RARA-AVIS: Spillane revisited

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 30 Dec 2002

Mickey Spillane began his hugely successful career in the 1940s but I've always thought of him as a 1950s writer. Still, our celebration of the 40s gave me a good reason to revisit a writer who wowed me when I discovered him during my teen years. It is always dangerous to revisit old loves but I felt confident that while I might be more critical of some aspects, the primal power would remain and carry me over the rough spots.

So it was an immense disappointment to reread I, THE JURY (1947) and discover that while this was an incredibly influential novel, it isn't a very good novel. Here are the positives. The character of Mike Hammer as an avenging force is crudely but powerfully laid out in the opening chapter. It is so different from the heroes of the time that it may be impossible to appreciate fully in 2002 the impact on the field. The novel lurches forward for a few chapters before Spillane hits a nice page-turning pace. Unfortunately, the reader must ignore a strained plot, poorly realized scenes and most of all, very crude, clumsy writing. Hammer is a dolt who simply keeps interviewing people while one by one each is killed. His sudden swoon as a love sick puppy professing life-long love for someone he has just met is just not convincingly presented. I can and do accept Mike Hammer as a romantic but that does not mean I want to see him portrayed like a character in an Archie comic.

What saves I, THE JURY is the ending, which more than fulfills the promise of the opening. More than the concept of the ENDING, which is legendary, the way he drives it home in those final pages is masterful. There, at the very end, I rediscovered Spillane I remembered.

Well, I must say that it bothered me to have such a powerful icon of my youth diminished. Thinking back to the late 1950s and very early 60s, I remembered that I, THE JURY was one of the last Hammer novels I read. The first two Hammer novels I ever read I stole from the shelves of the local drug store. It made reading them even more of a guilty pleasure. I don't have them handy to check but I am reasonably certain that the first two were MY GUN IS QUICK and ONE LONELY NIGHT. I think it is Gun that opens with Hammer going into a bar on a rainy night and makes conversation with a whore who calculates whether his change on the bar is worth the go. Whoa! This ain't a story out of Vacation Bible School.

And I loved Hammer pounding his enemies without mercy but with a basic fairness (you swing and miss and I then get to crush your nose and cheekbones). I loved the way he bought "a deck of Luckies" from the newsy and tapped one out to light it. Man, it took me three decades to shake the results of that impression! And here was a real disappointment about the rereading. Luckies were not mentioned in the 40th Anniversary edition of the novel. I do not have my older copy handy to see if the earlier editions had the brand specific mentions.

So unwilling to let this disappointment stand I roamed the bookstores of Atlanta (where I have spent the last few days) for more Spillane. I wanted vintage Spillane, not Tiger Mann or any of the recent Hammers. At last I found VENGEANCE IS MINE (1950) and friends I am happy to report that here is the real Mike Hammer. Here is the guy, who unlike other PI's who may threaten to shoot a hoodlum, just shoots 'em! You don't think I'll shoot you, Blam!! goes old Betsy and the guy has a new hole. He does this and you believe in him every step of the way. Spillane is confident and in control of the plot and the character and is driving this one all the way home.

VENGEANCE is almost a sister novel to I, THE JURY. Certainly it has the whammo ending that is second only to JURY in its power. More than that the plots are very similar. In both, a friend of Hammer's is killed and Mike, by damn, is going to avenge them. JURY is more personal, more directly revenge-driven. In VENGEANCE Hammer's connection to the victim is not as close but added in is the feud with the DA who lifts Hammer's PI and gun licenses in the first chapter. I could say that JURY is to VENGEANCE what Woolrich's THE BRIDE WORE BLACK was to RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK but that might be carrying it too far.

In any case, I bid good-bye to 1940s month with I, THE JURY and welcome in the 1950s with VENGEANCE IS MINE, a much, much better example of Mike Hammer in his prime.

Richard Moore

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