Spillane, Mickey 1918–
An American writer of tough-guy mystery suspense novels, Spillane is one of the world's best-selling novelists. Although his fiction is attacked by critics for its gratuitous violence, and its demeaning portrayal of women, its fast-paced plots and uncomplicated philosophy have earned Spillane millions of readers. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
No doubt one reason for the popularity of the early Spillane novels lies in their close mirroring of cultural attitudes of the 1950's. Spillane's treatment of women is particularly significant, moreover, since the hard-boiled detective formula, of which Spillane is the master seller, is the first fictional formula for men to focus explicitly on sexual relationships between men and women. In order to understand the importance of Spillane's definition of women, however, it is first necessary to view the novels as reflectors of fifties' attitudes in general.
Six of Spillane's first seven books have as their protagonist Private Eye Mike Hammer. Mike is a war hero who has rechanneled his violent energies into cleaning up criminal activities in New York City. As opposed to other detectives in the hard-boiled tradition, however, including Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and most television crime detectives, Mike Hammer does not actually solve his crimes. In fact, Spillane's Hammer novels are not really about crime detection; they are about war. Mike Hammer is a one-man war machine. He has the blind ideological faith in his cause that warring armies have. He is on the side of righteousness, and the city he is attacking, and by inference everyone in it, is evil. The perpetrators of the crime Mike is allegedly solving are always members of a large corrupt group or organization, and Mike merely maims or kills off everybody who is implicated in the group's activities. The last person left standing is presumed most guilty by Mike in the monologue he delivers before the final execution. Significantly, this last person is almost always female.
It is not surprising or unusual that popular fiction written in a postwar decade should be about war…. The Spillane version of war, however, is a highly glamorized one, in which the impossibility of the hero's defeat is always understood. Though the wartime ethic and wartime activities are retained, the wartime setting is altered. Mike Hammer's war is against inner city New York. (pp. 114-15)
In general, the imagery associated with the city is bleak. In One Lonely Night, Mike thinks after coming out of a Communist Party meeting, "The street was the same as before, dark, smelly, unaware of the tumor it was breeding in its belly."… Furthermore, much of the action in the novels takes place in inclement weather—usually rain or snow. Mike also makes constant reference to the congested crowds in the New York streets and to the constant din of street noises.
In his hatred of the big city, Mike reflects attitudes that cultural indicators show to be common in the 1950's. The fifties witnessed a massive movement out of large cities and into outlying suburban areas. (p. 115)
In Spillane, crime is always linked to another phenomenon of the fifties: fear of the large organization. Publicity of Communist and of Mafia activity stressed the corrupt and near-invulnerable power that a tight organization can wield. Mike, who frequently refers to himself as a one-man gang, fights the giant organization on his own, successfully bringing down major arms of the Communist Party of America (One Lonely Night), the Mafia (Kiss Me, Deadly), an international terrorist organization (The Girl Hunters ), and three blackmailing rings...
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(I, The Jury, The Big Kill, and Vengeance Is Mine). Johnny McBride, hero of The Long Wait, overthrows a small town gambling boss, his gang and the banker/embezzler they all take orders from.
Convinced of the evil of his enemies, Mike himself is full of the power of positive thinking. In his self-assurance, Mike reflects the belief of Americans in general in the post-war decade that God and justice were on the American side…. In his righteousness and his sense of superior justice, Mike considers himself above the law…. In each of the novels, Hammer thinks his mission puts him above the law. His justice is the Old Testament logic, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," but his manner of proclamation is like an evangelical minister. Just before the final execution in each of the novels, Mike delivers a sermon to the victims in which he outlines their sins. Mike is a minister of damnation only, though, who allows no opportunity for repentance.
As a man self-confidently at war in a just cause, then, Mike Hammer became the ideal role model for men in the 1950's. Here, between the pages of a paperback novel, was war the way it should have been fought—with the righteous army predestined to be victorious. But in addition, through Mike, the ex-GI could relive the wartime social code as well. Mike is a chain smoker who drinks heavily between skirmishes and who has "no strings" access to eager and aggressive woman. The reader in the fifties, however, while keeping his bottle and cigarettes, had left his Tiger Lily overseas and had married the girl next door. The wartime social code, then, had to be modified in the novels to accommodate both the wish and the reality. (pp. 115-17)
At the intersection of sex and motherhood, where sexual adventure meets redeeming social value, are located the novels of Mickey Spillane. On the one hand, Mike Hammer is a pious believer in the double standard and in the virtue of domesticity. Although the women in the Spillane novels are good looking and sexually aggressive, Mike is frequently most impressed by their alleged domesticity. Evil women even lull him into nonsuspicion by feigning love of children or of cooking….
