Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Spillane Punches Out

Mickey Spillane might well have sold more “hard-boiled” fiction than any other writer of the twentieth century. When his first novel, I, the Jury, was released as a 25-cent Signet paperback in 1947, it was a genuine worldwide blockbuster, selling something like four million copies within five years. Spillane took advantage of his newfound fame, quickly producing four more novels featuring his narrator-private detective, Mike Hammer, over the next five years. (He'd ultimately produce over a dozen Hammer novels.)

Spillane died this week at the age of 88. Since I’ve already alluded to him in an earlier post or two, I thought I’d take the occasion to share a couple of thoughts about the man and his work.

Spillane began his creative career writing comic books, and his novels all exhibit a similarly-garish, “comic book”-type quality. The violence generally goes well beyond what one finds in earlier crime fiction. When Hammer finds a recently-shot John Hanson -- one of the many bodies strewn around I, the Jury -- we read how “He lay at the foot of the bed with his head in a puddle of his own blood and brains, and with a hole squarely between the eyes. On the wall was more of his goo, with the plaster cracked from where the bullet entered. He was a mess, this John Hanson.” And on to the next chapter. And body. There’s also in Spillane’s novels no shortage of sex -- sometimes presented in vivid, softcore colors. Brazen references to anatomical riches (“Her breasts were laughing things that were firmly in place”) are the norm whenever Hammer has to interview a new female suspect or witness. And while the earlier fictional detectives tended to avoid getting too distracted by romantic liaisons, Hammer screws around like a sailor on leave. Women throw themselves at Hammer from all directions, and more than occasionally, Hammer gives in to take what they're offering (“I was only human,” he’ll explain). Usually with little in the way of consequences.

Spillane often described the structure of novels as being -- as in some comics -- like that of jokes. As he is quoted saying in Speaking of Murder (ed. Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg), “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.”

Poker players might well appreciate that. As interesting and important as the deal, flop, and turn are, the “biggest part” of the hand is the river, the ending. They don’t play to “get to the middle,” but “to get to the end and hope the ending justifies all the time they spent” getting there. Poker players might also appreciate Spillane’s unapologetic love of the green. Unlike many authors, Spillane saw actually selling books to be the point of it all, often referring to his readers not as “fans” but as “customers.” He also didn’t care much for critics, many of whom decried the overt violence and misogyny of his novels. “I don’t give a hoot about reading reviews,” he claimed. “What I want to read is the royalty checks.” The fact that most of us who were born well after his most popular novels were first published remember Spillane mainly for all of those Miller Lite ads he made in the 70s and 80s confirms the fact that “selling out” really wasn’t a concern of his.

Truth be told, novel-writing also wasn’t that big of a concern for Spillane. He often said he wrote his novels very rapidly, usually finishing one within two weeks, and also claimed never to revise. Unlike some authors, Spillane clearly wasn’t “driven” to write (other than by monetary-reasons), and on two occasions took long breaks from novel-writing (from 1953-1961 and from 1973-1989).

Still, Spillane did possess a kind of gift for crafting the page-turner. I tend not to recommend Spillane too highly as there are so many other better, more-rewarding “hard-boiled” writers from which to choose. Mike Hammer certainly collects all of those qualities we have come to expect from the tough-guy gumshoe prototype, although unlike other, better-realized fictional shamuses, he hardly exists as a character to which one can readily relate. More “comic book” than real, I’m afraid. Ultimately, even Spillane’s best novels are highly derivative of those by better writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. (In fact, some have suggested the name of Spillane’s detective -- Hammer -- to be a hybridization of the names of these two greats.) And what’s “original” about Spillane -- the puddles of blood and brains, the “breasts that were firm and inviting,” etc. -- isn’t so special, particularly today when we’ve no shortage of graphic depictions of sex and violence on the cultural landscape.

But I, the Jury is probably worth a look, mainly for its historical significance. And for that ending, which still is startling (even if the reader sees it coming).

Image: Mickey Spillane, public domain.

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