather than the lame tv dicks I loathed. Some key points about MS’s writing that need statement off the bat, & I’ll expound later: 1) MS never ‘overwrites’, like- say- a Stephen King. He is, more than any other writer of pop, a Minimalist (Capital M!). Perhaps only the ‘respected’ Samuel Beckett, is more Minimalist- although he can’t touch MS in the archetype category. 2) This allows him, when he is bad, to be brief. Yes, there is bad writing in MH’s books- but most of it serves the archetype. We don’t need an elaborate overdescription of how things look, or how people feel. Because of the archetypes the clichés are not as heinous as they would be were MS’s characters stereotypes. 3) This brevity in all things makes for very exciting reading. Only the wonderful contemporary ‘serious’ novelist Charles Johnson’s books move at a pace approaching MS’s books. 4) MS’s archetypes allow for a ‘foreshadowing’ of what will come. In all 3 books- as I’ll later detail- I knew the murderer within the 1st few pages of their appearance, at best, & at worst, no more than 75% of the way into the book. Is this failure? Hardly. Key to MS’s writing is not WHAT things happen- but HOW things happen. MS is devoted to this concept.
In these aspects it’s no surprise that MS worked on comic strips to start with & has loved them all his life. His too-physically-perfect women are much more at home with the physiologically & bustologically impossible über-babes of comic strips, as is MH much closer kith to Batman than Sherlock Holmes. But, before I get too carried away into the literary aspects of MH, & then delve into each of the 3 books, let me briefly limn a bit about MS’s own tale….
Frank Morrison ‘Mickey’ Spillane was born on March 9th,
1918, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a bartender- John Joseph Spillane, &
grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In his youth he read Alexandre Dumas, Anthony
Hope, Charles Dickens, & comic books. He was quite athletic but storytelling
soon became his passion. He briefly went to Fort Hays State College in Kansas,
but dropped out. Then he taught at Kansas State Teachers College, moved back to
New York City, & began a writing career in the mid-1930s. His first stories
were published mostly in comic books & pulp magazines. In 1939 he worked at Funnies,
Inc., on characters such as The Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner, Captain
America, Blue Bolt, Batman, Captain Marvel & Plastic
Man, & developed his own character- Mike Danger, a private detective-
who later morphed in to Mike Hammer, but would recur throughout the years in
many forms. During WW2 MS was a flying instructor & captain for the U.S.
Army Air Force in Greenwood, Mississippi, where he met his first wife, Mary Ann
Pearce, in 1945. They had 4 children, but later divorced. After the war he
returned to writing comic strips such as Jackie the Slick Chick & Smarty
Pants. He made enough money at that that he bought land in Newburgh, New
York, & built a home. MS sought to start his own strip, to no avail. Then he
hit on doing a novel- & turned his old Mike Danger character into Mike
Hammer (named after a nearby saloon), whose 1st novel- I, The Jury-was
penned in about 9 days, according to MS’s own legendry. MS later
bragged that he finishes all of his books in 2 weeks, or less, & revises
almost nothing later- a boast critics have ceaselessly used to damn him, &
1- ala Jack Kerouac- that is probably not true. He passed this 1st
book around to some cronies, who all hated it. But another pal, Jack McKenna,
took the manuscript to E.P. Dutton- the publishing house.
July, 1947 saw the 1st published appearance of private eye Mike Hammer, in I, The Jury. The hard cover edition did not sell well- only a little over half the 7000 print run sold, but the paperback became a worldwide phenomenon. In MH, the most seemingly chauvinist avenger the crime novel had yet seen, MS created the consummate antihero, & dark twin to the saintly Philip Marlowe. In many ways MH was an outlaw, in the Batman mode. The difference was, unlike Bruce Wayne, the reader never learns MH’s motivations for what he does. Yes, we get occasional references to WW2, but it’s obvious that MH’s persona was formed long before he killed his 1st lousy Jap! & by 1951, MS had written the 3 best-selling mysteries/crime novels of all time. By some reckonings his 26 books have sold more than 200,000,000 copies. Long before Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, Jacqueline Susann, Mario Puzo, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, & John Grisham, MS was the literary blockbuster. 1 difference, however, is that where the other 6 writers’ work rarely rises above hackery, MS developed a crisp clean style of straight-forward action that has been much imitated, but never succeeded. In doing so both writer & creation secured a spot in the pantheon of such mystery greats as Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, & Raymond Chandler, & crime sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Miss Marple, William Crane, Philip Marlowe, Mike Shayne, Lew Archer, & Hercule Poirot.
Between 1953 &1961 MS seemed to stop writing after converting to the Jehovah's Witnesses. But, it was the titanic financial success of 1952’s Kiss Me, Deadly (which sold a then record 75,000 copies & made the best-seller lists of the New York Herald Tribune & New York Times) which allowed MS his break from sudden superstardom. During this break, he moved from Newburgh to a beach home in a South Carolina fishing village called Murrells Inlet, in Myrtle Beach, where he still lives. In 1962 MH returned in The Girl Hunters, haunted by the memory of the psychotic shrink, & ex-fiancé, Charlotte Manning. But, he had not quit writing- he wrote for magazines & comics for years. He did, however have many other pursuits: his short fiction was published in Manhunt, Cavalier, & Male. He acted on records, worked on films- as writer & producer, posed for the book cover photos of MH novels, starred in the 1963 film version of The Girl Hunters, as MH.
During this time he & the famed writer & Objectivist cult leader
Ayn Rand became good friends. Although AR was an atheist & MS devoted to the
Jehovah’s Witnesses it seemed their opposition to communism, attraction to
cults, & vilification by the left wing drew them together. AR also liked MS
because her ideal man was similar to MH: tough, idealistic, independent,
vicious, etc. Speculation has always been to the effect that the 2 were more
than just ‘friends’. Letters like this: ‘I am waiting eagerly to see
you again. As you say, ‘Time ran out on us the other evening.’ But is there
any reason why time should run us, rather than the other way around? Love, Ayn’,
fueled such thoughts but MS denies all with a coyness befitting MH.
But, despite all these other distractions, it was the paperback fans that made MS ‘Mickey Spillane’- the icon. In hardcover, his 1st 6 books did okay, selling about 30,000 copies total. By comparison, the paperback Signet Books version of Kiss Me, Deadly sold 30,000,000 copies by 1958. His novels were written in 3 stretches: 1947-52, 1961-73, & 1989-96. Although his later books have sold a fraction as much as his first 7, by the early 1960s worldwide sales were over 70,000,000. By 1990 the # was over 150,000,000. By 2001, with the resurgence in Spillaneana the quoted # is over 200,000,000! MS’s appeal was a phenomenon without precedent- on a 1967 list of all-time best-selling books published in America between 1895 & 1965, 7 of the top 10 were written by MS. At about that time, according to MS, ‘Some New York literary type guy walks up to me & says, ‘I think it's disgraceful that of the 10 best-selling books of all time, seven were written by you.’’ MS, famed for his scornful rebukes to the literati said, ‘You're lucky I've only written seven books- and not three more!’ & those first 7 books still rank in the top 25 best-sellers of the 2nd ½ of the last century. He is by some accounts the 5th most translated writer in the world. Only Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorky, & Jules Verne are claimed to surpass him.