Velda, Mike's girlfriend, secretary and second gun represents the ideal synthesis of mother and sexual toy in the novels. Velda comforts Mike after his close calls, cries whenever his good name or his life are in danger, and she asks no questions about his sexual escapades. (p. 119)
Mike Hammer feels perfectly free to engage in sexual relationships with all the women who make themselves available to him. Spillane hereby clearly endorses the double standard of sexual conduct. The implication is, moreover, that men should choose their sexual conquests from among the "lower classes" of women, since the women Mike has affairs with always have questionable pasts and frequently are suspects in the crime he is investigating. These women have something else in common. They exude sexuality—of the Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Brigitte Bardot variety. Mike repeatedly avows his scorn for skinny women—the type that model clothes. He goes for the movie types, though naturally he doesn't put it that way. Despite their experience, furthermore, all of these women are sexually starved. They throw themselves at Mike not because of his good looks (he is careful to let it be known that he is not good looking) or because he has a strong line or a way with women; they throw themselves at him because he is violent. All these women know that Mike is a confessed killer, and it is this knowledge that kindles the fires of passion. The message is that the only way to satisfy a truly sexy woman is with violence. (pp. 120-21)
[In general] Mike's sexual episodes are immediately followed by an act of violent assault, usually murder. In addition, these episodes take place in dark, out-of-the-way places: stereotyped settings for rape…. In One Lonely Night, Mike meets a frightened woman being chased down a deserted bridge at night. He kills her pursuer and turns his attention to the woman, with his gun still in his hand. She takes one look at the "kill lust" in Mike's face and jumps over the bridge to her death.
It is no coincidence that the villains of Spillane's novels almost inevitably prove to be women. In his article "The Spillane Phenomenon," John Cawelti talks about the rhythm in Spillane's novels, stating that it reaches its final climax in "violence as orgasm." Since Mike is at war in the novels, a torturous rape would provide the natural climax. In that manner the sexual and violent tensions created by the action in the novels would be resolved simultaneously. Mike Hammer is not allowed this indulgence, however, since he is a believer in female purity and a righteous avenger serving the cause of justice, and atrocities, even in war, are always committed only by the enemy. Denied rape, Mike takes the next best alternative—pumping bullets from the gun that symbolizes his masculinity into the nude body of the villain.
The Spillane novels, then, attempt to resolve for men the two-way image of male/female roles provided by the popular media. On the one hand, men were being told to settle down and be the stable provider for the decade's heroine, Mother. The success of the supersex movie queens and of Playboy and its imitators, however, indicated that men had another and contradictory image of themselves as adventure-seeking bachelors. Mike Hammer's solution was simple: take the best of both worlds. Have handy an attractive mother/wife for emergencies and general support, but pursue the adventurous life, including violence and loose women, as well. The unworkability of this formula is revealed metaphorically, however, in the violent death of all the promiscuous women in the novels. Since the real wife/mother would not allow the intrusion of violence and other women in the life of her stable provider, the enjoyment of these adventures must be limited—to the span of time it takes to read a Mickey Spillane novel. (pp. 121-23)
Kay Weibel, "Mickey Spillane as a Fifties Phenomenon," in Dimensions of Detective Fiction, edited by Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne (copyright © 1976 by Popular Press), Popular Press, 1976, pp. 114-23.
One only need remember that rebellion is not the exclusive property of the Left in this or any other country to feel no surprise that it is a strong feature of the works of the most popular fiction writer on the Right. Practically all of Mickey Spillane's heroes are anti-Establishment in sentiment, often outspoken in their views, and sometimes activist. The actions taken range from such petty harassment of a police officer as smashing his cigars by a carefully planned accident, through threatening bodily harm to a whole station house full of policemen, some of whom have been attempting to prove to the hero just how "tough" they are, to the actual killing of policemen in three of the stories. (pp. 124-25)
Through all the [Mike] Hammer books there are bad relations between the hero and successive District Attorneys, but generally the detective is on good terms with the New York City Police Department, especially as it is represented by his oldest and best friend Capt. Pat Chambers….
We may begin by assuming that the conflicts between Hammer and any District Attorney are little more than an observation by Spillane of one of the familiar conventions of the Hard-boiled detective story. Petty harassments on both sides and shouted exchanges of insults are entertaining to Spillane's millions of readers, but with rare exceptions they are "gut issues" for neither Hammer nor Spillane.
