Top critical review
on November 30, 2001
Would you believe that, although I am past the age of 60, I had never gotten around to reading Mickey Spillane until this attractive collection caught my eye? The Mickster honed his craft writing scripts for Fawcett Comics, and Mike Hammer's first incarnation was as a comic character, Mike Danger, but the first Hammer novel is still quite crude. In I, THE JURY Hammer spends way too much print telling everyone how he is going to gun down the perp who offed his old Army buddy, and do it point blank and in cold blood, and that he can get away with it because he has a license to carry a pistol (?!?). There are also subtly wrong word choices that often reminded me of Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s somewhat similar hard-boiled crime novels. And the identity of the killer is obvious long before the famous ending in which Hammer does shoot the unarmed perp point blank in the gut, because there is only one person situated so as to carry out all the crimes Hammer brings home to the villain.
MY GUN IS QUICK is a far better novel in all respects, better written, better plotted, but still has the defect that the identity of the criminal mastermind Hammer seeks is obvious almost from the first, since again only one character in the book could possibly be the guilty party. It also has Hammer, despite the title, badly outdrawn by the bad guy and blasted down.
Spillane hits his stride in VENGEANCE IS MINE. There's a complex plot, started with a murder committed under the very nose of the passed-out-drunk Hammer, and ending with Hammer gunning down the killer in a sequence that is literally twisted on its side compared to the similar sequence in I, THE JURY. The action is integrated by occurring almost entirely during a heavy New York City snowstorm, and the identity of the killer is effectively disguised by having the obvious and apparently only suspect not turning out to be the guilty party. In fact, in a touch we are told Spillane was very proud of, the actual identity of the brutal killer, who should be easy to spot because he is so physically powerful that he can break necks almost instantly with nothing but his bare hands, is concealed from the reader not only until the last line, but literally until the last WORD of the last line! And, no, this word is not a character name!
Probably what made the Spillane novels best sellers in their day is that Hammer is continually meeting impossibly beautiful, impossibly desirable women who want to jump into bed with him (and usually do!) almost the instant they set eyes on him. What is not noticed as often is that Hammer operates with authentic 1950s morality--- if he plans to marry a girl, he doesn't lay a finger on her. In the first novel, Hammer and his "serious" girl friend pretty much have to go sit on mounds of ice to avoid losing control and "doing it" before marriage, an unthinkable happening even to the hard-bitten Hammer!
Coming to this late, as I did, I notice how many touches that have become routine in hardboiled detective fiction must have originated with Hammer. The similarities between Hammer and Andrew Vachss's justifiably paranoid private eye Burke are particularly striking, down to the battered car that conceals a gigantic, superpowerful engine and the gunning-down of unarmed bad guys when the opportunity permits.
As the introduction by Max Allen Collins notes, Spillane has garnered little literary respect or attention over the years. Like most true creators, his real legacy lies in the fact that he redefined a whole genre, and that all private eye novels to follow had to come to terms with his creation.