In 1983 he married Jane Rodgers Johnson, a former Miss South Carolina, 28 years his junior. In 1995 the Mystery Writers Of America awarded him Grand Master prize. In the mid-90s MS returned to his 1st love- comic books- with a futuristic Mike Danger (MS still could not let him go). He’s also written 2 kids books- including 1979’s childrens’ book The Day the Sea Rolled Back, which won a Junior Literary Guild Award. All in all the man has nothing to apologize for- at least literarily!
Let me sum up my 4 previous important point re: MS & the MH novels:
1) MS is a Minimalist. 2) MS is an archetypalist. 3) MS’s books are
deliberately fast-paced due to points 1 & 2, + his background in comic book
writing. 4) MS’s writing is not about WHAT things happen- but HOW things
The MH universe is literally almost perpetually twilit & sepia- even as MH views it to be thoroughly black & white, philosophically. Jacques Tourneur & Val Lewton horror films easily come to mind when reading a MH book, as much as any John Garfield gangster film. This cosmos is 1 that is both real & not. In the sense that such things have gone on, MH’s cosmos is real. But, like any other fictive medium, more things occur in a short time than would in real life. It’s the equivalent of ‘soap opera time’ where characters sometimes age a decade in a year or 2. Things that would take weeks or months of applied detectivery happen in ‘flashes’ of insight- the archetypal deus ex machina. Then, again, the world of MH- especially the New York City of MH never existed. Trust me, as I grew up there. Yes, there are pugs & mugs & dames & broads that are the equal to any MH character- but they do things that are laughable, if thought of in realistic terms. But that’s the fuckin’ point! MH is MYTH, more than any attempt at reality. The myth is the NYC of Gershwin admixed with Orson Welles, & stirred with just enough James Cagney. It is comic book-cum-opera.
The important point, however, is how ‘real’ this mythos became to so many- not just MS readers but filmmakers, & even latter-day historians of that era in America. This is a tribute to both the powers of archetypes, & a master manipulator of them: a world real & unreal, & ever intertwined. Granted, things like the Estes Kefauver committee on organized crime, the McCarthyite tactics, the Korean War, the popularity of Rat Pack-type ‘cool’, etc. all contributed to making the MH cosmos ‘seem’ real- but to not grant MS the bulk of the credit is unfair. Even in the real world, Spillaneana had an influence- in fact, a good argument could be made that the things just mentioned were part of a mindset that the MH books contributed greatly to. Certainly MH’s influence was greater than any other fictive detective. Sherlock Holmes? Please. In many ways all prior fictive detectives were stereotypes, or at best oddballs. How often do we get to see the ‘personal’ Sherlock? But unlike SH MH is ALL archetype- not a stereotype. This goes against the grain of MS criticism but it’s true nonetheless, as highlighted by MS’s best prose. Does a stereotype, or mere comic book creation, have the ability to ruminate internally like this?:
From the river the low cry of dark shapes and winking lights that were ships echoed and re-echoed through the canyons of the avenues. Lola turned the radio on low, bringing in a selection of classical piano pieces, and I sat there with with my eyes closed, listening, thinking, picturing my redhead as a blackmailer. In a near sleep I thought it was Red at the piano fingering the keys while I watched approvingly, my mind filled with thoughts. She read my mind and her face grew sad, sadder than anything I had ever seen and she turned her eyes on me and I could see clear through them into the goodness of her soul and I knew she wasn’t a blackmailer and my first Impression had been right; she was a girl who had come face to face with fate and had lost, but in losing hadn’t lost all, for there was the light of holiness in her face that time when I was her friend, when I thought that a look like that belonged only in a church when you were praying or getting married or something, a light that was there now for me to see while she played a song that told me I was her friend and she was mine, a friendship that was more than that, it was a trust and I believed it…knew it and wanted it, for here was a devotion more than I expected or deserved and I wanted to be worthy of it, but before I could tell her so Feeney Last’s face swirled up from the mist beside the keyboard, smirking, silently mouthing smutty remarks and leering threats that took the holiness away from the scene and smashed it underfoot, assailing her with words that replaced the hardness and terror that had been ingrown before we met and I couldn’t do a thing about it because my feet were powerless to move and my hands were glued to my sides by some invisible force that Feeney controlled and wouldn’t release until he had killed her and was gone with his laugh ringing in the air and the smirk still on his face, daring me to follow when I couldn’t answer him; all I could do was stand there and look at my redhead’s lifeless body until I focused on her hands to see where he had scratched her when he took the ring off.
This outstanding passage is from Chapter 13 of My Gun Is Quick.
Forget that it’s just flat-out well-written, & it’s MH’s interior
thoughts about another character in the book. If you know that the girl
mentioned was a prostitute MH met on just 1 night- 1 time, gave some advice,
protection, & money to, it becomes all the more telling in the building of
‘character’ that MH has such a depth of feeling for someone he barely knew.
& what a remarkable 326 word sentence!
Unfortunately, when MS’s critics had at him they too often relied on passages like this- same book, Chapter 5:
Her lips were full and ripe, and whatever she had been was cleansed and there was no past for a brief instant. When I kissed her mouth was like a flame that fluttered from a feeble glow into a fiery torch.
& that is pretty bad writing; except when you realize that MH is describing a ‘real’ situation to him, with another ‘lady’ he has growing feelings for: Lola. He is not ruminating on death, but conveying the story (& his developing emotions that he does not yet have a hold of, thereby making the clichés fairly apropos) to the reader- that is a key difference. But even if 1 does not care, the fact is the ‘bad’ passage is much shorter than the good. Also, bear in mind, that the sexual passage is the bad passage, & how many people resort to stereotyped talk about sex?
‘She was making no attempt to keep the negligee on. . . . I wondered how she got her tan. There were no strap marks anywhere. She uncrossed her legs deliberately and squirmed like an overgrown cat, letting the light play with the ripply muscles in her naked thighs. . . . I was only human. I bent over her, taking her mouth on mine. . . . She quivered under my hands wherever I touched her. . . . My hand fastened on the hem of her negligee and with one motion flipped it open, leaving her body lean and bare. She let my eyes search every inch of her brown figure. I grabbed my hat and jammed it on my head. ‘It must be your sister who has the birthmark,’ I told her as I rose. ‘See you later.’’ [from I, The Jury]
In both the erotic & vengeance scenes we are presented with a complex
character- in the last scene MH is having his 2nd encounter with a
libidinous twin bent on seducing him. Although she later succeeds- in a very
animalistic encounter that pangs MH’s conscience, & perhaps leads to his
ultimately exposing Charlotte- the key point is that MH does not give in where
(if his description is accurate) few men- including myself- would NOT decline.
