Those critics who did not dismiss Mickey Spillane out of hand generally reacted to him caustically. It has been pointed out that his novels debase women, reducing them to sex objects, and frequently evil ones at that. Spillane’s handling of sex, stripped of any tenderness, intimacy, or romance, was perceived by many to be pornographic. The violence and gore hurled at the reader have been condemned as gratuitous and revolting. His plots have been deemed shaky, his characterizations thin, his dialogue wooden. In sum, by these criteria, comparisons with the classic writers in his field— Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or Ross Macdonald—simply fail.
Nevertheless, Spillane’s novels entertain with a frankness and a ferocity that only a literary killjoy could fail to appreciate. They do so without lengthy setups, lyrical embroidery, or brainteasers. They play on basic human instincts and prejudices, the kind of soldier’s rage that results in atrocity in the real world but finds its deserving target unfailingly in the unstoppable force of Mike Hammer. What Spillane’s novels lack in craftsmanship, they amply make up for in vitality.
The Mike Hammer Series
Mike Hammer is a tough private eye, a loner who before the bottom of page 2 in any volume of the series is confronted with a killing that has personal meaning to him. In I, the Jury, Hammer’s wartime buddy and best friend, Jack Williams, has been shot by a .45 and left to die slowly, crawling before his executioner. In Vengeance Is Mine! (1950), Chester Wheeler, Hammer’s casual drinking companion, is murdered while he and Hammer, dead drunk, share the same bed. In Survival . . . Zero! (1970), Lippy Sullivan, a petty pickpocket whom Hammer knew, calls him while dying with a knife in his back. Such murders invariably launch Hammer’s personal crusade to locate the slayer and avenge the death.
The ubiquitous Captain Patrick Chambers, Hammer’s detective friend and sometime backup, always warns Hammer to stay off the case, taking the role of society’s spokesperson calling for an orderly investigation within the law. The rules are stated, however, only to alert the reader to the fact that they are about to be broken. Soon Pat and Hammer, in leapfrog fashion, are finding and sharing clues. Pat genuinely sympathizes with Hammer and uses him to advance the case in the hope of reaching the culprit before Hammer does, but his actions are implicit acknowledgment that corruption, bureaucratic mismanagement, and public apathy make true justice impossible to attain except outside the law.
As the pursuit progresses, Hammer uncovers (and dispatches) a ring of conspirators—“a meal,” Hammer calls it, and the killer “dessert.” In One Lonely Night (1951), Hammer seeks a killer who is linked to the Communist Party of America; in Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), the Mafia lurks, pulling the strings. In The Girl Hunters (1962), the killer’s shield is an international terrorist organization, as it is also in Survival . . . Zero! In The Big Kill (1951), Hammer stands against an extensive blackmail ring.
An antiorganizational, antiauthoritarian bias is only one of many prejudices that are expressed by Hammer (or Johnny McBride, Tiger Mann, or Gill Burke). Hammer detests New York City, “fat, greasy” lecherous businessmen, “queers,” “Commies,” district attorneys, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), counterespionage agencies, pimps, punks, hoods, drug dealers, modern robber barons, most police officials, and skinny women. He is a bundle of postwar suspicions and hatreds. He is a veteran (one suspects a case of post-traumatic stress, a disorder familiar to but unnamed by Spillane’s early readers), with a deep respect for bravery, kindness, and loyalty—qualities that tend to get people killed in Hammer’s world.
In pursuit of his enemies, Hammer (and Spillane’s other heroes) becomes a one-man war wagon, armed with Old Testament injunctions—particularly “an...
(The entire section is 1668 words.)