When Pat Chambers has Hammer followed, as he does in I, the Jury, the detective makes a little game of making the police look ridiculous…. Whenever his activities bring him into contact with police who are merely doing their job and not infringing upon his rights, he performs as a docile good citizen. (p. 125)
Relations with federal officers are less easygoing. This is due in large part to the wholehearted acceptance by both Spillane and Hammer, along with Chambers and most of Hammer's other friends, of McCarthyism as a political philosophy. This is most apparent among the early works in One Lonely Night. However, McCarthyism permeates almost every novel and shorter story Spillane has published. (pp. 125-26)
Hammer's first description of the federal agents prominent in Kiss Me, Deadly shows respect for their organization and its reputation. Almost immediately, however, his attitude changes to jealous guardianship of his own rights, including the all-important one of revenge. He stops just short of threatening the F.B.I. men, but otherwise the exchange is not unlike those already mentioned with various District Attorneys. (p. 126)
In destroying one very serious Communist menace with both foreign and domestic agents ranged against him in One Lonely Night, Hammer uses characteristic violence. There is characteristic audacity too in his brief, spur-of-the-moment masquerade as an F.B.I. man in Chapter 10. A Spillanean kind of poetic justice appears in Hammer's mass execution of Reds with an F.B.I. tommy gun. He even comments on the "cover-up" that this will eventually make necessary….
In Chapter 6 [of Survival Zero] Hammer's self-identification as someone the people "living on the perimeter of normalcy" (These are specifically enumerated as including prostitutes, the indigent aged and denizens of a Lower-Lower class bar, but presumably include all the picturesque types that writers of this genre have used to enliven their works since at least the early work of Hammett.) would be willing to talk to in preference to the police, because "I was one of them," opens a possible further insight to the relationship of Spillane's heroes to the Establishment. (p. 127)
[Hammer's] personal creed of being worse than the worst at their own game is present to some degree in most of the Hammer stories, indeed in most of Spillane, and along with actions designed to prove it, it provides a major objection on the part of the literati to Spillane's works. (p. 128)
The new and larger group of Spillane thrillers began in 1961 with one of his most peculiar books and (up to that time) heroes.
The title character of The Deep is a grown-up juvenile delinquent returning to his old territory after 25 years to claim control of the area segment of the underworld following the murder of a boyhood chum who had been the local crime czar. (pp. 128-29)
Motivated by knowledge of Deep's past and what he seems to be at present, ultra-tough police sergeant Hurd gives him the beginnings of a stereotyped "third degree" in Chapter 8, complete with a quick beating. However, the hero does well in the physical exchange, and in the surprise ending it is Hurd who first officially recognizes Deep as a superior in the New York City Police Department. Surely here we have the very type of Norman Mailer's hoodlum-policeman, who is just as surely represented by Hammer in the private detective role. (p. 129)
Shortly after the "rebirth" of Mike Hammer in The Girl Hunters in 1962, Spillane introduced a new series hero, Tiger Mann. He was intended to occupy the equivalent position in spy (actually counterspy) fiction to that of Hammer in detective fiction. As preparation for writing counterspy novels, Spillane had already done One Lonely Night and The Girl Hunters in the Hammer series. He has since had Hammer operating more-or-less as a counterspy in The Body Lovers and Survival Zero. Hammer is a private detective; Mann is a private counterspy (surely a unique figure in the crowded spy/counterspy field) on the payroll of oil super-billionaire Martin Grady, a somewhat less obviously insane version of the villain in Len Deighton's Billion Dollar Brain. Hammer competes with official law enforcement agencies (especially the New York City District Attorney's office); Mann competes primarily with federal counter-espionage agencies (especially the esoteric I.A.T.S.), although frequent mention is made of his part in Grady's overseas operations around the world. Hammer is the frequent target of gangland killers; Mann is near the top of the highest priority list of people to be assassinated by Communist agents. Over the years Hammer's tendency to kill the villains in his books has been one of the main things that most of his critics and competitors have objected to. Necessity has forced him to always make it possible to claim self-defense; Mann, benefitting from the years of conditioning reading audiences to James Bond's double-zero rating with its built-in "license to kill," kills more casually. Yet in the very nature of things, the reader finds him most frequently killing those who are out to kill him. Pat Chambers is Hammer's source of knowledge, protection and occasional special privilege in the official police camp; Col. (actually Gen., but Mann continues to call him "Colonel," out of World War II nostalgia) Charlie Corbinet, Mann's former commanding officer in the O.S.S., provides the same services for Mann from his high position in I.A.T.S. (pp. 129-30)
The very nature of Mann's work and his employer make clear the distrust of the Establishment—especially in the area of defense against Communism—which is the hallmark of this series. His first fictional encounter with I.A.T.S. is described succinctly. "They took turns interrogating me. For two hours I let them waste their time and told them nothing." Then when he was ready to terminate the interview, he showed knowledge of their supposedly secret telephone numbers and code words, plus a considerable degree of immunity from their interference. All this is obviously calculated by hero and author to show disrespect. (p. 130)
When Mann's activities are not illegal they are at least extra-legal, thus he is frequently brought into contact with local police forces—of New York City in the first three books and of a small town in Florida in The By-Pass Control—and expresses feelings regarding them. The attitude of his statement at the beginning of Chapter 5 in The Death Dealers, is more extravagantly worded than is usual, but the sentiments are typical:
You take all your Federal agencies, your highly trained but obscure intelligence units, your college degrees and your high IQ, hand-selected personnel working under bureau orders sure, you take them. When you want a job done, give me New York's finest in or out of uniform. Give me the beat cop, the plainclothesmen, the dedicated people so imbued with the city and its environs that they can do a character study of anybody in a half second.