This is 1 of the many areas where the differences between a stereotype & an
archetype are drawn & delineated. Even at the beginning of the 1st
book, when MH is still a total unknown, that delineation is quickly drawn as his
character seems to command fear & a grudging respect from the cops. His
friend has been brutally murdered, but does he go right away in to his vengeance
speech? No, he offers some words of comfort to the girl crying on the couch- the
dead are dead, they can wait. Only after this gentlemanliness does he rile his
anger! Only after sensing the cops will not be able to bring justice to the
killer does MH unleash his furious soliloquy!
Even at novel’s end, as he confronts his psycho-bitch fiancée, Charlotte, MH does not make good on his initial vengeance vow. Instead, he lets her dig her own grave, so to speak, by allowing her to attempt to seduce him. Only as she makes her move to get a gun that MH doesn’t see until after he’s shot her, does he drill her- his instincts for oncoming danger (surpassed, perhaps, only by Spider-Man’s) overcome his lust & desire. As he says: ‘No, Charlotte, I'm the jury now, and the judge, and I have a promise to keep. Beautiful as you are, as much as I almost loved you, I sentence you to death.’ She replies, ‘How c-could you?’ & he says ‘It was easy’- perhaps the most famous last line, or at least character quote, in 20th Century fiction.
It is these individuated, glimmering little moments that paint a character the reader both identifies with, & wishes to emulate: these moments complex MH, who was too often conflated with MS because MS so often played the role (directly & mythically)of MH: on book covers, in films, tv ads, interviews, & such. But MH is more than his creator. He goes far back into the archetypal mists. Wisely, MS uses the archetypes to make the substructure of the tale hold- but it’s the in-betweens (the interior monologues, or- dare I?- soliloquies) where MS places his most masterful writing- genuinely GREAT at its best- but too many critics have ignored the good due to the raw power of the archetypal feints. Here is a typical example of MS playing to the archetype of the genre, from Vengeance Is Mine!: ‘I leaned back against the wall and kicked out and up with a slashing toe that nearly tore him in half. He tried to scream. All I heard was a bubbling sound. The billy hit the floor and he doubled over, hands clawing at his groin. This time I measured it right. I took a short half-step and kicked his face in.’
Yet, these more generically lurid moments always overshadowed some of the best writing, writing that puts the lie to Truman Capote’s infamous slander about MS’s writing being mere ‘typing’. This is how MS’s 2nd novel, My Gun Is Quick, opens. Note the switch from the philosophic opening, right into the action of the tale:
When you sit at home
comfortably folded up in a chair beside a fire, have you ever thought what goes
on outside there? Probably not. You pick up a book and read about things and
stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened.
You're doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with the details of
someone else's experiences. Fun, isn't it? You read about life on the outside
thinking about how maybe you'd like it to happen to you, or at least how you'd
like to watch it. Even the old Romans did it, spiced their life with action when
they sat in the Coliseum and watched wild animals rip a bunch of humans apart,
reveling in the sight of blood and terror. They screamed for joy and slapped
each other on the back when murderous claws tore into the live flesh of slaves
and cheered when the kill was made. Oh, it's great to watch, all right. Life
through a keyhole. But day after day goes by and nothing like that ever happens
to you so you think that it's all in books and not in reality at all and that's
that. Still good reading, though. Tomorrow night you'll find another book,
forgetting what was in the last and live some more in your imagination. But
remember this: there are things happening out there. They go on every day and
night making Roman holidays look like school picnics. They go on right under
your very nose and you never know about them. Oh yes, you can find them all
right. All you have to do is look for them. But I wouldn't if I were you because
you won't like what you'll find. Then again, I'm not you and looking for those
things is my job. They aren't nice things to see because they show people up for
what they are. There isn't a Coliseum any more, but the city is a bigger bowl,
and it seats more people. The razor-sharp claws aren't those of wild animals but
man's can be just as sharp and twice as vicious. You have to be quick, and you
have to be able, or you become one of the devoured, and if you can kill first,
no matter how and no matter who, you can live and return to the comfortable
chair and the comfortable fire. But you have to be quick. And able. Or you'll be
At ten minutes after twelve I tied a knot in my case and delivered Herman Gable’s lost manuscript to his apartment….
This is a
writer aware of the art’s artifice. MS is a Gepetto of the Big City- every
aspect of it informs every aspect of MH, & the unfolding of the tales/myths.
Even in this snippet he deftly weaves archetypes in with profound observations
by the character/himself (that damnable conflation often credenced by MS’s
work, as well his pose). But often forgotten in discussions of archetypes (&
even stereotypes) is how often they ARE TRUE! Take this bit from My Gun Is
Quick: ‘You’re big, Mike. You
can be called ugly if you take your face apart piece by piece and look at it
separately. You have a brutish quality about you that makes men hate you, but
maybe a woman wants a brute. Perhaps she wants a man she knows can hate and kill
yet retain a sense of kindness. How long have I known you, a few days? Long
enough to look at you and say I love you, and if things had been different I
would want you to love me back. But because it can’t be that way I’m almost
impersonal about it. I just want you to know it.’ This is Mike’s new
love, Lola, speaking to him. Yes, it’s archetypal. Yes, it’s melodramatic.
But it’s TRUE TO THE BONE. MS knows women as well as men. All men have known
women who have felt as Lola does- except they cannot voice it as
Now let me turn from the characters to the plot devices & narrative. Here is a crucial point regarding MS’s MH tales: it is easy to see who the killers are, at least for your average reader. But, as I said, the important point is not the end- but how 1 gets there. MS always said he comes up with the end scene 1st & then threads his beginning to get there, not knowing how he’s gonna get there- but he does. But, there is a very important reason for this- & it explains alot of why MS’s books are so popular: readers are drawn in because they feel superior to even MH, & people enjoy that feeling. It’s a good feeling & people always want to indulge their arrogance.
