Mickey Spillane Spillane, Mickey (Vol. 3) - Essay

Spillane, Mickey (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Spillane, Mickey 1918–

An American writer of tough-guy mystery-suspense novels, Spillane is probably the world's best selling novelist. His violent and sadistic hero is, of course, Mike Hammer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

By most traditional literary or artistic standards, the works of Mickey Spillane are atrocious. His characters and situations not only strain credulity to its limits; they frequently turn the stomach as well. Spillane's narrative technique is so "hardhitting," as the reviewers say, that it has the expressiveness of a blackjack. His style and dialogue are awkward, stilted, and wooden. His idea of a theme consists of a primitive right-wing diatribe against some of the central principles of American democracy and English law. Yet, despite these disadvantages (or perhaps they are advantages) Spillane's books have sold over 40 million copies. Among the thirty top best sellers from 1895–1965, seven were by Spillane. Only such super bestsellers as Dr. Spock, Peyton Place, Gone with the Wind, and The Carpetbaggers have exceeded the sales of I, the Jury and The Big Kill. Such superb hard-boiled stories as Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely and Hammett's The Maltese Falcon have sold just over a million copies, while Spillane's books average 4 to 5 million….

Spillane's first and best-selling novel, I, the Jury, shares with Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely the basic characteristics of the hard-boiled formula. Both novels take the form of a personal narrative by a tough private investigator. The hero pursues an investigation which leads him ever deeper into the perversion and evil endemic to the urban setting in which he operates. In the process both Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Spillane's Mike Hammer become involved in an ambiguous relationship with the police, a relationship which reveals the limitations of the legal process in achieving "true" justice. Through this portrayal of the inefficiency and helplessness of the established authorities, the hero's own personal sense of justice and his aggressive acting-out of his judgment are made emotionally necessary and morally righteous. Finally, both heroes discover that the criminal they seek is a beautiful but vicious woman who sexually tempted them earlier in the book.

The difference between the two writers is nonetheless substantial. Chandler fleshes this fable out with fairly complex characters and a richly symbolic action but Spillane operates by leaving the basic formulaic framework as simple and uncomplicated as possible. Instead of adding human complexity to the skeleton, he heightens the pattern of the formula through violence, quasi-pornography, and other devices of emotional intensification….

In Spillane's novels … Mike Hammer is the main source of violence. His chief investigative technique consists largely of beating up suspects to force their confession, and this violence is described with a detail and intensity that leaves no doubt of the great emotional catharsis it brings to the hero…. Spillane makes the relationship between sexual teasing and violent catharsis a part of the basic texture of his stories. In his hands, the hard-boiled structural formula of increasing involvement in a web of corruption becomes an alternating pattern of sexual provocation and orgies of shooting or beating which seem to function psychologically as a partial release of the emotional tension built up by the unconsummated sexual teasing. This structural pattern reaches its climax in the night-marish final scenes of Spillane's novels. Spillane has a remarkable ability to imagine and visualize scenes in which the disturbing emotions aroused by the mounting tensions of sexual teasing and orgiastic violence reach a cathartic culmination. The key to these scenes is a legitmated sadism which differentiates Spillane from most of the other hard-boiled writers. As in the Western, the hard-boiled plot works toward a point in which the hero is justified in using extra-legal violence to capture or destroy the criminal. However, in Spillane's case, the alternate episodes of sexual provocation by women and violence against men lead specifically to the infliction of pain and death upon women, often in connection with the sexual act….

Since they are built up out of this texture of sexual provocation and masculine violence climaxed by the infliction of pain and death on the sexual object, Spillane's books are an extreme embodiment of the fear, hostility, and ambiguity toward society and particularly toward women which are built into the hard-boiled detective formula. However, where writers like Hammett and Chandler qualify the endemic aggression and sadism of this formula with a considerable degree of irony and complexity, Spillane's skill as a popular writer lies precisely in his ability to suppress characters and turns of plot which might confuse or enrich the essential emotional pattern, and in his capacity to invent incidents like the ritual strip-tease of I, the Jury which embody the central emotional themes of the hard-boiled formula with primitive and vivid directness. Even the detective-hero has highly simplified motives in the Spillane story. Instead of Marlowe's complex reluctance, or the Continental Op's stoic professionalism, Mike Hammer invariably becomes involved in a case through a simple desire for revenge….

Mike Hammer's orgiastic sadism is acceptable and cathartic for a mass audience because it is initiated by sentimental feelings, such as Mike's deep sorrow for a murdered friend, and justified by the unpunished evil which his investigations uncover. Weighed against the individual and social evils he confronts, Mike's brutality is made to seem a necessary and even indispensable course of action. In an urban world dominated by gangsters, communist agents, and socialite dope-pushers, the only person who can bring the elites of evil to their reckoning is Spillane's lone wolf of destruction. Spillane's social paranoia, with its hysterical fears of urban sophistication, foreigners, and minority groups, therefore serves an important function in justifying [his] hero's brutality. Similarly, Spillane's sentimentality and didacticism are given greater intensity through their eventuation in violence. This combination of sentimentality, pornography, and violence, linked together by a delight in the extra-legal punishment of successful evil-doers and by a profound, ambiguous fear of the temptations and wickedness of the city, have long been a staple of folklore….

