It’s rare for me to be thoroughly disgusted by a novel. There have been plenty of unpleasant reading experiences, such as Anthony Wynne’s The Toll House Murder or Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. I have been alarmed a handful of times, such as with a disturbing central character in Peter Lovesey’s Mad Hatter’s Holiday. But until now, only George Baxt’s The Affair at Royalties had thoroughly disgusted me— I can now add Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury to the list.
Spillane was once the most vilified writer in America. His hero, Mike Hammer, is as politically incorrect as they come. He refuses to forgive the Japanese for the war, he plays games with his secretary, he sleeps with every woman he comes into contact with on the job, and he threatens or beats up half the suspects he interrogates. And that’s just the first few chapters.
The story is a routine one. Jack Williams, an ex-cop and Mike Hammer’s best friend, is murdered. He’s shot to death with a .45, and Mike promises his dead friend that he will find the killer and kill them in the exact same way Jack was killed, with a .45 slug in the gut. There are gorgeous blondes to be laid, nasty suspects who go running away at the first sign of trouble to provide red herrings, and plenty of violence. It’s described with relish, focusing on the unpleasant details and lingering on them with zest.
I sure hope the 3D helps make the characters
a little more three-dimensional.
It’s not particularly pleasant reading and not everything makes sense. For instance, at one point, Mike Hammer is randomly accosted by thugs in a bar, but the reason for this is never explained. The mystery couldn’t be any more obvious if someone placed a big “I’M GUILTY!” sign over the killer. The moment the character was introduced, I made a mental note to myself: “That’s the killer,” I thought. And I was completely right. Some of the details of the mystery have shreds of cleverness, screaming to be noticed, but they are buried underneath tedium. You can solve this case easily by referring to private eye clichés. Not only that, you can predict half the plot twists. John Dickson Carr might have been summing this book up when he wrote about the typical hardboiled mystery in his essay The Grandest Game in the World. The only difference is that the police detective actually helps Mike Hammer.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m being an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud, but the vilest thing about this book is that Mike Hammer is portrayed as a hero. He beats people or threatens them with little provocation, he cheerfully describes in detail the injuries sustained by the casualties… it’s little wonder people attack him for no reason throughout the book!
And then there’s Mickey Spillane’s attitude towards women. In the words of Captain Hastings: “Good Lord!” Is it ever awful. I thought Raymond Chandler, with his obsession about The Evil Temptress, was bad at writing women. Spillane makes Chandler’s women look like masterworks by comparison. Basically, to be a woman in this book, you have to either take your clothes off for Mike Hammer or intimate that you are willing to do so at the drop of a hat. Or you’re a prostitute. Take your choice, ladies! Hammer’s secretary, Velda, would marry him any moment, and Hammer takes rather sadistic pleasure in using this information to play crazy games with her. How anyone could like him is beyond me.
So what do we have left? A hardboiled investigation that is lean, mean, and tough. But in the end, there’s really not much to like about this book. I did not derive pleasure from reading it, and was rather bored by the obvious red herrings that needlessly complicated the plot. One amusing moment is when Mike Hammer goes to see a mystery movie with “as much holes as Swiss cheese” (to paraphrase). He might as well have been describing this book.
I now see why famous critic Anthony Boucher so intensely disliked the work of Spillane. The book is rather tame for our times, when torture porn like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is mass-produced and readily available. And yet, I still cringe when I think about the book and the way it portrays Mike Hammer as the hero. He really puts the “dick” into the term “private dick”.