This aspect also informs the way MS presents MH: He’s no cool Sam Spade nor suave Nick Charles. In fact, we never really get a solid idea of what MH even looks like- a point of importance that Max Allan Collins brings to bear in the foreword to the book. Because of MH’s animalistic propensities both reader & MH’s foes constantly underestimate him. That we have little clue as to his appearance- even his past- we are more apt to feel ourselves more fully rounded, & superior, even as it lends an air of mystery & excitement to MH- which also draws the reader to him. Is he really ugly? We know he’s a white male, probably in his early to mid 30s by the events of I, The Jury- & the rest of the books seem to follow chronologically. We know he’s ‘big’- but this is relative. Is he 5’10”- big for the 40s, or really big- well over 6’? Is he muscular? Is he around 200 lbs.- again, big for the 40s, or closer to 250? Despite this blurry image MH seems to never be at a loss for sexual opportunity- so he must not be really ‘ugly’- just so-so, at least if he is able to fill his role as a homme fatale. Despite his attractiveness to the opposite sex MH seems to take the classic Madonna/Whore Syndrome too seriously: the women he truly feels for- Charlotte, Lola, Velda- he is loath to soil with his lust. But if you’re a hooker, nymphomaniac, or tart, MH has his love gun at the ready! In I, The Jury MH makes clear this Syndrome in words about Velda too clear to miss: ‘I never made a pass at her. Not that I didn't want to, but it would be striking too close to home.’ Madonna/Whore/Mom/Apple Pie- it’s all there.
Another major feature of the MH oeuvre is that people rarely are what they seem: his fiancée Charlotte Manning, the psychiatrist, turns out to be the killer; Hal Kines is not a college playboy; his buddies- Jack Williams & Chester Wheeler- all seem to lead 2ble lives that get them killed; tycoon Arthur Berin-Grotin is a wealthy pimp & killer; & seductive Juno Reeves turns out to be a guy. This duality is another link to the comic book world- think of Batman’s great nemeses, The Joker & Two-Face. Because the crooks are so transparent, & so patently evil what results is not so much a realistic drama as a mythic battle between Good & Evil. MH sees himself as both a Crusading Knight & little above what he loathes. This duality within MH is merely a reflection of his world & enemies. Again, this directly references comic book superheroes & their need for aliases & disguises. Like many a superhero MH both longs for acceptance & rejects it. He will never be a cop- 1 of the boys in blue. He is a loner. He will never marry, despite his abiding love for Velda. Something within has been seriously damaged. Hints that it may have been the war abound in his choices of words & images: ‘If we had both been in the jungle and some slimy Jap had picked him off I would have rammed the butt of a rifle down the brown bastard's throat for it.’ [Vengeance Is Mine!] Yet, there is the sense that it goes a lot deeper & farther back than WW2: ‘I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society.’ [One Lonely Night]
Yet, this is all archetypal antihero angst. At least to you & I in the 21st Century- where this stuff is pretty old hat. In the 1940s this was new & very different. In fact, MH was the revolutionary character in his genre, whereas the Spades, Marlowes, & Holmeses look fairly quaint & 1-dimensional by comparison. & angst is a central component to the whole archetype of the antihero, as are violence, machismo, & animal magnetism. MH could do things so many of us wish we could. He has no governing body within his person. He is, at his most, all id. & this is all part of the MH fantasy. He is a fantasy hero who met violence with violence. Someone once counted that the MH books average about 10 killings per.
But that wasn’t the only way MS was ahead of his time, as a writer. He also employed a lot of humor & sexual subtext which was misinterpreted- & surprisingly some very contemporary themes on sexuality- especially homosexuality, where he was too often labeled homophobic. Consider this snippet from Vengeance Is Mine!:
There was a pansy down at the end of the bar trying to make a guy who was too drunk to notice and was about to give it up as a bad job. I got a smile from the guy and he came close to getting knocked on his neck. The bartender was one of them, too, and he looked put out because I came in with a dame.
Sounds homophobic? Well, not when you consider that MH has entered the
bar with Juno Reeves, the book’s killer & also a transvestite. MH cannot
get a hold of why, throughout the book, there is something not right with Juno-
he thinks ‘she’s’ gorgeous but-
So, instead of being homophobic this passage is a sly comment on gay life
in mid-century America, the whole attraction to Juno (sketched in detail) takes
on greatly homoerotic tones- far more daring & interesting than later
attempts by patently ‘gay’ fictionists, & the line in the above
quote- ‘I got a smile from the guy and he came close to getting knocked on
his neck.’ is revealed as MH finally gaining acceptance among folk- as
a presumed queer! The hardest of all boiled private dicks finds acceptance in
the society of homosexuals! This is very funny & ironic stuff.
This is another thing that links MH to superheroes, & Batman in particular- he’s not only like the grim Dark Knight take on Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego, but not too far from the campy 1960s tv version of the character. This, then, makes MH’s rejection of the flirtations of the queers in the bar that more funny. But it’s well within the character, too. & by the time the scene in the gay bar comes most readers will have suspected- due to allusions- that Juno is probably a gay man in drag, had that confirmed by the bar scene, & then watched a good deal of the rest of the book become strongly homoerotic- even to today’s audience drenched by modern gay fiction. Then, it’s not much longer that we figure out (s)he is the killer, as well.
Obviously, most critics have missed these sorts of points which raise MS’s writing well above his peers. Instead both groups focus on the obvious: MH kicks ass! That he fights for the underdog, & keeps his word. As said, he is a mystery in many ways- his mien, his past. Typical of MH’s own assertions of his past are statements like this: ‘I had gotten a taste of death and found it palatable to the extent that I could never again eat the fruits of normal civilization.’ But, MH is such a control freak 1 wonders whether the character lets these little emotional & personal eddies loose to win over the audience, or merely to justify his vigilantism? Perhaps is the correct answer to both queries. But, we should recall that MH is not merely MH- he’s an archetype through & through. 1 feels, at times, that the ‘character’ within the ‘fiction’ is aware that he is playing a part- however mythic. This is another reason why the page-tuner formula works- ever recall lengthy exposition in tales of Odin, Yahweh, or Zeus? Like the Classical deities MH acts to act- to do something rather than accept the banalities lesser beings toil in. If this means kicking in the teeth of a goon- so be it. There’s only a hare’s-breadth between a goon & a Frost-Giant- no? MS heightens this tie-in by the very dropping in of mythic references here & there. Another point is this- the fast pace of the action has another very defined purpose- 1 with its roots in the old poetic Greek Choruses- it never lets the reader forget exactly where we are in the tale. But, instead of the Greeks we get MH’s internal monologues which sometimes even break the so-called 4th Wall- as it does at the start of My Gun Is Quick (see above). &, unlike, his pot-boiling predecessors MH does not reveal the guilty- he SMITES’EM! & he holds no guilt- this from One Lonely Night: ‘There's no shame or sin in killing a killer. David did it when he knocked off Goliath. Saul did it when he slew his tens of thousands. There's no shame to killing an evil thing.’