Spillane also brings to this formula something of the fervor and passion of the popular evangelical religious tradition which has long been a dominant element in the culture of lower-middle and lower class America. It is certainly no accident that this tradition also exemplifies many of Spillane's primary social hostilities: rural suspicion of urban sophistication; nativist hatred of racial and ethnic minorities; the ambiguous hostility toward women on the part of those anxious about their status and concerned about the erosion of masculine dominance. But above all it is the similar intensity of passion, growing out of a bitter, over-powering hatred of the world as a sinful and corrupt place that unites Spillane with the popular evangelical tradition.

John G. Cawelti, "The Spillane Phenomenon," in Journal of Popular Culture, Summer, 1969, pp. 9-22.

Mickey … Spillane … makes his appeal to the human desire for power…. Power is the law of the world to Spillane's Mike Hammer, who says, "The cops can't break a guy's arm to make him talk, and they can't shove his teeth in with the muzzle of a .45 to remind him that you aren't fooling." Hammer, however, can and often does do these things, and they are described with relish. When he breaks a man's fingers and then smashes an elbow into his mouth, the "shattered teeth tore my arm and his mouth became a great hole welling blood" while "his fingers were broken stubs sticking back at odd angles."

The treatment of sex is of some clinical interest. Women are seen as sexually desirable objects, and there are a good many descriptions of their bodies, but intercourse is often replaced by death or torture. In I, the Jury (1947), Charlotte the beautiful psychiatrist makes several unsuccessful attempts to get Hammer to bed. At the end, when she turns out to be a multiple murderess, he shoots her in the stomach with pleasure. "'How could you?'" she asks incredulously, and he replies: "'It was easy'."…

The most nauseating, and clinically disquieting, thing about these books is that Mike Hammer is the hero.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 214-15.

The year was 1947. The book was I, the Jury. It was the debut of Frank Morrison [Mickey] Spillane, the guy who made gore respectable with his shoot-first-ask-questions-later private eye, Mike Hammer. A quarter of a century later Mickey Spillane is as popular as ever. This may appear paradoxical in an age when the newspapers are overflowing with violence, but reading larger-than-life fiction (albeit painfully believable) apparently has more impact. Spillane appeals to the human desire for power. He mixes sex, sentiment, and sadism with ease. A born storyteller, he writes the stuff that screams are made of.

O. L. Bailey, in Saturday Review of the Arts (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April, 1973, p. 94.

To the losers and the weak, there is strong appeal in the idea of a powerful lone avenger. It's great to get out there and stomp those mothers—the foreman, the cop, the salesman who sold you a lemon. Spillane was not the first to discover this, of course. That kind of character long has been a staple of escapist fiction.

But with Mike Hammer, his durable private eye, Spillane lifted the restraints on violence. You could count on Hammer to leave a trail of splintered bones, splattered faces, gut-shot bodies….

Next to the violence, sex was supposed to be the big number in the early Spillane books. But there was a kind of John Wayne-like innocence to Hammer when it came to girls. He would turn out the light before making love. Often he would find himself being pushed into bed by a bad girl. But he tended to restrain himself when a good girl came along. Of course, he looked at them all, forever finding bodies that "would make you drool."…

Spillane is still working the same turf and using the same tricks. But the times have moved and Spillane has not; none of it works any more.

In The Last Cop Out, Mike Hammer has become Gill Burke, an ex-cop muscled off the force because of his penchant for punching out bad guys. When someone begins killing mobsters, Burke is brought in to find out who is doing the killing before an all-out syndicate war explodes. What follows is a dreary chronicle of murders….

Spillane scatters his violence indiscriminately, like garbage dumped from the roof of a tenement. The gouts of blood, the knuckles grinding into ribs, blend into a recitation that is not so much stomach-churning as sleep-inducing.

His macho attitude toward women is precisely as it was in 1950. Burke murmurs that a lady is "a beautiful doll," and the antique phrase stands out like a Kaiser-Frazer on Michigan Avenue.

As he piles one violent act upon another, it becomes obvious that Spillane is hunting hard for some shock to engage our short, jaded, 1973 attention span. But it is the wild groping of a fighter whose eyes are cut and blood-filled. Spillane is slugging it out in a ring where the competition is younger, faster, and tougher.

God knows he tries. He tosses mutilation and sodomy at the reader, but the episodes flop as feebly as fish tossed on a beach.

Spillane's time and place were the 1950s. The Last Cop Out proves you can't go home again.

Les Bridges, in Chicago Tribune Book World, April 22, 1973, p. 1.

A new Spillane—but under it beats the heart of the old Mickey. It's named "The Last Cop Out" … and it's the usual Spillane mix—sex, sadism, assorted fun and games with gun and fist. This one is about the Mafia, and a Mafiahating cop called back into service. There's supposed to be a mystery behind the mystery, except that anybody who doesn't guess where the author is heading when he reaches page 25 is an innocent who wouldn't know a clue from a clevis.

It may be that this book would not have been written without the stimulus of Mario Puzo. But clever, clever Mickey has his own formula to delight the faithful…. He gets rid of his capo by a method previously unused in thriller fiction. My, how you will laugh!… I mean, Mickey really knows how to shake a guy up, tease a guy a bit. Now if only he'd learn how to handle dialogue….

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 20, 1973, p. 22.