Mickey Spillane Spillane, Mickey (Vol. 3)

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Spillane, Mickey (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 2,088 words.)