It’s clear MH takes his surname seriously (Hammer/Mjölnir-Thor’s Hammer)- & in this novel (which I’ve not read- but gleaned through online synopses & quotes), released in 1952, MH seemingly moved beyond the mythic into the overtly political- & seemingly right wing. If you’re a critic with a grudge, forget the Bible when you have quotes like this to fulminate over: ‘I had one good, efficient, enjoyable way of getting rid of cancerous Commies. I killed them.’ The era of McCarthyism unfortunately dovetailed with the fury of MH’s popularity & begged the mythic query: Can 1 man/god/God right all wrongs- or lefts? This quote, from the same book, is typical of those pointed to bolster critics’ disgust over both MS’s forays into politics & myth: ‘I lived to kill because my soul was a hardened thing that reveled in the thought of taking the blood of the bastards who made murder their business. I lived because I could laugh it off and others couldn't. I was the evil that opposed other evil, leaving the good and the meek in the middle to live and inherit the earth!’ Yet, MS’s defenders state that the book is obviously a raucous romp & so over-the-top in plotting & melodrama that to see it as any serious critique shows how biased against MS the critics were that they failed to see any of the subtleties. It was almost as if MS dared the critics to attack the work on serious grounds, & they took the bait. MS has always relished in getting the better of his critics- which he has. Like almost all of MH’s acquaintances the book, apparently features folk who are not what they seem- in this case the McCarthyistic anti-commie idealogue, Lee Deamer, is in fact a Soviet mole. That this feature- human’s innate duality, or multiplicities- is seminal in all myth, was again conveniently overlooked.
Instead, the critics focused on such quotes from the book, One Lonely Night, as: ‘I could laugh now and think rings around them all because I was smarter than the best they could offer. Torture, Death, and Lies were their brothers, but I had dealt with those triplets many times myself. They weren't strangers to me.’ I ask you- even out of context- isn’t this obviously silly- if not intendedly parodic? It seems critics were unwilling to give MS any credit for being able to manipulate words (therefore ideas) on anything but a 3rd grade reading level. But I’ve given you a # of examples that easily contradict this assertion. MS, himself, in an interview with Esquire magazine, once gave the best reply to this sort of logic: ‘I'm not an author, I'm a writer. I can write a book in a few weeks, never rewrite, never read galleys. Bad reviews don't matter. I'm writing for the public. An author would never do that. They write one book, they think they're set. I'll tell you when you're a good writer. When you're successful. I'd write like Thomas Wolfe if I thought it would sell.’[added emphasis mine] & don’t believe that MS couldn’t do so! In fact, the above quoted Washington Post story on MS relates this interesting tidbit:
Ayn Rand in ‘The Romantic Manifesto’ quotes from MS’s description of New York at night as an example of his skill- ‘The rain was misty enough to be almost foglike, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy yellow lights off in the distance’- and then compares it to a passage by Thomas Wolfe- ‘The city had never seemed as beautiful as it looked that night. For the first time he saw that New York was supremely, among the cities of the world, a city of night. There had been achieved here a loveliness that was astounding and incomparable, a kind of modern beauty, inherent to its place and time, that no other place nor time could match.’ Rand says, ‘there is not a single emotional word or adjective in Spillane's description; he presents nothing save visual facts; but he selects only those facts, only those eloquent details, which convey the visual reality of the scene and create a mood of desolate loneliness.’ Wolfe, she said, used only estimates, ‘and in the absence of any indication of what aroused these estimates, they are arbitrary assertions and meaningless generalities.’
& AR was spot-on in her analysis. Granted, there are stylistic differences & I don’t know the books either quoted piece comes from- but even as snippets, MS’s towers over TW’s. But, with the 1st era of the MH books over, the critics seemed to learn to appreciate MS a bit more the 2nd & 3rd go-rounds. Perhaps it was because his imitators (names long & deservedly forgotten) were so obviously aping him, with none of the skills MS possessed, that critics took another gander. Or perhaps the influence MS had on non-American writers: a group some called The Sons Of Spillane: Sweden’s Lars Goerling, Kenya’s Meja Mwangi, & the Netherland’s Jan Cremer. Or perhaps they grasped that MS wrote in the MH mode just to support himself- that he WAS capable of more. Then, again, these are critics. Let’s peek at some of their wrath.
Typical of the reactions to all of MS’s books were the nasty snipes
that were unleashed after the very 1st book, I, The Jury,
came out. Note, how ‘negative criticism’- when it ultimately turns out to be
wrong- so often drips with over-the-top invective & a lack of humor &
grace. Granted, were this done in the 1970s, for the 1st time, 1
might still smite the attacks, but for Postmodernism run amok. But, in 1947,
these quotes reveal small minds grasping into the ad hominemal & adjectival
voids. 1st off, the venerable New York Times
declared, on 8/3/47: ‘The dialogue and action leave little to
be imagined.’ Okay, not so bad, I admit. B-U-T, that’s like criticizing
Shakespeare for having his play’s characters all of a sudden break out of
their diurnal do to soliloquize to the void- or, more aptly, to try to speak
metrically in the 1st place! In other words, if you don’t wanna
accept certain conventions of the genre, don’t be a critic of that genre.
A few years ago, I recall a similar critical break with reality which occurred during the release of Hollywood’s big budget version of Godzilla. Somehow, the critics expected Oscar-worthy acting in a story about an overgrown lizard that stomps on New York! The tale was fast-moving, humorous, & in many ways faithful to its source material- + having special effects that rivaled or surpassed those in the much lauded Jurassic Park. &, apropos of MS, the film was deemed not just a critical bomb- but a financial 1, too- despite pulling in about $300 million worldwide!
Less than a week after the New York Times came this ridiculous piece, from the 8/9/47 Saturday Review Of Literature: ‘Lurid action, lurid characters, lurid writing, lurid plot, lurid finish. Verdict: Lurid.’
Main Entry: lu·rid
Etymology: Latin luridus pale yellow, sallow
Date: circa 1656
1 a : wan and ghastly pale in appearance b : of any of several light or medium grayish colors ranging in hue from yellow to orange
2 : shining with the red glow of fire seen through smoke or cloud
3 a : causing horror or revulsion : GRUESOME b : MELODRAMATIC, SENSATIONAL; also : SHOCKING <paperbacks in the usual lurid covers -- T. R. Fyvel>
synonym see GHASTLY
- lu·rid·ly adverb
- lu·rid·ness noun
critic was referring to definition #3- & proud that he knew it! Hmmm….but-
it’s a CRIME novel? Are not crimes lurid? Even in the 40s the same newspapers
& magazines that decried MS were featuring the last minutes of a Lepke
Buchalter & other major domos of crime. Another criticism was lobbed about a
week later, 8/17/47, by a James Sandoe in the Chicago Sun’s Book
Week: ‘His novel is a
shabby and rather nasty little venture from the indefensible logic of its
opening scene to the drooling titillation of its final striptease.’
