Monday, September 12, 2011

We like to get the trial over with quickly, because it's the sentence that's really the fun!

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”.


  1. Ha! Funny review. I can't say I disagree with you, but I know people of good taste and good sense who like his books. And of course he was incredibly popular. I read several but got so disgusted with the one describing the hero's loving manual strangulation of a baddie that I just gave up on the author. I Kind of like the 1955 film, though (Kiss Me Deadly)!

  2. Thanks, Curt. I tried making the review amusing instead of making a dramatic monologue about it.

    Mike Hammer was basically one of the first politically incorrect pop culture icons. But me, I tend to dislike it when a total villain like him is shown in heroic colours.

  3. @Curt

    Isn't Max Allan Collins one of Mickey Spillane's biggest fans?

    I never read one of his books, but I enjoyed his guest appearance on Columbo as a crime novelist who gets himself killed.

  4. Patrick

    Far be it for me to try to convince anyone of the virtues of Mickey Spillane or Mike Hammer. I'm rather ambivalent myself. To those who don't care for him, though, I ask, what was it about those first few Hammer books that made Spillane one of the most popular authors in the world?

    Even Anthony Boucher, who you mention, came around, somewhat. By the 1960s he said, "... it's possible for even an old enemy of his, like me, to view him afresh and recognize that he does possess a certain genuine vigor and conviction lacking in his imitators."

  5. Well, I have to hand it to you, Patrick, for trudging through the sadistic and misogynistic waters of Spillane. I'm amazed you made it all the way through. Or did you...?

    I will admit Spillane was something of a pioneer for the hardboiled school in a way and in others he's an utter throwback to the violent sadistic writings of Carroll John Daly. I think that maybe in the post WW2 era when everyone was disillusioned and heroes seemed to be nothing more than myths Spillane was writing about what many people were unwilling to admit. That there are no real bad guys and good guys anymore. That a supposedly good guy can be just as violent in his pursuit of his "right" as a bad guy is. Similarly, you might say that Mike Hammer became a popular "hero" for all the vets who had seen the horrors of war and who came to realize that deep inside each man is a dark region that is capable of doing anything. There is an argument that Spillane paved the way for characters like Robert Parker's Spenser who was just as popular and in the eyes of some critics probably worse. He's willing to kill people without provocation in the line of his investigations. Bill Pronzini is pretty harsh on Parker and Spenser for that very reason.

  6. @TomCat
    Collins not only was a fan, but Spillane sanctioned his conclusion of the final Mike Hammer novel, released in 2008.

    I'm afraid I got nothing of the sort out of reading "I, the Jury".

    Of course I perservered. I was originally going to do a Ross Maconald, but the audio was screwy and so I ended up doing this one instead. I listened to this while painting my room.

  7. I just dislike Hammer too much as a character to be at all fair to the books (he enjoys killing people too much). There's just nothing in me that responds to the books. But obviously there was something about it for a lot of people. I did like the film, but the character is not as unbearable in the film.

  8. Well, I've never read I, THE JURY, but I did read THE GOLIATH BONE (the final Mike Hammer novel finished by Max Allan Collins) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Splendid thick ear stuff. Maybe the first novel was more unpleasant, but I tend to agree with Stephen King's response to readers who criticised a scene in THE DEAD ZONE where a man kicks a dog to death "The dog wasn't real; the man wasn't real; the story wasn't real; what's the problem?"

  9. I salute Patrick's ability to get through this kind of fascist dreck as I gave up trying long ago and find myself always truly baffled by those who think Spillaine a major writer. Sextonblake here makes I think a fair point and while I basically agree with King in context, it is equally fair to say "And what did you make of Mein Kampf?' It's just words on paper after all? Only it isn't and you should object to what the intended meaning is - what's so loathsome is that Hammer really is meant to be a hero. On the other hand, the movie version of KISS ME DEADLY takes a much more jaundiced view of the character and text which is much more interesting it seems to me.

  10. The big flaw in King's argument is that even though they are just words on a page, they were meant to convey something, and that something in this case was brutal and sadistic. Sergio's example is even better.