Then there are what might be termed the miscellaneous works. Ryan, the hero of "Me, Hood!" and "Return of the Hood" is a criminal by choice. We might take him as yet another fictional elaboration of Mailer's hoodlum policeman idea. He joyfully thumbs his nose at the police until forced to work with them and with federal agents in those two stories. At the end of "Return of the Hood," he realizes that he is a marked man, unable to return to his underworld friends and way of life. He accepts the new role of law abiding citizen with grace, if not with relish. (p. 132)
The title characters of The Deep and of "The Bastard Bannerman" … are, or seem to be, full-fledged gangster types. However, surprise endings in both stories have them turn out to be policemen. The Deep One is a New York City policeman detailed undercover to his old neighborhood to rid it of a long established criminal stranglehold. Bannerman is a West Coast policeman revisiting his Florida hometown to clean up a murder and a Mafia attempt to take over the town during a stopover while en route to pick up a prisoner being held by the New York Police.
Spillane skillfully builds in the reader an impression of disrespect for law and order in the part of the Deep One, but a careful reading shows that all the symptoms belong to his remembered juvenile delinquent days. He is very sentimental about "the old cop on the beat" whom he remembers fondly from his childhood. The one rebellious action that he does engage in is fisticuffs with a vicious policeman bent on giving him an old style "third degree." That device was originated by Mike Hammer in Vengeance Is Mine and repeated by George Weston-Johnny McBride in The Long Wait. Almost as much a Spillane trademark as the hero's being "taken for a ride" and managing to kill his captors (used more than a half-dozen times in the book length stories), it occurs again in two of the recent Hammer books, The Girl Hunters and The Twisted Thing. In every case the policeman is clearly in the wrong, and the hero's action is clearly justified as self defense. Following this incident in The Deep, the hero further puts the erring policeman in his place by informing him of his "downtown" connections and permission to operate freely in the precinct. (p. 134)
Perhaps the best known and most popular of the latter day Spillane works is The Delta Factor…. This is the story of Morgan the Raider, a modern day pirate who is pressed into government service….
Certainly the hero's hostility towards authority pervades the entire story. Before it begins he has supposedly stolen $40 million, and at the end of it he escapes the spymasters who have used him to try to recover the loot. In the book he has ample opportunity to tell many authority figures what he thinks of them. (p. 136)
Still in the first chapter, like Hammer, Mann and others, Morgan brings up the threat of unfavorable publicity; he repeats it in Chapter 3….
He exchanges gun threats with the regular United States agent who is assigned to him as combination guard and helper in Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 8. He threatens to rape this same agent, a girl who has married him as a part of their cover, in Chapters 3, 7, and 8. That he has a strong personal liking for the girl is apparent in the more sincere development of their relationship by the end of the book. However, that is not allowed to stand in the way of his dislike for her as a representative of the authority of the Establishment which he scorns….
At the end of the book, in a final flaunting of our government's authority, he escapes three armed United States agents by parachuting from the airplane which is bringing him back to this country. That his escape is over the open sea and that he expects to be rescued by criminal associates in a motorboat adds the Spillane touch of flamboyance to the ending. (p. 137)
R. Jeff Banks, "Spillane's Anti-Establishmentarian Heroes," in Dimensions of Detective Fiction, edited by Larry N. Landrum, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne (copyright © 1976 by Popular Press), Popular Press, 1976, pp. 124-39.