Titillation, in & of itself, is neither good nor bad- only if it’s
gratuitous, perhaps, in a ‘serious’ novel. From the start the
critics were out of their element. It’s as if Moby-Dick’s whaling
scenes were critiqued for historical accuracy by a lumberjack. By the time of One
Lonely Night, a few years later, we got the simple-minded conflations I
earlier remarked on: ‘Mike Hammer is the logical conclusion, almost a sort
of brutal apotheosis, of McCarthyism; when things seem wrong, let one man cure
the wrong by whatever means he, as a privileged savior, chooses... he operates,
as has Senator McCarthy, on the final philosophy that the end can justify the
means; in this Hammerism and McCarthyism are similar.’ This was from a
Christopher La Farge review in The Saturday Review, in 1954. Boy,
that’s really stood the test of time as an artistic comment! Note how, just as
with the many ridiculous poetasters & critics I’ve skewered in Cosmoetica,
so rarely is the art encountered & dealt with as the preconception of
the art! 2 years earlier Life magazine aptly opined: ‘No major book
reviewer, anywhere, ever said a kind word about Mickey Spillane.’
But, that would change in the next decade, as we will see. But in the dull 1950s little could stop even MS’s rivals in the genre from piling on. Here’s Raymond Chandler, as quoted in a magazine called Playback: ‘I picked a paperback off the table and made a pretense of reading it. It was about some private eye whose idea of a hot scene was a dead, naked woman hanging from the shower rail with the marks of torture on her...I threw the paperback into the wastebasket, not having a garbage can handy at the moment.’ If the elitist sneer was not obvious it’s only because you’re bellylaughing that such a quote came from a guy in the same genre!
MS’s biggest detractor, however, seems to have been a critic named Anthony Boucher- who seemed to delight in inveighing against almost every conceivable aspect of Spillaneana. Here was his 8/3/47 take on I, The Jury, in a review for the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘Able, if painfully derivative, writing and plotting, in so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal methods that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school.’ Yet another example of the critic letting his/her political or philosophical expectations get in the way of objectively viewing the art. Key to bear in mind, however, is the grudging admission that the book’s writing is ‘able’. We’ll see why. A few years later AB’s critical profile had risen, apparently, for now he was opining in the New York Times, still zeroing in on MS. This is from a 2/12/50 review of My Gun Is Quick: ‘As ammunition for the various bodies crying for the suppression or control of crime writing, this new Spillane novel could hardly be surpassed; as a detective story, it is in inferior to his I THE JURY in plot (which is both strained and obvious) and writing (which often approaches parody), but fully equal to it in its attempt to see how far uncensored publishing can go.’ Key # 2 is the now grudging admission that there are at least degrees to this ‘trashy’ sort of writing. Or as MS, himself, would opine, in rebuttal to the constant equation of his literary skills with refuse: ‘But it's good garbage!’ A year later, 8/5/51, still in the New York Times, AB would take aim at The Big Kill: ‘The mixture even more repellent than before... As rife with sexuality and sadism as any of his novels, based on a complete misunderstanding of law and on the wildest coincidence in detective fiction, it still can boast the absence of the hypocritical 'crusading' sentiments of Mike Hammer. For that reason, and for some slight ingenuity in its denouement, it may rank as the best Spillane--which is the faintest praise this department has ever bestowed.’ But praise nonetheless, & if you’ve detected a slight loosening in AB’s war on MS, you’re very observant. By the time Kiss Me, Deadly came out AB seemed to be a man wearied & beaten: ‘Comes almost as a relief after the interim flood of Spillane imitators. Chief difference, I think, is that Spillane really believes (God help him) in what he's writing, while the imitators are just trying to turn a fast buck.’ This was a sentiment AB seems to have been the 1st to pick up on & in the ‘FREE LOVE’ decade of the 60s even MS’s critics softened enough to almost outright embrace MS as an American original- if not a treasure. Here was AB, in an unidentified quote from late in that decade: ‘For almost twenty years I have been one of the leaders in the attacks on Spillane; but of late I begin to wonder whether we reviewers, understandably offended by Spillane's excesses of brutality and his outrageously antidemocratic doctrines, may not have underestimated his virtues: a genuine vigor and conviction lacking in his imitators.’
Even Christopher LaFarge, who had earlier demonized MS as a McCarthyite, seemed to be able to put MS & MH in a greater & more accepting context (quote also undated, but from a later period than 1954’s pitched heat): ‘Some men were toughened by combat but the huge majority of them came off from the experience with a desire to put that side of war -- and the brutal methods self-preservation taught them -- as far back in their minds as possible, the notion that danger could be faced and won by force was ingrained, not only in GIs who had fought through hell and survived, but in the wider population who had waited back home, imagining the worst.’ Finally, there was an attempt at context, at understanding, if not liking, why MH & MS rose from the pulp to iconic status.
By the 1980s & 90s there seemed to be a new respect for MS, especially from younger crime writers- led by the editor of the edition I perused through, Max Allan Collins. The 2 quotes that follow are typical of his defense of Spillaneana. This from 1998’s The Big Book of Noir: ‘Why should one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century need defending? Easy, as Mike Hammer might say: his subject matter and his approach were so hard-hitting, so individual, that Spillane repelled the more proper and staid among the Literary Establishment (and the Establishment in general, including Dr. Frederic Wertham and Parents Magazine and other unpointed arbiters of public morality.). And it has taken time, and changing mores - plus the natural PR knack of Spillane himself, with such disarming tactics as funny self-parody beer commercials and the writing of award-winning children's books - to give him his rightful place as the living giant among mystery writers.’ B-I-N-G-O! Especially the part about MS’s PR skills, or more properly his ability to make his critics look stupid, envious, & petty. His weapon? Humor. Before we go there, here was MAC, same year, in Mystery & Suspense Writers: ‘Spillane writes with speed, and the rough-hewn poetry of his narrator creates a fantasy city, a New York of myth and dream, populated by the same character types as those found in the work of Daly, Hammett, and Chandler- good girls, black widows, thugs, frustrated cops, gang lords, corrupt society leaders- but delivered with a unique fever-dream fervor.’ A fervor that IS style- something a HACK innately lacks- lest he would not be a HACK!
Yet, the greatest aspect that turned the tide from savage demonizing to, at least, grudging & limited respect, was- without doubt- MS’s unceasing self-deprecative personality. I’ve commented on some of the humor in the books- let’s now observe some of that from the man. Here are a few specifically designed to piss off his knee-jerk critics, who easily obliged by ratcheting up their fury in succeeding reviews:
-to the Washington Post: ‘I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers.’ Of course, we all know real art CAN NEVER be commercial, or-even worse- commercially successful!
-‘Crime novels are a good way to make money.’ No shit! You can almost sense the critics’ teeth chattering at that 1!
-‘I pay no attention to those jerks who think they're critics. I don't give a hoot about reading reviews. What I want to read are the royalty checks.’ That must have elicited a collective Homer Simpson-like D’oh! from the literati.
-‘I don't care what they say about me, as long as they don't rip up my dollar bills.’ D’oh! deux!
-to TV Guide, 1961: ‘There was a time when wild, gory scenes of violence were stock items in a story or script. I certainly went all out myself when that was the trend.’ Here, he admits he did it just to get by- anathema for an artist, but 1 can see MS really toying with the critics now.
-1984: ‘They can't kill me. I still got potential.’ A perfect choice in using the ‘p’ word so many critics use to fob off any real criticism of a younger writer with.
- ‘I never thought anything big would come of all my writing, I just always wrote the kind of stuff I like to read.’ Here he’s almost daring the writers, like a slightly older & smarter kid to a younger 1, to use his own words against him because he has another great zinger up his sleeve.
It should be obvious to all that MS is alot more than his detractors
charge- especially those who insist that MS’s own self-deprecations are really
admissions of a talent lack, or worse, any lack of a formulated idea on
literature. But, a quick online search neatly punctures that charge, as well: ‘The
biggest part of the joke is the punch line, so the biggest part of a book should
be the punch line, the ending. People don't read a book to get to the middle,
they read a book to get to the end and hope that the ending justifies all the
time they spent reading it. So what I do is, I get my ending and, knowing what
my ending is going to be, then I write to the end and have the fun of knowing
where I'm going but not how I'm going to get there.’- Speaking of
Murder, 1998. This is an almost eerie parallel to my own prescription for
writing a successful sonnet- have memorable openings & closings, pepper in
some startling devices (rhymes, narrative turns, music, etc.), make sure it’s
polished, & voila! But MS gets even more specific: ‘My idea was
that if you took the last word away you wouldn't know what the book was about.
When I turned in Vengeance Is Mine!, I turned it in with the last word
missing. The editor said, ‘What was the word? What was the word?’ I said,
‘Give me a thousand bucks,’ and I gave him the word.’ Nowadays it
seems almost quaint that an editor could be so naïve as to not know that the
last word in the book is ‘man’, but it’s a great anecdote, which
highlights why MS- via his raconteuring- was able to stay ahead of the critical
pack while the critics, themselves, either swallowed their words (Boucher,
LaFarge- what’s with the Frog heritage anyway!?), faded into oblivion (Sandoe,
et al.), or both.
But, now that we’ve briefly toured the spite hurled at him, let us return to the stuff that started it all. Let me flesh out (nice pun) the 1st 3 MH novels for you.
The book that I bought, The Mike Hammer Collection: Volume 1, has
the 1st 3 novels presented in their order of appearance: I, The
Jury, My Gun is Quick, & Vengeance Is Mine! Note how the
titles get deliciously more lurid & active- right up to the !
in Vengeance is Mine! Let me now sketch out each of the book’s tales,
as well as relating them to themes discussed earlier.
A rainy night, a murder, a
sobbing babe ready to be comforted, cops at the ready, puzzled & in need of
something. This is the milieu anyone who has a vague inkling of MS’s MH
automatically conjures. & it’s the setting where the world 1st
meets private cop MH. There’s the babe: Myrna, & MH’s old army pal Jack
Williams. The cops see a routine case. MH senses sadism & describes it to
Pat Chambers, his cop buddy, & captain of the local precinct. It is only at
the evidence of sadism that MH makes his famous vow: ‘He won't sit
on the chair. He won't hang. He will die exactly as you died, with a .45 slug in
the gut, just a little below the belly button. No matter who it is, Jack, I'll
get the one. Remember, no matter who it is, I promise.’ Or this: ‘You're
a cop, Pat. You're tied down by rules and regulations. There's someone over you.
I'm alone. I can slap someone in the puss and they can't do a damn thing. No one
can kick me out of my job. Maybe there's nobody to put up a huge fuss if I get
gunned down, but then I still have a private cop's license with the privilege to
pack a rod, and they're afraid of me. I hate hard, Pat. When I latch on to the
one behind this they're going to wish they hadn't started it. Some day, before
long, I'm going to have my rod in my mitt and the killer in front of me. I'm
going to watch the killer's face. I'm going to plunk one right in his gut, and
when he's dying on the floor I may kick his teeth out.’ This is where we
get the 1st rift between the genre’s formalities & MS’s new
take on things. As with many prior crime books this 1 has its own ‘society
party’. This is where MH scopes out a typical lineup of possible murderers:
the sexpot Bellemy twins- Mary (who lacks the birthmark, but later gets nailed
by MH) & Esther (the non-nympho)- rich playgirls with nothing to lose; the
sobbing Myrna- a recovering smack addict; Charlotte Manning- the wealthy
psychiatrist-cum-goddess-cum-fiancée-cum-drug dealer-cum-killer; Hal Kines- a
playboy college boy who turns out to be a plastic surgically altered pimp &
drug dealer; & George Kalecki- a shady rich man with a dark past MH knows
all too well.
But, the inevitable get-together of all the chief suspects at another party does not result in the revelation of the suspect- although Mike hammers Mary Bellemy. Yes, there are classic elements in the book- the death of innocents (Jack Williams, Myrna, Bobo Hopper), gratuitous but entertaining brawling, MH seeing his fair share of gorgeous pussy, plot turns galore- the prime suspects (Kines & Kalecki) turn out to be red herrings, & MH’s monomania for justice/vengeance. The clues slowly sort themselves out for MH. The book’s denouement, now classic- & almost trite, after later imitations, had to have been a scorcher back in the day.
This book lays the template: 1) nasty quotables, 2) MH’s cat-n-mouse love for Velda, 3) his ‘partnership’ with Pat, 4) his overall character, 5) the sex & gore, & 6) the crescendos at novel’s end- which reached its climax 2 books later. On a scale of 1-100 I will give MS’s books 2 ratings- the 1st is for its excellence in the genre, & the 2nd is for its literary value- regardless of its genre.
In genre I rate I, The Jury a 97 out of 100- it’s just so classic & archetypal. Yes, some elements saw MH improve upon in the later books, but this was the great ‘break’ from those who came before. As pure literature I’d give it a good solid 88 out of 100. There are too many nods that tie it to the genre to rate it as highly as I do in-genre, but there are too many positives to not admit this is an excellent book- better than anything Dickens or Tolstoy ever penned.
Now that I’ve limned the book’s tale let me criticize it in a wider context. In many ways, much of what critics said about MS, MH, & this book was absolutely true. They just mistook those qualities- acts of violence, titillation, machismo, narrative rapidity, archetypes- for their negative counterparts: wanton violence, pornography, sexism, shallowness, & stereotypes. Part of the reason, I believe, that this error in judgment occurred was for the very reason that MS WAS SO GOOD at what he did. Were he not critics would not have bothered with it- but they kept coming back to pummel this book as if they really knew that it hit a primal nerve with an America that understood such entertainment (yes, art) at a fundamentally visceral level at odds with the gentlemanly art of dialectical criticism. It reminds 1 of the silly- & now obviously ridiculous- pummelings that Impressionist paintings 1st got- that is, the critics knew that the art they were weaned on was soon going to be obviated by this newer type of art that was at once ‘more realistic’ & more mythic.
Let me close
out this piece by summarizing some of the major points.
1) MS is a Minimalist par excellence- he does not ‘overwrite’. We have seen this in the selections I, & others, point to. Critics often mistook this Minimal approach with being simple- a conflation an average reader might make, but which a critic should not have. The reasons for these bad reviews were generally politically, not artistically, motivated. Even in his quipped rebuttals to critics MS shows a penchant for brevity & humor- yet another overlooked factor in the MH books.
2) MS is an archetypalist- something conducive to his Minimalist approach. This often led to many of the MH characters being thought of as stereotypes- but as we’ve seen, certainly MH & his recurring cast are not stereotypes but archetypes: MH as the antihero whose depth raises him above stereotype, Velda as the bodacious secretary, whose independence, wit, & sexual tension (decades before the term became vogue) raise her above mere sidekick status, & Pat Chambers- who rises above being just ‘the good cop’ to MH’s ‘bad cop’ by actually being ahead of MH at times, & by showing a capacity to do what is ‘right’ rather than what is merely ‘legal’- in other words, he’s not the stereotypical ‘straight arrow’- & just read some of the verbal exchanges he has with MH- this character is fully-fleshed out, even with the relative paucity of time we encounter him. Notice the verbal shorthand between the 2, & the described body language which suggests a deep relationship between the 2 men- 1 borne of professional- & perhaps personal- respect- even if readers are not privy to the specifics that govern their interactions. Simply put, stereotypes do not- & CANNOT- interact in this manner. MS does a wonderful job of SHOWING us just enough so that- as readers- we don’t feel we need to see the specifics. The characters are too real, & readers might be embarrassed at their own voyeuristic penchants. Similar claims against stereotyping could be made for a # of the characters in the 1st 3 books: Charlotte Manning, Lola, Arthur Berin-Grotin, Juno Reeves, & Dinky Williams all have moments where they are revealed to be a bit more than what is expected within ‘genre’. The correspondence with figures from myth is apparent, as well: the MH/Charlotte ending corresponds, in many ways, to the Perseus-Medusa mythos, Lola is a Magdalenic figure, ABG is a demonic manipulator- choose from among the many mythic possibilities, Juno is also an all-purpose trickster/shapeshifter- from Loki to Proteus, & Dinky Williams is like so many of the ‘Gods’ who manipulates to seduce the chaste (Velda). I could go in to greater detail, but I suggest you make the connections with whichever characters & myths you desire.
3) MS not only wrote his books quickly, but wrote in a breathy, fast-paced style. He did this not because this was all that he was capable of, but because the form fit the function- to excite the reader to read on, buy more MH tales, & allow MS to slip in some of the other ascribed excellent qualities as the ‘medicine’ for the pace’s ‘sugar’.
4) The archetyping & pace place a premium not on what things occur, but how they occur. This allows MS the advantage of foreshadowing further developments in the story. This is a classic approach to myth-making, & allows the reader the sense of superiority over the protagonist (MH), which further connects the reader with the character, as the reader is drawn to pull for him. Note how often the greatest of myths follow this foreshadowing pattern: Eve’s rebelliousness gives meaning to Adam’s- & the obvious & eventual Fall. Gilgamesh’s 1/3 manhood foreshadows Enkidu’s part-manhood, although their other respective parts are greater & lower than man, which sets the stage for their friendship & the epic’s significance as an embracive tale of the union of all beings. Also Enkidu’s death is foretold & comes true, due to the demon Humbaba. How often did MH curse & follow through on his damnations? Romeo & Juliet’s impulsive youth allows all but the most stolid to see their easily averted ends are- to them- unavoidable, etc. In these, & other tales, readers know what the outcomes will be; it’s the power of Adam & Eve’s curiosity, Gilgamesh’s determination, & Romeo & Juliet’s love which draw the reader along. Similarly it’s the force & speed of MH’s actions & depth of his ruminations which keep us glued to the page, long after we know whodunit. Will he actually feel pleasure after blowing away his fetishized Charlotte? Will he actually die along with ABG in the inferno? Or wait till the last to drill the bastard? Will he figure out that Juno is not only a killer, but a transvestite? These are the more cogent queries because readers know, in the end, MH will win.
It’s about time that MS was recognized as more than just a pulp fictionist, although he was probably the best the crime/mystery genre has yet produced. MS is a great prose stylist at his best- the equal of any of the best any other genre has produced. Sci fi writers seem to, now, be gaining a long overdue respect. In fact, by 2050 I’ll wager that the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, & Arthur C. Clarke will be canonical in Western Literature while many of the leading lights of the last 35 or so years- Toni Morrison, Pat Conroy, Erica Jong, John Updike, etc.- will have long been excised. Having read good portions of all 9 writers mentioned above I can state that MS is a superior writer to all. Bradbury probably comes the closest in overall quality- enough to argue over, with the other 4 sci fi’ists in order: Clarke (approaches the myth-making, but not as tight in plotting), Burroughs (as pulpy as MS but no one ever really cares about Tarzan nor John Carter the way they do about MH), Asimov (too long-winded), & Herbert (see Asimov x 2). The 4 ‘serious’ writers all have serious flaws that once they are dead critics, who are not bound by today’s PC standards, will feel free to rip. Morrison’s novels are too convoluted & she is not good at characterization, Conroy is a bad soap opera hack, Jong is too flighty without any real content, & Updike is fairly dull. MS, however, satisfies criteria on all levels- the mass appeal & the nod to the ‘higher’ aims of art- all the while revealing a self-deprecation in person & art. The point to be made is- all this is obvious to even a casual reader of just the 1st 3 novels!
Let me be the 1st on the bandwagon that sees the eventual rise of MS out of the confines of mere ‘genre’ fictionist. By being the best in a genre 1 surpasses that genre & deserves acclaim as a true artist- it’s a road traveled by such formerly scorned ‘genre’ writers as Herman Melville, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, & Jack London (another long-neglected craftsman of high caliber). MS is in that league- & deserves the plaudits. Although MS’s work is best seen as art defined as entertainment, he succeeds admirably on many higher levels, too. My only regret is that I was not able to be so captivated back in that bygone summer of '76- too wrapped up in my summer wanderings, & all the giddy BS of that year, & turned off by the tired & predictable bumblings & mumblings of James Garner & Peter Falk- DAMN YOU Rockford & Columbo!
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